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5 questions for St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger ahead of primary

Steve Stenger, who has served as St. Louis County executive since January 2015, hopes to serve another four-year term.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Steve Stenger, who has served as St. Louis County executive since January 2015, hopes to serve another four-year term.

Affton native and incumbent Democratic candidate for St. Louis County executive Steve Stenger has held the position for nearly four years and is looking to serve for another four. His name will appear next to political newcomer Mark Mantovani’s on the Aug. 7 ballot. 

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Stenger joined host Don Marsh and St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jo Mannies to discuss his campaign to keep his seat as county executive.

Marsh: It seems a lot of people are getting tired of politicians calling each other names. And so as I asked [Mantovani], how well served is the voting public by the kind of rhetoric we’ve been hearing?

Stenger: In my campaign what we have tried to do is rather than running, say, a completely negative ad, we’ve tried to draw comparisons between my opponent and me. So I think that the public is actually served well by seeing that comparison, and I think that people do want to have that comparison. So we’ve tried to talk about the things that we have done and that we’ve accomplished but at the same time striking a comparison between my opponent and me.

Marsh: You call him a phony, he calls you malevolent … and there’s more.

Stenger: Well sure, and if you look at that, there is actually a comparative piece to that, not to be argumentative, of course, but there is a comparative piece to that though. And I think it is important to understand the various nuances – and I’d like to talk about some of those on the air with you today.

Marsh: One of the things that does come up and has come is I think both the [St. Louis] Post-Dispatch and Mr. Mantovani have labeled the county government dysfunctional and basically basing that claim on your relationship with the county council, which has not been terribly positive.

Stenger: Well, I think that to call country government dysfunctional is really a complete mischaracterization, and if you look at the things that we’ve achieved over the last three-and-a-half years it’s evident that that’s just simply not the case. And I think that there is a – this is not conspiratorial – there is a level of certain coordination between my opponent’s campaign and frankly the Post-Dispatch. They certainly haven’t held back any criticism of me over the last three-and-a-half years, and I think that he’s been able to kind of ride that with the Post-Dispatch. … If you look at the magnitude of what we’ve been able to accomplish in the last three-and-a-half years, I think this government is anything but dysfunctional, and I think in fact it’s a progressive government that has gotten a lot done. And we’ll talk more about that. But I think one of the features of moving forward, getting things done and making changes, is you’re going to anger some people along the way. And you know, I think we’ve done that. But it’s been for very good cause. You look at something like Northwest Plaza, where St. Louis County made an investment in a community that in many ways has been disenfranchised from the rest of the county. We made a major investment there, but we made an investment in a market-rate lease – it’s $18 per square foot – the average rate in St. Louis County, north St. Louis County, is $18 a square foot. And we have class-A space there. We made a 20-year lease, we invested heavily in the community, and we came forward with a beautiful facility that our residents and taxpayers can utilize. And like I said, it’s a market-rate lease. There isn’t much to complain about there. The council certainly wasn’t complaining about it when they voted for it six to one, and then came election time. And about three months prior to the election, the Post-Dispatch started basically critiquing it, and then my opponent of course jumped on that critique. Now I would question perhaps the motivations for that, with some of the council members as well, and I think it all really came down to election-year politics.

Marsh: The criticism is that some sweetheart deals with your donors – with regard to contracts – sort of a pay-to-play situation is what he [Mantovani] is charging.

Stenger: And what I would say there is it’s impossible really in St. Louis County government to have that, because the St. Louis County Council would have to be complicit. This isn’t a deal that frankly I put together on my own. It’s hardly sweetheart – it’s a market-race lease at $18 a square foot, when the rest of north county is for average space paying $18 a square foot. This is $18 a square foot for class A office space. And once again, six members of the council approved of it, one disapproved, so it was a six-to-one vote. So it would take all of the council members being complicit in this “pay-to-play” scheme, which simply wasn’t the case, and it’s a fiction. And that’s Mark Mantovani I think trying to get elected.

Mannies: Part of the focus is on the fact that you did get a lot of campaign donations from the development, some of the major players in the development. Now to be fair, at least they were public. I mean, nobody’s accusing you of hiding anything.

Stenger: No, they were public. And, Jo, they came long before that development, and they continued after. It wasn’t as if someone gave me campaign contributions so I would do something and then I did it and then that was that. These were supporters who had been supportive for a very long time and I would imagine would probably be supportive in the future, because I think they like what they’re seeing going on all over St. Louis County. We’ve had $5.7 billion of economic activity, and this isn’t a situation where we’ve focused that economic activity in our richest neighborhoods. We’ve focused that economic activity and the development and the revitalization in neighborhoods that have been hit really hard, like St. Ann. And we’ve done some things in other areas too. We have a $772 million expansion, right in the heart of Clayton, with Centene. And all of these various things that have happened haven’t happened on their own. They’ve happened because we’ve worked very hard with our local companies, with our local CEOs, to encourage them to stay here in St. Louis, to expand here in St. Louis. And we’ve worked very hard at that. And when you take a company like Centene – not only did they expand in Clayton, but they also expanded in Ferguson – put together a $26 million facility in Ferguson that was jobs for the local community at a time that we really needed it. So those are the kinds of developments that we want to see. And being the county executive, it’s a job where you are going to get campaign contributions from people in the community, because people in our community care about our community. And these aren’t in any way self-enriching campaign contributions. They’re merely to a campaign, and that campaign is what’s utilized to strive for re-election.

Listen to the full conversation:

Producer’s noteStenger’s challenger, Mark Mantovani, appeared on St. Louis on the Air on Thursday.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Caitlin Lally is thrilled to join St. Louis Public Radio as the summer production intern for "St. Louis on the Air." With a bachelor's degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Caitlin also freelances for area publications like Sauce Magazine and the Belleville News-Democrat. In her career, she's covered topics such as Trump's travel ban, political protests and community activism. When she's not producing audio segments or transcribing interviews, Caitlin enjoys practicing yoga, seeing live music, and cooking plant-based meals.
Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.