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Lager and Kinder spar in hot radio debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 30, 2012 - The two main participants in the GOP primary for lieutenant governor sparred over the radio airwaves over outside business interests, failure to break tie votes in the Missouri Senate and the appropriate use of traveling expenses.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and state Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, took part in a radio debate Mondayon KCUR’s “Up to Date,” a public affairs show hosted by Kansas City Star political reporter Steve Kraske. The debate on the Kansas City station comes amidst an increasingly nasty and expensive contest between the two for a statewide office with few defined powers.

The debate started off relatively civil. Kinder emphasized what he deemed his accomplishments: supporting socially conservative causes such as opposition to gun control and abortion as well as programs assisting the elderly. Lager talked about his desire to use the office's slots on boards and commissions to make life easier for Missouri businesses.

The two also emphasized their opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Kinder once again noted his role in a lawsuit to overturn the federal health-care act, while Lager pointed to his call for a special session to opt out of the measure's potential Medicaid expansion. He even said that “what Gov. Jay Nixon is doing to this state is nothing short of criminal,” clarifying later that he was talking about the Democratic chief executive’s failure to oppose President Barack Obama’s policies.  

But the debate took a decidedly testy turn when Kraske asked about Kinder’s assertions that Lager can’t be an effective opponent of the federal health-care act because of his position with Cerner, a health-care information company in North Kansas City. The charge has been the centerpiece of Kinder's television ad campaign questioning Lager’s sincerity about opposing the federal health-care law.

Kinder said thata Forbes Magazine article explained how Cerner benefitted from the federal stimulus act and Affordable Care Act. He also pointed to a photo of Lager and two other officials from Cerner visiting a congressman in Washington, D.C.

“What is that you do when you’re on a company-paid trip for the company you work to go visit with members of Congress in their office,” Kinder asked. “That’s called lobbying whether you’re a registered lobbyist or not.”

Lager denied that he’s ever lobbied for Cerner and said that Kinder’s assertion that he was “profiting” off of the federal health-care act was a “complete and utter distortion and right-out lie.” He said he works on "a team that builds health-information networks.”

“Cerner is a company that is in the health-care technology business,” Lager said. “They have been incredibly successful because they have gone out in a competitive market, they have competed for business, they have won many hospitals and doctors and all their clients who believe they — by partnering with Cerner — will have a better business practice.”

Lager then argued that Kinder had become out of touch with the concerns of private businesses, mainly because he’s been in office for nearly two decades.

“What happens when you live from the public trough, you fundamentally lose connection with what the private sector deals with,” Lager said.

In response, Kinder said that he entered politics relatively late in life after working as an attorney for Drury Hotels and as an associate publisher for the Southeast Missourian. He said he chose to become a full-time lieutenant governor after being elected in 2005.

“I never ran for office until I was 38 years old,” Kinder said. “My opponent began running in his mid-20s and was elected a little over 11 years ago at the age of 25 and has run seven campaigns in the 11 years to include this one.”

Pressed by Kinder whether he too would be a full-time lieutenant governor, Lager answered in the affirmative.

Other disagreements included:

Missing tie votes: Kraske asked Kinder about Lager’s charge that he was derelict in his duties as lieutenant governor because he missed five tie votes. Kinder responded that four of the votes were on amendments he opposed. And since an amendment can’t pass on a tie, he added he was effectively voting no.

The fifth tie vote, which concernedlegislation to move the presidential primary, came when he was making a speech to a home health-care group, said Kinder. Kinder's whereabouts during that vote is the topic of a third-party ad using money from a nonprofit that doesn’t have to disclose immediately its donors. Kinder calls the spot “false” and “defamatory.”

“This is a non-issue. My opponent has gotten no traction with it, and it’s really a distortion,” Kinder said. “And it’s misleading, and it’s not worthy of this campaign to really discuss that.”

Countered Lager: “That’s absolutely ridiculous. You get paid $85,000 to cast tie votes. And when there’s a tie, the lieutenant governor should be present to break the tie. Whether it’s an amendment, whether it’s the final reading — that’s irrelevant.”

Personal financial disclosure: Kinder — who raised questions about Lager’s business ties in this weekend’s Columbia Daily Tribune — pressed Lager on why he emphasized his role at Northwest Missouri Cellular when he works for Cerner. Lager said his role with that company changed after he entered the Missouri legislature, adding that he now does contract consulting work for Northwest Cellular through Lager Enterprises LLC.

When Kraske asked why he doesn’t mention his employment with Cerner on his campaign website or his official webpage, Lager said, “I don’t list any of my businesses on my campaign website. I don’t list any of my businesses on my official website.” Both sites say Lager is "a small business owner who has a passion for entrepreneurship."

“We’ve watched liberals attack the private sector for years,” Lager said. “This is the first time when the 'leader of the Republican Party' is attacking the private sector.”

Kinder said he wasn't attacking the private sector but rather criticizing “a public official’s failure to disclose and to mislead people about his background.”

Traveling expenses: Kinder was asked about his travel expenses, as reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He eventually repaid the state, which he said at the time and during the debate was a voluntary gesture aimed at “removing taint from his name.”

“I don’t have a mansion to return to like the governor and I don’t have the Highway Patrol to fly me or drive me back,” Kinder said. “So when I travel around the state — which I did more than most lieutenant governors — I stayed at the lowest government rate in hotels. And I stayed a lot in St. Louis because it’s 40 percent of the state’s population and about 50 percent of our economic activity of our state.”

Lager said the travel issue “continues to underscore my earlier argument that Peter has just lost touch with reality.”

In addition to Kinder and Lager, Wentzville attorney Michael Carter and St. Louis resident Charles W. Kullmann are seeking the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. Eight Democrats are seeking the Democratic nod for the office.

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