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Scott Christianson gets face to face with voters

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 | 11:00 p.m. CDT; updated 12:23 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 30, 2010
J. Scott Christianson hands out flyers and shakes hands during the Fourth of July parade in Ashland. Christianson is running for Presiding Commissioner of Boone County in the November 2 election.

It’s 6 p.m., and the sun is low on the horizon, but the heat isn’t letting up. Small beads of sweat pool on Scott Christianson’s forehead, as he walks briskly from door to door. Even in the dead heat of summer, Christianson sports thick soled brown boots, khaki Dockers and a long sleeved dress shirt tucked into his pants. His shirt is adorned with a pocket full of pens and a large, white circular sticker advertising his campaign for Boone County presiding commissioner.

For the past several days, Christianson has been meeting his constituents. He's shaken hands and passed out literature. Growing up in a town of about 1,000 people, Christianson recognizes the value getting face to face with the voters. He believes this help him gain support.

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Christianson is running against John Sam Williamson, a well-known figure in Boone County, in the Democrat slot for the Aug. 3 primary. Williamson is president of of the McBaine Levee District and treasurer for the Boone County Fire Protection District. The winner will go on to face Republican Ed Robb in the general election for the presiding commissioner seat.

Watching these two contenders stand side by side is akin to running into Merle Haggard and Toby Keith swapping stories over lunch. Williamson is the good oldcountry boy. At 61, he walks slowly with a slight swagger to his step. His shorter stature and crisp, well-fitted suits demand respect. Williamson is a farmer and longtime resident of the banks of the Missouri river.

Christianson, 41, is the new, fresh face. His tall, lean build thrown in with his mop of sandy brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses seem fitting for his background in biology and his technical know-how.

This is Christianson’s first jab at political office, but in talking with him, you’d think he was a seasoned politico. He’s well informed on county issues, but voters more often latch onto his smile and charm.

Christianson’s time running his own business to help meet the needs of rural school districts has given him experience that is helping him along his campaign trail and which he said makes him ideal for the job.

Born in Columbia, Christianson was whisked off at age 5 to live in Green Lake, Wisc., to help take care of his grandparents. Christianson’s schoolmates in the Green Lake school district numbered 35 at most. Had he stayed in Green Lake, his graduating class would have included 28 students.

He moved back to Columbia after his junior year and graduated high school from Rock Bridge High School in 1987. Although Christianson is easy to talk to and far from being shy, he said he remembers the move was a bit overwhelming.

“I saw the size of Hickman and said, 'No way,'” he said, laughing. “Instead, I spent weeks roaming the halls of Rock Bridge with my map in hand.”

After high school, Christianson found his niche in the biology department at MU. He began working in a lab, researching vision with the help of Drosophila melanogaster — the common fruit fly — which served as his animal model.

Even as an undergrad, Christianson was actively involved in the process of scientific research. He conducted experiments, observed the results and presented his findings at scientific conferences.

Even 20 or so years later, Christianson can shuffle through the biology notes stored in his memory and recover the names of flowers and dark, bulbous spiders that hide in doorways.

It was during his years as an undergraduate that Christianson met his future wife, Ava.

Christianson admits he is not great at remembering personal stories from the past, but he definitely remembers his first date with Ava.

“We went to lunch, and she had gotten a very large ice tea," Christianson said. "Well, she went to go set it down, and it immediately went straight into my lap. Unfortunately I was supposed to give a talk that afternoon, so we tried to mop it up. Afterward we were outside, and I saw my mom driving by, so I flagged her down and went off to get some dry pants. Ava called me up later and asked if she could treat me to a movie that night.”

A few years later Christianson and Ava were married in his parent’s living room in Columbia.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in biology, Christianson continued with his research in vision and got a job in the ophthalmology department at MU.

"It was a good job, but it was one of these deals where you’re working in a windowless room with lots of rats, radiology and chemicals, so I decided I wanted to do something different," he said.

So Christianson switched his focus to education.

He took the technological skills gained in the lab and began working with rural school districts in Missouri to develop distance-learning networks through video conferencing.  

He said it allowed small schools to share their teachers and provide students with the best teachers technology can bring to the screen when hour-long commutes are no longer in the budget.

“There was no one else who was experienced in this technology,” he said. “So that allowed me to get in on the ground level of an industry that’s grown a lot over the last 17 years.”

In the late '90s, Christianson started his own business, Kaleidoscope Videoconferencing, installing and assisting schools, hospitals and businesses with video conferencing.

“I think the school districts responded well to someone who could not only set up the technology, but who could also train the people on how to use it effectively, work them through trouble shooting and be patient the whole time,” Christianson said.

While building his business, Christianson began writing a regular column for the Columbia Daily Tribune. Although his column was usually about environmental topics, he sometimes got distracted, such as when he wrote a column criticizing the Church of Scientology.

“I went into the Tribune’s office a day or two after the article had come out, and these reporters were like, ‘Oh man you’re so brave. Scientologists go after reporters,’” Christianson said. “I was like, ‘What! Why the hell did you let that get published?’”

Luckily, Christianson didn’t have any run-ins with angry Scientologists, but he did get incensed e-mails for a year after.

Christianson’s leap into politics came in 2002 after Democrat Jean Carnahan lost the race for U.S. Senate to Jim Talent.

“I didn’t know much about Democratic politics,” he said. “But I decided I needed to get myself involved because I couldn’t understand why that had happened and what was going on with the country at that time.”

Christianson put his toe in the murky political waters by joining a program through the Chamber of Commerce called Leadership Columbia. The program helps interested citizens learn more about how local government works.

Christianson met with local politicians, traveled to Jefferson City and took a tour of the county jail, where he and others picked up a laser gun and completed the jail's shoot, don't shoot simulation.

But it was a talk given by Commissioner Karen Miller that turned up Christianson's political drive.

"'The world is run by those who bother to show up,'" he remembered her saying. "I thought, 'Well I can show up.'"

He did just that, throwing his name into the race for Presiding Commissioner Ken Pearson's open seat.

"I spent a week going around and talking with people who had held the office before to make sure I understood what I was getting into and check my understanding of how the county works," he said. "One thing that motivated me was that we have substantial challenges ahead, and I think I have something to offer."

Among these looming challenges is the faltering county budget, which for the past year or so has been dipping into reserves due to reduced revenue.

"The county is heavily reliant on sales tax, which is an extremely volatile form of revenue," Christianson said.

Christianson, who admittedly is not a big picture kind of guy, does better dealing with the nitty-gritty minutia of day-to-day tasks. This, he said, is where he can help the county.

"With my experience running a business, I know how to bring the highest return on the investments taxpayers make," he said. "I know fiscal management is going to be a big issue and a strength that Ed Robb will put forth, but I think I'm the candidate who can beat him."


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