JEFFERSON CITY — When the Columbia Pachyderm Club gets together, it feels more like a family reunion than a political meeting. Members settle in for a home-style meal and meeting once each week. It's the kind of atmosphere where everyone knows each other, and they're more likely to greet each other with a hug than a handshake. Newcomers are quickly welcomed.
On a Friday morning just cold enough for a jacket, Republican state Sen. Michael Gibbons is that newcomer. He walks into the room, calling little attention to himself, and sits down at a table with a small cup of vegetable soup. But the crowd quickly comes to him. He is not a new face for Columbia's Pachyderms.
PERSONAL: 49. He is married to Elizabeth Gibbons. They have two children.
PARTY AFFILIATION: Republican
CAMPAIGN WEB SITE: michaelgibbons.com
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree from Westminster College, law degree from St. Louis University School of Law.
OCCUPATION: Lawyer with Stinson Morrison Hecker LLP, state senator since 2001.
BACKGROUND: Former member of Kirkwood City Council, served in the Missouri House of Representatives from 1992 to 2000. He is currently Senate president pro tem.
Gibbons, who is campaigning to be Missouri's attorney general, doesn't miss a beat from the moment he's introduced as a special speaker for this week's meeting. He immediately extends his hands to shake those of more than 50 people, clapping familiar people on the back and returning their greetings as he approaches the wooden lectern.
Gibbons is a longtime politician and the top Republican leader in the Senate. He has given countless stump speeches all over the state, including in Jefferson City and in his hometown of Kirkwood. But at Jack's Gourmet Restaurant with the Pachyderm Club, he seems most at home as the guy who simply sat down at the dinner table and joined the conversation.
Although he lives the busy life of a politician on the campaign trail, the 49-year-old Gibbons always has something waiting for him when he gets home.
"My wife has a lengthy list of things I haven't done around the house," he said. "That's not exactly what I want to do, but it'll be something to do that doesn't involve campaigning."
Gibbons' to-do list hasn't piled up because he's sitting around with his feet propped up watching Monday Night Football or because he's spending too much time at the lake, even though he enjoys spending time outside and exercising. He's been busy crisscrossing the state for weeks trying to persuade people to pick him as the next attorney general.
Gibbons' start in public office began with his 1986 election to the Kirkwood City Council in St. Louis County. Kirkwood has been a longtime base for him. For 20 years, he practiced law with his father in Kirkwood until his dad's retirement in 2005. Gibbons is still active in Kirkwood organizations such as the Kiwanis club.
Joe Godi, also a member of the Kiwanis club, shares more than an organizational tie with Gibbons. He is a Kirkwood councilman. Although he and Gibbons have never served on the council at the same time, he said he knows Gibbons well.
"He's liked by everyone," Godi said. "I don't know anyone who doesn't like Mike."
Godi described Gibbons as a "hard worker" and "his own man." He also said he valued Gibbons' honesty and strong work ethic as a politician and as a person.
"He looks at everything in perspective," Godi said. "He's low-key. He's a very soft-speaking person."
Gibbons left the Kirkwood council in 1993 after his election to the state House. Eight years later, he was elected to the state Senate. And in 2005, his colleagues made him the chamber's top leader, the Senate president pro tem — a post to which he was re-elected in 2007.
The Senate president pro tem is one of the chamber's most powerful positions. He assigns bills to committee and rules on points of order.
Godi's description of Gibbons as soft-speaking and low-key matches the characteristics of his leadership style in the Senate. He formed a strong working relatonship with the Senate Democratic leader, Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, to tone down the partisan rhetoric that had deeply divided the Senate.
"We'd demonstrated that in today's extremely partisan world, that civility and common sense and courtesy can still be applied even though there is a very vigorous debate or battle on the issues," Gibbons said on the last day of the legislature's regular session, May 16.
In 2007, Gibbons sponsored a bill that would ensure that rape and sexual assault victims would not be financially responsible for related exams. This is part of a series of victim advocacy bills Gibbons has sponsored.
He's also made consumer protection a priority by sponsoring bills surrounding consumer credit and identity theft.
"He has to be a hard-working guy to do what he does: balancing his job as a state senator with his job as an attorney, with campaigning for a higher office, with being a parent," said Joe Hipskind, chair of the general business division at Stinson Morrison Hecker, the law firm where Gibbons now works.
This year, Gibbons faced another challenge: He was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He announced the illness to the public through a written statement in late February. After surgery in March, Gibbons was back in the Capitol near the middle of the legislative session, and back on the campaign trail soon after.
Gibbons is married to Elizabeth Gibbons and has two children: Danny, 26, and Meredith, 19. Danny Gibbons graduated from MU in 2005. Meredith Gibbons is a sophomore at Westminster College in Fulton.
Hipskind said every working parent has to face challenges, but the Gibbons family sees some unique ones. Hipskind is a father of three.
"Mike's children are a little bit older than my children, but it's always a challenge in this day and age, where work seems to be all-consuming," he said. "So many parents work, of course, but Mike has had to work basically two jobs."
Now, Gibbons is wearing a third hat as he campaigns for the opportunity to replace Democrat Jay Nixon, who is making a bid for governor after holding the attorney general job for a record 16 years.
He's running against Democrat Chris Koster, who Gibbons' supporters at the Pachyderm club meeting have whispered about as a "turncoat Republican," referencing Koster's shift from the Republican to the Democratic party.
But Gibbons rarely brings up the fact that he's campaigning against anyone. Instead, he focuses his speeches on the office he seeks.
If elected Missouri's next attorney general, Gibbons said he wants to take the "people- and family-oriented platform" in Missouri state government forward into the next administration.
"I want to focus on justice, not on headlines, and not on climbing the political rungs," he said. "It's about making sure that justice is done for the people of Missouri. It's about working every day to make sure that the people in this state are safer and more secure every day."
One of Gibbons' biggest focuses during his campaign has been on Internet crime. Earlier this month, he proposed creating a cyber-crimes unit in the attorney general's office that would designate staff to specifically Internet crimes.
"This is a constantly evolving thing," he said. "There are some people out there, and they are using the Internet as a weapon."
Gibbons also wants to create an alert network for Internet crime through the attorney general's office that could give citizens up-to-date information about online threats.
He has outlined multiple initiatives for the office. Gibbons also said he hopes to redefine what the attorney general's office stands for and make it less about politics.
"As attorney general, you're not setting policy anymore, and you shouldn't through your actions," he said. "My intention is to do everything possible to help protect the people of the state."