This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 25, 2008 - 'A different kind of Republican': Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder cultivates black voters
Formerly a one-building campus, Harris Stowe State University now has a dormitory, a business school and a performing arts center. Add to these the early childhood and parenting education center that will soon rise on the west end of the campus. President Henry Givens credits his school's growth to influential state lawmakers, one of whom is Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.
To Givens, Kinder is a true member of the university family; in Givens' words, Kinder "doesn't just talk the game" when it comes to helping but shows up consistently at major school events and takes the time to learn many students by name. Moreover, Givens says, Kinder goes to bat for many other institutions and organizations whose traditional missions, like Harris-Stowe's, include serving and uplifting people most at risk of failure.
Former city Alderman Wayman Smith best summed up the relationship between Kinder and some black Missourians when Smith said at a Kinder fundraiser last spring: "He's always been the kind of guy that we in our community can support and the reason is because he has always supported us." That fundraiser drew Democrats -- such as Smith and former state Rep. Betty Thompson -- and other prominent African Americans.
All this is unusual because Kinder happens to be a Republican, part of a party not commonly praised by black Missourians. But Sam Page, who is Kinder's likely Democratic opponent in the fall election, and some black politicians as well, say the public praise shouldn't be confused with black support for Kinder at election time.
Ten Candidates seek Lt. Gov. Job
The late U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton once quipped in Mark Twain fashion that the duties of lieutenant governor are to sit by the window and watch the Big Muddy roll through Jefferson City. Actually, the job also includes picking up an annual paycheck of $84,000 in exchange for presiding over the Senate, advocating for the elderly and sitting on several state boards.
No fewer than 10 candidates have lined up to apply for this river-gazing job. The frontrunners are believed to be Peter Kinder, the GOP incumbent, and state Rep. Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur.
Even though some politicians joke that the office is a lucrative part-time job, Page, 43, says he wants to turn the position into a bully pulpit. He wants to use it to call state lawmakers' and the governor's attention to holes in Missouri's health safety net, particularly for the elderly.
Page says, "There are enormous opportunities for a senior advocacy role that haven't been realized in the lieutenant governor's office. What's more important to seniors than the issue of affordable health care? We can have a real opportunity to get out and talk about this issue and make sure seniors can afford prescription drugs."
Page frequently criticizes Kinder for not speaking out against Medicaid budget cuts. He also says Kinder hasn't generated much excitement among the elderly about Kinder's role as a senior advocate. Kinder in turn points to prominent senior advocates -- such as Ollie Stewart, head of the Southside Wellness Center -- who say they are pleased with Kinder's work on their behalf.
Page got his start in politics on the Creve Coeur City Council before being elected to the General Assembly in 2003. A physician, he has tried to come across as an ordinary guy. He tells audiences of learning the value of Missouri's safety net from his own childhood experiences growing up in Van Buren, Mo. He benefitted from the reduced-cost school lunch program, worked to help care for his family during high school and was lucky enough to win state-funded academic scholarships to help pay his way through college and medical school at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.
Democratic candidates, in addition to Page, are Michael E. Carter, 36, of St. Charles; Richard C. Tolbert, 63, of Kansas City; Becky L. Plattner, of Grand Pass, Mo.; Mary Williams, 51, of Jefferson City; and C. Lilliam Metzger, 84, of Troy, Mo.
Along with Kinder, 54, candidates seeking the GOP nomination are: Paul D. Sims, 48, of Lecoma, Mo.; and Arthur Hodge Sr., 62, of Springfield.
In addition, Teddy Fleck, 46, of Springfield, is seeking the office on the Libertarian ticket.
Kinder has raised over $1.5 million, and Page, $1.1 million, for their campaigns. Many of the other candidates have raised relatively small amounts or have filed exemptions because they have raised or spent less than $500 in their campaigns.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, explains the apparent ambivalence that some blacks feel about Kinder.
"Peter is perceived as someone who has paid attention to the issues in the African-American community, someone who's seen in the community on a regular basis," Clay says. "But that doesn't always mean he has the ideal solution for solving problems confronting African-Americans."
Clay says both Kinder and Page have "impressive records for public service," but Clay says he will do what Democrats are expected to do -- support the party's slate, including the party's nominee for lieutenant governor. "That's the way politics works."
Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University and political consultant, agrees with Clay that the friendships between Kinder and prominent blacks will make little difference at the polls since blacks are likely to vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate.
"Peter Kinder is a different type of politician, but I don't think the typical African-American voter is following his campaign," Warren says. "I think he wants to become governor and I think he's next in line (among GOP candidates). He has some problems with the Republican establishment. He's like John McCain. He's a maverick who rubs shoulders too much with Democrats. I think he's trying to broaden his base."
'A different kind of Republican'
Even so, there's no denying that Kinder enjoys an unusual social relationship with St. Louis' black community. He says this is because he is perceived as being "a different kind of Republican."
The Kinder kind of Republican was on display one hot Sunday afternoon in June when 20,000 people, overwhelmingly black and male, showed up near Page and Kingshighway to began a 1.7 mile Call to Oneness march against the city's high homicide rate and other forms of violence. Near the front of the crowd was Kinder, sporting a white baseball cap, sunglasses and wearing a Call to Oneness T-shirt. Though among many strangers, Kinder seemed comfortable, at ease as if surrounded by people he'd known for years.
"What I like about him is that he's engaging, he's involved, he's on the scene, and he speaks out on issues relevant to black people, whether it's housing, kids, the elderly or education," says James Buford, head of the local Urban League.
Kinder inspired by parents
Kinder's advocacy for some issues important to African-Americans makes some blacks count the lieutenant governor as a friend. For example, he has been a passionate supporter for more money for the Big Brothers Big Sisters Amachi Missouri program. It provides mentoring services for children of incarcerated parents, says Becky James-Hatter, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri.
Two years ago, he helped to double state spending on Amachi to $400,000. In the 2009 budget, funding was raised by another $100,000, bringing to $500,000 the amount Missouri is investing in the program.
Kinder says his ideas about improving the plight of children came indirectly from his parents' influence. He was born in 1954 in Cape Girardeau, one of four boys in a family where the father was a pediatrician, known for caring passionately about the well-being of all children and for wearing a bowtie and a warm smile at the office each day.
In an interview, Kinder mentions that his father died "59 days before his 83rd birthday" in July 2000, in a car accident. Had it not been for that crash, which occurred on a Saturday, Kinder says the doctor would have been at the office the following Monday, as usual, delivering medical care to needy infants and children. Instead of retiring, the doctor had chosen to help out at the county's primary care clinic. Kinder says that's one example of how his father taught him not to "be served but to serve others."
Says James-Hatter: "I was at his mother's funeral (earlier this year) where he spoke in a very gentle way, talked about the love and care he got from his parents.... He clearly understands the benefits he has had in growing up. I don't think he takes that for granted, that he has had a lot of support and resources. It's as if he's saying, 'If I had all of this and see others who don't, they need our help.' "
'Obligation as Christians'
After talking about his father, the lieutenant governor then fast forwards to the present and thinks about social problems, dysfunctional families, children of incarcerated parents and other issues confronting many Missourians. Then he says, "I believe in my soul very deeply that those of us who live comfortable lives have an obligation as Christians" to help others.
Page says that image doesn't match Kinder's behavior as lieutenant governor, citing Kinder's refusal to speak out against Gov. Matt Blunt's cuts in Medicaid spending, which Page says affected about 100,000 elderly Missourians.
"The African-American community in St. Louis, like others in Missouri, have priorities, such as improved access to health care, that are at odds with what has happened in state government," Page says. "They are appalled by what has been happening with the Blunt administration."
While his Christianity may help explain Peter Kinder, it's unlikely to sway black voters in the fall when Kinder is likely to face Democrat Page. (Both candidates have token opposition, and each has raised between $1.1 million and $1.5 million to finance their campaigns.)
If tradition is a guide, most black voters will side with the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, notwithstanding Wayman Smith and some other prominent leaders. But few believe that the lieutenant governor's seat is the end of Kinder's road.