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Koster goes public to recount personal challenge posed by his party switch

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May, 16, 2011 - Although news accounts usually mention it, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster rarely brings up anymore his 2007 switch in political parties. But on Sunday, he made an exception.

In a rare display of candor, Koster spoke in detail about the personal and professional toll of his decision to change political course, which he called "an explosive moment in my life."

His audience: about 150 graduates of the University of Missouri's School of Law, his alma mater (class of 1991).

Koster held up his experience -- and political survival -- as the type of personal and professional challenge facing many law-school graduates -- or any young adult -- as they seek to craft a career in a troubled economy.

Koster's credo to success: "Going 'all in.' "

Koster, 46, noted that he grew up in St. Louis (graduating from St. Louis University High School) in a very conservative household, headed by conservative Globe-Democrat newspaper columnist Rich Koster.

"My brother Patrick is named after Patrick Buchanan. Literally," Koster recalled Sunday, touching off chuckles from the crowd of graduates and their families. (Full disclosure: Mine was among them.)

Recounting his relatives' reaction to his party switch, Koster observed, "For my family, I actually think changing religions would have been less of a shock...Suffice it to say my poor mother is still recovering from my decision."

Koster skipped over the political reasons for his switch -- he had said at the time that the GOP had become too conservative on social issues -- to lay out instead the personal and professional costs.

Recounting his announcement on Aug. 1, 2007, Koster said, "From a media and political perspective, the day was a disaster."

He recalled the scorching 100-degree heat, made more memorable because all his news conferences across the state that day were held -- as planned -- outdoors.

At each stop, Koster said, "Partisans came out to jeer and intimidate and to watch me sweat."

He then weathered bipartisan denouncements, with prominent Republicans calling for him to resign from his state Senate seat. He declined but did quit his GOP leadership post. All told, said Koster, he was at the center of "a media swirl that lasted three days."

But he allowed that his self-esteem took the biggest hit on Day 4, a Saturday.

That day dawned with "quiet, deathly quiet," Koster recalled. "No telephone calls, no emails, no texts, no doorbells. Nothing, just silence. I was a candidate for attorney general, only now, suddenly as a Democrat. By all accounts, I had painted myself into a political and professional corner without precedent in state politics."

Even worse, on a personal level, he continued, "I didn't have one friend. ... I had no Republican friends. And for all practical purposes, I had no Democratic friends. The conventional wisdom was that 13 years into public office ... it all had just been thrown away. What had made it all the more bewildering: I had done it to myself and I did it purposefully."

"I had one year to rebuild," Koster said, noting that the day in question was Aug. 5, 2007 -- exactly a year before the 2008 Democratic primary.

That pivotal morning, he said, he began the process by picking up the telephone. By his count, he made more than 60 calls that day.

"I called neighborhood activists and legislators, businessmen and preachers," Koster said. "I prayed for anyone who'd even pick up the phone and talk to me."

"I committed to myself that as bad as things seemed, I would not take stock or feel sorry for myself for one year. I would work and fight and rebuild, no matter what it took."

Koster then touched on his initial campaign missteps and mistakes, as well as a key conversation five months later in an elevator with entrepreneur Mark Vittert.

Koster said he received encouragement from Vittert, an old friend (and conservative) who indicated that he recognized what Koster had yet to grasp: "I was doing what I believed in. I was 'all in.' "

Koster skipped over the details of his success a year later, when he narrowly won a combative three-way Democratic primary by 829 votes. That November, he won the general election and was sworn in as attorney general in January 2009.

His point, Koster explained, was that it's important to embrace "the willingness to put all the chips in the center of the table."

"Somehow," Koster concluded, "Flying without a net seems to foster flying."

The audience, by the way, included a particularly notable parent who was, from a political standpoint, a blast from Koster's past: David Cole, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party.