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Lieutenant governor's race is starting to draw a crowd

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 5, 2011 - Missouri's lieutenant governorship doesn't have many defined responsibilities. And it hasn't been an automatic stepping stone to higher office. But that isn't stopping candidates from vying for the position.

With over a year before Election Day, the race for lieutenant governor already has attracted the sitting Speaker of the House, a Republican, and a former state auditor, a Democrat. And a former Republican state representative announced she will run for the office on a third-party ticket. And that's just the start.

Speculation continues about other candidates getting in the race.

While the lieutenant governor's contest may not attract the attention or intrigue of races higher on the ballot, it could affect the state's political -- and potentially legislative -- future. A GOP victory could produce a new leader for the party if the GOP fails to unseat Gov. Jay Nixon next year. And a Democratic triumph could change the dynamics of the Missouri Senate.

"Many politicians will look on it as a potential steppingstone to the governorship," said Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "It's a way of gaining some exposure, although most of the time the lieutenant governor's well in the background. But it's a way of learning how to run a statewide campaign and making the contacts you need to make to run a statewide campaign."

A Growing Field

The race is wide open because Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder is not running for re-election. Kinder -- a Republican who first won the office in 2004 -- is considering a run for governor.

So far, House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, Missouri Democratic Party chairwoman Susan Montee and Missouri Conservation Commissioner Becky Plattner, a Democrat, have filed paperwork with the Missouri Ethics Commission to raise money for the lieutenant governor's contest. Filing for the office begins early next year.

The lieutenant governor has only a few required duties -- taking over if the governor leaves office, presiding over the Missouri Senate and serving on several boards and commissions. The governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately, which often results in officeholders from different parties in the respective positions. For instance, Kinder is a Republican, while Gov. Jay Nixon is a Democrat.

Tilley, for one, sees the limited constitutional responsibilities as an opportunity.

"The unique thing about the lieutenant governor's office is ... you can make it what you want of it," Tilley said. "Traditionally it's been an advocate for seniors and veterans. But with my background in the private sector and my experience in the legislative branch, I think I can bring unique talents to it."

Tilley said he would reshape the lieutenant governor's office into an economic development booster for the state.

"In some states, the lieutenant governor's office serves as almost an ombudsman for economic development," Tilley said. "Not only visit with businesses here in the state to try and get them to grow in Missouri, but to go outside and sell the state to other companies that might want to consider coming to this state."

Montee - an attorney and certified public accountant - filed paperwork this week to raise money for the seat. Attempts to reach Montee were unsuccessful.

Montee told the Associated Press last week that she had attempted to recruit a Democratic candidate for the position and concluded that she would have the best chance of winning the position.

After successfully winning the race for the state auditor's office in 2006, Montee was defeated for re-election by Republican Tom Schweich last year. Montee also brings to the table experience running statewide, which other potential Democratic candidates may lack.

Plattner, a member of the state's conservation commission and a former Saline County presiding commissioner, entered the lieutenant governor's race earlier this year. Plattner unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination in 2008.

Stepping Stone?

Squire, the political science professor, said even though the lieutenant governor's office doesn't have an extensive set of responsibilities, it still can be a conduit for increased exposure.

And if Kinder falls short in his gubernatorial bid in 2012, Squire said Tilley may have a foothold to run for the state's highest office in 2016.

"[Tilley] has to move out of the House of Representatives, and he's probably ... thinking (about) winning the governorship at some point in the future," Squire said. Running for lieutenant governor "seems like the natural progression for him. ... From the Republican perspective, (it's a campaign that) is probably quite winnable."

The lieutenant governorship has proved to be a mixed credential for running for higher offices. Republican Bill Phelps and Democrat Ken Rothman failed in their bids to become governor. And Harriett Woods, a Democrat who won the lieutenant governorship in 1984, fell short in her bid for the U.S. Senate in 1986.

Things changed in 1992, when then-Lt. Gov. Mel Carnahan defeated then-Attorney General Bill Webster in the governor's race. Carnahan had previously served as state treasurer before taking a four-year hiatus from state government.

If he decides to run, Kinder would be the first lieutenant governor since Carnahan on a gubernatorial ballot. Kinder's two predecessors -- Democrats Roger Wilson and Joe Maxwell -- did not end up running for any other office, although Wilson became governor briefly after Carnahan died in a 2000 plane crash.

A Democratic victory could change the dynamics of the Missouri Senate, since lieutenant governors can preside at any time. That chamber is overwhelmingly Republican, which means Kinder typically doesn't spend much time overseeing business there.

That could change if Montee or another Democrat becomes lieutenant governor. Back in 2004 for instance, Maxwell refused to recognize Republican senators during a filibuster.

But Squire said there could more benefits for Democrats winning the lieutenant governorship besides increased influence in the Missouri Senate.

"For the Democrats, they need to develop their talent pool of potential candidates for future elections," Squire said. "They don't have a lot of people in the state legislature right now, so it's probably important for them to get the lieutenant governor's race."

Montee and Plattner aren't the only names being tossed around as Democratic candidates. Former state Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, told the Beacon earlier this year that he's been testing the waters for the race. And the Arch City Chronicle mentioned Department of Agriculture director Jon Hagler as potential candidate.

Hagler was involved in crafting compromise legislation earlier this year on dog breeding regulations. The issue came to a head after a ballot item passed in 2010 placing strict rules on the dog-breeding industry. That sparked an outright revolt among rural legislators and farming interest groups.

Christine Tew, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, said she couldn't speak to whether Hagler was interested in the office. She did provide the Beacon with a statement saying Hagler "remains focused on moving agriculture forward for the state of Missouri under Gov. Nixon's leadership."

Davis Takes A Different Path

One wild card in the contest could be a candidate who's committed to running for a third-party.

Former state Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon, announced this weekend that she would run for lieutenant governor on the Constitution Party ticket. Davis unsuccessfully ran last year against Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, and recently served as chairwoman of the St. Charles Republican Party.

Davis gained national attention in 2009 when she criticized Missouri's summer food program for kids, saying that "hunger can be a positive motivator." She also supported efforts to make it more difficult to divorce in Missouri.

At a kickoff event outside the St. Louis Art Museum, Davis said her candidacy provides a choice for voters beyond the two party system. 

"For the Republicans, I want to say they've told us to hold our nose and vote for whoever the candidate is," Davis said. "And we've held our noses so long we're turning blue. And I say blue because that's what happens when you're deprived of oxygen. And blue is also the color for people more to the left of us."

Davis' entry could potentially peel away votes from Tilley. Tilley has drawn criticism from tea party supporters, for instance, for his support of ending state control of the St. Louis Police Department.

For his part, Tilley said he isn't worried about Davis, adding that two female candidates on the ballot may be advantageous for him.

"My goal," he emphasizes, "is to get my message out across the state and let my record speak for itself."

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state government and politics. 

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