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Politically Speaking: Former Gov. Holden talks about leading through tough times

Former Gov. Bob Holden
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

On this week’s edition of Politically Speaking, St. Louis Public Radio’s Jason Rosenbaum and Jo Mannies welcome former Gov. Bob Holden, who held office from 2001-2005. This is part of an informal series where the journoduo attempts to interview all of the Show-Me State’s former chief executives about their time in office.

Holden grew up in Birch Tree, Mo., in rural Shannon County, where his family had been farmers for more than 100 years. That also was the hometown of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, a fellow Democrat who was close to Holden.

Holden began his education in a one-room schoolhouse,  and eventually made his way to what is now Missouri State University in Springfield. After developing a passion for politics in college, Holden ran for and won a seat in the Missouri House representing part of Springfield, Mo. -- a notable feat for a Democrat in GOP-controlled territory.

In the Democratic-controlled House at the age of 30, Holden made waves as a member of the Budget Committee when he was charged with looking at the budgets of all the statewide officials. That led to Holden blocking an effort to boost the budget of then-Attorney General Bill Webster, a charismatic Republican who appeared on course to run for governor (he was the GOP nominee in 1992).

Holden's actions put him at odds with the attorney general's powerful father, then-state Sen. Richard Webster, R-Carthage, who previously had served as House speaker. "I ran it straight,'' Holden said, observing that some senators thought Holden's actions had killed off his political career.

After an unsuccessful bid for state treasurer in 1988, Holden ran for and won that statewide office in 1992 and 1996. He introduced a financial literacy program for school children and started a college savings plan  known as MOST. After outflanking then-Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson in fundraising in the late 1990s, Holden became the Democratic nominee for governor in 2000. He narrowly defeated then-U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, R-Chesterfield.

Holden served as governor during a time of declining revenues – resulting in high-stakes battles and big cuts in the state budget.  By January 2003, both chambers of the Missouri General Assembly were controlled by Republicans for the first time in decades. Holden then spent the rest of his term locked in repeated fights with GOP legislators, including then-House Speaker Catherine Hanaway and then-Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder.

Holden’s veto pen wasn’t strong enough to stop the General Assembly from putting in place Missouri's conceal-and-carry law.   Still, he was able to temporarily block many elements of the GOP agenda – including big changes to workers compensation and proposed cuts in Medicaid (put in place in 2005, after Holden was gone.)

Holden says he is proud that his administration appointed many women and African-Americans to key positions in state government.

In 2004, then-Auditor Claire McCaskill  defeated Holden in the Democratic primary, effectively ending his career in elected office. McCaskill lost that fall to Republican Matt Blunt.

Since he left the governor’s mansion, Holden has taught at Webster University and is involved in various associations that seek to establish closer economic relationships between the Midwest and China. He’s also started a winery just outside of St. Louis.

St. Louis Public Radio's Jo Mannies chats with Holden before recording an episode of "Politically Speaking."
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio's Jo Mannies chats with Holden before recording an episode of "Politically Speaking."

Here’s what Holden had to say during the show:

  • As chairman of the Midwest-U.S. China Association, Holden said his job is to try to get China to look at “the Midwest as a place to invest, to create jobs and produce a quality workforce that we want to have and need to have in the Midwest. ... If you take those 12 states and put them together, that’s the 5th largest economy in the world,” Holden said.
  • Even going back to his days running for student body president at then-Southwest Missouri State University, Holden was “not afraid to try to bring about change if I thought change was thing that needed to occur.” He quipped that he was a “rare species” as a Democrat representing a portion of traditionally Republican Springfield.
  • When he finished his successful bid for governor in 2000, Holden had more than 12,000 donors to his campaign. “What I wanted to do was get enough donors that no one donor or no one group of donors could say, ‘We put you here,’” he said. “They all put me there. And so, that way I felt I had more flexibility to do what I thought was best.”
  • In recent years, Holden says “the whole issue of guns has been a disaster.”  He hopes that both sides can reach a compromise on "what makes sense."  He still opposes the concealed-carry law. Even though he comes from a rural family that hunted, Holden doesn’t like the idea “that anybody could walk around basically with a pistol in their pocket. ... That doesn’t give me more security than before,” he said. 
  • He is supporting Attorney General Chris Koster, a fellow Democrat, for governor in 2016. But Holden also knows GOP contender Eric Greitens quite well; Greitens even holed-up in Holden's cabin to finish writing his book, Holden recalls.  “I thought I would be pretty convincing that he should be a Democrat,” the former governor said. “He decided he’s a Republican.”

Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Follow Jo Mannies on Twitter: @jmannies

Follow Bob Holden on Twitter: @GovHolden

Music: “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.