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Democratic battle for St. Louis County executive has heated up fast

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger faces challenger Mark Mantovani in the August 2018 Democratic primary
File photos | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, left, faces challenger Mark Mantovani, right, in a race that has started earlier and featured more ad spending than usual.

It’s only April, and already the contest for St. Louis County executive appears to be headed toward the spending record books.

More than four months before the August Democratic primary, incumbent Steve Stenger and Mark Mantovani have – combined – raised and spent more than their predecessors.

And a good chunk of that money is going to local TV stations, as the duo flood the airwaves with attack ads.

With no well-known Republican in the wings, some in both parties see the Stenger/Mantovani battle in August as pivotal in determining who will be sworn into the county’s top post next January.

To get a sense of the unusual intensity of the Democratic fight, just listen to a sampling of their TV spots.

Here’s Mantovani, a businessman and first-time candidate, who is basically accusing Stenger of being crooked:

“Political donors are getting sweetheart deals from St. Louis County government and we pay for it,” an announcer says in one of the 30-second ads. “It’s like a corruption tax …”

And here’s the opener to one of Stenger’s ads, which contends Mantovani is really a Republican:

“If you’re a Democrat and you’ve never heard of Mark Mantovani, here’s why,” a narrator intones. “Mark Mantovani was one of Eric Greitens biggest supporters. Mark Mantovani gave Eric Greitens over $20,000 for his gubernatorial campaign.”

The announcer later highlights Mantovani’s donations to Republican presidential candidates – including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani – and Mantovani’s old tweets criticizing Democratic President Barack Obama.

What’s not in dispute is the pace of the duo’s fundraising and spending.

Mantovani has raised $1.7 million, although that includes $1 million of his own money. He had spent $781,000 as of March 31, and had $821,000 in the bank.

Stenger has raised $3.7 million, and had spent $1.2 million by March 31. He reported $2.3 million in the bank.

When Stenger first ran for county executive in 2014, he and then-incumbent Charlie Dooley, combined, spent $3.3 million in the Democratic primary.


Mantovani denies GOP ties

Mantovani says he’s a real Democrat. “My wife and I gave the maximum to Hillary Clinton, and Stenger knows it,’’ he said. Federal Election Commission reports back him up.

But federal and state campaign reports also verify Mantovani’s donations to Republicans, notably Greitens, Missouri’s now-embattled governor.

Mantovani concedes he was fooled by Greitens, who Mantovani says initially appeared to be a moderate outsider.

That’s how Mantovani sees himself. He points to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as his model. Bloomberg is a wealthy businessman who hadn’t held office before, and who often has eschewed political labels.

Like Bloomberg, Mantovani contends his business expertise is what the county needs.

“I’m running to create growth for the community, not to do anything for myself,” said Mantovani. He adds that, at 63, he’s not out to build a political career.

If elected, Mantovani said he plans “to restore ethics and relationships and collaboration across the various people involved in county government.”

He is particularly critical of the numerous regional agencies and groups that focus on economic development. “Our economic development operation within this community is in disarray,” Mantovani said. We have a variety of organizations that, in my view, are not collaborating effectively.”

On Thursday, he announced an endorsement from former St. Louis Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl, who called Mantovani "a visionary leader who brings a fresh outlook to the political arena."

Stenger strikes back

Stenger countered Thursday by announcing the support of the St. Louis County Police Association and Firefighters Local 2665, which represents St. Louis County firefighters and all regional fire departments.

Stenger, 46, is a lawyer and accountant. He served on the County Council from 2009 until he won the county’s top job after two grueling primary and general elections in 2014.

Stenger accuses his opponents of discounting his success. He particularly points to $5 billion in economic investment, and 5,700 new jobs, since he took office in 2015.

“When you’re making progress, you’re ruffling feathers. So there are certainly feathers in our community that are ruffled because we have pursued a progressive agenda,” he said.

“I think we’ve made certain elements of our community upset by doing so,” Stenger added. “They don’t want to have economic growth that everyone is going to take part it.”

That’s why he defends his administration’s actions to move some county offices to the old Northwest Plaza mall in St. Ann.

Mantovani is among the opponents who question the leases and point to the hefty campaign donations Stenger received from the developers.

Stenger says the move is revitalizing a part of the county that needed it, and that he finds some of the criticisms “disheartening.”

Stenger points to the County Council’s vote of 6 - 1 in favor of the move, and notes several council members also got donations from the developers.

Stenger also attacks Mantovani’s own business deals, which resulted in the businessman obtaining tax breaks for moving his business from St. Louis County to the city of St. Louis.

Stenger said that his campaign has “a lot of tell, and a short time to tell it.”

Effect of 2014 election still linger

Another key factor in the Democratic contest is the political wounds that Stenger still bears from his first bid for the county’s top job in 2014.

Some African-American Democrats say Stenger has failed to heal the racial split over his defeat of Dooley, who is black.

Some black Democratic officials and voters then backed Republican Rick Stream, who Stenger barely defeated that November.

Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy backed Dooley and Stream. She says she hasn’t heard from Stenger since he took office.

But she met with Mantovani and was impressed. “We need honest, strong leadership in our area,” she said. “I just believe we don’t have that right now.”

Mantovani also appears to be wooing some Republicans, who might be encouraged to cross over and take a Democratic primary ballot.

Former County Councilman Skip Mange, a Republican from Town and Country, backs Mantovani, in part because of his temperament.

“I was impressed with the way he handled himself, I was impressed with his resume, how he had worked in the private sector and in downtown,” Mange said. “We need a county executive who can bring the whole region together.”

Mange added that he personally believes that the St. Louis County posts should be nonpartisan.

St. Louis County GOP party chairman Bruce Buwalda wouldn’t go that far. Buwalda said he is discouraging county Republicans from getting involved in the Democratic primary for county executive.

Buwalda also has recently challenged Stenger, by alleging that the county executive had failed to follow proper procedures when he purchased a strip of land adjacent to his former home in Affton.

But county Collector of Revenue Greg Quinn – a former Republican member of the County Council – released documents showing that Stenger adhered to the correct practice for acquiring the small strip of property. The county executive paid $100 after his neighbors declined to bid on the small parcel.

Unions may play major role

The police and firefighters' union endorsements underscores that Stenger’s biggest backers include the region’s unions, who praise his performance and note that he was raised in a union household. Stenger’s father was a lineman for Southwestern Bell when it was headquartered in St. Louis.

Al Bond heads the St. Louis/Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council. The union’s political arm has been among Stenger’s top donors.

Bond called Stenger “a straight-up guy.”

“We’re 100 percent behind Steve Stenger,” Bond said. “We have a great deal of members and their families who live in St. Louis County. Steve has supported our issues, which are issues that concern all working families, not just the carpenters union.”

Pat White, president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, says there’s no doubt labor will actively campaign for Stenger in the August primary.

“It’s very important to have someone who is labor friendly in one of the single largest blocks of voters in the state,” White said.

White added that he was particularly impressed with Stenger’s ads in which the county executive highlights his opposition to a state “right to work” law that would bar unions and employers from requiring all workers to pay union dues.

White said many Democratic candidates avoid being so specific in their TV ads, because they don’t want to turn off voters who might not be so pro-union.

Mantovani also has been airing an ad citing his opposition to “right to work.” But Stenger is challenging that stance since Mantovani supported Greitens, who signed a state “right to work’’ law last year. Labor groups have collected enough signatures to put the issue before voters later this year.

Mantovani says his record as a businessman shows that he’s pro-worker.

In any case, both men plan to continue airing TV ads promoting themselves and attacking each other.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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