Steve Ehlmann, at age 67, cites Theodore Roosevelt who was asked when he was 65 why he wanted to go on a trip up the Amazon River. “He said ‘One last adventure before I take to the rocking chair,’” Ehlmann said with a laugh.
Ehlmann was responding to a question about why he was seeking a third, four-year term as the St. Charles County Executive.
Ehlmann has had an extensive career during which he has been elected to all three branches of government. Along with being elected as the county’s second county executive [following Joe Ortwerth] in November 2006, he has served as a state representative, state senator, an associate circuit judge, a circuit judge and as the county’s director of administration.
FYI, the trip up the Amazon didn’t go well for Roosevelt. Ehlmann’s hoping for better results for his “last adventure.” He had no opposition in the August party primary. That’s not the case in the general election.
Ehlmann said he’s not taking anything for granted when it comes to running for re-election this time. “I’m working as hard on this campaign, probably harder, than any other in the past,” Ehlmann said. “I’m still a little sore from being out four hours yesterday putting up signs.
“I’m going to try to lead this county for four more years and try to keep us on the right track and maybe do some things to get the [St. Louis] region on the right track.”
Lorna Frahm has other plans, and her journey to becoming the Democratic candidate for county executive was a bit different. Frahm, 58, has not held elective office. She has been in private practice since 2001 while also serving as prosecuting attorney for the city of St. Peters since 2007.
She has held positions with Thompson-Mitchell law firm, which became Thompson Colburn; Mercantile Bank; St. Charles County Fire and Rescue; and Dardenne Prairie
She and a group of women began attending government meetings, including those of the St. Charles County Council, after the 2016 elections. They were “just observing” what was going on. “When I went to the county council meeting and I saw seven white men and I said, ‘Wow! This is eye-opening,’” she said.
She began trying to recruit women to run for county council but couldn’t find anyone to run for county executive. She waited until the last day of filing to see if anyone in either party would file. Then, she threw her name into the hat.
“This is such an important position; it almost devalues it if nobody wants to run,” Frahm said.
Her decision to file was prompted by a passage she read in an updated edition of “Crossroads, A History of St. Charles County,” a book that Ehlmann wrote. In it, he noted that the median family income of St. Charles County residents of exceeded St. Louis County’s median family income for the first time in 2000 and reached $81,000.
“I’m a big believer in regionalism, a very big believer. If he thinks that’s going to make the people in St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis think more highly of us, I don’t think that’s going to work,” Frahm said. She said she doesn’t like the tone of Ehlmann’s comments about St. Charles, saying they are “braggadocios.”
So she filed.
“I no more got back from filing when he [Ehlmann] was on my cellphone asking, ‘Are you running against me?’ and I said, ‘I’m running for the position; I’m not running against you.’
“Steve’s been a good steward of that party [the Republican Party]. He’s a gentleman. I can guarantee you that this race is not getting ugly at all, “ Frahm said. “I respect him and he respects me.”
Civility doesn’t mean they agree on a lot of other things.
For Ehlmann, it’s schools and crime
Ehlmann lists the county’s low crime and its ongoing efforts to improve infrastructure and roads among accomplishments that also include the continuing development of the county’s park system.
But another accomplishment is in a continuing model of government that Elhmann says has roots that go back to Joe Orwerth and emulates the good things established by St. Louis County government in the 1970s and 1980s.
“I’ve been telling people for 12 years now that when I look out the window and see St. Louis County, I want to duplicate their successes and avoid their failures,” Ehlmann said.
Two of those successes go back to the form of government established by Republican St. Louis county executives Lawrence Roos and Gene McNary and continued by Democrat Buzz Westfall – that of establishing a “professional government” and getting rid of the patronage that’s found in the city of St. Louis, Ehlmann said.
“When I took it over [St. Charles County government], it was in really good shape, and I think we’ve made it better,” he said.
One example is the county’s park system. St. Charles County has been working on developing its park system for the last 20 years, Ehlmann said. For now, the emphasis may be on finding more park locations rather than development.
Ehlmann also has been instrumental in improving the county’s roads. He sees the county continuing to play a role in transportation planning. His major concern is correcting a situation where a railroad overpass in Wentzville is impeding the widening of Interstate 70 and is causing traffic bottlenecks that may hurt economic development throughout the region because the bottlenecks may slow the movement of goods.
“If you want to go west to Columbia or Kansas City, you’ve got to go under the railroad track on a two-lane road – 2.8 million people. Are we the Gateway to the West or what?” Still, he said people have been moving to the county even when it had lousy roads.
He noted that the county has “spent zero on advertising to recruit people to move here.”
People move to St. Charles County because the county has good schools and safe neighborhoods, as opposed to ones that have been on the decline in some areas such as north St. Louis County, he said. Protecting those assets is important to Ehlmann. That’s why 64 percent of the county’s budget goes to address public safety issues through funding the county police department, juvenile courts, prosecuting attorney’s office and other law enforcement expenses, he said. He would recommend spending more if needed.
Crime in St. Louis City and County is “giving the whole region a bad name and discouraging economic development,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time when we are going to feel the impact of that out here. It’s a public safety issue and an economic development issue.”
Crime is one regional issue that concerns Ehlmann. “[There are] all kinds of areas of cooperation, they’re just not sexy and they don’t get your attention,’’ particularly through the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the regional planning agency that includes the chief elected officials throughout the bi-state region, he said.
Population shifts have changed the makeup of the region but not always people’s opinions. People who understand the economics of the region know this, Ehlmann said. “In the city of St. Louis, they still haven’t accepted they’ve gone from 800,000 to 200,000 people,” he added.
Given its continued growth in the region, Ehlmann said the county is trying to get its fair share. Earlier this year, Ehlmann said he felt St. Louis officials hadn’t seriously considered St. Charles County in a proposal to attract a second Amazon facility to the area. “We want to be at the table,” he said.
For Frahm, it’s regional cooperation and diversity
Frahm said she’s lived in St. Charles County since 1985 but grew up in the cities of St. Louis and Cool Valley in North St. Louis County. There were perceptions about St. Charles County that went back to the 1980s when much of the county was rural that aren’t true today.
“When I moved, my sister cried [and] said, ‘The next thing you know you will have a pickup truck,’” Frahm said. “Well, my husband is on his second Ford F-150, so she was kind of prophetic about that but she’s borrowed it [the truck] a number of times and she’s from University City.” Frahm’s husband, Craig, is a member of the county’s planning and zoning commission.
Frahm said her experience as a prosecutor might put her in touch with sectors of the county population with which Ehlmann may be less attuned. Despite its prosperity, the county has similar problems as other parts of the region, she said.
“I’ve seen a part of the county that I just don’t think Steve sees and doesn’t appreciate,” Frahm said. “These are people who earn $10 an hour.”
County economic development efforts should stress attracting jobs that pay a “livable wage,” she said.
Frahm favors the county working toward developing “intra-county transportation” that addresses the needs of elderly, disabled and uninsured residents. She also favors a workforce transportation system that may create public and private partnerships to help workers commute. The county has put its transportation funding into roads and bridges.
Along with St. Charles Mayor Sally Faith and Greg Prestemon, president and CEO for the St. Charles County Economic Council, Frahm is one of the five members of the St. Charles County Transportation Authority. “We haven’t met in five years,” she said. The appointments have all lapsed.
“I want to build relations with St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and misguided St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger,” Frahm said. “Maybe I’m not going to be really popular as a county executive but if I can make the whole region better or work toward it – I can’t do it by myself – but what a great thing. I would really hope to be able to do that,” Frahm said.
Frahm said there are regional issues where more cooperation and a regional approach could help everyone, such as dealing with opioid addiction.
She also would like to support regional arts and cultural events, although she concedes that county residents don’t want to support [those objectives] with tax dollars.
Frahm worries about the possible cleanup of the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, which is just across the Missouri River from the city of St. Charles. “If it ever caught on fire, those embers are not going to know they aren’t supposed to cross the river into St. Charles City.”
Working with county boards and commissions is a priority. She says getting along and working with Republican councilmembers and state representatives and Democrats if they are elected will be a task. But it’s one she is willing to take on.