By SARAH FENSKE • AUG 5, 2019
Last Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s office dropped a bombshell: a sentencing memo that offered an extraordinary glimpse of an unfiltered Steve Stenger. Captured on federal surveillance, the then-St. Louis County executive revealed himself as profane, vindictive and utterly mercenary.
But for Dr. Sam Page, who replaced Stenger as county executive on the very day that his criminal indictment became public in April, the sentencing memo’s look at the real Steve Stenger was nothing new. Once a Stenger ally, Page soured on his fellow Democrat years before his downfall — and said he wasn’t surprised by the details revealed in the memo.
“The items that are in the sentencing memo are behavior that we were quite familiar with,” he said. “It’s consistent with what the County Council has seen over the years. The retribution really was a calling card and a leadership style. And we just had to deal with it, and we had to govern and do our jobs.”
Page discussed his first 100 days in office, a milestone he reaches tomorrow, on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. He talked about his goals as he continues in the job, what he’s accomplished so far — and, yes, Stenger.
As the sentencing memo details, Stenger loathed Page to the point that he talked about getting him fired from the hospital where he worked as an anesthesiologist. Page professed to be unperturbed by the prospect. “The county executive is going to jail for a lot of questionable decisions, and probably impaired reality of the world around him, and didn’t understand the depth of my relationship with the hospital,” he said. “I was really out of reach of his retribution.”
Page added that he was also unsurprised to learn of Stenger’s plans to use Better Together’s proposal to unite St. Louis city and county to wipe out his enemies.
“I guess we were surprised that these comments were caught on a wiretap,” he acknowledged. “But we weren’t surprised that those were his goals, because we were familiar with the leadership style. I was surprised that the leadership of Better Together, who I think are probably brighter than this, I was surprised that they were drawn into that. They have to live with that and understand that.”
Page said his first three months on the job were consumed with simply trying to clean up Stenger’s mess, from dealing with the cash Stenger had squirreled away to reversing policies like the one that gave the county executive complete control over hiring.
Beyond that, he portrays Stenger’s nearly four and a half years in office as a missed opportunity. He hopes to make up for lost time in the coming months.
As for a merger plan, he was noncommittal.
“First, the region has to heal and come to terms with what it’s like to be led in this manner,” he said. “The second step is for everyone to recognize and understand that St. Louis is not growing as fast as other communities in the Midwest, and that we have to turn that around. Part of turning that around is addressing the equity issues that really have been left behind.
“Part of the problem over the last five years isn’t just the loss of money and the abuse, but it’s a missed opportunity to address real problems in criminal justice reform, real problems in the justice center, real problems in affordable housing, problems in our animal shelter. These things just stack up. They’re complicated policy questions that didn’t have fundraising constituency behind them, so they were just ignored. And we’ve missed all of these opportunities.
“In addressing those,” he continued, “we need to look at whether St. Louis County and St. Louis city can have a more cooperative relationship. It doesn’t mean erasing their boundaries and merging their governments, but some sort of more cooperative relationship needs to exist, and the Municipal League is leading that conversation right now in I think a pretty thoughtful way.
“And we’ll see where it goes. It’s a conversation we need to have. And whatever comes out of the Board of Freeholders has to be approved by St. Louis County voters and St. Louis city voters, and that’s the right way to do it.”
Listen to a quick discussion with St. Louis Public Radio reporter Jason Rosenbaum on what the Stenger memo means for merger plans, as well as the complete interview with Dr. Sam Page: