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Primary primer: Webber, although young, touts his wealth of life experience

Monday, July 28, 2008 | 4:54 p.m. CDT; updated 6:13 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 28, 2008
Stephen Webber, Democratic candidate for the 23rd District, speaks to the crowd at Boone County Democratic Days at the Boone County fairgrounds on July 13.

COLUMBIA - Except for the stacks of "Vote Webber" signs, the exterior of the house in central-west Columbia doesn't stand out from the others in the cul-de-sac.

The house's basement, however, is headquarters: the Batcave, the command center, or, as the sign at the top of the stairs says, "The Serene Abode." Whatever name they use for their campaign office, the three young men typing away at computers in the basement are part of what Stephen Webber, candidate for Missouri's 23rd House District, refers to as "one of the best campaign staffs working in the state."

WHAT'S THE JOB?

The Missouri House of Representatives consists of 163 members elected in each general election for two-year terms. They are paid an delete space annual salary of $31,351. A representative must be at least 24, a qualified voter in the state for two years and of the district he or she represents for one year. No representative can serve more than four terms. Sessions begin in early January and end May 30. Representatives propose, vote and debate bills; serve on committees; and are responsible for representing their district in state government.

About the candidate

Stephen Webber

807 Forest Hill Court

PERSONAL: 25. Has a brother, Jonathan, and parents David Webber and Barbara Schneider who also live in Columbia.

PARTY: Democrat

CAMPAIGN WEB SITE: votewebber.com

OCCUPATION: Full-time campaigning

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in economics from St. Louis University in 2006.

BACKGROUND: Eagle Scout. Volunteers at American Legion Missouri Boy's State. Former worker for Americorps' AmeriCorps' Jumpstart program in St. Louis. Marine Corps reservist. Member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the American Legion.


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Of course, almost everyone on the campaign is an Eagle Scout, Webber's field director Bobby Ritchie, 21, points out.

Stephen's 22-year-old brother, Jonathan Webber, has been his full-time, unpaid, campaign manager from the beginning, and to him, it makes sense that Stephen Webber would run for the House seat in the district he grew up in.

"I guess I wasn't necessarily expecting it," Jonathan Webber said. "But I wasn't at all surprised. This is my representative, too, and there's no one I'd rather see in Jefferson City."

Stephen Webber and his full-time staff, which also includes Alex Hartzler, are all younger than 26, but they've still managed to raise more than $70,000 and secure the endorsements of 14 different groups.

Even so, Webber is sometimes asked if he's old enough to run when he canvasses door-to-door.

"I ask them: ‘Lets talk about the three policy issues that concern you the most, and afterwards if you want to come back and ask me if I'm still too young later that's fine,'" he said. "And most of the time, after talking policy for 15 minutes, that's not a concern for them anymore."

Despite his youth, Webber already has a wealth of life experience, not the least of which are his two tours of duty with the Marine Corps in Iraq.

After graduating high school in 2001, Webber enrolled in St. Louis University to study economics. In his sophomore year, before the Iraq War had started, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves, .

"I felt like it was a way I could contribute to my country," Webber said. "I looked at it as public service; I was willing to do what my country asked of me."

But when the war did start, Webber opposed it from the beginning. He criticized it in his school newspaper and spoke out against it on campus. He calls the decision to invade Iraq "the worst policy decision in my lifetime."

Despite his opposition, in 2004 he was pulled out of school and sent to Iraq.

"It was tough in two ways," Webber said. "One, it was a war zone. And two, it was tough mentally to be in a place I didn't think we should be. But I did what my country asked me to do. I'm proud that I served my country, but I wish I hadn't been asked to serve in that way."

In his first tour, Webber was stationed at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. Although he had nothing to do with the prison part of the complex, he would patrol the outside of the building. After the stories of prisoner abuse broke, media people would line up and ask the guards questions even though they didn't know anything. Iraqis would throw rocks, burn flags and blare music at all hours of the night, he said.

"It was one of the few times you knew you were living in a really historic event," Webber said.

Over all, Webber said it was interesting to see the Iraqis organize political movements in response to the prisoner abuse. He'd talk to people on the street about it, and then read a story in Time magazine, and that really showed him "how often the two worlds miss each other."

When he returned to the states after his first tour, he remembers seeing a TV show in which someone brought up Abu Ghraib and was then dismissed for discussing old news.

"Having been there, that's not going to be old news in the Arab world for a hundred years," he said. "They're going to be telling their children and grandchildren about what the Americans did at Abu Ghraib."

Going back to college after becoming a combat veteran was difficult, he said, because few people around him could relate to the experience. He graduated in 2006 but soon volunteered for another tour after being told that a fresh unit was being deployed that needed leadership and experience.

"It was a simple situation," he said. "I could be a leader and increase their chances of survival, or I could pat them on the back and tell them good luck."

He was sent to Fallujah and became a squad leader of 12 other Marines.

"I'm a young candidate, but I've already done the most difficult thing I'll have to do in my life, which is keep 12 guys alive," Webber said.

"The skills required to stay alive in Fallujah and to be effective in Jefferson City are different," he said with a chuckle. "But a lot of the lessons learned and personal attributes will carry over."

One such lesson was seeing how quickly things can change. Webber remembers working with an Iraqi family who had a son with an infected wound. His unit provided medicine to help the child recover, and he remembers how happy they were after his unit stopped by one day.

Hours later, walking through the market, another kid threw a grenade at his unit, injuring more Iraqis and one of his squad. "The whole cycle's started over again," Webber remembers thinking,

"It showed me how good and bad can be so closely related," he said.

Webber's experiences in Iraq have taken some of the pressure off campaigning, he said. Despite the differences between the two experiences, he still looks at both as public service.

Before he began campaigning, he worked as an aide to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in Washington, D.C., for nine months. Though he enjoyed his time in Washington, he said it was difficult to make a tangible difference, and he felt he would be able to better affect his own community at the state level.

"My goal was to help the people of Missouri (in D.C.)," he said. "I feel like I did that, but I feel I can do more back in Missouri."

So after discussing it with McCaskill, his family and former elected officials in Boone County, Webber decided to return to Columbia and run for the 23rd District seat.

"It's a tough decision to ask people to support you in this, but I've made a lot of tough decisions in the last few years," Webber said. "I've taken some chances, and I think this was one worth taking."

Now Webber and his staff work out of their basement, talking to groups and officials around the community about policy and what they want to see from state government, securing endorsements from unions and political action committees and ,of course, canvassing.

"One of the cool things about campaigning is going out and talking to people you haven't necessarily kept up with," Webber said. "Columbia's a big community, but it's small enough you still see the same people that were there when you were growing up."

Ritchie, who only met Webber when he started working for the campaign in May, said that the group has molded together, and that their work ethic and success at campaigning is a testament to Webber's leadership.

"Whenever I door knock, I tell them, ‘I'm helping out my friend Stephen Webber,'" he said. "Jonathan and Stephen and Alex have truly become my friends very quickly; it's not just me saying that. I'm invested in this campaign. I want Stephen to win because he is my friend, and I think he's going to do great things in Jefferson City."

Although Hartzler has known of Stephen Webber for a long time - given his college friendship with Jonathan Webber - he only met the candidate a few weeks ago when he volunteered to work on the campaign. Having never met Stephen Webber before, he admitted there was the possibility he "might be a jerk or something."

"It's been way better than I expected it to be," Hartzler said. "I knew I'd be working for a Democrat. Great. But I ended up working for someone I really admire and respect."

Although the staff puts in long hours every day of the week, working in the "Serene Abode" with the other three guys is a rewarding experience," Hartzler said.

"Every day we're here," he said. "We have the same purpose, the same end goal, and there's something valuable in that."

Democrats next Tuesday will choose between Webber and Cande Iveson. Because there is no candidate from any other party, the Democratic vote will determine the winner of the House seat. No matter what the outcome, Webber said he will work to get as many other Democrats elected as possible. And he has enjoyed the opportunity to try and represent his hometown.

"It's exciting to go out and try and represent the community that I've grown up in," he said. "These were the people that helped raise me. It's rewarding to try and pay back with some public service."

 


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