On an unseasonably warm afternoon in early May, Hazel Erby, who has represented the first district on the St. Louis County Council since 2004, stands before a small audience and announces that the time for a new county executive has arrived.
After outlining a litany of current County Executive Steve Stenger's shortcomings, which Erby says include bullying, lack of communication with the council, divisiveness, hostility and general dysfunction, the councilwoman says simply, "It's time for a change." The group — mainly African American Democrats from north county — applauds politely.
The occasion, officially, is the grand opening of Mark Mantovani's north-county campaign headquarters, a cramped affair situated in a strip mall on a winding, rural-feeling road north of Interstate 270 in Florissant.
The real reason for the gathering, however, is that the Fannie Lou Hamer Democratic Coalition of St. Louis County, a group of elected African Americans that Erby chairs, is endorsing Mantovani. On August 7, Mantovani will face off against Stenger in the Democratic primary. Because the Republicans have not put forth a contender with significant name recognition, the winner of the primary will likely coast to a victory in the general election on November 6.
Mantovani and Stenger make for interesting rivals. They both grew up in working-class families in Affton and graduated from Catholic high schools — Mantovani from Saint Louis University High, Stenger from Bishop DuBourg — and they are both trained as lawyers. They've each moved up in the world, Stenger to Clayton, Mantovani to Ladue. Mantovani, who recently completed a Harvard fellowship, is known as an entrepreneurial former CEO. Stenger is a CPA who got elected to the county council in 2009 and became county executive in 2015.
Mantovani and Stenger each have plenty to say about why the other should not run St. Louis County, which is home to nearly a million people (one-sixth of the total population of the state of Missouri) and boasts a 2018 operating budget of nearly $665 million. Mantovani echoes Erby's dissatisfaction with the status quo and then some, citing, among other things, Stenger's inability to work with the county council and the dark cloud of ethics-related controversies that seems to perpetually shadow him.
Not one to be outdone, Stenger charges that Mantovani, who has never held elected office, is running as a Democrat only because it's been almost 30 years since a Republican won the race for county executive. Stenger's claim is based largely on Mantovani's $20,241 in donations to former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, a rising star in the Republican Party (and champion of right-to-work laws) until his ascent was aborted by personal and financial scandals that led to his resignation June 1. Mantovani says that he, like many others, was misled by Greitens, that he vehemently opposes right-to-work and that he's donated to plenty of Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Claire McCaskill.
But Stenger insists the donations and Mantovani's tweets in support of the former governor, which his campaign says were lost when Mantovani's personal account was merged into the campaign's account, constitute an investment in right-wing ideology.
Erby is unfazed. "Mark understands that when we all have equal access to opportunity, the entire region prospers," she says. "When we don't, our whole community fails."