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Kander pledges to resume fight for early voting, ethics changes, when legislators reconvene

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, an Army veteran, says he’s resuming two political battles close to his heart.

One would make it easier for Missouri voters to cast early ballots – an unsuccessful quest by several of Kander’s predecessors – while the second would reinstate ethics and campaign restrictions to curb the power of lobbyists and special interests.

Kander, a Democrat and former state legislator, is particularly passionate about the second.

Missouri now stands apart, he said, by having “the most broken set of campaign finance and ethics laws in the country.”

“I consider that to be election fraud,” Kander told law students at St. Louis University last Friday. “We have to confront it.”

Among other things, Kander noted that Missouri is the only state in the country with no restrictions on the size of lobbyists’ gifts to legislators, while also "imposing no limits on the size of campaign donations.”

Kander, a Democrat, cosponsored a bill in 2010 that passed the General Assembly – with support of then-House Speaker Steve Tilley – to restrict spending on legislators and political campaigns. The curbs included a $1,000-a-year limit on lobbyists' gifts.

But the measure was tossed out by the state Supreme Court a year later because of provisions in the bill unrelated to its primary purpose. The Missouri constitution bars multiple topics in a single bill.

Kander emphasized that he wasn’t complaining about the court’s action – a comment directed, at least in part, to a member of his audience: SLU law school dean Mike Wolff, who sat on the high court at the time.

Since then, the General Assembly hasn’t passed any legislation to reinstate the tossed-out provisions. Kander blamed the inaction, in part, on the lack of special-interest pressure.

“There is no interest group in this state called ‘Big Ethics,'"  Kander said. “At the same time, there’s this simple fact that legislators like free stuff, frankly. They like going to ballgames without having to pay for it, they like going to concerts without paying for it, they like going to dinner without paying for it.”

The same holds true for campaign donations, he continued.  “They also like being able to run for re-election without having to make a lot of fundraising calls. They just have to make a couple, to a couple of people willing to write really big checks.”

Kander’s comment appeared to recall his own contest, which he narrowly won a year ago.  Kander’s Republican opponent, Shane Schoeller, received about a third of his campaign money from one donor: wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield.

The General Assembly tossed out Missouri’s campaign-donation limits in 2008. But now, contended Kander, “There is bipartisan support for change now in the state House and state Senate because people are getting fed up with this.”

However, he acknowledged that support for campaign-finance limits and ethics restrictions wasn’t as strong among Republican legislative leaders, who control both chambers.

But Kander said he was optimistic that public pressure also may be mounting. “People are much more aware that we have this broken set of campaign finance and ethics laws,” he said.

Renews call for early-voting law

Kander also is counting on the public to help press the General Assembly to pass some sort of no-fault early voting in Missouri.  The state now is among only 15 states in country without some sort of early-voting law, he said.

Missouri does allow absentee voting, but only if voters meet certain criteria– although many election officials long have contended that some Missouri voters lie to cast early ballots. So far, no one has been prosecuted for voting absentee without meeting the state's restrictions.

Kander recalled that he and his wife waited for an hour in 2012 to cast their ballots, and he saw some voters walk away because the line was too long.

(By the way, Kander won his election last year over Schoeller by less than 40,000 votes.)

Kander is the third consecutive Missouri secretary of state to call for early voting. “If it came to the floor in the House or the Senate, it would pass,” he said. “There is bipartisan support for this. For whatever reason, the leadership in the Missouri House just doesn’t seem to like early voting.”

As it stands, it looks doubtful that the General Assembly will act in time to affect the 2014 elections. While Kander declined to comment on the odds, he said he still plans to press the early-voting issue. It won't affect him until 2016.

Kander told the students that he was inspired to fight for ethics and election-law changes because of the tragic tale of Missouri's first secretary of state, Joshua Barton.

Barton -- by then U.S. attorney in St. Louis -- was killed in a duel in 1823 after  accusing a federal official of improperly directing government contracts to relatives and friends. The official's brother then challenged Barton to the duel.

As Kander sees it, “The very first person who had my job died in a duel over ethics reform."

Barton's death did prompt the General Assembly to pass a law against dueling. And then-President James Monroe fired the federal official that Barton had accused of misdeeds.

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.