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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.

On the trail: Minimum wage split puts new focus on Slay-Stenger relationship

Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Steve Stenger
Jason Rosenbaum and Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio
Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Steve Stenger

Since St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger took office earlier this year, there have been questions about his relationship with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.

They’re not just errant queries: Slay supported then-St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley over Stenger in last year’s Democratic primary — as did some of the  mayor's political organization. But both men say they’re burying the hatchet — and, at least, are using telephones to speak with each other.

“The mayor and I have a nice relationship,” Stenger said. “We certainly have each other’s cell phones. We’ve texted each other. We’ve called each other. And we’ve consulted with each other on other issues that we’ve had.”

But after the past couple of weeks, a careful observer has to wonder if the chief executives’ texts contain emojis of devil-horned smiley faces or crying cat-faced creatures.

That’s because Stenger announced that St. Louis County wouldn’t go along with a city push to raise the minimum wage, citing legal barriers in taking action in the county's 90 municipalities. It was the latest example of the two appearing out of sync on major policy initiatives: Stenger was gung ho about having a public vote on a new football stadium, while Slay was less enthusiastic. And Slay has been more bullish about the work of Better Together — a group looking into a possible city-county merger that Stenger departed from earlier this year.

The two traditionally cautious chief executives aren’t lobbing obscenities at one another — or even leveling direct criticism. But for what it's worth, Stenger revealed on St. Louis on the Air last week that he didn’t have a conversation with Slay before the Democratic mayor gave his full-throated support for a $15 an hour minimum wage.(Staff members for Slay and Stenger, however, did discuss the issue — but didn’t debate it thoroughly.)

That’s notable, since some businesses have threatened to leave St. Louis if Alderman Shane Cohn’s bill passes – and presumably go to St. Louis County. Having the county and city on the same page with the issue, it would seem, would rectify that issue to some extent.

“I think first it would be prudent to have it studied,” Stenger said on St. Louis on the Air. “And I think that’s something that’s lacked locally thus far. I’m not aware of an economic study that has been done by a proponent that would allows us to really know what a benchmark and what the proper minimum wage would be for our region or for the city or the county for that matter.”

“But in the county, analytically, it’s difficult,” he added. “We have a legal impediment. We cannot set a minimum wage within our municipalities. Of course, we have 90 or so.” 

Mary Ellen Ponder
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Mary Ellen Ponder, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay's chief of staff, said Stenger's comments on the minimum wage took her a bit by surprise. But she doesn't necessarily buy the argument that the city would be at a disadvantage if it had a different minimum wage than neighboring jurisdictions.

Mary Ellen Ponder is Slay’s chief of staff . Ponder said she was taken off guard a bit by Stenger’s comments that the county wouldn’t pursue a minimum wage increase. She said she “was surprised that he talked about only having power over the unincorporated areas and that would limit him from taking action."

“I think the county executive supports raising the minimum wage,” Ponder said. “He does not, as you know, support raising it in the areas where he only has control over, which is the unincorporated areas. That’s unfortunate. But I think if asked, he would support a statewide minimum wage. So those who oppose a minimum wage at a city of St. Louis level ought to get on board for a statewide and federal level, and start lobbying their legislators in Jefferson City.”

Stenger said the minimum wage discussion should be on a statewide level — and that he supports state and federal action to bump up the threshold. But closer to home, it’s clear that a possible city-county gap in minimum wage is affecting debate over Cohn’s bill. Aldermen Scott Ogilvie, D-24th Ward, and Antonio French, D-21st Ward, expressed palpable hesitation about the city adopting a $15-an-hour minimum wage — especially if the county didn’t follow suit.

French is a longtime critic of Slay. He said he’s noticed that the mayor tended to be more in sync with Dooley on major initiatives than Stenger. And that’s become a problem when discussing issues that could have a regional impact, such as increasing the minimum wage on a local level. 

Alderman Antonio French says he see a marked difference between Slay's relationship with Stenger than with former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.
Credit Alex Heuer I St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Antonio French says he see a marked difference between Slay's relationship with Stenger than with former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

“This is definitely one of those things where it would have been better to have a regional approach,” French said. “If we’re going to basically challenge the state, it’s better to do it as a region than St. Louis city doing it by ourselves.”

St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, agreed with French that Slay and Dooley had a better working relationship. Had the minimum wage issue come up, say, last year, Erby said "there would have been a conversation between the mayor and Charlie."

"They were very friendly, as a matter of fact. I think you have to be," said Erby, who has clashed with Stenger in the past. "I think you have to have a relationship with the mayor. You don’t have to like each other. But you can certainly work together. Apparently, that’s not happening."

In any case, Stenger has emphasized that he regularly communicates with Slay on important transportation, economic development and parks-related issues. And it’s possible the two may become closer as time marches on.

As for aldermen like French and Ogilvie who weighing the pros and cons of the minimum wage issue? Ponder has a simple piece of advice that was conveyed through the mayor’s recently hired-statistician: “Just do the best you can.”

“I think what’s important to remember is that when we think about the St. Louis region as a metropolitan statistical area, it’s at 15 counties,” Ponder said. “Eight of those are in Illinois – where the minimum wage is at $8.25. I know there’s a river that separates us, but I don’t see all of their minimum wage jobs rushing to the city of St. Louis.”

In limbo

The city's minimum wage push took a hit late last week after Alderman Joe Vaccaro canceled committee hearings examining the issue. That could be a major blow to Cohn's bill, especially if a state bill providing an Aug. 28 deadline for action becomes active.

So did Stenger's comments have an impact on Vaccaro's decision-making? The 23rd Ward Democrat flatly said "no."

"I have all the respect in the world for Steve Stenger and the Mayor as far as that goes," Vaccaro said. "My issue comes to I don’t believe I can come up with a reasonable solution to this problem given the time frame I have to do it in."

Cohn also said that he didn't believe Stenger's affected his legislation's trajectory. 

"You have a bill and you work to amend that bill to accommodate particular situations. And you move that forward based off the information that you have in front of you," Cohn said. "While I think that the county executive came out in opposition to this for a variety of different reasons, that still does not negate our responsibilities as leaders of this city to try to address the issues that are in front of us and continue the deliberative process we’ve already established."

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.