When Missouri voters go to the polls on Nov. 8, they’ll have five gubernatorial candidates from which to choose. But polls put the top contenders as the candidates from the state’s major parties. Those candidates – Republican Eric Greitens and Democrat Chris Koster – have stated positions on major issues and defined themselves in ways that provide distinct differences.
West Newsmagazine has talked with both men and heard their presentations on the campaign trail.
On television, radio and social media, there has been a daily bombardment of promises, claims and accusations fueled by unfettered contributions to both candidates. As of the latest Missouri Ethics Commission report, that giving had soared past the $30 million mark. Despite Greitens’ recent receipt of a $1.9 million contribution from the super PAC SEALs for Truth, the largest single amount in Missouri history, Koster still held a commanding lead in the campaign money race at presstime.
Right to work
One of issues on which the candidates hold diametrically opposed views is right-to-work, the concept that a person can’t be forced to join a union or pay union dues in order to hold a job. Greitens unequivocally states he will sign right-to-work legislation if he is elected governor and that the state will be “a better and easier place to do business.”
Asked by a supporter how to respond to union friends’ fear of lower pay if right-to-work becomes reality, Greitens suggested telling them to call fellow union members in Indiana and Michigan and ask about the increase in job numbers and higher wages in those right-to-work states.
Koster is equally blunt.
“When I talk with people working in your grocery stores in West County stocking shelves and making $11 bucks an hour because they have collective bargaining, they tell me it’s hard enough to put food on their table at $11 bucks an hour and that they are pretty sure it would be harder to do it at $5.50 an hour if we erode those collective bargaining rights. I guess that sums it up about as well as I can,” Koster told West Newsmagazine.
Backgrounds in service
Greitens clearly is proud of his service as a Navy SEAL and being “an outsider” who would come to the governor’s office with a goal to “clean up Jefferson City.” His other priorities he said include job growth, higher pay, safer streets and better schools.
On the campaign trail, he describes growing up in Missouri with a mother whose teaching career included working with young children with special needs and a father who worked for the state’s department of agriculture. He said that experience left him with an understanding of agriculture’s importance and a belief that “every child in Missouri deserves a fair shot at the American dream.”
He credits his public school teachers and coaches with giving him the credentials for a scholarship to Duke University where he received “a great education both in and outside the classroom.” His college years included working with Bosnian children and other refugees during the 1990s crisis period in the Balkans. He later had similar experiences in Rwanda, Cambodia and India – experiences that included seeing how local leaders could emerge and have a positive impact.
“When you have leaders with humility, compassion and courage, and who are willing to step forward and ask other people to join them, what I found was that you could save lives and change lives,” Greitens said during a campaign stop in Des Peres. He said those observations shaped his own leadership philosophy.
His years at Duke wound up earning him both Truman and Rhodes Scholar status. After his graduate studies at the University of Oxford, he opted to join the Navy for a chance to become a SEAL. He explained that a major influence on that decision was the military service of both his grandfathers in World War II.
During his years as a SEAL, Greitens was deployed to Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa and Iraq, earning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart during those assignments.
After returning home from military service, he said he observed how returning veterans often are treated by their government and didn’t like what he saw. Instead of being encouraged to become productive citizens, servicemen and women too often are told to apply for total disability benefits when they are still able to function, Greitens said. Or they repeatedly are given prescription pain medications to which they become addicted, often leading to dependence on other drugs and/or alcohol.
“All the incentives are aligned in the wrong direction,” Greitens said, adding that his observations were the basis for his forming the St. Louis-based organization The Mission Continues.
TMC’s approach is to encourage veterans to participate in community projects, serving others as a way to regain their strength and rebuild their personal relationships and sense of purpose.
The concept struck a responsive chord both with veterans and with businesses and organizations that wanted to help the effort. The result is that TMC now has operations from coast to coast.
Greitens stepped down from TMC’s helm in 2014 and, a year later, announced formation of an exploratory committee to consider his candidacy for governor.
Koster, meanwhile, speaks proudly of his more than two decades in public office, including service as prosecuting attorney of Cass County for 10 years and election to the Missouri Senate in 2004 as a Republican.
In 2007, he shook the political landscape by announcing he was leaving the Republican Party to become a Democrat, citing long-standing differences with the GOP’s right wing on a number of issues. A newspaper report about the switch quoted Koster as saying, “Today, Republican moderates are all but extinct.”
The next year, wearing his new label as a Democrat, he waged a successful campaign for the office of Missouri’s attorney general and was re-elected in 2012.
Koster views having strong relationships across the political spectrum as an important asset of which he wants voters to be aware.
“I guess I’m the only person who for 14 years was a leader in the Republican Party and for the past nine years has had a leadership role in the Democratic Party,” Koster said. “My personal background is unique in understanding both political parties and the opportunities to bring people together around ideas that will move the state forward.
“I think I bring a substantially greater understanding of what government does and where its strengths and weaknesses are than my opponent.”
Koster speaks out for education – calling for changes in the foundation formula to restore full funding for public schools, broadened access for early childhood education and a return to pre-recession levels of financial support to the state’s universities.
His key issues list also includes steps to promote economic growth, supporting law enforcement while building community trust and ethics reforms in the political process.
Greitens said he, too, is troubled by what he sees in the state’s handling of education. The gap between the overall funding allocated for educational purposes and the amount that finally makes it to teachers and the classroom is too great, he maintains.
While their political differences are sharp and numerous, Koster and Greitens share more than just a similar concern about education in the state.
Despite a ten-year age difference [Koster is 52, Greitens is 42], both exude a youthful appearance and energy that appeal to many voters.
They also share a belief in protecting the Second Amendment – the right of Americans to keep and bear arms. That’s not surprising for former SEAL Greitens, who notes his NRA membership. A commercial early in his campaign shows him firing an assault rifle and blowing up stuff at what appears to be an outdoor shooting range. But what may be surprising is that Koster has received the NRA’s endorsement in the gubernatorial race. He readily acknowledges that Missouri is “a very gun-friendly state and that he differs with fellow Democrat Gov. Jay Nixon on his veto of concealed carry legislation, which the legislature subsequently overrode. “I would not have vetoed the measure to begin with,” Koster told West Newsmagazine.
Both men are divorced. Koster remains single, but, in 2011, Greitens married Sheena Chestnut, who holds a doctorate from Harvard and is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri. The couple has two young sons.
The two candidates also share a belief in ethics reform, although they differ on the specifics. Greitens wants to ban lobbyists’ gifts to legislators while Koster talks about policies in his own office that forbid his accepting gifts from registered lobbyists. Campaign contributions from anyone associated with pending or recently resolved litigation with the attorney general’s office also are prohibited.
Greitens endorses rigorous term limits and calls for closing the revolving door that enables legislators to become lobbyists as soon as they leave office. Koster has reservations on term limits.
“The challenge is that most legislators simply don’t have the expertise to really understand the full breadth of the government,” Koster said, noting that the average tenure for Missouri House members is about three years. People, he said, then are frustrated by what that lack of knowledge brings in the form of inadequate handling of important issues. “Somebody has to understand the government.
“To think we are all going to feel better if we fill all the positions in government with rookies is – well, I just can’t believe that is the way forward.”
A personal and bitter campaign
Greitens has repeatedly described Koster as “a crooked, career politician.” Among other things, the GOP candidate cites a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times article pointing to several attorneys general nationwide in what the publication suggested were conflicts of interest. Koster was one of those identified in the piece, but he defends his office’s handling of the issue – a case involving 5-Hour Energy – by saying that Republican leaders who investigated the matter concluded that he made the right decision in not joining other states that wanted to take action against the popular drink. The small number of states that did pursue the matter lost their case, Koster asserted. He also emphasized subsequent steps to implement the earlier-described conflict-of-interest policies in his office.
Citing his opponent’s lack of experience in government, Koster has pointed out the governor’s job is not an entry-level position and that anyone coming into that office should not require “training wheels.”
Asked about his position on the upcoming Missouri ballot initiative to limit campaign contributions, Greitens appeared to dodge a direct answer by saying his three priorities for righting the problems in Jefferson City are the “most basic, important steps.” As for campaign finances, he only said, “I absolutely support transparency.”
The Koster campaign responded by charging that Greitens has failed the transparency test by not releasing his income tax returns and receiving huge “dark money” campaign contributions from unnamed sources.
Obamacare, transportation and voter IDs
Greitens is no fan of Obamacare and other federal intrusions on Missouri decision-making, a stance that drew applause at Des Peres and Ballwin campaign stops. On the other hand, Koster maintains Medicaid expansion is one the state’s biggest economic development opportunities and that the move will provide healthcare coverage to many more in the state, create good-paying jobs and inject billions of dollars into the economy.
On the issue of the state’s transportation infrastructure needs, Koster believes a solution is closer to reality than what is now generally perceived. If elected, he pledged to sit down with Republican leaders to hammer out a bipartisan funding solution.
Greitens agreed that transportation needs, including port facilities, exist, but said Missourians question whether existing funds are being used to the state’s best advantage. He called for performance criteria in the Missouri Department of Transportation and other state agencies to measure how well those agencies are operating.
On the voter initiative front, Koster said, “I have a high degree of confidence [it] is going to pass… and I will work hard to uphold that law.”
With all the campaign claims, counter-claims and promises, the ultimate challenge for voters on Nov. 8 will be separating fact from the half-truths, innuendo and emotional appeals that crowd the current political scene.