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Kinder and Montee run low-key race for low-profile lieutenant governor's office

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 17, 2012 - Compared to the unpredictable slugfest during primary season, the general election race for lieutenant governor has been downright serene. With a few weeks to go, the two major party candidates are running a fairly low-key race compared to the events of the past few months.

After an especially rough year in which his political future appeared uncertain at best, incumbent Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder roared back to life in August to beat back a strong challenge from state Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah. And from a Democratic primary with eight candidates, former state Auditor Susan Montee emerged as Kinder’s challenger for a third term.

Seeking to be the first three-term lieutenant governor in decades, Kinder says he would continue to advocate vigorously for seniors and veterans. He also said he would prolong his opposition the federal Affordable Care Act, which became a staple of his second term in office.

“As I travel the state and I get a real good feeling – I’ve been an optimist all along in this race and for our Republican slate in Missouri,” said Kinder in a telephone interview. “I am optimistic about Romney-Ryan carrying the state comfortably by somewhere between nine and 12 points. And that’s going to help the whole ticket. So I’m encouraged and cautiously optimistic as we head into the last three weeks.”

Montee, who is hoping for a political comeback after losing her re-election bid in 2010, said she wants to reinvigorate the lieutenant governorship, shaking its reputation as a largely ceremonial prize with few delegated tasks. She also would like to exert some Democratic influence over the Missouri Senate, which is expected to remain in Republican hands for the foreseeable future.

“I would never have said, ‘Oh, I aspire to be lieutenant governor.’ It seems so bizarre, because nobody can tell you really what the lieutenant governor’s office does,” Montee said. “In general terms, people say, ‘Oh, you’re the next in line.’  But there are so many really important functions that could be done from that office and are actually supposed to be done from that office.”

Both candidates now have about the same amount of money for the home stretch unlike other down-ballot contests in which Democrats have a distinct advantage. Undefeated in his political career, Kinder won his last two statewide elections by a narrow margin, which may mean his third bid could go down to the wire.

Also in the contest is Cynthia Davis, a former Republican lawmaker from O’Fallon who is running on the Constitution Party ticket. Davis – who has raised far less money than either Kinder or Montee – is positioning herself as a conservative alternate to the two major party contenders.

“Eighty percent of Americans are unhappy with the way our government is headed,” said Davis at the kickoff of her campaign last year. “And if you’re one of the 80 percent, you need to know you’re going to have a choice when you go to vote on the ballot.”

Back from the brink

The fact that Kinder is even contending for another four years in his current job is a surprise, especially when looking back to the beginning of his term.

Kinder, a native of Cape Girardeau, first won election to the statewide office in 2004, barely defeating former Secretary of State Bekki Cook. Before that, he served three terms in the Missouri Senate, including a stint as president pro tem of the chamber.

From 2005 to early 2009, Kinder served with fellow Republican Gov. Matt Blunt. Because the two men were in the same party, Kinder had additional responsibilities, such as serving as acting governor while Blunt was away. He also spearheaded the Tour of Missouri, a bike race that Kinder touts as a boon for Missouri’s tourism industry.

Kinder was the lone state Republican survivor after the 2008 election, making him the de facto leader of Missouri's GOP. He emerged as a key voice of opposition against Gov. Jay Nixon.

After the GOP mega-wave in 2010, many thought that Kinder would challenge Nixon for governor, but 2011 proved to be a trying year for Kinder.

First came media reports about his taxpayer-funded traveling expenses, which included numerous hotel stays in St. Louis. Kinder eventually repaid the state nearly $54,000 to “remove the taint from my name.”

Kinder's campaign car was stolen and torched that year, after he had left his keys in it.

But perhaps his biggest hit came when a picture of him with a bartender at a midtown bar was published. Kinder admitted knowing the woman two decades back when she was a stripper.

Kinder’s presumed heir – former House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville – left the lieutenant governor’s contest. Soon after, Kinder decided to run for re-election. There was just one problem: Lager had already announced for the office and refused to budge.

What followed was one of the ugliest primaries in recent memory, amplified when Lager attacked Kinder with a massive advertising blitz.

When the dust settled, Kinder bested Lager by a few percentage points. He recouped some of his campaign cash during September and now terms his post-primary life as the “the calm after the storm.”

If re-elected, Kinder said he would continue to sign up low-income seniors to MoRX program for prescription drugs. Kinder also said he wants a tax credit to give businesses an incentive to hire veterans.

Kinder says he is also concerned with what he sees as the coming epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease in the “baby boom” generation.

“Now the oldest Baby Boomers that are Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s age – born in 1946 – they turn 66 this year,” Kinder said. “There is an enormous wave of Baby Boomers retiring or will be retiring. And they are going to develop Alzheimer’s and related dementia. And it’s going to be an enormous bulge, just like those other bulges were for this largest-ever age cohort moving through our society.”

Banking on political comeback

Down-ballot incumbents rarely lose re-election, but as Montee well knows, this isn’t an absolute: She did, after all, lose re-election in 2010 to Republican Tom Schweich.

Montee attributed her defeat to the immense GOP turnout in 2010.

“Obviously, 2010 was a totally different cycle. The results at least from my viewpoint and now looking back is that it was a huge turnout issue and excitement issue,” Montee said. “At the same time, in 2010 the worst thing I said about my opponent was that he wasn’t a CPA – and some people consider that a good thing.”

Montee became the head of the Missouri Democratic Party after the 2010 election. She often recounts how she tried to recruit a Democrat to run for lieutenant governor and decided to enter the contest when nobody would.

At the time, Montee was expected to run against Tilley, whose fundraising scared off Democratic challengers. But after Tilley withdrew, other Democratic candidates jumped into the fray. She ended up facing seven candidates for the Democratic nomination.

The Democratic primary was decidedly quiet, with none of the candidates spending much money. Montee didn't run any ads because polling showing her ahead. And in fact Montee won the primary handily.

Besides ramping up the office’s advocacy for veterans and for the elderly against neglect, Montee said she would bolster the lieutenant governorship’s reputation. In addition to presiding over the Senate, the officeholder sits on a number of boards and commissions.

“The lieutenant governor’s office is considered a part-time job and is paid less than the other offices and there are jokes about it in the press. The press refers to it as largely ceremonial or lacking in real duties,” Montee said. “I think the big thing that we should aspire to is making people recognize that it is an important office,” she added.

If she doesn’t win, Montee says, it’ll be the first time that a woman hasn’t been in a statewide office in 28 years. She said that would be disappointing after this past year, which included the controversy in the U.S. Senate race.

“All of these things that affect women in a heavier way being decided on by men should have put more focus on the number of women in elected office,” Montee said. “So for me then, I walk into this and say ‘now it’s on my shoulders to not let us go backward from a place we’ve been since 1984.’”

Divergence on health care

Although it could be argued the race is nowhere near as contentious as the GOP primary, that doesn’t mean it's been without disagreement. Montee, for instance, released an attack ad against Kinder on Tuesday, a spot that's caught the attention of the Huffington Post.

The federal health-care law represents a major dividing line between the two. Kinder spent much of his second term speaking out against the Affordable Care Act. He even filed a lawsuit in federal court to upend the law, which thus far hasn't been successful.

Because the lieutenant governor serves as president of the Senate, the officeholder may have some influence over the debate on whether the state should expand Medicaid.

“It makes no sense to take these rigid positions on something like health care,” Montee said. “And sometimes, those positions are taken purely for political reasons. But we’re going to have to have some kind of compromise in our legislature over this. I mean, that ship has sailed. It is already out there with the law, and we’re going to figure out how to do it.”

Kinder, though, said he is adamantly opposed to the move. 

“I am firm in my opposition,” Kinder said. “And with that, I line up with the majority of Missourians and large majorities of our General Assembly in both chambers who know the facts are that we cannot afford it. You need, really, in my judgment to do nothing but look to the states that are going in for it. Illinois. California. America’s Greece! Those states are going off the ledge, over the cliff. They cannot pay their bills. They are insolvent or approaching insolvency. And they’re going all in for it.”

The two also disagree on whether to make the governor and lieutenant governor run as a ticket. Montee supports that idea, noting that it would provoke more teamwork and cooperation. Kinder is an opponent, arguing that it would effectively give the governor two votes on various boards and commissions.

Middle ground on tax credits

Philosophically, both candidates say they take something of a middle ground on tax credits. The lieutenant governor serves on the Missouri Housing Development Board and the Missouri Development Finance Board.

Kinder, for instance, is a major proponent of the historic tax credit, an incentive credited with helping to rejuvenate downtown St. Louis. He said he doesn’t think the credit is “a sop or giveaway to developers,” noting it’s helped preservation efforts in the state’s urban and rural areas.

Kinder went onto tweak lawmakers -- many of them Republicans -- who want to curtail tax credits. He said so-called "tax credit hawks" blew their best chance to overhaul the state's tax credit system during the 2011 special session.

“I think that this alleged crisis has been magnified by a few,” Kinder said. “A few of the fiercest opponents I would put in the category of crank zealots. They have distinguished themselves as cranks and zealots – Captain Ahab pursuing the white whale.”

Kinder declined to identify the “cranks” and “zealots,” adding “if the shoe fits – put that sucker on.” Some of the more vocal proponents of constricting tax credits have included Lager, state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, and departing state Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau. Crowell and Kinder have a decidedly icy relationship, to put it mildly.

Montee said she would use her expertise as auditor to examine the state's tax credits. As auditor, she said she often found problems with the processes in which tax credits were given out.

But she added she, too, supports historic tax credits.

“There’s no denying that the Historic Tax Credit has been an integral part of the redevelopment of St. Louis,” Montee said. “And so, to say that we’re going to start capping this, we’re going to start cutting this, we’re going to start doing this without thoughtful analysis of that credit itself, then it creates a bunch of uncertainty and causes problems for people who already have projects underway. That’s a reckless approach.”

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

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