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Ehlmann says St. Louis crime perception could threaten region’s growth

  St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann has been the top local leader of the fast-growing county since 2007.
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann has been the top local leader of the fast-growing county since 2007.

When Steve Ehlmann first won election to the Missouri House in 1988, his home base of St. Charles County had around 210,000 people.

Now, the U.S. Census projects more than 410,000 people live in the county. And it has slowly become more diverse. In the 2010s, the county welcomed thousands of new Black and Latino residents who Elhmann said wanted two things: safe neighborhoods and good schools.

“If we ever quit having good schools or if we ever start having unsafe neighborhoods, people will go somewhere else,” Ehlmann said on an episode of Politically Speaking. “And I think it’s that simple.”

Ehlmann recently announced he won’t be running for a sixth term as county executive. He cites an increasingly toxic political discourse for his decision, pointing to how the COVID-19 pandemic ratcheted up the hostility toward elected officials — even in a place like St. Charles County that had fewer restrictions than St. Louis or St. Louis County.

“Starting with the pandemic is when things really started to sour a lot,” Ehlmann said.

Despite his county’s population growth over the past several decades, Ehlmann is worried about the long-term future. He said St. Charles County’s fate is linked to the broader St. Louis region.

“In St. Charles, we’ve been growing and have been having great success,” he said. “But nobody ever started out wanting to move to St. Charles. They started out looking for a place to put their business. They thought, ‘Let’s look at the St. Louis region.’ And when they did, they said: ‘Oh, St. Charles has a lot going for it.’”

He said if the St. Louis region cannot shake its reputation for being dangerous, businesses thinking of relocating in the area may look elsewhere.

“I’m afraid now that the St. Louis region is just being crossed off their list,” Ehlmann said. “They’ll never find out about St. Charles or any of the good things happening all over the region because of the perception they have about crime.”

Here’s what else Ehlmann talked about in his interview:

  • The changes in Missouri politics since he was first elected, most notably the inability of both political parties to embrace pragmatism.
  • Why he doesn’t believe St. Charles County voters will want to pay into regional amenities like the Zoo Museum District or MetroLink. Getting St. Charles County residents to help directly fund those endeavors would require a successful countywide adoption of tax increases.
  • How the pandemic made it more difficult to build relationships with regional leaders, especially after most communication went virtual.
  • Advice for whoever succeeds him as county executive once he departs from office after 2026.

Ehlmann is an attorney who, in addition to serving in the Missouri House, was a member of the state Senate from 1993 to 2001 — eventually becoming minority leader.

After serving as a judge, Ehlmann became the director of administration for St. Charles County. He won the executive’s post in 2006 and was subsequently elected in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022.

In addition to his judicial and political service, Ehlmann worked as a teacher. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in history.

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