We are less than four months away from the August 7, 2018 primary for the St. Louis County Executive. This seat is so solidly blue that the democrat was able to win in 2014 without the full support of the African-American community. (An unexpected manifestation of frustrations after the Michael Brown shooting which led a significant number of African-American leaders to endorse a republican candidate for the first time ever was not enough to allow republicans to win the seat). The fact that the democrat is effectively guaranteed to hold this office in November has led to a highly contested primary battle between political newcomer and businessman Mark Montovani and current County Executive Steve Stenger who have both raised millions of dollars in campaign donation. These donations are being put to work in the form of TV ads that run almost every commercial cycle on news and political programming.
The position of County Executive of St. Louis County is arguably the most influential elected office in the St. Louis Region. The St. Louis region has been embroiled in racial turmoil following two high profile shootings involving black men and local law enforcement and has experienced an unprecedented economic decline which was painfully evident when the region did not make the first round of cuts in the search for a new Amazon headquarters despite a central location, low cost of living and one of the most generous tax incentive packages offered.
It is rare that I publish a blog post that does not involve a discussion of one of the St. Louis regions, inept, unethical or self serving politicians whose actions contribute to our regions decline. Steve Stenger falls well outside this discretion in my view and has shown to be an expert in the intricacies of St. Louis County government. However, I have consistently been disappointing in Stenger’s unrelatable demeanor and poor communication skills which have hampered his ability to advance any type of comprehensive or meaningful agenda.
The inability of Stenger to pinpoint the priority issues among County voters and the lack of his team to communicate any type of comprehensive plan has never been more evident than in his first television advertisements of the re-election campaign.
Following a presidential election in which voters prioritized the economy above all other issues according to Pew Research (1) the importance of a coherent economic message for someone vying to lead the St. Louis region through a time of economic uncertainty should be self evident to even the most casual political observer. This political reality seems to have been lost on the current County Executive Steve Stenger whose first three television ads include only one mention of the regional economy and instead focus on attacking his primary opponent for having donated to republicans in the past and on his passionate defense of the region from “Donald Trump’s racist hate”(Ad 2). These unconnected and irrelevant points portray a candidate who is isolated from the pulse of his electorate in a way that renders him ineffective as a leader.
Steve Stenger: What I’m Doing
Steve Stenger: Who is Mark Montovani
An Office Unlike Any Other
Among the things that make the position of the County Executive so unique is the fact that partisan issues are almost completely irrelevant to the day to day activities of the office. This lack of partisan politics is evident in the regularity in which County Council votes do not fall along party lines. You would be hard pressed to find a Republican or Democratic stance on the County’s most pressing issues which include: 1) municipal consolidation, 2) regional collaboration to attract new jobs to the region or 3) addressing the problems associated with relying on ancillary fees and sales tax revenue to fund local governments.
It Starts With a Conversation: Solving Complex Regional Issues
While not partisan in nature the three issues listed above represent some of the most complex issues in politics. This complexity stems from the fact that efficiently addressing all three of these issues requires that the regions most wealthy and powerful local governments act contrary to their short-term interests in order to create the potential for significant long-term regional growth of all. For example,
- Consolidation would inevitably provide economies of scale and a reduction of redundancy in government positions that would benefit the region over the long term. However, a successful consolidation would require local leaders to voluntarily give up some control over local services.
- A regional taxing authority that incorporated counties surround St. Louis County would provide greater financial flexibility and resources to attract new businesses from out of State. However, this would require that multiple counties impose new taxes on themselves without achieving tangible short-term benefits.
- Creating a central authority that regulates zoning laws, sales tax rates and other locally controlled revenue sources will require a large amount of give and take and compromise that can only be accomplished through persistent and comprehensive leadership.
Steve Stenger has chose to ignore these tough issues his entire first term in office and this lack of leadership and inability to relate to his constituents is a disqualifier in my opinion.
In just few months of campaigning Mark Montovani has had the courage to start the uncomfortable and oftentimes unpopular conversations that county officials have ignored for decades. His first campaign ad brilliantly identifies the core problems facing the St. Louis region and in providing an inspiring albeit high level prescription for addressing these problems.
Mark Mantovani Democratic candidate for St. Louis County Executive
Montovani has limited government experience and his ability to effectively address the issues his campaign has brought to light is completely untested. However, five decades of data has shown that ignoring the tough issues and failing to engage with local officials throughout the region has brought nothing but economic decline and I believe a vote for untested change is well worth the risk.