PARK HILLS – As guest speaker at Mineral Area College’s Fourth Friday speaker series, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster reacted to Thursday’s apparent suicide of state auditor and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Schweich.
He also spoke on several other topics that included his thoughts on term limits, his reason for switching political parties in 2007 and attempts being made by some to bring “right-to-work” to the state.
Schweich was transported mid-morning Thursday to Barnes-Jewish Hospital after apparently shooting himself in his Clayton home. He was pronounced dead soon after his arrival. The sudden death of the second-term auditor has shocked and saddened the state’s political establishment and roiled the race for governor barely a month after it began.
Following a request by MAC President Dr. Steve Kurtz, for a moment of silence in memory of Schweich, the second-term attorney general and Democratic candidate for governor addressed the larger-than-normal crowd assembled in the school’s Fine Arts Theatre.
“Tom Schweich was a fantastic gentleman and a friend,” Koster said. “It goes without saying — I think many people know his background — he went to Yale undergrad. He went to Harvard Law School. He had achieved an ambassadorial rank in Afghanistan. He worked on the Waco investigation with Sen. Jack Danforth. He had been attached to the United Nations.
“He brought a lot of integrity and credibility to state government and was a tremendously hard worker. I saw some people over the last few hours who have described him as a ‘workaholic.’ I don’t know if workaholic is the right term. He was just a guy who had an incredible work ethic. He was a hard worker in the best of all the senses. He was also somebody who really tried to break down the walls of partisanship I think that exists in Jefferson City and in Washington DC.”
Koster related how he would occasionally be invited by Schweich to have “a bite to eat” and how the auditor would always choose a public location where people would be sure to see the pair dining together.
“He wanted people to see, not just a Republican state official and a Democratic state official eating together, but to see a Republican candidate for governor and a Democratic candidate for governor, right? Two individuals who might find themselves in an election in 2016, depending on how things go, eating together and talking like colleagues and friends. That’s the kind of guy Tom was.”
Koster concluded his remarks about Schweich saying, “I’m going to stop because I don’t want to get choked up. There’s a lot of pressure in this business — pressure that is not completely obvious if you’re not in it yourself. And so I hope you keep [the Schweich family] in your prayers because he meant a lot to our government and to the common life we live together through our government. He made a big contribution. He was a good man.”
Describing his current elected position, Koster said, “An attorney general is kind of a political title. It means something that those not in the political world completely understand because we have a term for it in the business world and that is ‘general counsel.’ I’m essentially the general counsel for the corporation that is the state of Missouri.”
Noting that he also serves as attorney for the people of Missouri, Koster said he works for the state’s board of directors — the Missouri Legislature.
“Unlike other major corporations that have a small, tightly knit, unified board of directors, we have a very large and somewhat demanding and at times unruly board of directors: 197 individuals that are broken into two political parties and two houses within two political parties — the Senate and House. And so the board of directors I answer to, unlike the board of directors of Emerson Electric or Anheuser Busch, has almost perfected the art of disagreement and fighting.”
Regarding term limits, Koster said, “In 1992 we made a decision to bring term limits into the state and what we essentially did was, we decided that rather than let this tremendous expertise grow up to manage a very complicated government, we decided it was better off if we cut all the trees to the same height.
“If we made a rule that no tree could ever grow taller than any of the others, no expertise could really grow up for a long-standing period of time — nobody should ever have more than eight years of knowledge and experience — and so we cut all our trees to the same height.
“What we were essentially saying was that somebody with no experience is unquestionably better at running a $27 billion, 65,000 employee corporation as nine years experience. And so we lost a lot of the leadership and understanding of a very complicated organization by that rule.”
He said what should be limited instead is the leadership positions of the Missouri House and Senate.
The following is a brief overview of other topics covered by the attorney general.
Economic development — “It is key for our future,” Koster said. “Everything begins with fiscal responsibility and economic development. I hope that both parties see that as the cornerstone.”
He added that the state has been “too slow” in recovering from the 2007-2008 recession.
Medicaid expansion — “This subject probably divides this room and to some degree divides the folks in Jefferson City,” Koster said. “I believe that as long as the federal policy remains as it is that we should join this federal program. There is $2 billion a year that essentially Washington, DC wants to provide to the state of Missouri’s health care system that experts state will probably create 24,000 new jobs in this state in the health care arena. Two billion dollars is an enormous sum into the Missouri economy.”
Koster said the infusion of that much money could have significantly affected the growth of the state’s economy and that its refusal cut it in half.
“With all due respect my belief is that to allow the speed of the Missouri economy to have been cut in half because of partisanship is unwise. That’s a pretty loaded statement. You can tell it’s an understatement, but it’s unwise in my view.”
Public education/higher education — “Both somewhere between need and crisis in our state,” Koster said.
Transportation — “A major problem that there is simply no turning away from is the funding of transportation in the state of Missouri,” he said. “We have one of the largest road systems in the nation. We have like the seventh largest road system in the country. We fund that road system 43rd in the country.”
Right to Work — “It has been a point of contention in the state of Missouri since the mid-1970s,” Koster said. “In this part of the state, being rural, my guess is that it tends to support right to work a little more. I’m opposed to right to work personally. Right to work in my mind is about a theory that if we lower wages in the state, then Missouri will be more competitive nationally.
“There is an economic theory that is driving this. Some people want to weaken labor unions, but I think the majority of people who would like to bring right to work in are not as much about weakening labor unions as they are about making the state more competitive.”
Switching political parties — “A part of my bio that I didn’t want to bore people with, but I switched parties,” he said. “I grew up in a very conservative household. My dad was like really right-wing, almost libertarian. Probably libertarian. So I have run seven times — four times as a Republican and three times as a Democrat.
“So, I ran three times for prosecutor as a Republican and then I ran for the state senate and elected into leadership as a Republican. I had the third ranking job in the Missouri Senate and then in 2007, in year three, I switched to the Democratic Party and served as a conservative Democrat since then and I’ve been happy over the decision.”
Koster said the precipitating factor in his switching from a Republican to a Democrat was the “controversial” issue of stem cell research, which he supports.
“My father was a Type 1 diabetic from the time he was 17 years old,” he said. “The type of insulin he took when he was a young man was something they don’t use anymore but essentially had the effect of wearing out his organs because the insulin they used to use was very hard on people’s bodies. So he died at what I consider a very young age.”
Koster said he made the decision to switch parties because he did not want to see stem cell research outlawed in the state of Missouri.
“He was also somebody who really tried to break down the walls of partisanship I think that exists in Jefferson City and in Washington D.C.” — Attorney General Chris Koster
Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or firstname.lastname@example.org