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Familiar foes on opposite political sides in race for St. Louis County executive

Democrat Sam Page and newly-turned Republican Mark Mantovani are vying for the St. Louis County Executive seat in the 2022 Midterm.
Brian Munoz and David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Democrat Sam Page, left, and Republican Mark Mantovani are vying for the St. Louis County executive's office on Tuesday.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page had many reasons to be optimistic on the night of Aug. 2.

He had beaten his Democratic opponent, Jane Dueker, by 27 percentage points. And as his challenger, Republicans had selected Katherine Pinner, an anti-vax political neophyte who believed masks were linked to satanic rituals.

But 41 days later, Pinner dropped out with little explanation. To replace her on the ballot, St. Louis County’s Republican central committee chose retired businessman Mark Mantovani.

Mantovani and Page were familiar with each other already. They’d both sought the county executive post two years before — but in the Democratic primary for the office.

In addition to his run in 2020, Mantovani challenged then-County Executive Steve Stengerin the 2018 Democratic primary. So he knew he risked being branded an opportunist if he accepted the GOP nomination.

Mark Mantovani capture the GOP nomination for St. Louis County executive last night. Committee members chose the retired businessman to replace Katherine Pinner, who withdrew from the contest.
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Mark Mantovani speaks to St. Louis County Republican officials on Sept. 12 after accepting their nomination to replace Katherine Pinner on the ballot.

Mantovani chose to lean into the term.

“That’s a term that can be flipped onto the other side,” he said on the Politically Speaking podcast shortly after being tapped to run. “It’s a person who sees an opportunity to make an improvement, and to serve, and to do something positive, and accepts the opportunity.”

Page said he thought Pinner should have stayed in the race.

I think we have to be very careful trying to undo elections,” he said. “And her positions were certainly reflective of the politics and the positions that had dominated county council meetings and public forums for the past year and a half.”

The change in candidates did not change Page’s strategy in the race. Regardless of the opponent, he said, the 2022 general election represents a referendum on his time as county executive, which started in 2019 after Stenger was indicted on federal corruption charges and resigned.

“We'll talk about how I approach problems, how I get advice from folks that have credibility and experience in dealing with each complicated issue and how I do my best to explain to people in St. Louis County why I made the decision that I have,” he said.

But Mantovani said the past three years have provided plenty of reasons for voters to make a change. The post of county executive, he said, has been filled by someone “grossly ill-suited” to the task of running county government, which has 3,800 employees and a budget of $1 billion.

“Sam Page might be a wonderful doctor and anesthesiologist, but as a practical matter, his skill set relative to managing an enterprise of that magnitude, I think, is lacking,” Mantovani said. “He can't work with the county council, he hasn't been able to work with the business community, he can't work with the municipalities."

St. Louis County Council Chair Rita Heard Days, of the first district, Vice Chair Mark Harder, of the seventh district, and Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, of the fourth district, listen in to public commentary opposing a recent mask mandate on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, during a regular council meeting at the St. Louis County Government building in Clayton, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
From left, Rita Days, Mark Harder and Shalonda Webb listen to public comment regarding a countywide mask mandate in 2021; they're part of a faction of county council members who have often been in opposition to Sam Page and his policies. Days and Webb are Democrats, while Harder is a Republican.

Another shortcoming, Mantovani said, is Page’s lack of a plan to address critical issues such as public safety and economic development.

“Clearly, the police aren’t comfortable with his leadership on this issue, because every police organization has endorsed my candidacy,” he said of crime. “I think it’s important that we recognize that there’s a void in the crime plan in St. Louis County right now.”

Page pointed to his effort to implement the recommendations of the Teneo Group, which evaluated the police departments in both St. Louis and St. Louis County.

“It's really provided us with a lot of good recommendations on promotions, on procedures, on policies, on the way police officers interact with each other and with the public,” he said.

Page also pledged to review and implement the suggestions of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, which released its own crime reduction plan in August.

Whoever is elected will have to help St. Louis County address a projected $41 million budget deficit — something Mantovani said he could do without a tax increase.

"The first thing I will do as county executive is search for the waste, fraud and abuse that is built into the current budgets,” he said, pointing to excessive litigation as one area that would be ripe for reductions.

Page called the accusations nothing more than political platitudes. And he said that 48% of the county’s budget is directed to public safety, including police.

“And I would urge caution there, it’s the most important issue in front of us,” he said. “It's very difficult to point to something in the county budget that doesn't provide a service.”

But Page said he would ask voters to approve an online sales tax that county officials say could generate $15 million a year. A measure implementing such a tax failed in April.

The next county executive will also have to figure out how to handle future waves of COVID infections. Both candidates said they would be guided by science, though Mantovani added that he would do so in consultation with local business owners.

There will also need to be decisions made about how to spend the money from a settlement over the departure of the Rams. Negotiations over the exact split of the $790 million among the three plaintiffs are ongoing, and Page said he cannot comment on legal matters.

But he said whatever share goes to the county should be invested.

“And then we can think a little bit about what the right plan forward is when we have a long-term plan for the operational side of county government,” he said.

Mantovani agreed that the funds needed to be invested, rather than spent on ongoing operating expenses. But he said the whole saga again proved Page’s incompetence, citing reports that the money had been sitting in a low-yield account during negotiations.

“I don't know how the money can be under-invested. I don't know it feels to me, like gross incompetence and gross negligence.”

Party switch

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page signs an anti-discrimination bill Wednesday to protect transgender county employees and contractors.
Andrea Henderson
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page signs an anti-discrimination bill to protect transgender county employees and contractors.

Throughout the primary and the general election, Page has emphasized his stalwart support for what he called “core Democratic values,” including “protecting a woman's right to choose, to standing up for working families' minimum wage and prevailing wage and to advocating for responsible gun safety measures.”

Mantovani didn’t back down from his past positions on those issues, which are similar to Page's in many respects. But he played down their importance in the race.

“The role of the St. Louis County executive is to run the St. Louis County government, not to be lobbying for federal policy changes,” he said.

And that raises the question — will the same Republican electorate that picked Pinner really rally around a former Democrat?

Republican state Rep. Shamed Dogan, who ran against Pinner in the primary, said he thinks the answer will be yes.

“Everyone knows that to win St. Louis County, you can't just appeal to the Republican base. You're gonna have to attract independents, you're gonna have to attract some Democrats,” he said. “And people are willing to go for a candidate who's able to do that, which Mark clearly is.”

A recent poll by the Republican-leaning Remington Research Group showed Dogan may be right. The survey found Page leading Mantovani 48% to 43%, with a 3% margin of error. In 2020, Joe Biden won St. Louis County with 61%.

No-reason absentee voting is already under way at seven locations across the county, and the polls open at 6 a.m. Nov. 8. Voters will need to have a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.