Is Koster ambitious for himself or for the people?
By BARBARA SHELLY
The Kansas City Star
Chris Koster is visible in Missouri these days as a lavishly financed Democrat vying for the party’s nomination in the attorney general’s race. But he started his political life as a prosecutor who managed to make a name for himself in the mostly rural environs of Cass County. Next he was a freshman Republican senator who spoke out in opposition to restraints on stem-cell research and immersed himself in the complexities of Medicaid fraud.
Koster gained a reputation as a talented legislator unafraid to take on the special interests and socially conservative core of his own party. But those credentials don’t win Republican primaries in Missouri, and Koster, from the start, had his sights set on being the state’s attorney general. He tried tacking to the right, sponsoring bills that would crack down hard on illegal immigrants and protect large hog-raising operations from regulation by county and city governments. But those efforts drew him deeper into a political wilderness.
Though neither made it into law, the immigration and hog-farm bills damaged his standing with people who’d seen him as a refreshingly moderate lawmaker in a conservative Republican delegation.
And his defense of stem-cell research had placed him permanently on the outs with groups like Missouri Right to Life, which often call the shots in Republican primaries. So Koster decided to remake himself. Last summer he announced his incarnation as a newly minted Democrat. “I think it’s been good for my internal soul,” he told a group of editorial writers a few months later.
But has it been good for his political career? Koster may have resolved his identity crisis in his own mind, but not in the public’s. Many Democrats, it turned out, liked him better and found him more useful when he was a maverick Republican.
His opponents in the Aug. 5 primary election, dyed-in-the-wool Democratic legislators Margaret Donnelly and Jeff Harris, point out Koster’s many votes that advanced Republican causes. At the top of the list are his support for cuts in Medicaid benefits and a photo ID requirement for voters. Koster’s oversized war chest — it easily tops $1 million — is an issue with Democrats who had sought to limit campaign contributions.
His money comes mostly from political party committees and political action committees set up to avoid limits on contributions from individuals. At least $100,000 is from Rex Sinquefield, a semiretired millionaire who favors eliminating the state income tax and offering tax credits to families who send their children to private and religious schools — causes supported more frequently by Republicans than Democrats.
The one constant in Koster’s political wanderings — prosecutor to lawmaker, Republican to Democrat, maverick to suspected imposter — has been his towering ambition. About this he is upfront. It’s “up or out,” Koster says. If he can’t ascend to statewide office, he’ll move on to a prosperous law practice. Ambition is the engine that powers all political careers. But it’s pertinent to ask what candidates are ambitious for.
Donnelly wants to use the attorney general’s post to continue her work of advocating for vulnerable populations and underserved groups. She is convincing when she says that office is the height of her ambition. Harris, the leader of the House Democrats, seems driven by a combination of personal ambitions, issues he wants to pursue and aspirations for his party. And Koster? Hard to tell.
He speaks passionately about certain issues, but he has not yet articulated that his ambition extends to a higher call beyond moving to the next rung on the political ladder. Perhaps that’s what happens when you spend too much time in the wilderness. You forget to talk about the mountaintop.
Barbara Shelly is a member of the Editorial Board. She can be reached at 816-234-4594 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. She blogs at voices.kansascity.com.