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Eight compete to represent Democrats in Missouri lieutenant governor race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 17, 2012 - As the two major Republican candidates for lieutenant governor duke it out over the airwaves, Democrats are campaigning under the media radar for a chance to compete in November.

What used to be a sleepy contest has morphed into a free-for-all as eight candidates with varying degrees of political and professional experience seek the Democratic nomination.

The super-sized field includes former state Auditor Susan Montee, former state Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, state Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield, former state Rep. Fred Kratky, D-St. Louis, St. Louis School Board member Bill Haas, Conservation Commission member Becky Plattner, former state Rep. Jackie Townes McGee, D-Kansas City, and St. Joseph resident Dennis Weisenburger. 

None of the Democrats has come close to raising the amount of money that Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and state Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, have. For the most part, that's led to a campaign light on paid ads and heavy on face-to-face contact.

Still, candidates are putting forward ideas to bolster an office with relatively few responsibilities and make a case that they can go toe-to-toe with a potentially well-financed Republican opponent.

Softball-sized field

For a time, Montee was the only major candidate. She stepped down as Missouri Democratic Party chairwoman after she said she couldn’t find any other candidate to run against Missouri House Speaker Steve Tilley, the presumptve GOP nominee with a huge financial advantage.

But when Tilley dropped out the race, the Democratic field ballooned to seven more candidates. Montee quipped in a campaign e-mail earlier this year that there were nearly enough candidates to start up a traveling softball team. Still, she also touts a poll earlier this year showing her ahead of the other candidates.

"I welcome everyone to the democratic process. This is the way it’s meant to work," Montee said in a statement at the time. "I know that a crowded field benefits my candidacy. I was the front runner and favored to win this primary when there were two or three candidates. ... Having run statewide twice before, I have the highest name recognition and each new entry into the race further splinters the remaining votes."

The Democratic race has generally focused more on candidates meeting face-to-face with Democratic groups and activists. It’s unlikely that any candidate will have the money to launch a significant media blitz before the primary.

Montee believes that her tenure as auditor prepares her well for the office. Her experience auditing tax credit programs could be helpful as the lieutenant governor serves on several boards that award incentives, such as the Missouri Housing Development Commission and the Missouri Development Finance Board. 

She also said she is preparing for the general election cycle.

“It is not going to be an easy race in November and that’s part of my frustration with this,” Montee said. “The reason that we have so many people in (the race) is a sort of naiveté about what the general election is going to look like.”

“First off, you know that Peter Kinder, if he’s so damaged that he can’t get elected, then he’s not going to win the primary,” Montee added. “And if he does win the primary – even though Brad Lager’s spent $2 million against him – then he wasn’t all that damaged. That [Republicans are] willing to still vote for him and then he’s got a tremendous, tremendous name ID advantage.”

Baker, who worked in the health care industry before being elected to the Missouri House, had been the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House seat to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Columbia. She narrowly lost to Republican Blaine Luetkemeyer. In late 2009, Baker was appointed a regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ;That job oversaw the agency’s efforts in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska.

In a telephone interview, Baker stressed that her goals for the office included “pulling Missouri out from the bottom of every list,” especially in the realm of higher education and job creation. She also added she wants to use the lieutenant governor’s legislative role to form coalitions, even when it’s likely that the legislature will be controlled by Republicans.

She also supports integrating some boards and commissions involving the lieutenant governor, especially ones assisting the elderly, veterans and low-income housing.

“They shouldn’t work in silos,” Baker said. “Those are three things that should work together because they have similar issues. Veterans who are disabled need housing. Seniors need quality places to spend their later years that can articulate with the medical community. So I think there’s lot of opportunity for innovation if we have an integrated agenda.”

Baker added that she, too, has an eye to the general election, and her experience in a high-profile congressional campaign puts her in a good position.

“It feels really good on the ground, people have been incredibly responsive and kindhearted,” she said. “In places where I was known, I have shored up support and places where I was unknown we have made many new wonderful friends across the state.”

Both Montee and Baker say they are ready to take on the Republicans on the federal health-care law.

"I don't know if there was the kind of opposition to health care it seems like the Republican assumption is," said Montee. "I know that I have three children who are out of college but are under 26 who would not have health care right now if it wasn't for the Affordable Care Act."

Baker says, “My first question to my opponent in November is: What is your plan to cover the same group of people? Until we can put plans side by side, they shouldn’t be allowed to talk about it until they have a plan that we can evaluate. Because people still get sick and injured.”

Lampe has touted her role as the top Democratic in the budget-making process, as well as her desire to serve as an advocate for seniors, veterans and Democratic issues. She’s also banking on bringing in more outstate support during the general election cycle, especially in fast-growing southwest Missouri.

Unlike the Republican primary, Lampe said that the Democratic race has largely steered clear of negativity.

“There’s an attitude in our race where it’s not contentious, at least that’s what I think,” Lampe said. “We’re all just running a race and we’re going to see what the voters say and go from there. Some of that’s the personalities of the people who are in the race. We’re not mad at each other – at least I don’t think we are.”

Like other candidates in the race, Lampe sees both a promise and a challenge for Democrats who go up against either of the likely Republican nominees.

"There's that discontent with Kinder," Lampe said. "That was part of the power of getting into the race as a Democrat because of the in-party discontent with Kinder. But then you have Lager who's just one mean son of a gun. My gosh! Would Kinder be fun to run against? Certainly he would because he stepped on his own foot. But we're talking about everybody out-positioning each other on being the most conservative person. And then the just amount of money that Lager's willing to spend in this primary to get out of it. Yeah, I think it's worrisome."

Plattner is the only Democratic candidate who has run for lieutenant governor before. The Grand Pass native racked up 13 percent in the 2008 race for the statewide office. She served as presiding commissioner for Saline County before being appointed to a board overseeing the state’s Conservation Commission. She did return a phone call from the Beacon.

McGee - an attorney from the southeast Missouri town of Hayti - served as a state representative from the Kansas City area in the 1980s and 1990s. McGee - whose campaign is focusing on rebuilding urban and rural communities, supporting job training and improving the lives of children - said that she possesses the right skillset for the lieutenant governor's office.

"I decided to join the race because I thought the political process needed a fresh new face," McGee said. "And I have a demonstrated track record. I've worked in the community, I've worked in the legislature, I have the qualifications. And I know I could do a good job."

Weisenburger - a veteran, Eagle Scout and owner of a government surplus business - said in a phone interview that he feels he is qualified for the office.

"[I'll] look out for the elderly, the veterans, the handicapped," said Weisenburger, who added he is attending film school at Missouri Western University and working on a novel. "And I'd like to get into other areas too. I'd like to see quality control put on import merchindise that would give a lot of union workers a chance to compete with foreign countries."

Scrambled in St. Louis

With a sizable population of Democrats, St. Louis and St. Louis County are a big prize. Montee, Baker and Lampe have all tried to gain a foothold here, albeit in different ways.

Montee, for instance, won the support of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay,> who possesses a potent political organization. Both Baker and Montee have  endorsements from city wards, while Lampe has endorsements from a raft of state legislators in the St. Louis area. Baker may have some name recognition here from her congressional run, since that district extended into St. Charles County.

But Kratky and Haas complicate the picture. Kratky – who jumped back into politics after serving as the head of the St. Louis Board of Realtors – could find strength in south city where his wife Michelle Kratky is a Democratic state legislator. Kratky didn’t return messages from the Beacon.

Haas – who has run for several differnt offices over the years – could be a wildcard. In a telephone interview, Haas pointed to his success in three citywide runs for the St. Louis School Board.

Haas – who has made the welfare of the elderly, eliminating political corporate contributions and providing tax cuts to the elderly and middle class  his priorities – said he could surprise people if the major candidates split the vote. While other candidates have decided not to buy ads, Haas, who was running for Congress and briefly a state Senate seat before the lieutenant governor’s race, said he’s been bankrolling radio spots.

“I’ve always wanted to be contender,” said Haas, referencing the classic "On the Waterfront." “I wanted to be somebody who could make a difference because I believe I can.”

Regardless of who emerges from the Republican primary, Democrats could be facing some challenges in the general election. Even though George Connor, a political scientist at Missouri State University, said Democrats may have a better chance against Kinder, he also has more experience running statewide and a good record of raising money.

Lager could present an even bigger challenge, especially if his individual donors swamp the contributions Democrats get from traditional sources, such as trial attorneys or organized labor.  

Connor also said that the presidential race could be a challenge for Democrats, especially if President Barack Obama doesn’t invest time or effort into winning Missouri. And that could complicate things for other Democrats running for statewide office.

“Whoever wins the Republican primary for lieutenant governor is going to be at an advantage in a presidential election year,” Connor said. “The issue of coattails is going to come into play here."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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