Call endorses county executive candidates in Aug. 4 primaries

Editorial

Call+endorses+county+executive+candidates+in+Aug.+4+primaries

St. Louis County voters have six options for county executive in the Democratic and Republican primaries Aug. 4, with each bringing something unique to this election season.

On the Republican side, returning candidate Paul Berry III will face Ed Golterman, who declined to return The Call’s questionnaire. That makes him ineligible for our endorsement. The Call endorses Berry for the GOP nod, and if he wins we hope he expands on some of his unique ideas for the office in upcoming months.

This being St. Louis County, the eventual winner of the county executive race will most likely be decided in the Democratic primary with incumbent Sam Page, businessman Mark Mantovani, Jamie Tolliver or county Assessor Jake Zimmerman. The winner will serve out the rest of former County Executive Steve Stenger’s term, through 2022. Page was elected by the County Council following Stenger’s indictment and resignation in April 2019, so this is his first countywide election.

Tolliver did not return the questionnaire.

Unlike past years, we believe any of these three candidates would admirably serve, while also paying closer attention to the needs of South County than past county executives — although we acknowledge the bar for that is set fairly low. In the past, most county executives couldn’t seem to find South County on a map, except during an election year.

Page, a physician, came to office with a 42-page playbook on how to govern, which was clearly written long before Stenger resigned. It listed what policies he would endorse, who he would fire and hire, and even which calls he would return his first days in office.

Perhaps that was just good planning, something an anesthesiologist would be used to from the surgical suite. But in the wake of Stenger, it seems a bit too business-as-usual for St. Louis County government, with every decision calculated based on whether it gets you elected next time.

Fast forward to this year, when Page and his matter-of-fact bedside manner has served as the calm voice of reason behind the county’s stay-at-home orders, business shutdowns and now a mask mandate, all designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 and try to get on with normal life at some point. Most residents support how Page has handled the coronavirus crisis, according to a poll from late May, and we agree.

If Page had led St. Louis County for the past year the way he’s served for the past six months, we would make a different endorsement. But some easily avoidable missteps have continued even amid the pandemic. Just weeks ago, Page initiated a sweeping, privately funded police review without first discussing it with his own appointed police board. It echoed the May decision by the council to hand oversight of the spending of $173 million in federal coronavirus response funds to Page alone, without votes by the council on further spending. Ironically, it was Page who often rallied against the strong powers of the county executive when Stenger held the office. But now he uses them to his advantage.

Zimmerman is the first elected county assessor and a Harvard-educated lawyer who could bring some fresh perspective and executive experience to the position.

Unlike some past county executives, he’s proven himself willing to listen to South County residents, as he did last year in his town halls with residents angry about their higher assessments. But his campaign has focused more on North County, highlighting what Zimmerman sees as systemic racism in the St. Louis County Police Department and blaming new Chief Mary Barton, just months into the first-ever female chief’s tenure. We’re not at all convinced that most South Countians are similarly unwilling to give the new chief a chance to prove herself.

Mantovani has never held public office before, which usually would give us pause. County government, after all, is a billion-dollar enterprise with more than 3,000 employees. But after two campaigns that have essentially been one long listening session, Mantovani could hit the ground running right away, and we believe he has the business chops needed to steer the economic recovery.

Mantovani’s business expertise is crucial at what we see as a turning point in St. Louis history. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed every city in this country and world, but St. Louis needed to adapt to a new economic reality even before this happened. We prefer Mantovani’s specific, actionable ideas for how to seize the reigns of economic development and bring jobs here.

In the past, Mantovani has said he supports St. Louis city re-entering St. Louis County, but he emphasizes that this monumental decision would have to come with a vote of the people.

Despite this focus on the region, we don’t believe Mantovani, a South County native, would forget South County residents while pursuing these endeavors, as past county executives have all too often.

Tellingly, Mantovani’s answers to our questionnaire were the ones most consistently focused on South County’s needs and unique characteristics or zoning issues.

Mantovani has specific, innovative ideas about how to potentially address shortcomings in the zoning process, as one example. Although funding such initiatives is always a question, as a business leader Mantovani is used to doing more with less on a regular basis.

And although he has the endorsement of the police union, we believe he supports reforms that would improve policing. We believe he can make county government better, which is something that all county residents need and deserve and will be even more important post-pandemic.

The Call endorses Mark Mantovani in the Democratic primary for county executive.