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Koster Again Under Fire Over His Support Of Gay Marriage

Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

(Updated noon, Thursday, Oct. 9)

Although a number of Missouri’s top Republicans are blasting state Attorney General Chris Koster over same-sex marriage, it’s unclear what his critics plan to do about it.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, summed up the conservative predicament. “Having already disregarded the voice of the people when they amended our constitution in 2004, it is unlikely (Koster) would pay any attention to the legislature,” Dempsey said Wednesday.

The state Senate leader is referring to Koster’s announcement Monday that he won’t challenge a Kansas City judge’s ruling that requires Missouri to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states.

Koster cited a legal argument for his decision: "Our national government is founded upon principles of federalism – a system that empowers Missouri to set policy for itself but also obligates us to honor contracts entered into in other states.”

But conservatives point to his closing comment as proof that the attorney general – a Democrat running for governor in 2016 -- was actually playing politics.

“Missouri's future will be one of inclusion, not exclusion,” Koster had said.

Former St. Charles County Executive Joe Ortwerth, a Republican who now heads the Missouri Family Policy Council, issued a statement Wednesday saying that Koster was failing to fulfill his constitutional duty in order to appease progressive Democrats.

Ortwerth’s headline declared, “Attorney General Ditches Legal Defense of Missouri Marriage Laws.”

On Thursday, state House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, weighed in with his own criticisms. "Chris Koster has a duty to defend our state’s constitution, whether he personally agrees with it or not.  His job is to uphold and defend our constitution, not to make policy," Jones said. "...Today, I have personally called upon Attorney General Koster and asked him, in writing, to defend our state’s constitution or to appoint someone in his place who is capable and able of doing so.”

Jones said in an interview that he has asked the House legal staff to review whether there is something the chamber can do to counter Koster's decision.  Possible options may be to seek to hire a special counsel to challenge the judge's ruling, or for the House to intervene in the case, the speaker said.

Koster accused of ignoring own pledge

Ortwerth and Dempsey, among others, accuse Koster of running afoul of his promise in June to defend Missouri’s laws, even though he disagreed with some of them. Koster appeared at the time to be referring specifically to Missouri’s constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriages, passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2004.

State Sen. Tom Dempsey (R, St. Charles) hopes to bring the unemployment benefits bill up again before April 2nd.
Credit Mo. Senate
Tom Dempsey

Ortwerth said that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (known as DOMA for short) allows individual states to decline to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and that Koster is ignoring that avenue for political reasons.

“Why is that?” Ortwerth wrote. “Well, the answer is pretty simple. Chris Koster badly wants to be elected as Missouri's next governor.  It is an article of faith in his political party that any candidate for higher office must genuflect at the altar of the homosexual rights movement. Koster has now done so in the most symbolic way possible.”

The heat directed at Koster may stem, in part, from his scathing public criticism of the GOP’s stands on social issues when he left the Republican Party in 2007, shortly before launching his successful statewide bid as a Democrat for attorney general in 2008.

Koster added fuel to the conservative fire in June, when he underscored his support for gay rights and same-sex marriage in his keynote address at Missouri Democrats’ annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.

“Hopefully, the Republican Party will scrub the discriminatory language from their party’s platform,” Koster said.

But he pivoted a few days later by issuing a more middle-of-the-road statement: “While I personally support the goal of marriage equality, my duty as attorney general is to defend the laws of the state of Missouri.  While many people in Missouri have changed their minds regarding marriage equality, Missourians have yet to change their constitution.”

Despite the rise of conservative attacks, Koster so far has declined to make any additional public comments on the matter -- or his decision regarding the judge's order.

Silence from Republican candidates speaks volumes

Koster may be getting help from the political wind at his back when it comes to gay rights. That wind is flying in the face of many conservatives.

As a result, social conservatives are having trouble keeping many of their own candidates in line.

For example: None of Missouri’s potential Republican candidates for governor – including announced contender Catherine Hanaway – has issued public statements about Koster’s latest decision, or highlighted their own views on same-sex marriage.

Their reticence appears to underscore how wary some politicians have become about gay-rights issues, in part because polls show that the public’s opinion has swiftly become more sympathetic to the LGBT community.

But George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, said that the national shift doesn’t necessarily mean that Missouri voters are in lockstep.  He predicts that Missouri may end up being one of the last strongholds for gay-rights opponents.

“I think the conservativeness of the state still points to gay marriage being something that will be a problem for a statewide candidate more than a benefit,” Connor said.

Chris Koster received the backing of several major agricultural groups, including the Missouri Farm Bureau.
Credit Missouri Soybean Association
Chris Koster campaigned this summer for the 'right to farm' amendment.

Koster, he added, faces a dilemma. To win a race for governor will require Koster, or any Democratic statewide candidate, to attract strong urban support. But he also will need not to lose too badly in Republican-leaning rural areas and at least to break even in the state’s swing suburbs.

That strategic map is cited as a key reason Koster chose to rile animal-rights groups (which generally lean Democratic) by backing this summer’s “right to farm’’ constitutional amendment that curbs state and local regulations.  Backers had made it clear one aim was to block any future attempts to restrict dog breeding or large hog facilities.

Opponents of the amendment, including former Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, blame Koster for the proposal's narrow victory Aug. 5.

Koster also has a mixed record on gun-rights issues and had opposed in court some provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act, the domestic cornerstone of President Barack Obama's tenure.

To keep wary progressives in his fold, Connor argued that Koster now has little choice on the gay-marriage issue.

“The bulk of his decision (on the judge’s ruling) was a political one,’’ the professor said. “And it’s a decision that, for Koster,  has to be made.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.