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As He Prepares To Step Down, Dooley Takes Stock Of Legacy

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh and St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jo Mannies on Dec. 18, 2014, at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio

Aside from the color of his skin, a longtime aide portrays soon-to-depart St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley as a man who fit the traditional mold of the job that he held for over a decade.

“Fundamentally, his legacy is that he was a solid, fundamentally status-quo executive, much in the tradition of his predecessors,’’ said senior advisor Mike Jones, who served for most of Dooley’s 11-year tenure in the county’s top governmental job.

Generally speaking, Jones said, all of the men who have served as St. Louis County executive have chosen the route of “managing the county’’ rather than leading it.

Dooley, along with predecessor Gene McNary (a Republican who served from 1975-89), did make a few bold stands on key issues, Jones acknowledged. But, in both cases, the men ran into heavy public opposition that hurt their political careers.

In McNary’s case, it was his failed attempt in the 1980s to merge some of the county’s 90-plus municipalities. For Dooley, Jones counts his bravest stance to be his call for county residents to consider allowing the city of St. Louis to join St. Louis County.

Dooley’s successor, fellow Democrat Steve Stenger, already has said that any discussion of reunification will need to wait while other issues are addressed.

Overall, Jones said he would have preferred that Dooley, who leaves office Jan. 1, had been “more of a political player’’ and wielded more clout behind the scenes and in public.

But if Dooley had done so, Jones acknowledged wryly, “he never would have gotten elected in a county that is 75 percent white.”

Dooley ensured a place in county history

Dooley, 66, will go down in history as the first African American to serve as St. Louis County executive and as the first elected black member of the County Council. His combined tenure in the two jobs: 20 years.

But even Dooley emphasized that his race – and the region’s longstanding strained race relations -- were rarely the prime focus of his administration.

Rather, he said, he believed it was more important early on to demonstrate that he could represent all county residents, regardless of race and ethnicity.

And that meant, he said, addressing the issues that matter most to everyone: creating jobs, improving housing, promoting education and rebuilding the roads and bridges needed to fill the county’s transportation needs.

“We made sure that everybody was of value in our community,” said Dooley in an in-depth interview. “There is no part of St. Louis County that you can say the Dooley administration left out.”

He cites companies – such as Express Scripts – that moved facilities into economically troubled north St. Louis County. And he points to new housing that was built during the past decade in all parties of the county.

But Dooley is most proud of the major infrastructure projects under his watch -- most notably the $500 million reconstruction of Interstate 64/Highway 40, the region’s main east-west thoroughfare, between Kingshigway and Spoede Road.

“The highway got done, (Highway) 141 got done, the (new) family courts building got done,” Dooley said. “The new animal shelter, it got done.”

He also successfully campaigned for several major sales-tax hikes, particularly for Metro, the region’s transit agency, and for Proposition P, which earmarks new sales-tax revenue for improving the Gateway Arch and maintaining the county’s park system.

The one common element in almost all of his successful actions, Dooley observed dryly, was that “in each case, somebody opposed me.”

In the case of the Interstate 64/Highway 40 reconstruction, many other officials and agencies opposed his decision to shut down sections of the highway completely so that the work could be done more quickly, rather than keep some lanes open each way and allowing work to go much slower.

As it turned out, the general consensus is that Dooley was right. "We'd still be driving through a construction zone if we'd done it their way,'' Jones said.

Successes overshadowed by recent troubles

Dooley’s biggest policy disappointments, he acknowledged, included his administration’s handling of its initial call in 2011 to close down some county parks to save money. In the wake of heavy public outcry, that proposal was dropped.

And then there’s the longstanding and costly legal fight over his administration’s decision in 2008 to divided unincorporated St. Louis County into trash-collection districts. Some haulers who failed to win contracts successfully sued, saying the county violated the state law requiring two years notice.

The case is likely to cost the county at least $6 million in awards to the haulers. But Dooley said he’s still proud of the basic decision and believes it has led overall to improved trash-collection services.

Dooley also has had to grapple in recent years with several controversies involving some appointees, agencies or departments within his administration.

Those headaches, most of which occurred since 2011, included:

  • The appointment of a county real estate official with a felony conviction for embezzling federal housing funds;
  • The hiring of a tax collector who owed back taxes;
  • A $3.7 million crime lab contract that resulted in an FBI probe (Earlier this month, the U.S. attorney’s office announced that it had found no federal wrongdoing in the awarding of the crime lab);
  • Embezzlement of more than $3 million by Edward Mueth, a top administrator in the county health department, who committed suicide when his supervisors began to discover financial discrepancies.

Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University, said such problems may unfairly taint Dooley’s broader achievements.
Warren maintained that Dooley had largely been successful until the last few years.

Bill Corrigan, candidate for St. Louis County Executive, was a guest on St. Louis on the Air.
Credit Libby Franklin | St. Louis Public Radio
Bill Corrigan

Dooley, Warren noted, won elections for county executive in 2004, 2006 and 2010. “I think he surprised people by performing well enough to hold the respect of fellow Democrats and no one else took him on,” Warren said.

But since his 2010 victory over Republican Bill Corrigan, Warren added, Dooley was plagued by “mini-scandal after mini-scandal after mini-scandal.”

Still, Dooley said he’s proud of his overall record over the past 11 years and believes that time will be on his side. “I think history is treating me well, quite frankly,” he said. “I think I’ll be fine.”

Said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis: "He fit in as well as an African-American pioneer was going to fit in.”

Tragedy propelled him into office

Dooley’s biggest regret, he said, is how he initially became county executive.

Dooley took office in October 2003 following the unexpected death of then-County Executive George R. “Buzz’’ Westfall, who died of an infection. Westfall had served almost 13 years in the job and previously had been the county prosecutor for 12 years.

Dooley was named to fill the post temporarily because he was the senior Democrat on the council.

Dooley called Westfall “a good friend’’ and recounted a conversation they once had about the challenges of the county executive office.

“He wished he had stayed county prosecutor,” Dooley said.

He said that Westfall told him that a prosecutor deals with clear-cut issues. “ ‘You’re either innocent, or you’re guilty,’ ” Dooley quoted Westfall as saying. “ ‘ As county executive, it’s always a gray area, and somebody’s always opposed to you. Whatever you do.’ ”

Dooley said he agrees with Westfall’s assessment.

Dooley also sees irony in another aspect of his own political history.

During his year filling in for Westfall, before the November 2004 election, Dooley recalled that he was unsure whether he’d run for the post or simply serve as a caretaker.

As Dooley told it, he decided to run for election – despite the county’s largely white demographics – after County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch told him in 2004 that he wasn’t going to run for county executive.

At the time, many Democrats and some Republicans were encouraging McCulloch to do so. When McCulloch declined, Democrats decided to rally around Dooley.

Now, Dooley blames McCulloch for his huge loss to Stenger on Aug. 5. Stenger captured about two-thirds of the primary. But in November, Stenger barely defeated Republican Rick Stream.

Dooley blames defeat on labor, McCulloch

More than a year ago, Dooley lost the support of many of the region’s labor unions – a key Democratic constituency – because of disputes over appointments and a county subcontract that went to a non-union firm headed by an African-American.

St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch

Those unions then shifted their support to Stenger. Dooley has maintained that labor leaders gave him little credit for his longstanding support.

But he said that it was McCulloch, not unions, who sealed Stenger’s huge primary victory.

Dooley said he knew last spring that his re-election was doomed, despite public statements to the contrary, when McCulloch endorsed Stenger in his TV ads.

“When Mr. McCulloch came out, and visibly supported Stenger and called me ‘corrupt,’ that was the election right there,” Dooley said. “That was a game-changer right there.”

McCulloch said in an interview that he never accused Dooley specifically of being corrupt, but was referring to others within the administration or on Dooley's campaign.

Dooley contends that McCulloch privately told him back in 2004 not to run, but McCulloch denies that account.

McCulloch said he had supported Dooley’s decision to run in 2004, and backed his bids for re-election in 2006 and even in 2010 -- although by that time, the prosecutor said he had some concerns.

Looking over Dooley’s tenure, McCulloch said, “Generally, I think Charlie did a terrific job when he was the mayor of Northwoods and he did a terrific job on the County Council and as county executive’’ during those early years.

McCulloch said his concerns centered on three people close to Dooley – Jones, county operations officer Garry Earls and campaign treasurer John Temporiti, who’s also a prominent St. Louis lawyer.

McCulloch contended that he thought the trio had become too influential in Dooley’s administration during his later years in office, and that one or the other often made what he considered bad decisions. He blamed them, directly or indirectly, for a number of controversies that beset Dooley's final tenure, including the trash lawsuit and the embezzling within the county Health Department.

McCulloch said those controversies finally prompted him to support Stenger. But McCulloch contended that while he did talk about “corruption’’ in Stenger’s anti-Dooley ad, that accusation was not directed specifically at Dooley.

“We never accused Charlie directly,’’ McCulloch said. “I never thought Charlie was stealing money, or doing anything illegal along those lines.”

The issue, the prosecutor said, was “unethical’’ actions by some within Dooley’s administration. He faulted Dooley for “doing nothing about it.”

Ferguson and aftermath

The Aug. 5 primary occurred four days before the police shooting in Ferguson that killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. His death touched off unrest that ignited regional, national and international protests and drew attention to longstanding racial and economic issues.

Still, even if the primary had been held after the Ferguson shooting, it’s unclear if Dooley would have benefited.

Dooley showed up in Ferguson the day after Brown’s death and was booed by some protesters, who viewed him as a political enemy, not an ally.

“I was part of the administration,’’ Dooley said. He added that he was surprised by some of the venom – even from some fellow Democrats and African-American politicians – directed at the county government and the county police department.

“Never before did the county get drawn into a municipal controversy over someone who got shot,’’ Dooley said.

He added that he became frustrated with the national news media, in particular, which didn’t understand that neither he nor the county police had jurisdiction in Ferguson. (County police became involved at the invitation of Ferguson city officials.)

In recent weeks, Dooley has gone public with assertions -- previously unsaid -- that his loss to Stenger was largely due to the region’s unfair treatment of African-American politicians.

Mike Jones, addressing the County Council earlier this year
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Mike Jones, addressing the County Council earlier this year.

But Dooley also is critical of some area African-American officials, mainly from St. Louis, who he said have found it “politically expedient’’ to accuse Dooley of being too passive on Ferguson and racial issues.

Jones, Dooley’s top aide, said that many city politicians – including blacks – have failed to recognize that county government officials have traditionally taken a lower profile on controversial matters.

Jones said that only Councilwoman Hazel Erby, whose district includes Ferguson, has been outspoken about the issues raised by the unrest.

Dooley, he said, once again fit in with the mold of the county executive job. “You would never cast a county executive as the lead in ‘Man from La Mancha,’ " Jones said, referring to the play about a man seeking to lead, regardless of who was willing to follow.

In any case, Dooley said he’s convinced that he fulfilled the main goal of any leader -- and any county executive: “I think I left this county better than when I got there.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.