Government & Politics

Chris Koster’s experience proves good and bad in gubernatorial campaign

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster spoke with members of the Multicultural Business Coalition on Thursday at Taliaferro & Browne Inc. in Kansas City. Koster, a Democrat, is running for governor.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster spoke with members of the Multicultural Business Coalition on Thursday at Taliaferro & Browne Inc. in Kansas City. Koster, a Democrat, is running for governor.

After more than two decades in Missouri politics, Chris Koster has a confession to make.

“If people make a mistake about me, it’s that they see me as someone who enjoys politics. I actually don’t,” he said in a recent interview with The Star. “I’m a much shyer person than people generally ascribe to me.”

It’s a claim many political observers in Missouri would find hard to swallow.

Koster has never lost an election in his life, a streak that dates back to his first of three successful campaigns for Cass County prosecutor in 1994 through a stint in the state Senate and two terms as Missouri’s attorney general.

Now he’s the Democratic nominee for governor, running against Republican Eric Greitens.

Along the way, Koster has survived pitfalls that would have dashed the electoral fortunes of lesser politicians, from pay-to-play allegations to the ultimate career killer — switching political parties.

Yet here Koster stands, a lifelong Republican who became the standard bearer for the Missouri Democratic Party. A guy who swears he hates politics on the precipice of winning the highest office in state government.

“He’s very good at this game of politics,” said Chuck Hatfield, a Jefferson City attorney and longtime friend. “He’s just better at the game than the other guys.”

But with that success comes a criticism that has dogged him for years: that he’s a political opportunist, willing to say or do anything to advance his career.

“He shifts his positions depending on who he thinks will provide financing to his campaigns,” said Joe Maxwell, a Democrat and former Missouri lieutenant governor.

Republican roots

Koster grew up in St. Louis in a staunchly Republican household.

His father 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. Among his dad’s friends was Pat Buchanan, the conservative firebrand who served as a senior adviser to Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

Yet Koster says he was never truly interested in politics or government.

“I didn’t understand much about politics as a young man,” he said. “It wasn’t something I expected to dedicate my life to.”

That changed when he began working as an assistant state attorney general for Republican William Webster upon graduation from the University of Missouri law school. It was during that time, he said, that he first got the opportunity to see the workings of the Missouri General Assembly up close.

He ran for Cass County prosecutor in 1994, serving in that role until he was elected to the Missouri Senate in 2004. A year later, he was chosen by his GOP colleagues to be their caucus chairman.

But it was during his one term in the Senate that everything changed for Koster.

He’d long been a champion of organized labor, a position that put him at odds with his party. And in the Senate, he was regularly disagreeing with his fellow Republicans on various high-profile issues, most notably on his support for stem cell research.

Koster publicly split with the GOP in 2007, declaring that “Republican moderates are all but extinct.”

Republicans, and more than a few Democrats, panned the move. Koster aspired to run for attorney general the next year, and his critics said his party flip had nothing to do with ideology and was merely a realization that he couldn’t survive a GOP primary and had to switch teams to advance his political career.

Koster said his motivation was much more fundamental.

“This has been a long struggle,” he said at the time. “This is what my gut tells me to do.”

The next year, he won a hotly contested Democratic primary and defeated a Republican in the fall to become Missouri attorney general. Four years later, he cruised to an easy re-election.

“I was a progressive Republican who had a lot of outreach with Democrats,” Koster said. “Now I’m a conservative Democrat with a lot of outreach with the Republican Party. I’m wired as someone who is trying to find a majority in the center.”

Koster opposes most gun-control measures, a stance that won him the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. He also became the first Democrat running statewide to ever win the endorsement of the Missouri Farm Bureau. He supported a 2014 tax cut proposal Democrats warned could endanger funding for public education.

He once described himself as “pro life” but now says he considers himself “pro-choice.” He recently won the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri.

Koster supports expansion of Medicaid as envisioned under the federal Affordable Care Act, an increase in the minimum wage and an expansion of discrimination protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity. His opposition to GOP-backed “right-to-work” legislation has earned him not only the support of organized labor, but also more than $10 million in campaign contributions from unions.

“We have come to a point where there are way too many Democrats who don’t know the difference between an herbicide and a pesticide,” Koster said. “And there are far too many Republicans who have never set foot in an unaccredited school or spent time thinking about the challenges of the urban core.”

Smoke, but no fire?

Throughout the campaign for governor, Republicans have repeatedly pointed to a Pulitzer Prize-winning story by The New York Times in 2014 that alleged Koster gave preferential treatment to companies his office was investigating after donations were made to his political campaigns.

Koster denies any wrongdoing and has criticized The Times’ reporting. But he responded to the story by implementing a new ethics policy for his office, banning donations from any company that he had targeted for investigation.

“We voluntarily put on ourselves a policy against conflict of interest that I sincerely believe is the most restrictive in the country,” he said.

Yet The Times story was hardly Koster’s first brush with scandal. His career is marked with controversy, dating all the way back to allegations of plagiarism in the early 1990s.

But accusations involving Koster intensified during the 2008 campaign for attorney general.

To win his new party’s nomination, Koster had to beat out Democrats Jeff Harris and Margaret Donnelly in the primary. But the three-way primary became a four-way when a teacher from Kansas City named Molly Williams jumped in the race.

Almost as quickly as she entered the campaign, rumors that she was a plant by Koster began circulating. Koster wanted another woman in the race, the rumors went, to siphon off votes from Donnelly.

Williams never mustered much of a campaign, but she did manage to take 7 percent of the vote in a race that saw Koster defeat Donnelly by just 0.2 percentage points. Koster has denied any involvement in Williams’ candidacy.

In 2008, Koster also faced accusations that his campaign was using illegal back-channel sources to skirt contribution limits.

The FBI was rumored to be looking into the matter, but Koster has insisted he was never interviewed by law enforcement. But the allegations did spark an expansive 16-page complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission that described the Koster campaign’s actions as money laundering.

“The laundering of campaign funds in an attempt to obscure the source of contributions has done great damage to Missouri’s campaign finance disclosure law,” the complaint said, “and a great disservice to the people of Missouri.”

The Missouri Ethics Commission voted 3-1 to proceed to a hearing, but it takes four votes for the commission to take action, and thus the matter was dropped.

In 2012, then-Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich criticized the procurement process Koster’s office used to award contracts to private attorneys, noting that Koster received more than $170,000 in campaign donations from those seeking these lucrative contracts. Koster’s office said none of the contracts were awarded and the attorney general would stay out of the contract bidding process in the future.

During his 2012 re-election bid, Koster’s campaign rang up monthly bills at the historic Chase Park Plaza hotel in St. Louis. In 2011, for example, the campaign spent nearly $10,000 on “travel expenses” at the hotel. During that time, Koster was personally reimbursed for more than $6,000 in travel expenses.

The stays at the Chase Park Plaza tapered off after Koster won re-election, and his gubernatorial campaign reported no expenses for nights at the hotel in 2016. It has, however, spent more than $7,000 so far this year for lodging at the InterContinental Kansas City at the Plaza.

Throughout the 2012 race, Koster’s campaign also paid for airfare, hotel and meals for numerous out-of-state trips, including travel to San Francisco, New York City, New Orleans and Aspen, Co., among other cities.

Koster’s campaign says he was staying at these hotels while in St. Louis or Kansas City for campaign events. The out-of-state trips were for fundraising purposes or in conjunction with Democratic Attorneys General Association events.

Given his time in Missouri politics, Koster says the number of accusations against him shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“I’ve been at it for 22 years,” he said. “You get a lot of arrows fired at you when you’ve been around as long as I have.”

He says he’s run his office ethically, and as he’s gotten older, he’s grown more cautious.

“At the age of 52,” he said, “I pay very close attention to the details and really try to handle my office and manage my office in a very, very cautious manner.”

Working with lawmakers

“One of the things I look most forward to,” Koster said, “is getting back to work with the legislature to do the kind of highly focused work that quite honestly the current administration has not been known for.”

Hatfield, who in addition to knowing Koster for decades spent several years working for Gov. Jay Nixon, said there would be an immediate shift in how the governor’s office relates to legislators under Koster.

“In the years I worked with Nixon, there were fewer than five people who had his cellphone number,” Hatfield said. “I’d imagine with Koster it’s somewhere between 500 and 5,000. He’s going to be a lot more willing to sit down with people and talk about issues very early on.”

His party may only hold a tiny fraction of the seats in the Missouri General Assembly, but Koster still bristles at the rhetoric of his Republican opponent, who has made criticism of Jefferson City a centerpiece of his campaign. It’s a mistake, Koster said, to paint with such a broad brush.

“The vast majority of people who go to Jefferson City are trying to do the right thing,” he said. “If I have a criticism of Jefferson City, it’s not the character of these individuals.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock