Mark Mantovani Hopes to Take Down Steve Stenger. Is St. Louis County Ready for Another Outsider? 

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click to enlarge Steve Stenger reads with young students as part of the library's Recycled Reads event. - KARA SMITH/ST. LOUIS COUNTY LIBRARY
  • KARA SMITH/ST. LOUIS COUNTY LIBRARY
  • Steve Stenger reads with young students as part of the library's Recycled Reads event.

Mantovani's single biggest criticism of his opponent isn't the ethics issue but Stenger's overall approach to leading the county. "Your average captain of a high school football team gets the kids together over the summer and sets the course," Mantovani says. "I never hear any vision or agenda from him so far as aspiration for our community goes. His approach is very transactional."

He adds that the current executive had very little to do with his decision to enter the race. "I didn't start this mission because of Steve Stenger," he says. "I started it because I have concerns about my community."

His concerns can be summed up with one word: decline.

At the dawn of the 1960s, as Mantovani was coming of age, St. Louis, with a population of 750,026, was the tenth largest city in the U.S. In the mid-1960s, when the McDonnell Douglas-made Gemini spacecraft was nudging the U.S. ahead of the Soviet Union in the space race that garnered worldwide attention, Mantovani recalls classmates looking on nervously because their parents had worked on the project. On the ground, Busch Stadium II opened downtown in May 1966 with the Cardinals beating the Braves 4-3 in twelve innings. The following year, on June 10, 1967, the Gateway Arch welcomed its first visitors. During the 1960s two new professional sports franchises — the Blues and the football Cardinals — decided to settle down in St. Louis. And Mantovani's favorite nugget of local lore: One of the six newspapers President John F. Kennedy read every day was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"When I was growing up, this seemed to me like a place of prominence, a place that gave people the opportunity to achieve whatever they wanted," he says. "When I talk to young people today about what it was like here, their eyes get big."

Matt Pijut, 32, is a member of the demographic Mantovani believes is critical to moving the region forward. He grew up in south county with Mantovani's son, but when he got hired at Ansira shortly after graduating from the University of Missouri in 2008, he had no idea that his friend's dad was the CEO.

Ansira is the digital marketing agency that Mantovani took over at the request of a legal client. It grew dramatically, from 50 employees to more than 800, under his leadership. Mantovani took a tax credit on the building at Locust and Jefferson that he moved the agency into, but defends the decision by pointing to job creation and the rejuvenation the neighborhood has undergone since Ansira's arrival. "The average employee age there was under 30," Mantovani recalls. "I thought I was going there to mentor young people, but I'm the one who learned."

Pijut, who lives in Glendale, believes that Mantovani is the right person for the county-executive job because he takes a holistic approach to learning about the needs of different communities, he's not afraid of conflict and he's endlessly curious. "His curiosity wasn't always focused on how to be more profitable," Pijut says. "It was focused on: Are we using the data and insight we are collecting in the best way possible?"

Regardless of who wins the election, Pijut fears for the region's future for reasons that align with some of Mantovani's priorities.

Pijut grew up in south county and he loves living here, but his wife, who is not a native, does not share his enthusiasm. Like many, they are concerned about violent crime, especially now that they are parents. They welcomed their first child — a boy — the day that Eric Greitens resigned. The significance of the date in Missouri history is duly noted in their son's baby book.

"It's becoming harder to blindly defend St. Louis," he says. "Crime used to seem highly prevalent in certain areas, and you could argue that crackdowns needed to happen in those areas. But just recently a young woman was mugged in a parking garage in Brentwood — an area that not long ago would have been deemed 'safer.'"

There's something else that bothers Pijut: Indianapolis.

When the cloud-computing company Salesforce located several hundred jobs there and put its name on the city's tallest building, it stung. "Fifteen or twenty years ago, it would have been comical to think of Indy as ahead of St. Louis in terms of attracting major corporations and talent," Pijut says. "So to see major corporations leave St. Louis while other major corporations set up a large-scale presence in Indy is disheartening."

Unlike the blue wave Democrats are counting on in November, the one that will be powered by candidates who are younger, more female and less fair-skinned than ever before, Mantovani is an affluent white guy who wears tailored suits and has eight grandchildren. "But," he says, holding his hand up as if to stop traffic, "I do not think like any 64-year-old I know."

He doesn't always behave like one, either. After his stint as CEO of Ansira, Mantovani and his wife of 40 years, Patty, headed for Boston and a Harvard fellowship rather than retreating to Ladue. He developed a taste for how entrepreneurship and public service can intersect.

He also began taking a closer look at other cities. Why does Boston take a completely different approach to policing? How does Atlanta leverage its racial diversity as a competitive advantage? What makes Chattanooga so attractive to startups? "I'm not suggesting that St. Louis try to become Boston," he says. "But as county executive, I want to champion innovation. I think we can learn a lot from what works in other places."

Closer to home, Mantovani points to two issues that would have been handled differently had he been at the helm of St. Louis County: Major League Soccer and Uber.

"We're not going to attract young, innovative thinkers by opposing Uber the way we did when it first came to town," he says. "Whether we were right or wrong is almost beside the point. You don't make a national cause out of fighting a disruptive technology that's viewed in a very positive way by young people."

In 2017, in an election that drew an unusually high turnout, voters in the city of St. Louis rejected the opportunity to help finance a soccer stadium. Mantovani believes the failure to build a 25,000-seat facility sends the wrong message to a demographic he believes is critical to the future of the region: males between the ages of 18 and 34, for whom soccer is an increasingly popular spectator sport.

The day after the election, Stenger told reporters that the county didn't participate because it had never been given a proposal to evaluate. Mantovani insists the county's lack of participation is the main culprit in a failure he says sends the wrong message. "This would have been a regional win, but the county stayed out of it," he says. "The county was MIA."

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