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.
Mid Rivers 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 Mid Rivers 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 10-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 Mid Rivers 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.
On the Campaign Trail, Part II
In anticipation of the upcoming general election, gubernatorial challengers running as Libertarian, Green and Independent candidates were asked:
• What will you do to provide a strong economic future for Missouri, and specifically the residents of your district?
• Other than the economy, what do you view as the three most important issues facing local residents and what will you do to address these concerns?
• What are your qualifications for holding public office?
Don Fitz, Ph.D., Green Party
Q. 1: A strong economy means jobs, which requires a 35-hour work week. Rebuild impoverished rural communities and the urban core with green jobs. To allow full-timers to work part-time if they choose, we must begin Medicare for all and expand Social Security benefits. Missouri schools must serve locally grown food prepared in school cafeterias that is free of herbicides, pesticides and GMOs. This creates work for organic farmers and cafeteria staff. As prison, dirty energy and health insurance jobs are reduced, those workers must receive new jobs at equal pay. De-privatization means rehiring state workers whose jobs have been outsourced.
Q. 2: Education: High school students must spend no more than one day per year on standardized tests. All K-12 students need at least one hour of activity per day. We must reverse the trend of turning over public schools to for-profit entities. All school boards must be under local control – abolish state-appointed boards. Missouri should re-institute a desegregation program. All schools must offer music and art and high schools must offer vocational training. Environment: Missouri needs clean air and water standards stricter than federal guidelines. Replace dangerous nuclear and fossil fuel power with wind and solar. Repeal the so-called “Right to Farm” amendment which favors “Big Ag” over family farmers. Climate: Climate change is the greatest threat to human survival. We must reduce the total amount of energy used. New commercial and residential construction in zoned areas should meet zero-energy standards for heating and cooling while maintaining standards for indoor air quality. As governor, I will establish a commission on climate change that will include economists, earth scientists, social justice and environmental activists, and union, civil rights and community leaders to devise a plan for rapid decrease in fossil fuels usage with no loss in the quality of life or jobs.
Q. 3: I put no ads on TV attacking other candidates. I’ve been a leader in complex organizations, managed staff and budgets and I know how to get things done inside and outside of politics. When University City politicos seemed determined to destroy historic buildings, my wife and I coordinated a ballot effort that won with 69 percentof the vote and stopped them. Currently, I produce Green Time TV with KNLC [noon Saturdays, Channel 24] and am on the editorial board of the national journal Green Social Thought. For 50 years, I have organized anti-war, anti-racism and pro-environmental education programs and actions.
Lester “Les” Turilli • Independent
Q. 1: I have created jobs in Missouri for decades. I uniquely understand production, consumption and industry decision-making. Missouri’s greatest asset is her people. I will promote our strong work-ethic, central location for distribution, low-cost of living and low-energy costs to draw firms here. I also plan to: Foster start-up businesses with colleges and/or existing businesses to ensure success; fit education to career specificity for productivity, begin road/bridge repair to boost job creation; market Missouri to increase tourism, fully fund schools to hire more teachers; reduce restrictions on small business.
Q. 2: Leadership: Missouri lacks strong leadership and is a divided state on many fronts. The incidents in Ferguson and Mizzou tainted our state’s reputation globally. Likewise, the situations here fueled similar dangerous activity in other parts of our nation. This was both an embarrassment and a danger. Of all the candidates, I have the most involvement with media [25 years] and know how to formulate affirmative public perception without allowing television news to do it. I will use my wisdom, patience and experience to help maintain a positive reputation for our state as I have done for my companies despite difficult and devastating situations. I will do my part to help Missourians feel safe [without fear], hopeful and proud of their state. Families: I will strengthen Missouri families through job security and creation. In addition, I will inspire men to be committed to their wives, actively involved in their children’s lives and exhibitors of strong work-ethic. I will encourage the Church to be active in our communities by involving families to help families. Education: My wife is a teacher, so I understand that our teachers need our complete support. I will invest in our students, teachers and schools by fully funding them.
Q. 3: The governor is a leader over the executive branch and has authority over budgeting, appointments, and managing thousands of employees. I am the only candidate with this exact experience. As the fourth generation in my family business, Meramec Caverns, I have led as an executive for 25 years. I have proven skills in economics, budgeting, job creation, and managing a few thousand employees. I am a strong voice for family and Pro-Life values. My campaign has taken “zero” special interests dollars and has produced “zero” negative TV advertisements. My heart’s desire is to serve God and the people with integrity.
Cisse W. Spragins • Libertarian
Candidate did not reply.