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Some Invisible Public Officials Have Actually Played A Role In Ferguson

Rick Stream, left, and Steve Stenger
Parth Shah | St. Louis Public Radio intern

Since the unrest in Ferguson began almost two weeks ago, some high-profile officials and candidates – including the nominees for St. Louis County executive – have seemed to be disengaged or no-shows.

But, in fact, several have been in Ferguson all along. They just haven't told the press or the public about it.

That’s particularly true of the two candidates for county executive, Democrat Steve Stenger and Republican Rick Stream. Each says he’s visited Ferguson at least four times.

“I just wanted to listen to people; I’ve tried not to get in front of the cameras,’’ said Stream. “I didn’t want to make it appear that I was trying to make some politically grandstanding act.”

He added that he understands what the family of slain teenager Michael Brown is going through because Stream and his wife lost a teenage daughter unexpectedly almost 19 years ago.

Stenger, meanwhile, says he’s spoken to Brown’s mother. A spokesman said Stenger also drove a truckload of food and household supplies to help restock St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ferguson.

“Stenger has chosen to work behind the scenes instead of taking selfies with celebrities or generating media attention,” said spokesman Ed Rhode. “He believes now is not the time for self-promotion or political grandstanding.”

Stenger and Stream both visited the Ferguson farmer's market last week. Both also say they’ve been in regular contact with north county officials and legislators and with St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar.

The duo aren’t the only officials to take such a low-profile approach. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican, have each been to Ferguson since the shooting. 

Koster, who is running for governor in 2016, has been in regular contact with law enforcement in the area as part of his job.  But on the side, he also has visited schools in the north county area in recent days to talk to students and listen to their concerns, a spokesman said.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, center, with Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, right, at area high school during height of unrest in Ferguson.
Credit Missouri Attorney General's Office
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, center, joins Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, right, during a visit with north county high school students.

In any case, Koster has avoided publicity except for his official statements. And Kinder is declining to say anything about his visits to Ferguson, other than to confirm that he's been there.

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said it’s understandable why some politicians – especially those who are white – may be wary about publicity when it comes to their activities in Ferguson.

“First, it’s a very unpredictable and fluid situation,” Robertson said. “And it’s hard for them to predict how a more visible role would affect people’s perceptions of them and their own effectiveness.

“A more public role could affect them negatively,’’ the professor continued, because of the danger of being perceived as trying to score political points.

Ferguson could be major issue in county executive contest

The political dilemma is particularly dangerous for Stenger and Stream, Robertson predicted. In the coming weeks, both are likely to be grilled about how they would address such situations if they are elected to the county’s top post.

Stream believes that more job creation and economic growth are the best way to counter the unrest in poor and minority areas. He ties the discontent to the lack of jobs in north county, especially for young adults.

“If we had jobs, a lot of these problems would go away,’’ Stream said.

Stream has been emphasizing his calls for fewer regulations and lower taxes as the best way to attract such jobs.

Stenger has been highlighting his anti-poverty proposals. He agrees that the county needs a more aggressive focus on attracting jobs, but he says that should be tied to other county initiatives – such as reorganizing existing programs – to help poor residents, many of whom live in north county.

Before Ferguson erupted, Stenger had been promising to focus on economic redevelopment in north county.

Now, Stenger also may face additional political stress because of his ties to St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch. The prosecutor – who campaigned heavily for Stenger – has come under fire from area African-American legislators who want him removed as the head of the local investigation into Brown’s shooting.

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said Wednesday that she’s hearing that some civil-rights activists and black legislators plan to talk to Stream because they’re so upset with McCulloch.

“Stenger is going to be the casualty,’’ Nasheed said.

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