Comedian Robert Klein did a great bit on Gerald Ford after Ford replaced Vice President Spiro Agnew, who'd resigned in 1973 over a corruption scandal.
"I'm a mediocre man," Ford said (via Klein), "but, the last guy was a felon!"
Here in St. Louis County, it's an official fact of government: The last guy was a felon. Last week, County Executive Steve Stenger resigned and then swiftly pled guilty to charges in a corruption scandal. And with Stenger likely headed to federal prison, the question of the hour is whether Sam Page, his successor, will be something more than a mediocre man.
Let's hope so. After decades of having been largely ignored by local media as an outsized planning and zoning commission, St. Louis County government truly matters. With the need to address major governance issues looming, St. Louis needs some serious leadership from the new county executive.
But is Page up to that task? It depends upon which Sam Page you're talking about. There are two versions of him: One, the mundane public official who has held or sought a variety of offices over the past two decades, or two, the wise and towering statesman introduced to St. Louis Sunday by the Post-Dispatch.
The original Page served three years as a Creve Coeur councilman and six years as a state legislator. He made little news as a quietly center-left Democrat, although he did successfully introduce a helmet law for bicyclists and skateboarders in Creve Coeur.
In 2008, Page ran for lieutenant governor against Republican Peter Kinder and was the only Democrat to lose on the statewide ballot that year. In 2010, he was trounced in the Democratic primary for state senate, 64 to 36 percent, by then-Representative Barbara Fraser, who would lose in the general election to Republican John Lamping. He was, as politicians go, a mediocre man.
Elected to the county council in 2014 after the death of Councilwoman Kathleen Kelly Burkett, Page, to his credit, led the fight to have the county establish a prescription-drug registry to attack the opioid crisis. One of his chief allies was Stenger, who signed Page's bill into law.
Page can now fairly list at the top of his résumé his strident opposition to Stenger, especially as more information emerged about Stenger's pay-to-play scandals. That's more than I can say for myself; as a journalist, I was far too willing to assume that Stenger was just another politician doing slippery favors for campaign donors. Now that it's clear Stenger crossed well over the line into criminality, critics like Page are entitled to a victory lap. But politicians will continue doing slippery favors for campaign donors.
And Page doesn't get a free pass for his leadership of the clownishly dysfunctional County Council. Time and again, council members would take a dubious action at Stenger's behest and then claim — after things hit the fan — that they had been duped. Legislators don't get to use this "dog ate my homework" excuse at any level of government. Each council member has a full-time legislative aide. Page's County Council ran like a sub-par student council.
Page also un-distinguished himself by having the council hire as county auditor a longtime personal friend, Mark Tucker, despite the fact Tucker empirically lacked the published requirements for the job. The Post eviscerated him for this in a fine piece authored by Jeremy Kohler, exposing that, in more than a year on the job, Tucker failed to produce a single audit of a single dollar of the more than $600 million spent by the county, some of it curiously.
But that brings us to the other Sam Page, the one extolled by Kohler and the Post Sunday. "JUST WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED" blared the Post in bold, all-caps letters across the top of the May 5 edition. It proceeded to praise Page as sort of an amalgamation of Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Buddha. The opening paragraph could have been written by Page's great-grandmother:
"The new St. Louis County executive is an anesthesiologist. Dr. Sam Page has made a career of soothing pain and instilling calm in people who are hurting."
I'll admit I never considered that a government in turmoil ought to turn to an anesthesiologist, although it's a novel theory. A cynic might counter, "Hey, with all the substance abuse raging in our world, the last thing we need is a guy who makes his living knocking out people with drugs."
But who wants to hear from a cynic at a time like this? Not the Post.
"Page's composed demeanor stands in contrast to the confrontational figure he replaces," the Post's front-page news piece editorialized. "In comments since he took over, Page has promised to be many things he says Stenger was not — an ethical leader who collaborates with legislators and values the work of county employees." Gag.
There was no reference to the friend-as-auditor thing, because it didn't quite fit the story's wise-man narrative. Instead, the Post extolled Page's "knack of settling disputes," called him a "coalition builder" and offered an array of testimonials from colleagues moved by his kindness and reason. It even praised him for removing party lights and hauling seven boxes of alcohol out of Stenger's office.
I guess you could call this "news," seeing as how these wondrous attributes had gone completely unreported in Page's two decades of public service. Or even attributed to him privately by the very people singing his praises now. Or anyone else in government, for that matter.
Still, you can't begrudge the Post its own victory lap. After all, the first reference to Stenger's pay-to-play tendencies came in 2016 from columnist Tony Messenger, who dogged Stenger effectively from that point on. Messenger was writing about the curious relationship between Stenger and brothers David and Robert Glarner, who had given $75,000 (it would grow to more than $350,000) and received kind treatment for a development at the former Northwest Plaza.
Interestingly, Messenger's column ended with a reference to the fact that the Glarners had also made two $2,500 donations to the campaign of the councilman who introduced Stenger's legislation on their behalf — Sam Page. That fact also wasn't referenced Sunday in the testimonials to how Page was driving a stake in the heart of the old politics.
But here's what did make the cut: a glowing reference to how "Page has shown the ability to operate behind the scenes." That was your daily newspaper praising Page for maneuvering into his new job over the objections of Councilwoman Hazel Erby, who had the audacity to seek the job herself.
Page and his allies disrespected Erby and violated the spirit, if not letter, of a county ordinance they'd quietly blown up in February, which had provided for a deliberate two-week-plus process for a decision of this weight. They also refused to allow Erby's supporters — or those of erstwhile Stenger opponent Mark Mantovani — even a chance to speak in the unhappily crowded county council chambers.
So that's proof this guy has the skill to govern with a new spirit of warmth and transparency? Sorry, but I think it shows just the opposite, that the new era of good feeling in county government is actually off to a not-good start.
Because what St. Louis needs from Sam Page going forward has nothing to do with just being better than the last guy.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at email@example.com or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann and Jay Kanzler from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).