Rating the 'Burbs

Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin sticks to his principles

Even Todd Akin’s detractors would agree that his strong beliefs are his driving force.

Updated: 2012-10-22T22:32:26Z

By RICK MONTGOMERY

The Kansas City Star

— Todd Akin reaches back 391 years to explain his decision to stay in the race.

Plymouth Harbor, 1621. Almost half of the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower, fleeing religious persecution, died during their first winter.

Their ship was to set sail back to England, leaving behind “55 men, women and children” determined to stare down the odds of survival, notes Akin.

“They stayed. Why? Because they knew it was the right thing to do,” the U.S. Senate candidate — one largely abandoned by a Republican elite that never thought much of him — told a recent gathering of tea party activists.

The Pilgrims chose “to trust the results to God,” he added. And that happens to summarize his adult life.

Until August — when “Todd Akin” became a late-night punch line — the name seldom was spoken in national political circles despite his six terms in the U.S. House.

Americans at once asked: What sort of man, especially one being counted on by the GOP to help seize the Senate, would say victims of “legitimate rape” had the biological means to shut that whole thing down? That is, to ward off pregnancy — a blurt-out he recanted the next day.

The controversy has laid bare the principles and paradoxes of the St. Louis-area legislator.

First, the principles, which friends and foes say are genuine: Akin abhors abortion and makes no exception for rape cases. He believes that separating God from government is dangerous and contrary to the wishes of the founding fathers.

Just as genuine is Akin’s willingness to ignore his party’s pleadings, even when he was a freshman in Congress.

His aversion to throwing money around is real — to the point that he sleeps in his congressional office rather than rent his own place. He cut short a recent GOP gathering in eastern Missouri to personally replace his car’s brake pads.

Such convictions are why he wound up in politics at all.

Which leads to the paradoxes: Akin, 65, has more than once been labeled a “third-tier candidate,” though he keeps getting elected.

His political pals in Washington are few, but his friends in Missouri’s homeschooling and anti-abortion communities are many.

He is the product of a family line of Harvard-bred business executives. Yet he spent much of the 1980s as a seminary student, out of work and searching for spiritual and vocational direction.

Even into his 40s, when he landed in the Missouri General Assembly, Akin lived in his boyhood home with his parents, his wife, Lulli, and their homeschooled children.

“That was the problem, I wasn’t making any money,” he said of his midlife years absorbing books about the origins of government.

Despite his passion, Akin voices his beliefs with the calm cadence of a parent reading a bedtime story. His enters a room without commanding attention, exudes politeness and usually leaves having impressed most everyone that his cares and concern for country are honest.

“What you see with Todd is what you get. There’s no pretense on any issue,” said friend and ex-Missouri lawmaker Delbert Scott, who is superintendent of Kansas City College and Bible School.

Generations

Just across the Missouri River from St. Louis, Akin’s great-grandfather Thomas Russell Akin incorporated the Laclede Steel Co. in 1911. The reins of the publicly owed company would be handed down to two generations of Akin sons.

By the time Todd Akin’s father returned home from World War II, the slow-growing fortunes of Laclede Steel were poised for a surge.

William Todd Akin is the oldest of four sons that Nancy and Paul B. Akin raised on a St. Louis County farmstead. Both parents are still alive.

Paul, 91, recalls in spirited detail the year 1957, when 9-year-old Todd was first turned on to the American Revolution.

Laclede Steel had sent the Akins to Massachusetts so Paul could take courses at the Harvard School of Business. They lived eight months in Concord near the historic Old North Bridge. Across the road stretched a cemetery where Todd would gaze at the inscriptions of buried soldiers.

Returning to the St. Louis area, Todd Akin attended the private John Burroughs School. He encountered difficulty in language courses. First it was eighth-grade Latin, a class vexing enough to raise the question: How do I avoid taking languages in the future?

“So that put me in engineering school,” he said

He went back to Massachusetts and enrolled in Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He learned to play guitar, joined ROTC and majored in management engineering — “I wanted to be a big executive in a medium-sized business, or a big business,” he said.

But the decade after graduation would reset his plans.

He served six months in the Army in 1972, then spent eight years as an engineer for the Army Reserves.

At IBM, where he worked a few years as a marketing representative, he met Lulli, a systems analyst. After marrying, the couple moved in with Todd’s parents back in Town and Country, Mo., where Todd would pursue a career at Laclede Steel, managing maintenance at the mills.

Todd up to this time had not been very religious. His military discharge papers indicated “No pref” in the religion box.

But shortly after coming back to Missouri, “my wife and I committed our lives to the Lord,” Todd Akin said. “This is what’s called ‘born again.’ ”

His father already had been.

“That whole idea of ‘God, Honor, Country,’ we were imbued with that,” said Paul Akin. Yet events of the 1970s — Roe v. Wade, bans on school prayer, gun restrictions, expanding federal programs — began to remind him of the regimes he helped conquer in Europe.

Paul Akin retired as Laclede’s president in 1980. A short time later, the steel company restructured and Todd, then 33, lost his job.

Together, father and son pursued divinity degrees at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, part of the conservative Presbyterian Church of America.

“The Lord closed the door at the steel mill,” Paul Akin said, “and opened doors in the seminary.”

Christian journey

Todd Akin “never felt he was called to be a preacher,” said John A. Stormer, a St. Louis-area pastor and author of the 1964 anti-communist bestseller “None Dare Call it Treason.” He got to know Akin’s parents while campaigning for GOP presidential challenger Barry Goldwater.

Akin’s Christian journey began with a question, Stormer said: “He wanted to know how it applied to him, personally.” If the pulpit wasn’t in God’s plan for Akin, might his patriotism lead somewhere?

While in seminary, one of the issues that would help shape Akin’s political future developed at home. His first-born, Winn, began to struggle in first grade. Lulli floated the idea of pulling the boy out of school and educating him at home.

“I don’t know where she got that idea,” Akin said. “I told my wife we’d try it for six months and see how it works.”

Winn became happier and test scores showed stunning results in second grade. The Akins would homeschool all six of their children.

Unlike today, homeschooling in the early 1980s was a radical concept met with fierce resistance.

“That was a very traumatic time for the homeschooling movement,” said Brad Haines, executive director of the Missouri group Families for Home Education. “There were families who actually risked incarceration.”

Legislators in Jefferson City enacted rules to rein in the practice, and homeschoolers — including the Akins — fought back. A successful suit turned back the new laws. schoolers as one of the best in the nation.

After getting his divinity degree, Todd Akin spent a couple of years poring through books about the nation’s founding, such as John Eidsmoe’s “Christianity and the Constitution.”

Work that would bring a steady salary, however, is nowhere in Akin’s biography between 1980 and 1988, the year he won a seat in the Missouri House.

And the elected job paid only $21,000 a year. (His Senate campaign said the Akins never received public assistance during this period or since.)

“It was a little scary,” Akin said, noting that he and his wife tapped savings from their work at IBM. Lulli Akin also sold standardized tests for homeschoolers.

At least the living expenses were agreeable. When his parents moved out of Todd’s boyhood home in the early 1990s — to Clarksville, Mo., where Paul Akin was called to lead a church — Todd’s family had a place mortgage-free. “They never acquired it. They just lived there,” Paul Akin said with a laugh.

(A very tight family, the Akins would always be. Today, Todd’s son Perry serves as campaign manager, “and I can’t pay him a nickel,” Akin noted.)

As a state legislator in an upscale, heavily Republican district, Akin drew the notice of ministry circles nationwide.

In 1992 Florida-based Coral Ridge Ministries — whose founder, the Rev. D. James Kennedy, strongly influenced Akin — sent a video crew to Missouri to follow Akin.

“The story was of a man who graduated from seminary and pursued a ministry of politics as opposed to the pulpit,” said Jerry Newcombe of the group renamed Truth in Action Ministries.

And Akin’s core supporters — evangelical Christians and home educators — could be counted on to show up when needed.

Former Democratic state Rep. Bill Skaggs of Kansas City recalled “Akin was leading the charge” in 1999 against a bill Skaggs introduced requiring homeschooled pupils to take the same assessment tests that public-school pupils take.

“You literally could not walk the halls of the Capitol, it was so full” of upset parents, said Skaggs. “Never seen anything like it.”

His bill died in committee.

“Todd’s a nice guy,” Skaggs added. “I don’t think there’s a mean bone in him. He just has his own ideas.”

Akin stunned the Missouri GOP in 2000 when he emerged the victor from a field of five Republican candidates running for the 2nd District seat in the U.S. House.

Some polling before primary day had Akin dead last behind dueling moderates, including longtime St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary. But a violent rainstorm lowered the turnout, and Akin edged McNary by 56 votes.

Divine intervention? “I thought so,” said supporter Stormer.

Akin has been re-elected to Congress by comfortable margins ever since.

Perfect scores

Akin built one of the most conservative records in all of Congress, scoring throughout his 12 years perfect 100 scores from Americans for Prosperity and the National Right to Life Committee.

Though kind to the military, and especially with contracts that benefited the Boeing plant in his district, Akin burned some GOP bridges by rejecting key domestic proposals heralded by Republican leaders.

He voted no to No Child Left Behind — too much federal intrusion. No to the prescription drug benefit that George W. Bush pitched for Medicare — a “budget buster,” Akin called it.

Back in St. Louis County, where Akin returned every weekend, he donned colonial garb when hosting Fourth of July parties at his home.

The family in recent years moved to the exurb of Wildwood and took out its first-ever home mortgage.

Akin’s atypical background, his independence and reluctance to hobnob with fellow Missouri Republicans caused many in the party establishment to roll their eyes when he prevailed in the August primary for U.S. Senate.

As in the 2000 race for Congress, Akin scored an upset against others who spent more.

“The Republican machine can’t always count on him. And to a lot of us, that’s a virtue,” said St. Louis Christian-radio host Harold Hendrick.

His “legitimate rape” remark, however, was seen as a foolish, fatal blow — even by Akin supporters — to his Senate chances.

Akin said it during a TV interview on a Sunday. That afternoon, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which funds campaigns, contacted longtime Akin adman Rex Elsass and instructed him to shoot a commercial offering Akin’s apologies.

“They were helping us Sunday,” said Elsass, founder of the Strategy Group for Media. “By Monday, the party was ginning up any powerful person they could find to discourage Todd (from staying in the race). They already had the gallows ready.”

Akin appeared stricken by the reaction as he spent two days at Elsass’ home in Ohio. The candidate at one point glanced at a TV and saw Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus uninvite Akin to the party’s convention in Florida.

“Todd just turned and said, ‘Why would he feel that way about me?’ ” said Elsass. “And not with any anger. More sadness — almost empathetically sad.”

Elsass was rushing out the door to take Akin to the airport when presidential challenger Mitt Romney called to urge that Akin bow out.

Nobody bothered to answer the call.

Was Akin ever thinking of taking Romney’s advice?

“Never,” Elsass said. “Never.”

Radio host Hendrick: “If Todd wins this thing? It would be like ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ He defies all the odds and stands for principles — to heck with what the party bosses say.”

Akin told The Kansas City Star, “It’s not about me.” Yet he allowed that “no doubt people will blame me” should he lose and the Senate stays barely in Democratic hands.

“My sense is I had been given a task to do as the Republican nominee, and that is to replace Claire McCaskill,” he said.

“I believe the results are in God’s hands.”

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or send email to rmontgomery@kcstar.com.

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