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Spence seeks to downplay his wealth by focusing on his past in latest TV spot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 21, 2012 - St. Louis County businessman Dave Spence, a Republican candidate for Missouri governor, may be using some of his own millions to finance his campaign – but he wants to the public to know that he didn’t start out in life with all that money.

That appears to be one of the aims of his new TV ad, his third,  which begins airing Wednesday. It opens with Spence standing on the middle-class street in Overland where he grew up.

The ad highlights his teen years “cutting grass, sweeping floors,’’ and his attendance at Ritenour High School.  (He graduated from Kirkwood High School.)

The ad doesn’t mention Spence’s recently announced list of legislative endorsements, Republican rival Bill Randles or the Democrat who is their chief target: Gov. Jay Nixon, who is seeking re-election.

The only issue that Spence’s new ad deals with is economics, and Spence’s chief portrayal of himself as a creator of “hundreds of jobs.” 

He bought Alpha Packaging, then  a small plastic-packaging business, in 1984 and sold most of the interest to a private equity firm in 2010. By then, Alpha had expanded to annual revenues of about $200 million, with 800 employees

Although it’s his third ad, this ad is more like the traditional first ad that a candidate often airs to introduce him or her to the public.

Even Nixon, who has been in public office more than 20 years,  has deployed feel-good biographical spots – notably one in 2008 that showed him driving around his home turf in Jefferson County, talking into the camera.

Such an ad is aimed at humanizing a candidate, and giving the viewer a sense of what makes that person tick.

"Our latest television ad really shows the Dave Spence that the people of Missouri are connecting with as he travels the state and meets them in person,” said campaign manager Jared Craighead.

“When Dave first announced his candidacy, people focused on the end result of his incredible success in business and creating jobs, but the real story that everyday people want to understand is how he got to where he is today. And that is a story of hard work, determination, and truly living the American Dream.

Biographical spots also tend to be the least controversial ads, unless a candidate of his campaign misrepresents something about their background. In this case, there's no mention of his time at Mizzou.

UPDATE: The Missouri Democratic Party has countered by bringing up another issue that's likely to be in any pro-Nixon ad attacking Spence: the $42 million in federal bailout money accepted in 2009 by Reliance Bancshares, which subsequently has deferred its repayments.

Spence joined the bank's board shortly after it took the money, and purchased $1.5 million in bank stock to help out. But he notes that he left the bank's board in 2011 soon after the bank declined to begin repayments, and says he did so in part to signal his objection.

But only Spence will likely be airing that explanation in any ad.

Caitlin Legacki, the Missouri Democratic Party's spokeswoman, asserted, "Dave Spence personally benefited from the $40 million bailout his bank got from Washington, which still hasn't been repaid to the taxpayers, and now Spence thinks he can use his money to convince Missourians that he's just a another regular guy? Good luck with that."

Democrats also question Spence's explanation about his departure from the board, because the bank's federal SEC filings state that no disagreements were involved in Spence's decision.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.