MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. – St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and Republican challenger Mark Mantovani will face off in a live, prime-time debate Tuesday night.

Page, 57, took office during an emergency session of the county council in April 2019, replacing Steve Stenger, who resigned following a federal indictment. He was elected to the position in November 2020. Page defeated primary challenger Jane Dueker in the Aug. 2022.

Mantovani, 68, is a retired marketing business executive. He ran twice for County Executive as a Democrat, narrowly defeated by Steve Stenger in 2018 and again to Sam Page in 2020.

Here are some of the questions the candidates answered Tuesday night.

Switching parties

Mark Mantovani ran for St. Louis County Executive twice as a Democrat. Now, he is running for the position as a Republican. FOX 2’s Shirley Washington asks, “Why did you switch political parties, and how do you plan to represent the interests of Republicans and Democrats?”

“So, my running for the County Executive role is more about my community than it is about my party affiliation. For me, this is not about ‘R’ or about ‘D.’ It’s about STL. For too long, our community has been bypassed by other communities across the Midwest and our government has underperformed. When approached about seeking this office a third time. You know, good things happen the third time.

I agreed only because of my concern about Saint Louis, and because I believe I could put a bipartisan coalition together. I’ve had Republicans and Democrats support me over the years. Both, and I think. That’s what the community needs in order to address our fundamental challenges. It doesn’t need more division, it means needs more unity, and I think I’m the only candidate who can do that,” said Mantovani.

Scandals

Page’s website states “Restoring honesty, accountability and transparency.” In the last year, his chief of staff was forced to resign amid an alleged sex tape scandal. A former aide pleaded guilty in federal court to wire fraud. FOX 2’s Andy Banker asks, “How will you ensure those core values are met in your next term, if elected?”

“Well, in Saint Louis County government we have 3,800 employees. From time to time, some of them will let us down. And when they do, I deal with them promptly. When I learned that someone who worked in the jail was indicted and has now pled guilty to trying to access COVID funds, which wasn’t his duties in the jail. I moved quickly and I fired him. That’s what you have to do.

I stand by my decisions with quick discipline for people who let us down, but also how hard we work to restore trust in Saint Louis County.

We have a transparency portal to show where all the COVID funding has been going. People look at that every day, and you can drill down to any specific contract and learn where that money went,” said Page.

Mental health

The recent fatal shooting at a south St. Louis high school has renewed discussions about mental health. The county council approved $66 million in ARPA funds, only $800,000 went toward mental health. FOX 2’s Shirley Washington asks, “What steps would you take to ensure more access to mental health professionals and resources across St. Louis County?”

Sam Page:

“We have one of the premier health departments in the state, and we’ve made great investments in mental health and substance abuse. We’re doing so through our programming and our three public health clinics, but also in the jail.

We recognize that half the folks committing crimes in St. Louis County, in our region, were once in jail. So when they pass through hard jail, we work really hard to get them help for their substance abuse. Get them access to mental health services and start job training while they’re still in jail.

We know if we can get them a pathway to jobs and into healthcare, then when they leave our jail the likelihood that they re-offend, and come back to jail, is much less. So, mental health and substance abuse is a big part of our process in St. Louis County that’s helped lower crime year to date.”

Mark Mantovani:

“Well, first of all, it’s sort of incredible to me that the County Executive talks about the jail as if it’s some sort of success story. I mean, inmates have been regularly dying in the jail over the course of the last few years. We had a revolving door of people who were responsible for the jail services department. The jail Services Department is where the individual who was indicted worked.

If any part of county government is susceptible to criticism, it seems to me it is the St. Louis County Jail. It needs much more attention and again, what the County Executive is inclined to do here is. Blame everybody else, right?

What we need in this region is we need a County Executive that’s accountable. Who takes responsibility for bad things that happen. One of the primary rules of being a chief executive is that when stuff goes wrong, you step up, and you’re accountable, and you take the blame, and you quit blaming everybody else for your mistakes.”

Keeping schools safe

St. Charles County used ARPA funds to put armed police officers in every county school. What are your plans to keep schools safe?

Mark Mantovani:

“Well, I think those efforts are not unreasonable. Whether these guards need to be armed or not, I think is a matter that school boards need to evaluate. I would anticipate being a partner to school boards with respect to the decisions that they make. I would encourage them to provide maximum amount of security that they can.

In this, in this day and age, I think there’s a lot more that can be done, and I think we have to convene discussions about those topics in order to make certain that we’re utilizing the resources that we have most efficiently and aggressively. Armed guards are fine if a school board wishes. And I’d be willing to partner with school boards with respect to those expenses.

I think that we need to look to the state budget to support some of these things. The county budget is way out of balance and I think we need to be a better steward, so we’re so far as where our money is going as well. And I try to communicate with the state first.”

Sam Page:

“We have gone so far as to work with leadership in the state to receive an appropriation of $23 million to St. Louis County for our public safety for our police department. The County Council, just last week, approved my request to match that $23 million with another $23 million for public safety in St. Louis County. That will go to a regional crime center to gather intelligence to manage our counterterrorism response, to work collaboratively with law enforcement in the City of St. Louis and St. Charles County. We’re working to manage intelligence around crime or making a $46 million investment in that in St. Louis County, and we believe that that will be a great asset to our schools in our community.”

Gun safety

The candidates were also asked about what they would do about gun safety.

Sam Page:

“As a lifelong Democrat, I’ve been an advocate for reasonable gun safety legislation for my entire career in politics, and I do support red flag laws. I’ve advocated for red flag laws. I’m involved in litigation now with the city of Saint Louis, Jackson County, and Kansas City to try and overturn a state law that makes it illegal for local law enforcement to cooperate with federal agents to enforce federal gun laws. It’s a confusing law and it needs to be overturned. I support red flag laws and the so-called Second Amendment Protection Act needs to be overturned as well.”

Mark Mantovani:

“Well, let’s make let’s make it clear what the county executive’s job is all about. The county executive’s job is running the St. Louis County government. Gun legislation typically comes out of the federal government and out of the out of the state. It’s fine to be an advocate for those things, but let’s be realistic about what the county is going to do about gun laws. Secondly, I’m opposed to the preservation act. I think it’s ridiculous. I mean, if the courts will get it right, whether we’re spending our money on it or not. So far as red flag laws are concerned, I think we should be enforcing those, just as County Executive Sam Page said.”

Fighting crime

Voters across the country say crime is a major issue in this election. What is the county’s role to solve the region’s crime troubles?

Sam Page:

“Our Police Department is a leader in the region on cooperative efforts on crime with our federal agencies with St. Charles County with St. Louis City, and we’ll continue that leadership role. The investment we’re making with the money I requested from our state government, and the money that I requested from the county council, that was appropriated last week will make a real difference in our community; addressing those capital needs in our department.

We can’t police our way out of this. We need to continue to work on the criminal justice side, addressing mental health and substance abuse in our jails, and making sure that people who are in inmates or jail have a pathway to a job when they leave.”

Mark Mantovani:

“Ask the people in St. Louis County if they feel safer today than they did two years ago. They don’t. I think it’s the number one issue facing our community, and I think that the county executive has had no plan to speak of with respect to avoiding crime. Clearly the police aren’t comfortable with his leadership on this issue because every police organization has endorsed my candidacy. I think it’s important that we recognize that there’s a void in the crime plan in St. Louis County right now.”

Inflation

St. Louis County families are struggling to buy groceries and gas and pay for housing due to inflation. What is your plan to help families survive amid inflation?

Sam Page:

“The most important thing that we can do in county government is to recognize that we’re the number one employer in the state. 25% of the jobs in the state of Missouri are in Saint Louis County. Most of the job growth over the past two years has been in St. Louis County. We should continue to grow jobs and find a pathway to work for folks. People that have substance abuse and mental health issues, we should get them help. We should be very active in workforce development. We do have a Department of Human Services. We provide social services for people who are struggling to get access to affordable housing. We’ve provided millions and millions of dollars of rental assistance for people who’ve been struggling for the past couple of years.

So, County government does have a role, and one of the other important roles that we have is to make sure that our government services are provided efficiently. We’ve moved many of our services online over the past two years, and we’ve adopted a lot of efficiencies that allow us to provide services. The much more responsible way.

Mark Mantovani:

“The first thing we have to do is make certain that we’re not increasing taxes on them. Their property taxes are a significant contributing part to their overhead in in retaining their property. I don’t know that County Executive has indicated that he would not raise taxes in light of the budget challenges that we had.

Secondly, this community ought to be much more effective with respect to economic development than it is. Within the last three weeks, two of our largest employers have indicated that they are in the process of considering whether to relocate from the St. Louis market. That kind of diminution in the job base for our community is ruinous to many families in our community. Again, I don’t know that the county executive engages on that issue at all. He ought to be, in my opinion, the county executive ought to be engaging with those sorts of corporations and not just trying to move companies here but trying to work more closely with those that we already have here.

Abortion

Some members of the county council supported a plan to use ARPA money to fund travel for county residents to access abortion services. What should St. Louis County’s role be on the issue of abortion moving forward?

Mark Mantovani:

“First of all, let’s be clear about what my position on this issue has been and is. My position has never changed. I respect a woman’s right to make her own choice. I think a decision should be made by the woman and her physician. I’m generally supportive of efforts to communicate with the state legislature around that issue, but abortion policy is not going to be made in St. Louis County. This is another national and state issue.

The role of the St. Louis County Executive is to run the St. Louis County government, not to be lobbying for federal policy changes. That’s way beyond the scope of what this job is all about, and I think this discussion reflects a failure to understand what the County Executive is all about.

Would I support contributing to a fund? To allow people to travel to other states. I don’t know, it seems sort of ridiculous to me. I mean, we’re five miles away from Illinois. What is the cost of getting somebody to Illinois to have an abortion?”

Sam Page:

“Well, I’m the only candidate in this race endorsed by pro-choice, Missouri and Planned Parenthood. I’ve had a political career of fighting for woman’s right to have access to abortion. The county can have a limited role. We’ll work with our attorneys to make sure that we’re in compliance with state law and federal law. But, such issues such as providing childcare services for a woman who’s in a difficult situation and needs to have access to an abortion, or supporting their travel expenses as they get to somewhere where it’s safe, is something that we may be able to do. We’re looking at what the law will allow, and we’ll consider that.”

Radiation

FOX 2 viewer Matthew Ingmire asks, “With the news just coming out about the radioactive contamination at Jana Elementary School in Florissant, if you were reelected or elected, what would you do to combat this issue that has plagued North County residents for decades?

Sam Page:

“Well, I support the decision of the school board to remove the students from that school when they learned of the contamination. This radioactive waste has been a legacy for St. Louis County for decades. It’s been transported legally, and illegally, throughout the county. Stored legally and illegally and lost along the way. Coldwater Creek is part of that fallout.

The County Health Department is working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA to clean up some of these sites. The federal government, the Department of Energy, has jurisdiction and expertise on this. Our role is to communicate with the residents as to what is happening. Make sure they understand what is happening. That they’re able to participate in the community engagement that’s directed by the Department of Energy and hold them accountable. We’re in constant communication with them, as are our members of Congress. To hold their feet to the fire and have them clean this up.”

Mark Mantovani:

“This is a difficult issue for me because I have a tendency to get angry about it. This issue has been going on for generations, and our political leaders have been kicking this can down the road and allowing young people and their adults to be exposed to dangerous carcinogens for decades. Our community has just sort of ignored it, generally speaking.

If I were County Executive, I would be shoulder to shoulder with those people who are adamant about getting, not only Coldwater Creek cleaned up, but the landfill in that area as well. This is an embarrassment to our community in my opinion that we have been so lazy, so disinclined to address this matter aggressively. If I’m County Executive, I pledge that I will be the federal government’s worst nightmare when with respect to pushing this matter and getting this matter resolved once and for all.”

North County Development

FOX 2 viewer Jo-Ann Bollenbach asks, “Do either of you have any definite plans for North County? Getting really tired of everything going South and West. We also pay taxes.”

Sam Page:

“So, I was in North County today to sign an appropriations bill that provides $11 million to destroy problem properties. To take down problem properties, derelict buildings, in Spanish Lake. That legislation is important to take down these buildings that are an eyesore. They are centers for crime that make people not want to live in the neighborhoods. That’s just one example.

We’re working on Jamestown mall. We’ve provided $6 million, and we’ve been able to solicit a $6 million appropriation from the state to tear down Jamestown Mall. And we have a community engagement program in progress right now to listen to the community and learn what they think. There are many activities going on in North County. We understand that it’s been left behind, and we’re turning a lot of our resources in that direction.”

Mark Mantovani:

“I spend a lot of time in North County, and I agree with JoAnne that it has been left behind unfairly. These neighborhoods, which are in decline, which now the county executive has decided he’s going to address, have been in decline for years. Now in an election cycle, suddenly he shows up with an intent to try to fix that problem. The problem property unit has been not active enough over these last many years, and I’ve talked about this over and over again.

Jamestown Mall has been derelict and ignored for years. We’re in an election cycle so suddenly the county executive is interested in that too.

I have other ideas. UMSL is a diamond in the rough. We should be trying to facilitate investment around UMSL as an important part of North County. The PowerPlex project, the zoo investment. All of these things are beachheads of opportunity that we should be working with the people in North County in order to create more economic growth.”

Merging St. Louis City and County

There have been several plans calling for merging St. Louis City and St. Louis County services. What is your position regarding a merger of St. Louis County and St. Louis City?

Mark Mantovani:

“I’m really opposed to the merger, as I think most people in both the city and the county are opposed to it today. It’s important to remember that none of this can ever happen without city residents and county residents approving it, and this is just not something that is consistent with the will of the people. Now, having said that, there are divisions in both the city and the county government that should be collaborating and working more closely together. The other, the Police Department is one.

If I’m elected, we develop a crime plan, as I have proposed over and over again. We’re going to need to engage both the city and the county police because crime doesn’t know any boundary like that. The health departments need to be working more closely together. It made no sense during the pandemic, for you’d be able to sit in a restaurant in the city, but not in the county. If there are contagions, there are contagions.

So there are those departments that should be working more closely together. But that’s not a merger. We need to be working more closely with our brothers and sisters in the city. But we’re not going to have any possibility of merging the government entities at this point in time.

Sam Page:

“The city in the county as another municipality is a possible pathway, but only with the consent of the voters in the city and the county. It would have to be on a long timeline because there be a lot of details to work out. In the interim, we’re working very closely with the City of St. Louis on all the things that we have opportunities to do so.

Public health is a good example. During the pandemic, the public health departments in the city and county worked very closely together. In fact, we worked very closely with the health departments of the surrounding counties.

The reason I asked the Teneo Group to come in and review our police department is they were also going to be in the city police department. They reviewed both departments and they provided recommendations that included allowing us to work together on cross-border crime, which we have done with some success. Economic development is another example of how the city and the county worked together with the Economic Development Partnership. With their help of that partnership, we’ve attracted thousands of new jobs to Saint Louis County in the past two years.”

COVID Surge

COVID cases are spiking in Europe, and it is possible that a wave could hit the U.S. How should St. Louis County government respond, if COVID cases spike dramatically?

Mark Mantovani:

“I believe it’s important to communicate and to collaborate with people who are affected by restrictions and regulations. To not just dictate, but to engage. I think that’s what we didn’t do last time, and I think we could do a lot better at that in the future. I don’t think our performance on COVID-19 was very good from a statistical standpoint. It wasn’t, and I think it was miserable with respect to our ability to collaborate with the people most affected.”

Sam Page:

“It’s a much different disease now, and we are much more prepared, and our response would be much different. Having said that, we will always follow the advice of our public health department, the Pandemic Task Force, and our public health experts. We will always work with our business advisory groups, who were all very, very active during the COVID response. Many business advisory groups who weren’t engaged publicly talking about our communications. But we’re very much involved.”

The Pandemic & Business

During the pandemic, many businesses failed under the strain of government mandates. What would you do differently to protect those businesses if another wave of COVID-19 occurs?

Sam Page:

“We provided millions of dollars of grants to businesses that were struggling and identified that they needed help in addition to whatever federal support they could find. This was a tragic time in the history of our community and our country where we had to balance livelihoods and lives. And we all faced some very difficult decisions.

Washington University did a study that was published in September 2021 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which showed that the decisions we made early in the pandemic saved 2,500 lives in St. Louis County. To date, we’ve lost 3,500 people to COVID in our community. Those are real lives. Those are real people. Those are friends and family and coworkers.

We understand that we made some difficult decisions under the advice of a lot of experts. And we worked very hard with our small businesses and our large employers to try and help keep people safe and understand their perspective.”

Mark Mantovani:

“I mean with respect to these statistics, Johns Hopkins issued a study that showed that the fatality rate in St. Louis County was higher than the rate of death in the city of Saint Louis, higher than the state of Missouri, and higher than every other county around the St. Louis County region. So, this notion that somehow or other all of these restrictions were highly successful, I think, is not accurate.

The number of lives saved might be significant, but relative to the performance to other communities that were less restrictive, our fatality rate was no better. In fact, it was worse.

With respect to communicating with businesses, I think the county executive and the Health Department have to be more effective in working with the businesses in order to ascertain what kinds of efforts can be implemented in order to keep those businesses viable. You have to balance the economic implications with the health implications. They’re both relevant to making these kinds of decisions.”

Mantovani was not Page’s original opponent for the general election. Author and business consultant Katherine Pinner won the Republican primary in August over State Rep. Shamed Dogan, 56% to 44%. She withdrew her candidacy on Sept. 2 for personal reasons, just days after pledging to remain in the race.

Because Missouri has what’s known as a “sore loser law,” Dogan could not run in her place.

The St. Louis County Republican Central Committee announced that Mantovani would be their candidate on Sept. 12 following a closed-door vote during a meeting in Fenton. The following day, Mantovani filed his paperwork to switch party affiliation and run as a Republican.

A Republican has not held office as St. Louis County Executive since 1991.