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Three Democrats make attorney general primary one of Missouri's hottest races

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 17, 2008 - Three Democrats make attorney general primary one of Missouri's hottest races

Other than the unusual Republican primary for governor, the hardest fought and most interesting race on the Aug. 5 Missouri primary ballot is among three lawyers vying in the Democratic race for the attorney general nomination.

Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons is unopposed for the Republican nomination.

The attorney general's office tends to get special scrutiny because of the power vested there and the history of those who have held the office. It was the launching pad for John Ashcroft, John Danforth and Thomas Eagleton to higher office, and the 16-year incumbent, Democrat Jay Nixon, is running for governor.

This year, the high price of the campaigns is adding to the buzz.

Patrick Lynn, a consultant for state Rep. Margaret Donnelly of Richmond Heights expects the three candidates to spend more than $3 million total for the primary contest.

"This is the start of something we have never seen in (Missouri) primaries," said Lynn. "With no campaign contribution limits and so many possible candidates in the future, when a statewide office is open, like attorney general, everybody jumps." Term limits force legislators to consider a move. 

The main candidates are Jeff Harris and Chris Koster, who have worked for attorneys general, and Donnelly, who is an advocate for family law and security. All three are lawyers who serve in the Missouri General Assembly. The fourth candidate is Molly Korth Williams, a Kansas City school teacher who has a law degree but does not practice.

Some observers believe Koster urged Williams to run to siphon votes from Donnelly. Koster denies it. It's not the only controversy around his campaign.

Koster, a state senator, was a Republican until a year ago when he switched parties and sharply changed the dynamics of the race. His close association with Chuck Hatfield, a Jefferson City lawyer and former top Nixon aide who created the Economic Growth Council, has also raised eyebrows among political observers. The Economic Growth Council has had a role in handling donations that eventually benefitted Koster's campaign.

Associated Press reports say that Koster has been moving money among several committees to avoid contribution limits (limits that will disappear at the end of August thanks to a new law.) Following the reports, representatives of his opponents filed an ethics committee complaint. Koster denies that his campaign did anything illegal.

Many Republicans consider Koster a traitor, yet he has picked up support from parts of the business community. His vow to enforce the prevailing wage law has garnered endorsements from organized labor. And Freedom Inc., which includes African-American civic leaders in Kansas City, recently added its support to that of many in law enforcement and such party leaders such as William Lacy Clay.

Koster's website says he will focus on consumer protection, cooperation with law enforcement and environmental protection. 

A former Cass County prosecutor, former assistant attorney general under William Webster and former state Senate leader when he was a Republican, Koster has deep St. Louis ties, even though today he lives on the southern fringes of the Kansas City area.

His father was the late Rich Koster, a conservative-to-moderate St. Louis journalist who was a regular on "Donnybrook," the public affairs show on KETC, Channel 9.

Jeff Harris

Rep. Jeff Harris of Columbia, the former House minority leader, has focused many of his attack ads on Koster's party switch and support for some conservative policies of Gov. Matt Blunt and President George W. Bush.

Harris gave up his leadership role to run for attorney general. As an assistant attorney general under Nixon, he successfully defended Gov. Bob Holden's decision to allow state workers to organize.

Harris comes from the more liberal end of the Missouri Democratic spectrum, befitting his base in Columbia, which is one of the more liberal areas of the  state.

He, too, boasts endorsements, including from the St. Louis local of the International Association of Fire Fighters and from Warren and Betty Hearnes and Senate Democratic Leader Maida Coleman.

His website stresses strengthening the Sunshine Law and "sniffing out" confined animal feeding operations. The latter is high on the list of issues being watched by the Coalition for the Environment.

Kat Logan Smith, the coalition's executive director, wants to see the next attorney general push the state Department of Natural Resources to enforce federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

"These are perennial issues," Smith said. "Are we going to enforce the laws?"

Under Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, she said, authority to prosecute offenders, particularly in such controversial areas as confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are numerous throughout Missouri, has devolved back to the federal government. But the state can reclaim that authority by being more aggressive in enforcing environmental laws.

Harris has said he supports the right of counties and cities to regulate or even block construction of new CAFOs nearby, while Koster has said this issue should be resolved by the Legislature. Missouri has nearly 550 concentrated feeding operations for hogs, cattle, chickens and turkeys.

Margaret Donnelly

Donnelly has not held a high leadership position in the Legislature, but has been a school board member and long has had a private law practice that focuses on domestic issues. She point to her 20 years of trial experience, during which she often defended battered wives and victims of sexual assault.

Donnelly is for more consumer protection against products that may harm children and would screen school employees more closely to prevent possible preditors from being hired. She is calling for a unit within the attorney general's office to handle registration of sexual preditors.

While in the Legislature, she has fought to restore the Medicaid cuts and is for adding money for treating mental illness in the criminal justice system. In addition to these issues, she opposes taxpayer funding for vouchers for public schools and says that, as attorney general, she would launch a hotline for victims of fraud. Consumer product safety and cyber crimes are high on her list of issues.

As attorney general - a statewide office no woman has sought before - Donnelly points out that she would set policy, the tone of law enforcement and represent state agencies in cases.

Donnelly's endorsements include former state Treasurer Nancy Farmer, former state Supreme Court judge Ronnie White, the Sierra Club and 14 St. Louis County townships.

Who wins the nomination on Aug. 5 will most likely hinge on Democratic primary turnout, which historically runs low. That's why endorsements by organized labor can be helpful: In many cases, disciplined labor members can get family and friends to the polls in greater numbers.

One scenario that could work in Donnelly's favor, however, comes from Dan Mehan, president and chief executive of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.

Mehan posited that as Koster and Harris slug it out over the next month, with ever-tougher attacks and counter-attacks, Donnelly could squeak through with a plurality.

Under this scenario, she would probably need 35 to 40 percent of the vote to come out the winner and face Gibbons in the general election.

Gibbons is potentially a formidable challenger whom many in the business community may support if Koster is no longer a contender. But for now, Mehan said, many in the business community like Koster because they believe he will take a more pro-business view than either Harris or Donnelly.

"This is an interesting dynamic going on," Mehan said. "You have two pretty liberal Democrats (Harris and Donnelly) and Koster has shown an interesting ability to get crossover support from business and labor."

While saying neither he nor the Chamber has taken a public position on the race, Mehan added: "One stands out as a very capable legislator, and that's Koster."

In November, John Temporiti, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said he wanted to avoid divisive primary battles. Now that the primary fight is in full flower, party spokesman Jack Cardetti said party officials welcome the contest because there are three "quality candidates" that Democratic voters can choose from.

"The attorney general's office doesn't come open very often, so this is natural," Cardetti said.

Chris Koster

Home: Harrisonville, south of Kansas City

Professional experience: Assistant attorney general under William Webster, 1991-95; Cass County prosecuting attorney 1994-2004; state senator, 2004 to present; and private practice.

Finances: $329,919 reported raised this quarter; $2.1 million for the election cycle and $863,927 cash on hand, $200,000 debt

Website: www.chriskoster.com/index.html

Jeff Harris

Home: Columbia

Professional experience: Assistant attorney general under Jay Nixon, state representative 2002 to present; and private practice

Finances: $117,726 this quarter; $729,705 total, $372,491 cash on hand

Website: www.electjeffharris.com/

Margaret Donnelly

Home: Richmond Heights

Professional experience: School social worker; Ferguson-Florissant school board 1986-92, state representative, 2002 to present; and private practice

Finances: $216,118 this quarter, total $969,951, cash on hand of $534,546, debt, $200,000

Website: www.donnellyforattorneygeneral.com/

Repps Hudson is a freelance journalist who has covered politics and business. 

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