Hartmann: Sam Page Is All Talk on Race

With friends like St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, the Black community in the county doesn’t need enemies.

That was hinted from the moment on April 29, 2019, that Page steamrolled any consideration of selecting then-Councilwoman Hazel Erby as acting county executive after she expressed interest in the post. Erby, an African American woman, had by far the most seniority (fifteen years) and the best temperament to replace Steve Stenger, who was about to get escorted out of town by men talking into their sleeves.

Erby was someone who could settle everyone down in the frazzled county government. Owing to health issues, she had no interest in seeking reelection in 2020. She was the perfect choice, so much so that council Chairman Page made like Politburo Chairman Page in an emergency meeting for the non-emergency purpose of getting himself elected as interim replacement to Stenger.

Lest this appear as hindsight, here’s what I said three days later on Donnybrook:

“First of all, we ought to wish Sam Page well. But I think the way this went down this week was disrespectful to Hazel Erby. She had a bunch of folks there. There were some draft-Mantovani people there. The Democrats on the council had a process that, even if they were going to (decide) in the end that Page was going to be county executive — which is fine — they really disrespected the people who showed up for the meeting. They wouldn’t even let them speak. This was a really clumsy start.”

Page fancies himself as an anesthesiologist who dabbles in politics. He’s quite the opposite. Page instantly removed Erby as a political thorn by giving her a $121,000 post as his officer for diversity and inclusion. I don’t blame Erby for taking the post: It was a nice paycheck, and I’m told she figured she could accomplish more as a guard rail for minority contracts within the administration than outside on the council. She chose not to talk for this column.

In hiring Erby, Page lavished praise on the woman he found so unsuitable for the role of county executive that he couldn’t abide citizens speaking on her behalf. Page gave new meaning to the phrase that aptly summarizes his approach to people of color: Talk is cheap.

On policing, on minority hiring, on health care, on inclusion and most significantly, on the one thing white leaders in St. Louis seldom allow Black people to possess — actual power — Sam Page is what the country folk call “all hat, no cattle.” He talks a good game on race relations, and his heart is in the right place. By no means am I implying he’s a racist. Let me emphatically state that I can’t imagine the ugly term applies to him. Page is just another well-intended white moderate politician playing the game.

When the initial COVID-19 outbreak caused an emergency need for a makeshift county morgue, the Page administration reacted (silently) as it had with the Stenger emergency: Step back, this is a job for a white person. As has happened more than once, Erby was ignored and bypassed in the process, and so were minority contractors, who found themselves all but frozen out of nearly $1.7 million in contracts for a county morgue.

As with the erstwhile Erby supporters, Black business owners were seen but not heard as they carried protest signs in front of Page’s office. That said, it’s certain the county executive would welcome the opportunity to meet with them to discuss opportunity anytime in the future.

Page does have a number of Black staffers around him, but only one true department head out of many. He says all the right things white people have learned to say these days about racial justice. The hip phrase of the moment is “systemic racism,” proudly intoned by white politicians with no sense of self-awareness that their traditional approach to the Black community — transactional politics — is precisely that.

Sometimes, though, racial disparity is manifested by omission or waiting to act until rage makes headlines. Page was nothing short of eloquent as to the need for COVID-19 testing and medical care in underserved communities of color in north St. Louis County. Unfortunately, he found that voice a full month after health officials, religious leaders and other community activists had been screaming for action.

The elephant in the room, however, is policing. Page inherited a dispirited police department that needed new leadership, having been torn by little-reported racial divisions and the widely reported debacle of having paid out a staggering $11.5 million settlement to Sgt. Keith Wildhaber for having discriminated against him for being gay.

Without reliving that $11.5 million nightmare here, suffice it to say that Page’s most important task was replacing toasted Chief Jon Belmar with new leadership. Page took a step forward by appointing four new members to the five-member St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners. Apparently, though, he took a giant leap backward by choosing a board that — for whatever reason — wasn’t up to the task.

The board passed over Lt. Col. Troy Doyle, the overwhelming favorite for the position in terms of both the sentiments and expectations of rank-and-file police officers, Black and white. Doyle, who is Black, is widely respected as the one man dispatched — by chiefs and county executives alike — to put out major fires such as the takeover of Jennings’ police department, revamping an array of north county districts and correcting awful problems at the county jail, some of which happened, and were hidden a bit, on Page’s watch. The tragedies at the jail were a matter of much concern to Black leaders and activists, by the way.

Instead of Doyle, Page’s board chose Chief Mary Barton, ranked lower as captain and empirically less qualified than he. She’s a seasoned and intelligent officer to be sure, and her selection as the county’s first female chief was historic, albeit not so much, it turns out, a triumph for feminism. I’m planning to write about that at a later date.

In any event, one never gets a second chance to make a first impression, and when Barton’s debut on the public stage featured the eye-popping assertion that systemic racism wasn’t a thing in the county police department, it even left Page’s most loyal supporters — including county Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy — wondering aloud if Barton was up to the job.

But here’s the bottom line: Sam Page owns Barton’s selection, full stop. He chose the board who chose her. No police chief in modern history has been chosen over the objections of the sitting county executive. There’s no reason to believe this was a first. Undeterred by that, Page — donning a costume of racial-justice warrior — had the chutzpah to announce a “top-to-bottom review” of the police department, something he’s not even authorized to do, an annoying detail pointed out by Councilman Tim Fitch, himself a former police chief. This display of audacity by Page traveled light years beyond “talk is cheap.”

It doesn’t take a police detective to assess Page’s motives: With the ink not dry on his absurd order (or whatever it was) to clean up his own mess, he released a 30-second campaign commercial congratulating himself for this great moment in civil rights.

In the same campaign commercial, Page claims he “led the effort for police reforms for body cameras.” In fact, that “effort” was enacted by voters in April 2017, when they enacted Proposition P adding a half-cent sales tax for increased police spending. There is no written record I can find of Page doing any such thing: His district included part of Chesterfield, one of the few cities actively opposed to Proposition P. At best, he kept his head down.

That’s just a detail, but a telling one. Page can make any argument he wants for getting elected August 4 — the Democratic primary that effectively determines the outcome — but when it comes to his record regarding people of color, the less his campaign says, the better. The facts are not on his side, and it’s too late to invent them.

Page should shelve the lying campaign commercial. At least it would be a gesture of something he hasn’t really done for the Black community: Show it respect.