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Democratic battle for St. Louis County executive is nasty and costly

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 faces challenger Mark Mantovani in the Democratic primary.

St. Louis County voters are just days away from effectively deciding whether County Executive Steve Stenger stays in office or is replaced by businessman Mark Mantovani.

And with election day looming, both men are continuing their record-setting spending spree, with most of it going to TV ads.

Their last pre-election campaign-finance reports, filed Monday, show the two have spent almost $1 million on TV ads just since July 1.

With no prominent Republican running, whoever wins the Democratic primary Tuesday has the edge in November.

After months of attacking each other, their latest ads are trying — to some degree — to keep it positive as they make their final pitches to voters.

Mantovani’s newest ad – a 15-second spot – promotes his recent endorsements, which include former County Executive Charlie Dooley, several current or former local officials and at least two news outlets.

“St. Louis is united behind Mark Mantovani,” the ad proclaims. “The Post-Dispatch says Mantovani has the personality and the experience to put the county back on track.”

Stenger’s latest ad appears to have several aims — including appealing to two key Democratic blocs: women and African-Americans.

The 30-second spot is among several Stenger ads that begin by highlighting his opposition to any sort of right-to-work law — such as Proposition A — that would curb union rights.

The ads visually take note of his endorsements by most area labor groups, including those representing police and firefighters. Most of those groups are going all out to defeat Proposition A, which would make Missouri a right-to-work state.

But Stenger’s new ad also swiftly pivots to touch on several other topics:

“... Steve Stenger has a diverse cabinet, with African-American and women in leadership positions.”

That ad paints Stenger as inclusive when it comes to women and minorities.

Stenger has had a strained relationship with some black officials ever since he ousted Dooley in the last Democratic primary for county executive in 2014.

The ad also headlines Stenger’s support of Planned Parenthood, and then swiftly shifts into attack mode, calling Mantovani “a phony.”

Mantovani long has been running ads that call Stenger corrupt.

Familiar attacks continue

The two have been jabbing at each other for months. Mantovani accuses Stenger of arranging sweetheart deals for donors and points to the hefty donations Stenger got from the team that redeveloped the old Northwest Plaza site. Stenger moved some county offices there.

Meanwhile, Stenger contends that Mantovani is really a Republican and cites his donations to various Republican candidates — most notably former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens.

Stenger’s latest ad notes that Greitens was a big supporter of right to work and sought to prevent Planned Parenthood from getting federal money for providing health care to women.

Both men accused each other of firing off inaccurate attacks. Stenger says his sole aim with the Northwest Plaza deal has been to improve a troubled part of the county. He also has emphasized that he did not hide any of the campaign donations that he received from the developers, which are listed in his campaign reports.  

As for Mantovani, he says he’s a true Democrat but has backed Republicans – such as Greitens – who he thought were moderates.

Differing visions for county executive

That back and forth can obscure the real differences between Mantovani and Stenger over how the county should be governed.

Mantovani, who is seeking his first public office, says the county needs a fresh approach to stem what he calls a “stagnant’’ economy and image.

“The fact that this place is in decline is wholly unacceptable to me, and I think we require leadership at this point in time that is willing to be aggressive in terms of addressing the challenges we face,” Mantovani said.

He believes that the county executive should be more involved in addressing the region’s problems with poverty and race relations.

Stenger was a county councilman for six years before becoming county executive in 2015. He says his governmental experience is producing results.

“I think if you look at the results that we have achieved over the last 3 ½ years, I think that our first term as county executive is a real standout in the history of St. Louis County.”

Stenger singles out his administration’s efforts to fight opioid abuse, encourage millions of dollars in new economic development projects and direct more county contracts to minorities. He also points to last year’s voter approval of Proposition P, which raised the county’s sales tax to provide more money for law enforcement.

But Mantovani says not enough has been done to improve the county’s economic growth. He asserts that many of the projects, such as the revamping of the Northwest Plaza site, simply shifted jobs from elsewhere in the county and didn’t create new ones.

Mantovani also promises to take a more conciliatory approach than Stenger in dealing with the County Council. Stenger and a majority of the Democratic-controlled council — including Council chairman Sam Page — have been at odds over various issues for more than a year. In fact, only one of the seven council members can be relied on as a pro-Stenger vote.

Said Mantovani: “At a time when we have these fundamental regional and county challenges, we have a county government that is largely dysfunctional.”

Stenger says county government is operating just fine and blames his disputes with the council on his willingness to challenge some of its actions and plans.

“When you have a true leader in this office, sometimes you have to say ‘no,’ ” Stenger said.

Big spenders

What’s not in dispute is the spending record that the two men are setting.

Their latest campaign-finance reports show that Mantovani already has spent close to $2 million. Most of it is his own money. Stenger’s spending tally appears likely to be close to $4 million, which is twice what he spent when he defeated Dooley.

Stenger still has just over $936,000 in the bank, while Mantovani reported about $512,000 on hand. That cash should give both men enough to blanket the TV airwaves with their final pitches to the public.

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