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Chris Koster, a political survivor, goes for re-election

Nearly five years ago, Chris Koster left the Republican Party, explaining that he no longer was a good fit.

“My vision for the state is not a far-right vision,” Koster said at the time. “I am a hindrance to them, and they are to me.”

After the split, Koster emerged stronger than ever.

As the clock ticks down to the August primaries in less than three weeks, Koster can kick back and relax. He has the luxury of facing no opposition for nomination as attorney general from the party he joined that day. He’s also heavily favored to win re-election in November.

What’s more, Democrats are calling him an early front-runner for governor in 2016, a race Koster is said to already be contemplating.

That Koster, 47, pulled off one of the riskiest maneuvers in the political playbook is testament to an officeholder regarded as one of the most gifted in recent state history. The lawyer, former state senator from Harrisonville and one-time Cass County prosecutor is widely regarded as polished and bright, with good looks and a smooth, baritone voice that commands attention.

He is something else, too: experienced in surviving the types of personal pitfalls that would have sunk lesser politicians.

During nearly 20 years in public office, Koster has survived a plagiarism rap and a campaign advertising blitz sponsored by his ex-wife. He was accused of tossing a ringer into the 2008 Democratic primary for attorney general — a move that many argue helped him eke out a narrow win.

He faced accusations that his campaign laundered donations to avoid contribution limits, an accusation that drew the attention of the Missouri Ethics Commission. The panel looked into the matter, but ultimately fell one vote short of taking up the case two days after Koster had been elected as the state’s top law enforcement officer.

And while attorney general, he was forced to hire a lawyer to deal with persistent rumors that he was involved in an ongoing FBI investigation into corruption at the Missouri Capitol. However, no confirmation that Koster was under review ever surfaced.

The list of near-misses is long and harrowing for a politician said to have ambitions reaching all the way to the White House. Those who know him well said comparisons to another famous politician known for close calls, Bill Clinton, are fitting.

“The guy’s got more lives than Morris the cat,” said Jeff Roe, a prominent Missouri Republican political operative.

And yet, workers who report to Koster praise him as fair and upstanding. Even former political opponents and members of the party he once spurned said they like Koster and admire his skills. Conversations with them typically begin, “Listen, I like Chris.”

He’s widely viewed as gregarious, approachable and willing to reach out to one-time opponents. And he works the phone like a fiend.

“Chris calls everybody,” said former Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields. “I would hate to see his cellphone minutes.”

But critics — and even people who insist they like Koster can fall into this category — describe him as narcissistic to a fault and, while bright, starkly unprincipled. Former colleagues recalled Koster once wondering aloud whether he should be for or against abortion rights.

Still, his tenure as the state’s 41st attorney general has, for the most part, drawn positive reviews. Koster has hunkered down in what appears to some as a deliberate effort to calm the roiled waters of pre-attorney general days. He smartly hired seasoned professionals, such as former judges Joe Dandurand as his deputy attorney general and Ronald Holliger as his general counsel.

Koster, who is single with no children, declined to comment for this story. But in a speech early in his tenure, he acknowledged he actively sought out older legal veterans in response to his time working for former Attorney General William Webster who, after Koster’s plagiarism mess, went to prison for converting state resources to his political use.

“Gray hair is incredibly important in this town,” Koster said then. “Youth has its place, but the cautious concern of older men and women is absolutely critical in government.”

Koster’s most immediate political challenge, of course, is getting re-elected this fall. His Republican opponent is expected to be Ed Martin, who gave Democrat Russ Carnahan a spirited challenge for Congress two years ago.

Martin, a former chief of staff to Gov. Matt Blunt, derisively calls Koster “Obama’s lawyer,” and insists that the Democrat is out of touch with most Missourians, particularly when it comes to the handling of the federal health insurance law.

But he faces an uphill battle. Martin reported only $564,000 in the bank in his last campaign report. Koster reported more than $2.4 million.

And just last week Koster got a $50,000 contribution from Sam Fox — a prominent Republican.

Risky business

Of all the risky moves Koster has made, the party switch on the final day of July 2007 probably ranks as the riskiest. Party switchers traditionally are seen as damaged goods. They are spurned by the politician’s former party and regarded as untrustworthy by the new one.

Those close to Koster said he understood all of that when he made his move. “I remember a lot of phone calls,” said Chuck Hatfield, a lawyer and well-connected Democrat who asked Koster to be best man at his wedding. “I don’t know that agonizing is too strong a word.”

Koster also hails from a strongly Republican family. His late father, Rich Koster, was a sports columnist for the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat newspaper and a conservative commentator on “Donnybrook,” a political debate program that airs in St. Louis. Firebrand Pat Buchanan, the one-time GOP presidential candidate, was a family friend who sometimes sat at the Koster dinner table.

“I imagine around Chris’ table that ‘Democrat’ was a cuss word,” Hatfield said.

So the switch was a dramatic move for Koster, but one apparently years in the making. Koster was a moderate, maybe the most liberal member of the GOP Senate, with strong ties to labor and trial attorneys, two strong Democratic constituencies. He favors abortion rights.

If there was a moment that crystallized Koster’s decision, it may have come in his first year in the Senate. In April 2005, he and Sen. Matt Bartle stood on the Senate floor for an impassioned debate on a proposed ban on early stem-cell research.

Within days, support for a ban had faded. But despite the win, Koster found himself marginalized within his own party.

“That was sort of the moment,” Hatfield recalled. He remembered getting a phone call from his friend. “I’m not sure I’m a Republican given what I’m going through on this stem-cell thing,” Koster told him.

Two years passed, and Koster was mentioned as interested in running for attorney general. But winning as a Republican was going to be tough. Not only was he out of the conservative mainstream, but a pair of formidable opponents also were pondering runs: U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway and Senate President Pro Tem Mike Gibbons, a St. Louis County Republican.

By the time he flipped parties, Koster had amassed more than $600,000 for his campaign as a Republican. Even after announcing his decision, his prospects as a Democratic candidate weren’t seen as much better. Awaiting him in that primary were two highly regarded state lawmakers, Reps. Jeff Harris and Margaret Donnelly.

Some charged that the switch was all about seeking an easier path to the attorney general’s office. “It was strategic,” said George Connor, a Missouri State University political scientist. “It was the right strategic move politically.”

When Koster announced his decision, he highlighted only issues, such as his commitment to workers’ rights and economic development.

“In a prior era, during the tenure of former Republican Senator Jack Danforth, political moderates existed comfortably within the Missouri Republican Party ranks,” Koster said at the time. “Today Republican moderates are all but extinct. When I came to the Senate, I naively thought I could influence a change in this regard. It is painful for me to admit today that I was wrong.”

Always in a hurry

Koster has long been a devotee of the “up or out” political philosophy. He’ll run as far as he can in politics, and if he loses along the way, he can fall back and work as a lawyer.

Part of that thinking is driven by a simple fact: His father died at 58. Koster, friends confided, knows the clock is ticking.

But he’s always been in a hurry. Koster launched a campaign for attorney general in the mid-’90s within months of being elected Cass County prosecutor, although he eventually backed out. In 1999, he flirted with a gubernatorial run.

By 2008, Koster’s path was set on becoming attorney general, which has been a springboard to the governor’s mansion or the U.S. Senate. But Koster was said to be worried that Donnelly, the woman in the race, would have the edge over the two men.

Enter Molly Williams of Kansas City. The St. Elizabeth School teacher suddenly jumped into the race, but never campaigned or took calls from reporters.

Insiders began to think she was a Koster plant merely to offset Donnelly’s edge. Koster denied it, but Williams siphoned off 7 percent of the vote, and Koster defeated Donnelly by a mere 0.2 percentage points.

“I’m 100 percent convinced — I’ve never been more convinced of anything — that Koster was behind this,” Richard Martin, who worked for Donnelly, said at the time.

During that primary there was a bizarre twist. Koster’s ex-wife, Rebecca Bowman Nassikas, who was married to Koster from 1996-2003, donated money to an obscure political committee that aired anti-Koster TV ads. At the time, Nassikas said her involvement was “not some diabolical plan,” but a bid to level the playing field after Koster — and his campaign — benefitted from the $580,000 divorce settlement he received.

Also in July 2008, a former Koster aide, Susan McNay, told The Associated Press that the campaign was using possibly illegal back-channel sources to skirt contribution limits. Under the plan, over-the-limit campaign contributions were run through political party fundraising groups, which were allowed to donate 10 times above the individual limit of $1,350.

“I trusted the candidate, even though I had questions about whether we were doing something that was not right,” McNay told the AP.

Koster’s campaign defended the moves. The state Ethics Commission reviewed the matter, and records show that on one complaint, three members of the panel voted to conduct a full-fledged hearing, one vote short of the required four. Two members were absent that day.

Again, Koster had dodged a potential bullet.

Once in office, he was forced to consult an attorney in connection with rumors that he was tied to an FBI probe into statehouse corruption.

Koster said no federal investigators ever called his office or anyone on his staff. A statement his office issued said that “out of an abundance of caution,” Koster had asked attorney Ed Dowd “to review the 2008 election and make recommendations to him for the future.”

Just last month, state Auditor Tom Schweich questioned the process the attorney general’s office used to award contracts to private lawyers to do state work. Schweich pointed out that Koster received more than $170,000 in campaign donations last year from those seeking contracts.

“To us, that’s a conflict of interest,” said Schweich, a Republican.

In response, Koster’s office said it would request an adjustment in the contract process.

Character issues?

Looking back, Koster is fortunate his political career ever got off the ground.

Fresh out of the University of Missouri Law School, he became entangled in a controversy in Webster’s attorney general’s office. Koster was accused of writing passages that appeared in a campaign booklet — “Bill Webster’s Blueprint for Missouri’s Future” — lifted without attribution from the book “Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector.”

“He lifted quite a bit of material,” said Nathan Walker, who worked as Webster’s director of administration.

Spokesmen for Koster, however, have maintained it was all just a big misunderstanding. Yet, others who worked in the office at the time said Webster was furious. The Star broke the story about the issue in the midst of the highly competitive 1992 GOP primary campaign for governor that featured Webster, then-Secretary of State Roy Blunt and then-state Treasurer Wendell Bailey.

But it was Webster who took the hit. Webster wouldn’t comment for this story. Still, some of his aides said they were stunned Koster wasn’t fired.

“I don’t have a lot of respect for him because I’ve seen how he’s done things in the past,” Walker said. “I don’t think he has a hard-core philosophy of anything. You need to believe what you are, and not be a chameleon and not be things you aren’t.”

A few years later, gossip about Koster’s personal life lit up social and political circles.

In 1995, he was engaged to Beth Phillips (not the federal judge in Kansas City of the same name). Koster’s fiancee was the daughter of a prominent Kansas City lawyer, but Koster apparently was making plans to marry Nassikas. Koster’s relationship with Phillips ended in July 1995, a month after he began dating Nassikas and months after he began pursuing her.

Koster and Nassikas wound up living in a Loch Lloyd home purchased by Nassikas’ father that was adjacent to the Phillips home where Koster had been living. Nassikas said she only learned the full extent of Koster’s relationship with Phillips after they were married.

“Chris was involved in the (home’s) selection, and if he had objected I would have chosen another house,” Nassikas said.

She said the salacious rumors lost him the support of prominent backers.

But Koster, who declined to publicly discuss the engagement imbroglio, somehow survived and persevered. He became Cass County prosecutor from 1994-2004, then served a term as a state senator before becoming attorney general.

Part of his formula for success, admirers admit, is just pure charisma. “He always makes people feel like they’re important,” Hatfield said. “They say Clinton had that.”

Others point to Koster’s fortitude and drive to keep going no matter how tough things get. He’s willing to walk right up to the legal line. “The good ones do,” Hatfield said.

Longtime friend Rep. Chris Molendorp, a Raymore Republican, attributed Koster’s political success to something else — survival instincts.

“Chris Koster doesn’t make any moves until he’s thought through it as though it was a chess board,” Molendorp said. “He is the smartest politician in Jefferson City — period. It’s not even close. He is way deeper than just a pretty face. Way deeper.”