Jake Zimmerman announces he is running for St. Louis County executive

CLAYTON — St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman said Tuesday he is running for county executive in 2020, pointing to an “urgent need for reform in county government.”

Zimmerman, 45, a lawyer who has served as assessor since 2011, said he appreciated the job fellow Democrat Sam Page has done since the County Council selected him to succeed Steve Stenger, exactly six months ago, in the wake of a federal pay-to-play indictment. But he said voters deserved a choice.

“The County Council made their choice, and I think under the circumstances, they may have made a good one, but now it’s time for the people to have their say, and that’s what elections are for,” Zimmerman said in an interview on Tuesday. He questioned about whether from Page “we’ve seen real vision or whether we’ve seen squabbling with other regional leaders and squabbling over our small slices of the pie. I think we can do better than that.”

Page, 54, an anesthesiologist, put his practice on hold after abruptly assuming the executive job. From the moment he took office, he has pushed efforts to reform county government, starting with renegotiating a lease for office space at the former Northwest Plaza in St. Ann that Stenger signed with developers who had donated $365,000 to his political campaign. Page has also ushered in protections for whistleblowers and limited the ability of vendors to contact county officials during the procurement process.

Richard Callow, his campaign director, said Page would have a formal announcement in November that he is also seeking election as county executive.

“It’s still early days, but if the race turns out to be only Page and Zimmerman, the campaign will be an interesting one,” Callow said in a statement. “Doctors and lawyers just think about problems differently. And the jobs of county executive and tax assessor are different. I think voters are going to be paying close attention to the difference between accomplishments and promises.”

The race could also include Mark Mantovani, 65, the businessman who narrowly lost to Stenger in the August 2018 primary. He told supporters in an email in August that “my local profile affords me the opportunity to be patient and reassess the quality of our interim leadership and our regional situation before deciding.”

In an interview on Oct. 1, he told the Post-Dispatch that “I don’t think I have to make a decision immediately” on whether to run again. Mantovani will have a busy 2020 as one of Page’s appointees to the Board of Freeholders, which will study potential changes to the setup of city and county government.

Ken Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University who tracks local politics, noted the race has a much different look in 2018, when Mantovani ads — correctly — accused Stenger of corruption.

“The pros for Zimmerman are that he’s considered honest,” he said. “He doesn’t have anyone attacking him for dishonesty, nor are people attacking Page for that, so we can move beyond Stenger.”

He noted that both Zimmerman and Page have high recognition and “no serious problems in their past. They are both well known and pretty well respected by county people.” And he said the Democratic nominee would be likely to win the general election in November.

Warren said Zimmerman “is going to have a hard time beating … what political scientists call a quasi-incumbent.” And he could be hurt because some voters will recognize his name from a reassessment process that saw the median home value grow by 15%.

Zimmerman said he had a track record of honest and accountable leadership and said he planned to take a “listening tour” of St. Louis County soon. “We need to hear from the people of this community, listen to what they want and rebuild trust in a government that we can all be proud of.”

The winner of the election in November 2020 will serve the final two years of Stenger’s term, ending in 2022.

Zimmerman said he had stood up to Stenger by resisting efforts to move some of his staff to Northwest Plaza. Among his achievements, Zimmerman said that he protected taxpayers by opposing casinos seeking tax cutssuccessfully fought for high-end retirement facilities to pay property taxes after they had claimed exemptions as nonprofits, and got airplane owners to declare valuable taxable personal property. And, he said, he ended the practice of drive-by assessments.

Zimmerman is a St. Louis County native who lives in Olivette. He represented the 83rd District in the Missouri House of Representatives for four years before being elected assessor in 2011. He previously served as deputy chief counsel to former Gov. Bob Holden and assistant attorney general under Gov. Jay Nixon.

Zimmerman’s campaign had about $503,000 on hand as of Oct. 15, versus $37,000 for Page and $5,100 for a political action committee set up by Page’s supporters.