Watching the two major candidates for governor in Missouri this year is somewhat akin to watching a gladiatorial fight to the death. But these gladiators, fueled by millions of dollars in negative ads, are wielding more sophisticated weapons than their historical predecessors.
Republican Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL who has never held public office, burst onto Missouri television screens firing a military-style rifle and creating a massive explosion. Democrat Chris Koster, who has held a succession of political offices for 22 years, openly mocks Greitens as nothing more than a professional motivational speaker with a talent for blowing up things but no concept of how to put them back together.
Greitens and his backers have repeatedly accused Koster of lying and representing the worst aspects of a self-serving crooked career politician.
Koster and his supporters have accused Greitens of ripping off veterans to line his own pocket with donations made to the veterans assistance charity Greitens founded.
The truth is buried beneath the surface of this sea of testosterone. Let’s unpack it to see which candidate is actually better-qualified to become Missouri’s next chief executive.
Greitens, a former Democrat who says that party left him when it chose to throw tax dollars at every problem without demanding any accountability, has a sterling resume. He has an outstanding military record, was a Rhodes scholar, has a doctorate from Oxford University, is a best-selling author and founded The Mission Continues, a charity that takes in $11 million a year and sends most of that back to help veterans heal themselves through public service. Contrary to Koster’s claims, Greitens did not rob veterans when he took a salary for six years that is well within the range for charities of similar size. And The Mission Continues has an excellent rating for effectiveness and transparency from national charity watchdog groups.
Koster, a former Republican who switched parties to run for attorney general, built on his 10 years as Cass County prosecutor to move to the state Senate, where he achieved a leadership role as a Republican. He broke with Republicans over stem-cell research and views he perceived as anti-labor. It was not crooked, as Greitens asserts, when Koster was caught accepting campaign contributions from companies his office was investigating, but it was extremely unsavory. And to Koster’s credit, once caught in the scheme — which followed a precedent by some of his predecessors — he cleaned up his act.
So, in sum, neither man is the ogre claimed by the other.
Greitens’ stances line up with conservative Republican positions. He is anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-tax, anti-regulation, pro-business and strongly supports right-to-work legislation.
Greitens opposes expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which he labels a failed social experiment. Greitens, who says he greatly values education, seeks to direct more education money away from administration and bureaucracy into higher teacher pay in the classroom. He favors more choices for parents in where they send their children to school.
Koster, who calls himself a conservative Democrat, gained the National Rifle Association’s endorsement. He supports the 2014 phased-in tax cuts enacted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly over Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto.
Koster is pro-abortion rights. He favors fully funding the K-12 education formula that has not been fully funded for years. He strongly supports expanding Medicaid in Missouri, which he says would pour $2 billion of Missouri’s own tax money back into the state annually, creating jobs and preventing the closures of rural health clinics and hospitals. He doesn’t say, however, how he would pay the bill as the federal money dries up and the state has to take on paying for the larger pool of patients.
Koster is vehemently opposed to right-to-work legislation, and that has led unions to pour more than $8 million into his campaign.
Both men agree that Missouri’s crumbling roads and bridges need fixing, but they differ on where to find the resources to get that done. Koster correctly pledges to work with legislative leaders to get increased funding. Getting an increase in Missouri’s gas tax, which is now the fifth-lowest in the nation, won’t be easy, but it is critically important. Greitens vaguely talks about finding lumps of money for transportation elsewhere in the budget because he does not believe the state is now being fiscally responsible in many places.
The best argument Greitens has for his election is his outsider status with his promise to clean up corruption in Jefferson City. He sees ethical lapses in both political parties and promises to stop the revolving-door system that permits lawmakers to leave state employ and soon return to lobby their former colleagues. He promises to ban all lobbyists’ gifts in his administration and would work to persuade the General Assembly to do the same.
That persuasion would likely be a heavy lift for Greitens. He has antagonized many of the very legislative leaders who should be part of the solution but are sometimes a large part of the problem. He might very well have to go around legislators and take reform measures directly to the people.
In contrast to some of Greitens’ uninformed statements about state governmental processes, Koster has demonstrated sound knowledge of legislative and executive functions. He is willing to seek bipartisan solutions to serious Missouri challenges, from education funding to deteriorating infrastructure. He believes fiscal conservatism and social tolerance can and should peacefully coexist.
Greitens, the outsider, had no part in creating the dysfunctional, ethically challenged organism state government has become, but if he were given the state’s top job, his learning curve on the most basic government functions would be steep. Koster has valuable experience in making government work, and he has the willingness to seek bipartisan solutions that would make him an effective governor from his first days in office.