News » Feature

Gov. Peter Kinder? That's a hoot

The man who wouldn't be governor.



Peter Kinder peaked on February 8, 2008, when he announced that he would not run for governor.

Just two weeks earlier, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt had announced that he would not run for re-election, and almost immediately after that, Kinder jumped into the race. But the campaign was not to be. Instead, on a stage at Lincoln Days, an annual gathering for state Republicans in Springfield, Missouri, Kinder found himself sounding a very public retreat.

"Since my earliest days of involvement, the reason for being involved has been larger than any one person. It has been emphatically not about me. It's about the cause you and I share."

Kinder did not smile. Grasping at the sides of the lectern, he continued.

"I am here today to tell you that after visiting with friends and being gratified by their support all across this state — grassroots volunteers, officeholders, fundraisers, captains of industry, people in the street — and being humbled by their support, that I will nonetheless stand down from the governor's race here tonight in the interest of the larger cause that you and I share. I will run for re-election as lieutenant governor. I will run the strongest possible race I can. I will take the game to the other team, and we will win this election in November."

Applause and cheers rose from the hotel ballroom, lifting the Republicans to their feet. Kinder waved the crowd back down.

"I look forward to that kind of ovation someday when I announce for a higher office," he said.

His audience laughed. Kinder did not.

If order had any place in state politics, Kinder might have received the standing ovation he envisioned on November 20, 2011, when he was most recently slated to announce his candidacy for governor. In preparation for the kickoff, his campaign staff had booked a large room at Ray's Plaza Center in Cape Girardeau, Kinder's hometown. U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican representing Missouri's 8th District, had been tapped to introduce the lieutenant governor. Multiple aides confirm that one week before the event, plans were in place to bus supporters in and order a "Kinder for Governor" banner to hang behind the stage.

None of this came to pass. Instead, Kinder rattled Missouri politics when he announced on November 18 that he would not run for governor after all. Dave Spence, a St. Louis businessman, would have that honor, and Kinder would seek re-election.

This seemingly abrupt decision ran counter to the conventional wisdom that the 2012 gubernatorial contest would pit the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Jay Nixon, against Kinder, the default Republican frontrunner since 2008. But Kinder's decision was neither abrupt nor unexpected. In the eyes of party insiders, it was inevitable.

When last April began, the only perceived inevitability was that Kinder would be his party's candidate for governor. He had received the joint blessing of the Missouri Republican Party and the Republican Governors Association, which was already working to book big-name headliners for Kinder's future fundraising events. The state's premier GOP donors were onboard, too. According to former staffers, Kinder originally planned to announce his candidacy in the late spring.

Plans changed April 3, though, when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a damning front-page story, "Kinder spends time in St. Louis, courtesy of taxpayers." During five years, the paper reported, Kinder had racked up more than $35,000 in hotel bills by spending some 300 nights in some of St. Louis' ritziest rooms — and charging everything to the state.

Two days after the story hit, Kinder faced Capitol reporters in the state Senate's Pershing Gallery at a last-minute press conference. Standing before a painting of Gen. John Pershing, who had ascended to the Army's highest rank, Kinder looked nervous but resolute.

Kinder insisted that he had done nothing wrong but, to put the story behind him, said he would repay all of the money.

"I seek to move this nimbus off the horizon, and let's get to the real issues that concern this state," he said.

But the nimbus sat, and Kinder's own issues deepened and multiplied. As April ended, Kinder announced that he would pay back even more to the state — $52,000 total — out of his own pocket. During the same week, it emerged that Kinder's office calendar, which could verify whether his hotel stays had been for official or for personal reasons, was not lost, as his staff had claimed. Rather, it had been saved all along with the Office of Administration, one floor below Kinder's office in the Statehouse.

(Editor's note, January 19, 2011: After this story's publication, Kinder's office contacted The Pitch to say that the Office of Administration's version of Kinder's calendar is a re-creation with duplicate entries that render verification of Kinder's schedule impossible.)

Also that week, Kinder left the keys to his Ford Flex in the ignition while the car was parked at his Cape Girardeau home. Thieves stole the vehicle, crashed it into a gun store and then set it on fire.

In The Kansas City Star at the end of that week, Steve Kraske wrote what many political insiders were thinking: "Peter Kinder surely looked into the mirror at some point last week and questioned the wisdom of his birth."

Kinder was born in Cape Girardeau in 1954, the third of four boys. His father, a pediatrician, was not political; his father's attorney and best friend, Rush Limbaugh Jr., was. Kinder has publicly credited "Mr. Rush" and his sons, among them radio host Rush Limbaugh III, with sparking his interest in politics.

"I began to get interested in this business ... in the early primary grades," Kinder said in his 2008 Lincoln Days speech. "The campaign was the Goldwater campaign, and I remember hearing Mr. Rush hold forth about it. And I can tell you that when you listen to his son, I can hear the old man booming out through his son, three hours a day, five days a week. It had a great impression on me."

At 10 years of age, Kinder began stuffing envelopes after school at Republican headquarters, where Millie Limbaugh, Rush III's mother, was in charge.

In 1972, when Kinder was 17 and a student at Central High School in Cape Girardeau, he entered one of his first political contests: a mock election organized by a few teachers to inform students about voting. The campaign was limited to a five-minute speech, and Kinder's platform was constrained by the candidate he was portraying: the incumbent president.

With 119 of the 215 votes cast, Kinder won the fake election — and, in an irony apparent only now, did so with the last name "Nixon."

Less than a decade later, in 1981, he was managing Republican Bill Emerson's first congressional campaign and met David Barklage, who also worked for the campaign. The two became friends and worked together again beginning in 2000, when Kinder served as president pro tem of the Missouri Senate. Barklage still consults for Kinder.

When they first met, Barklage says, the future lieutenant governor loved discussing policy and shied from the side of politics that rewards extroversion. Barklage says Kinder didn't begin to seriously consider becoming a politician until the early 1990s, when he ran for a seat in the state Senate and won.

"I don't find him to be particularly ambitious," Barklage says of Kinder. "He lacks a politician's ambition, but he has a great deal of intensity, and he's the most enthusiastic person in the room."

In 2008, opportunity fueled ambition. With the governor's race wide open on the Republican side, Kinder jumped in.

"At that point," Barklage says, "he obviously started saying this is something he might want to do. Then, when he felt it would be too divisive for the party, he decided to take a pass."

Top Missouri Republicans assured Kinder that it would be his turn in 2012.

By summer 2011, with his hotel scandal and a trying spring behind him, Kinder was again the toast of the political town. On June 21, well-heeled GOP donors congregated at Hunter Farms, a sprawling estate in St. Louis County, to celebrate Kinder during a fundraising dinner headlined by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The soiree, hosted by Stephen Brauer, a multimillionaire and former ambassador to Belgium, and his wife, Kimmy, had been scheduled since the spring as one of Kinder's big-ticket events. A $1,000 minimum donation secured a place for the dinner and Perry's speech; $10,000 bought a picture with Perry and a ticket to the cocktail reception; and $25,000 ensured a seat at a "private roundtable" with Kinder and Perry. As many as 600 people attended the main dinner, their checkbooks at the ready.

Kinder's plans moved forward. He would announce in September, barring another setback.

Enter: Tammy Chapman.

A former Penthouse magazine "Pet," Chapman met Kinder in the early '90s, when she was working as a stripper in St. Louis. He was, she told the Riverfront Times last year, one of her best customers. In the winter of 2010, according to the St. Louis weekly newspaper, Chapman reconnected with Kinder at Verlin's, a St. Louis bar known for its "pantsless parties."

That might have been the end of the story, if not for a picture of Chapman and Kinder together that the Riverfront Times' blog published August 4. Once the former relationship between Kinder and Chapman became public, the scandal snowballed.

On August 9, the paper published an interview with Chapman. She said Kinder, who had made his mark early in politics due to his steadfast conservatism, had pressured her sexually when he was a state senator and, while he was lieutenant governor, had asked her to live in his campaign-funded St. Louis apartment. Chapman said she turned Kinder down. Kinder has publicly denied that he ever made such an offer.

"He uses his political business card to get women," Chapman told the Riverfront Times. "He is not fit for public office."

Almost three weeks later, on August 29, Kinder's campaign e-mailed a message about the scandal to his supporters.

"I am communicating directly with you so you don't have to sort through all the spin by the press and bloggers whose agenda have [sic] replaced the truth and facts," the message began. "While my opponents' operatives have taken advantage of a situation you may have heard of, I accept complete responsibility and apologize to you for my actions of almost 17 years ago as a single man."

The e-mail, which denied Chapman's other claims, continued: "I have always been a team player. Four years ago, I chose not to run for Governor to preserve party unity and commited [sic] myself to helping other Republicans. ... I have had to fight and work hard to win every battle. After almost 20 years of service, I am not going to quit now without letting the rank and file of our Party be part of the process."

(Kinder's office refused to comment or arrange an interview with Kinder for this article.)

Just as the campaign tried to strike a confident, resilient chord with supporters, though, aides decided that Kinder should delay his gubernatorial campaign kickoff once more.

The Chapman scandal was the beginning of the end, many Republicans now say. Some said as much publicly when the scandal was still fresh.

In August, state Rep. Kevin Elmer (R-Nixa), wrote an open letter criticizing Kinder and calling on him to drop his bid for governor. More alarming to the Kinder camp, though, was the very public, very negative reaction from one major donor, David Humphreys.

Humphreys, the president and CEO of Tamko Roofing in Joplin, had donated $125,000 to the Kinder campaign in the first six months of 2011, according to Missouri Ethics Commission campaign finance records. Now, he was telling Politico that he wanted his money back and that Kinder should resign.

"If I had known this about him," Humphreys told Politico, "I would not have supported him in the past."

A pair of high-profile fundraising events in September that were organized by the Republican Governors Association, one featuring Karl Rove and the other with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, failed to boost Kinder's coffers and, by extension, the flailing campaign. From mid-July to mid-October, Kinder raised less than $500,000 — just half of what he took in during the quarter preceding the Chapman photo. In August, Kinder received no contribution in excess of $5,000.

"The major consideration [for donors] wasn't the fact that, two decades ago, Peter Kinder as a single guy went to a strip club," Barklage says. "I think that the whole focus of donors is, here's an incumbent governor who's been very successful in elections. You're getting distracted on things like this, and we're concerned that with further distractions, you're not going to be able to take this guy on or articulate his poor record on job creation and everything else and win."

At the end of September, Kinder traveled to Joplin, where he met with Humphreys, at Tamko's headquarters, in an effort to allay the businessman's concerns. After what Barklage and others close to Kinder describe as a polite discussion, the two men agreed to move on. Humphreys told Kinder that he could keep the money after all.

But concerns about Kinder continued to fester, and Republicans had already begun to look for another candidate.

The GOP turned first to its most obvious alternative: Missouri House Speaker Steve Tilley, a Perryville Republican who, in preparation for his own lieutenant governor campaign, had already accrued a war chest worth millions of dollars. In October, Tilley met with state party leaders at his home, where they urged him to consider running for governor.

"Obviously, everyone was seeing the same numbers, the polling on the race with Kinder as a candidate and so forth," one high-ranking Missouri House Republican tells The Pitch. "I wouldn't be able to say whether there was an effort to push Peter out or to read the tea leaves and make sure that, when the inevitable happened, they weren't left with nothing."

Tilley discussed the option with close aides and confidants. On November 10, he dropped a bomb: He announced that he would halt his bid for lieutenant governor and instead focus on spending time with his two children as he and his wife divorced. That afternoon, in a private caucus meeting with House Republicans, Tilley said he had decided not to run for governor for the same reasons that he would not run for lieutenant governor.

Halfway across the state, though, another threat to Kinder's candidacy was taking shape. Dave Spence, a multimillionaire and the president and CEO of Alpha Packaging in St. Louis, had been eyeing Kinder warily since Chapman went public. He wondered whether the lieutenant governor would have the political fortitude to recover.

On October 24, as Spence seriously considered entering the race for governor, he cut Kinder a check for $5,500. In an interview with the Associated Press, Spence called the donation "a gesture of friendship."

Roughly two weeks later, the "friends" — fraternity brothers who attended the University of Missouri at different times and did not meet each other until later in life — decided to size each other up. Over coffee in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in St. Louis, one of the hotels named at the start of Kinder's slide, Spence told Kinder where he stood.

"Dave sits down with Peter and says, 'I'm really serious about doing this. I don't think you can mount a credible campaign. I'm going to run,' " a source with knowledge of the meeting tells The Pitch. "Peter didn't think he was serious."

But the lieutenant governor wanted to be clear that he, for one, was still very serious. On November 13, Kinder's spokesman, Jared Craighead, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Kinder was all in.

"The lieutenant governor will be announcing his plans in the next two weeks," Craighead said, "but he will not be announcing that he is running for re-election as lieutenant governor."

State Sen. Brad Lager (R-Savannah) took that statement as his cue to enter the lieutenant governor race left open by Tilley's exit. The day before Lager announced his candidacy on November 14, he called Kinder's campaign to confirm that Kinder would not change his mind.

"They said, 'No.' Period," Lager says.

But Kinder had already undone his own campaign — with a tweet.

Unlike most politicians, Kinder writes and sends his own Twitter updates. The practice has sometimes created controversy for the lieutenant governor.On June 7, 2010, Kinder noted via Twitter an "astonishing explosion of lefty Jew hatred." On September 2 that year, he tweeted a link that he called a "MUST READ :)" to an illustrated article about the tattoos known as tramp stamps.

The tweet Kinder issued on November 11, 2011, then, was not his most outrageous. And it wasn't wholly surprising, either. The timing, however, was a killer.

It read: "RT @BrentTeichman: Free Wings today at @Hooters for Veterans and Active Duty Military Personnel... 11/11/11. Happy #Veterans Day #MO #pdk."

If talk of Tammy Chapman had dissipated at all in the Missouri political firmament, the tweet revived it. When staffers asked him about the tweet, Kinder's reaction was nonchalant, says one Republican who spoke to Kinder that day. By that afternoon, though, the tweet had been deleted.

But it was too late. Bloggers had picked up on the mention of Hooters. So had Spence. One Republican staffer with knowledge of Spence's reaction says the tweet "pushed Dave over the edge of the cliff."

"His reaction was, 'This is ridiculous — I'm getting in,' " the staffer says. "It became abundantly clear to him, with Kinder's lack of discipline, that he had to do it."

The Hooters tweet was posted on a Friday. The following Tuesday, Spence announced that he would run for governor. In an interview with the Associated Press, he confirmed that he was "100 percent committed."

Kinder, aides say, was not surprised, but he was angry and disappointed. During the days that followed, Kinder huddled with a close group of aides and confidants to decide what his next step would be. Could the candidate survive an expensive primary against Spence, only to face a taxing general election against Nixon? A path to victory no longer seemed to exist.

"It was almost like two guys standing in the alley waiting to see who draws their gun first," one Republican staffer says of Kinder and Spence. "Peter essentially put his guns down and said, 'I'm not interested in a duel and I'm not going to do this.' "

Late on the afternoon of November 18, Kinder announced in a statement that he would instead seek re-election as lieutenant governor and endorse Spence for governor.

"I believe, after numerous conversations with Dave Spence, that he is the Republican Party's best chance of defeating Jay Nixon," Kinder's statement read.

Kinder now faces a primary against Lager, in addition to state Sen. Luann Ridgeway (R-Smithville) and lawyer Mike Carter, as he seeks to hold on to his office.

Those close to Kinder say they haven't ruled out a go at the governor's mansion in 2016 — if Kinder is elected to a third term as lieutenant governor. But they admit that it's tough to look forward when the ink on this campaign's eulogy isn't yet dry.

Reflecting on Kinder's stillborn bid for governor, one Republican close to Kinder lists the miniature disasters that, one by one, bled the campaign to death: the hotel scandal, the subsequent decrease in cash flowing into the campaign, the Chapman scandal and another hit to fundraising, the public complaints from prominent GOP members that followed.

"It was," the aide says, "death by a thousand paper cuts."

When Kinder planned to announce his candidacy for governor in 2008, he couldn't wait to schedule a proper kickoff event. Instead, he unveiled his plans in an interview with the Associated Press.

"I'm in," Kinder told the AP. He assured the reporter that he would not change his mind: "No. Crossed the Rubicon."

Instead, Sarah Steelman and Kenny Hulshof — at the time, the state treasurer and a U.S. congressman, respectively — were left to duke it out for the Republican nomination for governor. Kinder, the odd man out, was left to say at Lincoln Days that he would run again for lieutenant governor.

Unfortunately, in the two-week adrenaline rush that followed Kinder's AP blurt, his staff had ordered the requisite first batch of "Kinder for Governor" T-shirts.

Four years later, those shirts are still in boxes. Some political insiders wear the T-shirts anyway in private — perhaps as part of a morbidly funny inside joke or as an ode to what might have been. Maybe someday, they'll be worn without irony, in a Missouri where everything finally goes according to Peter Kinder's plans.

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

Add a comment