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Lembke's choice of Randles in GOP race for governor attracts Democratic attention

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 6, 2012 - Even as he prepares for a likely – and, until recently, unexpected -- tough election battle this fall, state Sen. Jim Lembke is still willing to shake things up within his own Republican Party.

And that includes splitting ranks over whom the party should back for governor.

Lembke, R-Lemay, was already a lightning rod when he recently endorsed Kansas City lawyer and minister Bill Randles for governor, instead of Kirkwood businessman Dave Spence.

The two are among the best-known GOP contenders competing in August for a chance to unseat Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat

Lembke’s support for Randles has prompted questions about whether GOP conservatives would back Spence – buzz that began before the latest round of bad publicity over Spence’s activities during his stint on the board of Reliance Bancshares.

Lembke told the Beacon that his support for Randles shouldn’t be interpreted as anti-Spence. “I’ve met both of the gentlemen,’’ Lembke said. “They’re both fine candidates.”

His decision to back Randles, Lembke continued, reflected that “we align on issues and the proper role of government.”

Randles, he said, “is very constitutional in his thinking.”

Lembke emphasized that he was speaking for himself, not all fellow conservatives.

Lembke added that both Spence and Randles share another characteristic arguably in their favor. “They both come to the equation without any background in state government,’’ the state senator said. “Some see it as a good thing.”

Lembke does have a background in state government.  He was in the state House for six years before he got elected to the state Senate in 2008, becoming one of the region’s few surprise Republican victories in what generally was a strong Democratic year.

Lembke’s 1st District already leaned Democratic back then, and he defeated Democrat Joan Barry by only 70 votes.

Now, thanks to the redrawn state Senate districts, the 1st District at stake in the November election will be much more Democratic. That is why several Democrats are vying in August for the right to challenge Lembke in the fall.

Lembke -- unhappy with the new boundary lines -- upset his party leaders by publicly toying with the idea of challenging a fellow Republican, state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, in the soon-to-be even more Republican 15th District.

But Lembke ended up filing for re-election in the 1st, after getting assurances from Republican leaders that they’ll make his re-election a priority. Lembke says he’s been told that the GOP will send adequate resources his way.

He may need the help. Missouri Democratic Party chairman Mike Sanders has filed an ethics complaint against Lembke, in connection with a probe by KSDK-TV (Channel 5) that asserted Lembke had failed to report some meals, lodging and travel expenses provided by lobbyists.

Sanders has told reporters that the violations are “very serious stuff.“

Lembke maintains that he did report all lodging and travel, but that there is “ambiguity in the law” regarding how to report meals and “incidentals’’ such as cab rides.

He said he filed amended reports with the state Ethics Commission on any omissions that “were brought to my attention.”

In any case, Lembke contends that Democratic scrutiny reflects the party’s belief that he’s vulnerable, given the new 1st District’s Democratic leanings. “This is probably the Democrats’ No. 1 target in the state,’’ he said.

Spence might disagree with that.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.