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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Veteran Vs. Outsider In Competitive Skirmish Over County Council Seat

Green Park Alderman Tony Pousosa hasn't been successful in last two races for county offices. But the GOP nominee for the 6th District county council seat may be a better position, thanks to the unpredictable dynamics of a special election.
Parth Shah, St. Louis Public Radio

By now, Tony Pousosa may be considered a grizzled veteran on the St. Louis County political scene.   

The Green Park alderman, a Republican, unsuccessfully ran for both the St. Louis County Council and St. Louis County executive. He was the underdog in both contests because his opponents had a lot more money and organizational clout.

Now Pousosa is the GOP's nominee for the vacant 6th District county council seat. The election for the seat once held by St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger is on April 7. 

Pousosa may be the Republicans’ best hope to gain ground on the county council. And he’s relishing the opportunity.

“With each race that I’ve run, there’s a level of education, maturity and understanding that comes along with it,” said Pousosa in a telephone interview. “You could say I’m a seasoned veteran now at all these different situations. And I look forward to the opportunity to serve the people of south county in the 6th District.”

Pousosa won the nomination after a contentious fight among members of the St. Louis County Republican Committee, as reported by The Call’s Gloria Lloyd. County Democrats tapped Oakville resident Kevin O’Leary as their nominee.

The 6th District encompasses largely unincorporated south St. Louis County and is split rather evenly between Republicans and Democrats. With few municipalities, the councilman plays a significant role in managing development throughout the area.

Republicans have been in the minority on the St. Louis County Council for years and haven't had much luck in winning seats in competitive or swing districts. Stenger kept a fairly strong hold on the seat, thanks to his ability to finance his own campaigns and his appeal to GOP voters for criticizing former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

The dynamics are different this time around. Turnout in early April tends to be lower than, say, a presidential election. And both of the county’s political parties can focus resources and attention on a single contest, as opposed to a variety of state and county offices.

Still, according to Lloyd, some of Pousosa’s critics questioned whether it was right for the GOP to pick, in their words, a “two-time loser” to vie for a competitive seat. His supporters countered that state Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, won after several unsuccessful tries at Kirkwood-based House seat.

For his part, Pousosa said he now has the necessary name recognition.

“My last two campaigns were hard-fought and I stuck it out until the end,” Pousosa said. “People know my character and that I will put up a fight no matter who the other opponent is."

Democratic defense

O’Leary comes off as a quintessential political outsider. 

As of right now, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger effectively has a five-person coalition on the St. Louis County Council — including its two Republican members.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
As of right now, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger effectively has a five-person coalition on the St. Louis County Council -- including its two Republican members.

O’Leary used to co-own a bar and restaurant near Sunset Hills that was called, appropriately enough, O’Leary’s. His partner was none other than John Goodman, the "Big Lebowski" star who grew up in Affton – in the heart of the 6th District. (Goodman is no longer financially involved with the bar, which is famous for its fried pickles.)

Goodman donated $25,000 to O'Leary's campaign earlier this month, which provides reporters with a perfect excuse to reference the actor's stellar performance in "Revenge of the Nerds."

O’Leary – who couldn’t be reached for comment for this story -- has never run for office before. But that may actually help him: He doesn’t have a voting record to be scrutinized. Being a newcomer helped Stenger in 2008, when he defeated incumbent Councilman John Campisi by nearly seven percentage points.

Stenger said keeping the 6th District in the Democratic fold isn’t a certainty.

“It goes to the person really who works the hardest,” Stenger said. “If a Democrat works the hardest, it’s going to go to the Democrat. If it’s a Republican that works the hardest, it’s a close district. So it really is a matter of how hard you work and how smart you work.”

Variable stakes

So will the 6th District race make a difference on the county council? Like most things in politics, it depends.

For one thing, Republicans will need to win the 6th District if the party ever wants to regain control of the council – a prospect that won’t even be possible until the 5th District is up for grabs again in 2018. (And that seat is more Democratic-leaning than the 6th District seat.)

Yet, in some ways, the council's partisan composition has become less important in recent years. Instead, the divide is between who supports the county executive and who doesn’t. Right now, Stenger appears to have the backing of five council members – including two Republicans. Only Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, isn’t aligned with Stenger. So the winner in the6th District may not change the dynamics all that much.

Still, Stenger could be in a less advantageous position if the council’s two Republicans – Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, and Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country – would turn against him and ally with Erby. In that situation, were Pousosa to win, Stenger would be without a governing majority on the council. (Pousosa ran against Stenger in 2012, so he's unlikely to be a reliable vote on the council.)

For now though, Stenger looks to be in a position to pass his agenda through the council.

“Most of the things that happen on the council are not Republican-Democrat,” said Harder. “And I think we’re even going to see more of a difference between good government and bad government. And I believe Executive Stenger is all for good government. I think he’s witnessed what things can do on the other side. And I think he’s tired of it.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.