ANALYSIS: Missouri Republican gubernatorial candidates campaign for ethics reform

Sunday, June 29, 2008 | 6:36 p.m. CDT; updated 4:20 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Reform. As a noun, its primary definition is “a correction of faults or evils, as in government or society.”

So when Missouri’s leading Republican gubernatorial candidates campaign on the need for ethics reform, they implicitly suggest that Missouri’s current government has faults or evils in need of correction.

What makes the campaign platforms of Kenny Hulshof and Sarah Steelman somewhat unusual is that they are presenting them in the Republican primary, after four years in which Republicans have been in charge of the Governor’s Mansion, Senate and House.

In essence, the Republican gubernatorial candidates are appealing to Republican voters by implying that Republican officeholders have done a poor job of instilling ethics in government.

It sounds more like an argument that would come from a Democratic candidate.

“It is a little unusual in that they’re both implicitly criticizing their own party — at least members of their own party who are currently in leadership positions in state government,” said David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

To be clear, neither Hulshof or Steelman has specifically criticized Republican Gov. Matt Blunt for any alleged ethical lapses.

But Kimball says it’s hard not to draw that conclusion from their ethics platforms, particularly since they are running for the office he now holds.

“These are tough times, I think, for Republicans, and they’ve got and try to differentiate themselves from the Republican brand and from the governor,” Kimball said. “And ethics is one of the easier issues where they can do that while still being conservative.”

Hulshof was the first to roll out an “ethics reform package” in April.

His six-pronged proposal includes an end to patronage appointments for state license offices, a long-standing gubernatorial tradition for which Blunt drew heat early in his administration. Blunt later started awarding some office contracts through competitive bids — a process embraced by Hulshof.

Hulshof’s ethics plan also implicitly takes aim at Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Nixon, whose attorney general’s office defends claims against a state fund for injured workers. Hulshof proposes to ban political contributions to the attorney general from private sector lawyers representing injured workers — something Nixon acknowledges he has received.

Steelman rolled out her own “tough new ethics proposals” during a series of campaign events last week.

She took particular aim at Republican House Speaker Rod Jetton, who also works as a political consultant for some lawmakers, by proposing to ban such dual roles. She also proposed a law banning state tax credits, contracts and loan incentives from going to elected officials or their families — a move that under current circumstances would deny financial incentives for an ethanol plant whose investors include a Republican lawmaker and the governor’s brother, Andy Blunt.

“What I think we need to do is make sure that we restore trust and confidence from the public in elected officials,” Steelman said in an interview. That implies that such trust and confidence has been lacking during the past four years of Republican governance.

Hulshof struck upon a similar theme when outlining his ethics package. He noted that people are talking about the economy and jobs, health care and education.

“The reason that we’re unveiling this ethics package first is because without integrity in government, those other issues — while very important — pale in comparison if Missourians don’t have faith and trust and confidence in their elected leadership,” Hulshof said in an April interview.

Hulshof, currently Missouri’s 9th District congressman, and Steelman, the state treasurer, each can claim credentials as ethics advocates.

Hulshof chaired a subcommittee of the House Ethics Committee that investigated Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in 2004. The committee admonished DeLay for creating the appearance of linking political donations to a legislative favor and for improperly persuading U.S. aviation authorities to intervene in a Texas political dispute. Hulshof was subsequently removed from the Ethics Committee by fellow Republicans.

Steelman created a zero-tolerance conflict-of-interest policy for biofuel plants and other entities seeking low-interest-rate loans from banks participating in a treasurer’s office program. That policy has prevented Show Me Ethanol from getting millions of dollars of financial incentives partly because its connection to Blunt’s brother. When the Republican-led Senate voted one May night to overturn her policy, Steelman called the senators “cowards.”

Kimball said it may not be very politically helpful in the Republican primary for Hulshof and Steelman to imply that Missouri’s Republican-led government is in need of an ethics overhaul. But whoever wins the Aug. 5 primary will be able to claim that he or she has long been calling for ethics reforms, which may make a stronger selling point in the November general election.

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