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Columbia Missourian

Former prosecutor says experience with badge prepares him

By Chris Dunn
October 24, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CDT

Democrat Koster believes independence is key to post

Democratic attorney general candidate Chris Koster gives his closing remarks during the third candidate debate Monday at Clayton High School in St. Louis. Koster was a Republican until August 2007 and was Cass County prosecuting attorney for 10 years.

JEFFERSON CITY — Chris Koster likes his iced tea with one packet of Sweet 'N Low, even if he has to use his finger to stir it.

At least that's how he solved the dilemma of having no silverware available at the candidate forum hosted by the Congress on Disability Policy in Columbia on Oct. 4.

Chris Koster, What's the Job?

Chris Koster

Harrisonville

PERSONAL: 44. Single.

PARTY AFFILIATION: Democrat

CAMPAIGN WEB SITE: chriskoster.com

OCCUPATION: 31st District state Senator

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in liberal arts, MU, 1987; juris doctorate, MU, 1991; master's in business administration, Washington University, 2002.

BACKGROUND: Served as assistant attorney general from 1991 to 1993; practiced law in Kansas City from 1993 to 1994; prosecuting attorney for Cass County from 1994 to 2004. Elected to the state Senate in 2004.

What's the job?

The attorney general is the state's “chief legal officer.” When legally challenged, he defends the constitutionality of state statutes and the actions of state officials. He or she also can bring lawsuits or defend the state in lawsuits involving the state's interests, rights and claims. The attorney general represents the state in every felony criminal case appeal and death sentence reviews by the state Supreme Court. He or she initiates legal action to remove some government officials from elective office. The attorney general has authority to seek the ouster from various offices any public official holding any office illegally, except for those covered by state impeachment provisions. The attorney general operates consumer-protection services and enforces Missouri's Consumer Protection Act and anti-trust laws. He or she also serves as the state's chief prosecutor for securities fraud. Attorneys general serve four-year terms. The salary is $113,046.



"The choices that I had were either my finger or my pen, so I chose my finger," the 44-year-old state senator said with a slight chuckle.

Even if people don't know Koster's name or what office he's running for, they are drawn to him as demonstrated at the forum on disability policy. 

"Who is that young man in the blue jeans?" asked an elderly woman after the forum concluded and people were milling around the candidates. When told he was Chris Koster and that he is running for attorney general, she perked up.

"I like him," she said. "I would vote for him."

Koster has been a senator for Missouri's 31st District, in the western part of the state, since 2004. His opponent is 15th District Sen. Mike Gibbons, R-Kirkwood.

"I have the unique experience of running against a colleague," Koster said during the second attorney general candidate debate on Oct. 9 in Poplar Bluff. "Sen. Gibbons and I have worked together in the Missouri Senate for four years. We are colleagues, friends."

Viewing Gibbons as both a friend and an opponent should come easy for Koster, who is accustomed to seeing two sides to many things. He has walked the fields of rural Missouri and the Senate floor wearing his brown cowboy boots. He was born and raised in St. Louis but practices law at the Kansas City-based firm of Dollar, Burns & Becker.

Four years ago he was elected to the state Senate as a Republican. Today, he is running for the state attorney general's office as a Democrat.

Koster officially crossed the aisle and joined the Democratic Party on Francis Quadrangle on Aug. 1, 2007. But it was in 2005, he said, that he began to feel what he described as the constraints of the Republican Party.

"It was a long and gradual process," Koster said. "I felt that the focus of the Republican Party was narrowing, that my personal desire in the governmental realm was broadening, that I wanted to reach out to other issues and other constituencies that the Republican Party was simply never going to allow for."

One of those issues was stem cell research.

"The stem cell debate of 2005 was unquestionably probably the largest single issue that separated me from the majority party," Koster said. "What the Republican Party tried to do in 2005 was try to make stem cell research in the state of Missouri a class B felony, punishable by five to 15 years in the Missouri Department of Corrections.

"That extremism had grabbed hold of the inner core of that party, to the degree that I no longer wanted to participate in," he said.

Koster also cited the recurring abortion rights debate as an issue that moved him away from the Republican Party. He emphasized his belief that the government should not interfere with people's personal choices and said he observed the Democratic and Republican parties change sides on this matter.

"The abortion wars of the last three or four years led me to the conclusion that actually the position of the two parties had switched," he said. "It was the Democrats who were more quickly approaching a philosophy of moving the government out of the personal choice issues, and it was the Republican Party in its acquiescence to the extreme right that was coming to a philosophy that government should be involved in the most intimate decisions in people's lives."

In 2007, however, when Koster was a Republican, he voted for an anti-abortion bill that imposed special licensing requirements on abortion clinics. Still, Koster did not join his fellow Republicans in voting to shut off a Democratic filibuster that was blocking a vote on the measure.

Koster argues that his position on these and other issues has not changed along with his party affiliation.

"The reason I changed the letter after my name, after having three years of experience in Jefferson City, was not because I changed anything about the issues that I've pursued," he said. "It had to do with the notion that the party that I used to be a part of was cracking down on the very things that I cared most about."

The oldest of four sons, Koster was born into a historically Republican family, at least on his father's side. But changing his party lines did not impact his relationship with his family, he said.

He described his family as close. He talks to his brothers frequently, sometimes as often as three times a day.

"My political decisions don't have anything to do with whether I'm invited to Thanksgiving dinner," Koster said.

Koster said joining the political sphere was not his original intent when he attended MU and earned a liberal arts degree. He had never been a part of student government, Model UN or any other government-based organization in school. His father was a sports writer, and Koster wanted to pursue sports writing or sports casting as a career.

But he was drawn to law, and in 1991 he received his law degree from the MU School of Law. From there, Koster served as an assistant attorney general in the Missouri Attorney General's Office for two years. He then practiced with the Kansas City-based law firm Blackwell Sanders until 1994, at which point he campaigned to become Cass County prosecutor and won his first election.

That was a position he held for 10 years, and the experience he gained plays a major part in his current campaign.

"When you're out in rural Missouri at 3 o'clock in the morning, busting a meth lab and knowing who to call, knowing how to handle the situation, knowing when and when not to send the SWAT team through the door — this is not the kind of experience that you can just learn or pick up in law school," Koster said. "That 10-year period of my life, I think, was one of the most educational and professionally rewarding that I've had the experience to enjoy."

Koster often emphasizes that experience as a significant qualification he would use in the attorney general's office.

"My belief is that if you want to be the state's top law enforcement officer, it helps if you have experience with the law," he said during a debate in Poplar Bluff. "I carried a badge in my back pocket for 12 of the past 16 years — two years as the assistant attorney general and 10 years as a prosecuting attorney."

Pat Koster Thompson, Koster's mother, is the source of his copper-color hair and blue eyes. She attended the general election season's third debate between Koster and Gibbons on Oct. 20 in St. Louis.

She pointed out his experience training young lawyers when he was Cass County prosecutor.

"(There are) 220 young lawyers who want to get even more developed, who want to get better at what they do," Thompson said. "And the only way they can do that is by somebody who has already walked that path and has experience in front of a jury, in front of a judge."

Another quality Koster frequently refers to is "fierce independence." He has been helping Chris Benjamin in his campaign for the 31st District seat, which Koster holds now. Earlier this month, they had their second one-day tour through the district, which comprises four counties in western Missouri.

In his introduction of Benjamin to the small crowd that gathered outside the Cass County courthouse on Oct. 8, Koster said the district "is widely seen as the most independent — and when I say independent, I mean fiercely independent — district in the entire state of Missouri."

That independence helped lead him to the Senate in 2004, Koster said later.

"The people in the 31st senatorial elected me, I think, as an independent," he said. "It's important for the future of this state that centrist people who are not likely to move to the extreme, either extreme, really are in leadership positions in this state."

Benjamin agreed. The two have known each other since Koster was the Cass County prosecutor. Benjamin considers him a friend and mentor.

"Folks back home here really, really like Chris Koster," Benjamin said. "He's done a great job for our district."

Asked why people should vote for Koster, Benjamin also referred to independence.

"The biggest thing is independent leadership," Benjamin said. "Not worrying about what affiliation you are, but working with all sides and bringing the sides together."

Koster's involvement in public policy as a state senator helped build his resolve to become attorney general. With his combined experience as a prosecutor and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Koster is confident he would be effective.

"The state of Missouri has one individual charged with standing up to the powerful when the powerful overreach, and that is the attorney general," Koster said. "What the state needs is someone who has the guts to stand up and protect the resources of this state, and I am the candidate that is better served in that regard."