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

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click to enlarge Mantovani's vision involves turning around the region's decline. - MONICA MILEUR
  • Mantovani's vision involves turning around the region's decline.

Whether Mantovani is talking about soccer or crime or the failure to make it past Amazon's initial cut, his foundational theme is that the area's phenomenal degree of fragmentation is a real problem.

From police departments to gay-pride festivals (the region hosted three last month), to say that St. Louis lacks cohesion is in and of itself an understatement. The Meramec, Mississippi and Missouri rivers set the natural stage for obstacles, but it is the 1876 secession of the city of St. Louis from St. Louis County that Mantovani considers the most detrimental (and the most repairable) source of fragmentation.

Mantovani believes that Better Together, the Rex Sinquefield-funded effort to join city and county, has good intentions. But he doesn't support the organization's methodology, which would ultimately put the matter before voters throughout the state. He believes a better approach would be to convene a board of electors to draw up a plan for making St. Louis the 91st municipality in St. Louis County and then place it before both city and county voters. If approved, it would enable the city to get out of the business of being a county by centralizing functions such as tax assessment, moving them from Market Street to Clayton.

Mantovani isn't naive to the likelihood of resistance from entrenched city interests, but he believes the biggest challenge would be convincing voters in St. Louis County that they wouldn't be taking on the city's financial woes by reuniting. "Each municipality in St. Louis County is responsible for its own financial situation," he says. "When the city of St. Louis becomes the 91st municipality, it will retain full responsibility for its budget."

Mantovani would also like to create an office of municipal affairs, which he says would require funding but would also benefit the region by supporting the good work being done in a siloed fashion across the county.

True to its St. Louis roots, the contest between Mantovani and Stenger is in some ways a racial one.

In 2014, Stenger, then a member of the county council, challenged and beat the county's first African American executive, Charlie Dooley, also a Democrat. Many, including Mantovani and Erby, recall Stenger's campaign as a racially motivated undertaking disguised as a crusade against corruption.

"That campaign was about criminalizing an African American incumbent," Mantovani says.

Erby believes Stenger is trying to make amends in time for the primary. "Right now he's making the rounds at black churches, singing 'Amazing Grace,'" she says. "It's insulting."

Interestingly, as the incumbent in 2014, Dooley ran ads against challenger Stenger accusing him of being a pro-life conservative disguised as a Democrat. Four years later, Stenger, now in the incumbent's seat, is lobbing the same charges at his challenger.

Mantovani doesn't sugarcoat the area's penchant for putting its worst face forward when it comes to racial issues, whether it's the cascading towers of Pruitt-Igoe or tear gas and tanks on the streets of Ferguson.

"We are a community that is deeply segregated," he says. "Contrast that with Atlanta, which was smaller than St. Louis when I was a kid but seems to have done a much better job embracing diversity and being inclusive. They've brought more energy to their challenges and progressed in ways we have not."

To move St. Louis forward in that area, Mantovani doesn't offer quick fixes or talking points. Instead he suggests a more long-term approach centered around conversations that include voices of those who have not always been welcome. "You can't lead a community if you don't understand its components," he says. "I can't wait to work with all different kinds of people."

Erby has confidence in his ability to move the region in the right direction. "Steve Stenger doesn't respect the black community, but I've been assured he doesn't respect white communities either," she says. "He's an equal opportunity A-hole. Mark's character, on the other hand, exhibits integrity. He's very careful about who he aligns himself with."

Mantovani's concerns about pervasive racism, the city-county split and the region's general decline for that matter are nothing new. But he thinks the timing is in his favor.

"Communities reach a tipping point where everyone says enough," he says. "And I believe we're there. The NFL left town for the second time, we failed to attract a soccer team because the county was MIA, leaving all of the burden on the city's shoulders, and Amazon didn't even consider us seriously."

In some ways, though, the timing couldn't be worse. Shortly after his swearing-in, in February 2017, a beaming Eric Greitens sat in an abandoned warehouse in Springfield and signed legislation that made Missouri the country's 28th right-to-work state. Organized labor, seeking to freeze the law's passage and put the issue before Missouri voters, leveraged a rarely used maneuver, the referendum petition, and proceeded to collect 310,000 signatures.

But rather than place the right-to-work question on the general election ballot in November, the Missouri House and Senate voted this May to relegate the issue to the August primary. Many believe the presence of right-to-work on the ballot will draw organized labor to the polls in numbers that are unusually high for a primary — and, in the process, hurt Mantovani, who hasn't been able to completely shake the association with Greitens that Stenger has emphasized since the beginning of the campaign.

The other question, of course, is whether or not the voters are open to a political outsider like Mantovani. It's 2018, and the air seems heavy with fatigue caused by a disgraced former governor and a president who was elected because he "tells it like it is" and promised to drain swamps in Washington — both figures who convinced voters that their lack of political experience was in fact advantageous.

On the other hand, the race could come down to exactly what kind of credentials are most important to St. Louis County voters. Without a doubt, Mantovani is sorely lacking when it comes to political experience. But he's also short on experience being investigated for ethics issues. It's entirely up to the voters to decide which outweighs the other.

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