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Stenger squeaks by Mantovani in St. Louis County executive race

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger speaks with reporters after winning the Democratic primary for county executive.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger speaks with reporters after winning the Democratic primary for county executive.

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger likely is headed toward re-election, after a razor-thin victory over businessman Mark Mantovani in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

“Today’s victory shows that voters believe we are moving St. Louis County in the right direction,” Stenger said during his late-night victory speech.

But Mantovani had yet to concede; he lost by roughly 1,100 votes. His campaign said it would release a statement Wednesday. He will also look at the implications of what it means to ask for a recount.

“We’ll get some legal counsel and try to figure out what our next steps are, if any and we’ll let everybody know when we come to a conclusion,” Mantovani said.

In any case, Stenger lost his two closest allies in county government: veteran County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch and 5th District County Councilman Pat Dolan, who both were handily defeated.

As a result, Stenger faces continued battles with the County Council, where a bipartisan bloc has opposed him on a variety of issues.

Stenger said he hoped for improved relations with the council: “We all do need to work together to do the people’s business in St. Louis County.”

Stenger emphasized that most of his achievements during his first term were done jointly with the Council’s help.

Calls for Democratic unity

Stenger won with just over 50 percent of the vote.


He noted that his first general-election win, in 2014, also was narrow, and joked that Tuesday was “another landslide’’ to the small crowd who had stuck it out for the long vote counting which extended past midnight.

Stenger praised Mantovani, saying he “fought to the very end.”

Because no well-known Republican filed, Stenger is expected to cruise to re-election in November. He has been in office since 2015.

Stenger said it was important for all St. Louis County Democrats “to bring our party together” for the general election. He singled out the effort to re-elect U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, the state’s top Democrat.

Stenger said he was optimistic that he can work with Wesley Bell, the Ferguson councilman who ousted McCulloch in Tuesday’s biggest upset. McCulloch had been a key Stenger ally since endorsing him in 2014.

Bell has no Republican opponent.

In the 5th District, progressive Democratic newcomer Lisa Clancy defeated Dolan, who was seeking his third term.

Huge surge in Democratic turnout

Voter turnout was unusually high, and unusually Democratic, County Democratic Elections Director Eric Fey said. Just over 70 percent of the county votes were cast by people taking Democratic ballots.

Close to 42 percent of the county’s roughly 650,000 registered voters cast ballots in the primary, Fey said. That compares to 26 percent who cast ballots in the 2016 August primary, a presidential election year.

But the large turnout was most likely due to the statewide battle over Proposition A, which would have reinstated a right-to-work law that curbed union rights.

Stenger lauded the defeat of Proposition A in his election-night event, held at the Laborers union hall in south St. Louis County.

The locale of Stenger’s victory party seemed appropriate, because Stenger had sought to link his re-election bid to Proposition A, the labor-backed referendum on the right-to-work law that the General Assembly and then-Gov. Eric Greitens had approved in early 2017.

More than 72 percent of county voters opposed Proposition A, which appears to have helped Stenger — but few of his Democratic allies running for other area offices.

Political disputes may continue

Stenger, 46, is a lawyer and an accountant. He had been a County councilman for six years when he successfully ousted then-County Executive Charlie Dooley in the 2014 Democratic primary.

Stenger engaged in a bruising and expensive battle with Mantovani for months, setting a spending record for a countywide campaign.

Mantovani had accused Stenger of being corrupt, while Stenger asserted that Mantovani was really a Republican.

St. Louis County executive candidate Mark Mantovani was defeated by incumbenon Tuesday by about 1,100 votes. Mantovani has not yet decided whether to seek a recount, Aug. 8, 2018
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County executive candidate Mark Mantovani was defeated by incumbent Steve Stenger on Tuesday by about 1,100 votes. Mantovani has not yet decided whether to seek a recount

Mantovani had the backing of several Democratic council members who have split with Stenger on various issues. A couple had been Dooley allies.

It’s unclear if Stenger’s victory will prompt a reconciliation with some Council members, or allow the disputes to continue.

At the center of the Stenger-Council tensions had been the quest by a majority on the Council — led by Chairman Sam Page, a Democrat from Creve Coeur — to gain more power over County government.

Council wins charter changes

Part of that fight had culminated in three charter amendments.

The voters narrowly backed two of them, while a judge blocked the third:

  • Proposition 2 will allow the Council to hire its own legal staff. Page and his allies balked at relying on the County counselor, who is hired by Stenger.
  • Proposition 3 will allow Council members to engage in work with other governmental entities. Such employment is barred under the current County Charter. Councilman Ernie Trakas faces the threat of removal because of his legal work for school districts; a St. Charles County judge is expected to rule soon.
  • Proposition 4 would have set campaign donation limits in place for County officials and candidates, while also granting the Council broader budget powers. A judge ruled that the amendment’s ballot summary was inaccurate, and ordered that Proposition 4’s votes not count.

Some Council members already have announced plans to get Proposition 4 on the November ballot.
Hanley Hills rejects dissolution

The Village of Hanley Hills voted to remain an independent municipality on Tuesday, with 61 percent of the voters favoring the status quo.

Thomas Rusan, a former trustee who had led the petition for the ballot measure, alleged that the village’s 2,100 residents were not getting full benefits of city services because of mismanagement by the village’s nine trustees.

The ballot measure ignited controversy when the Board of Trustees initially opposed the measure this spring before it was officially added to the ballot and circulated a flyer to residents urging them “Don’t give up your power.”

Because Hanley Hills has voted to remain independent there are still 88 municipalities in St. Louis County.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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