JEFFERSON CITY — Businessman Dave Spence has bottled up his desire to run for public office for the better part of his life. Now the owner of a plastic bottle manufacturer says he is seriously considering a campaign for Missouri governor — even if it means a Republican primary.
Spence told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he has taken some preliminary steps for a 2012 gubernatorial campaign but is waiting for Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder to announce his own decision about whether he will challenge Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
If Kinder opts against the governor's race, Spence said there is a 95 percent chance he will run. But even if Kinder declares his candidacy — as he is expected to do — Spence said he still is considering joining the race.
"People need to know that there are alternatives to Peter Kinder," Spence said. "It doesn't make Peter Kinder a bad guy, but I think people need to know that there are alternatives out there."
Spence, 53, is the president and CEO of St. Louis-based Alpha Packaging, which makes plastic bottles for pharmaceuticals, vitamins, personal care products such as lotion and shampoo and a variety of other purposes. He has never run for elected office before, though Spence said he thought about it in his late 20s before the duties of running a business and raising a family consumed his time. Should he run, Spence said he likely will put some of his own fortune into campaign, though he declined to say how much.
Kinder campaign attorney Jared Craighead said Tuesday that Kinder still is planning to make an announcement about his candidacy later this month. Kinder would prefer to avoid an August primary, Craighead said, and has spoken with Spence "about the race, the importance of it and why he thinks he can win."
"Peter and Dave are friends, they're fraternity brothers. Peter thinks Dave is a serious and sincere guy, and he's obviously been a successful businessman," Craighead said. But "it's not his place to comment on what Dave is privately contemplating doing."
Spence's deliberation follows a similar pattern to that of St. Louis-area businessman John Brunner, who declared his candidacy for U.S. Senate last month. Both are political newcomers willing to sink their own money into the race. Both are touting their experience as job creators. And both have financially supported their potential political rivals. Brunner contributed in the past to U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, who along with former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman now is part of a three-way Republican primary to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Spence contributed $5,500 to Kinder as recently as Oct. 24. He described the donation as "a gesture of friendship" intended to show "it's not a Dave vs. Peter issue; it is who is the right candidate that can challenge Jay Nixon."
Kinder had been expected to declare his gubernatorial candidacy shortly after Labor Day, but he delayed that after acknowledging in August that he had frequently visited an Illinois strip club in the 1990s while he was a state senator from Cape Girardeau. After a few Republicans suggested Kinder should forgo a gubernatorial bid, Kinder said he would take time to gauge his grassroots support before deciding whether to proceed with a campaign.
Spence began expressing public interest in the race only after Kinder's troubles. But Spence said voters may be yearning for someone who is not a career politician to help turn around the economy.
As an aspiring 26-year-old entrepreneur who had recently earned an economics degree at MU, Spence said he was turned down by a dozen banks before he finally got a loan to purchase a packaging business. In 1985, Alpha Packaging had annual sales of about $350,000 with 15 employees, Spence said. It now has nearly $200 million in annual sales with about 800 employees, he said.
"What this election is all about is getting our fellow Missourians back to work," Spence said. "It's less about social issues and more about economic issues, and that's where I specialize — it's what I've done all my life."
Spence also has served on the board of directors for Reliance Bancshares Inc., a bank holding company headquartered in St. Louis. Spence said he resigned from the board effective in March. In February, the company announced it would stop making the $2.2 million annual dividend it was supposed to pay to the U.S. Treasury on the $42 million it received under the Troubled Asset Relief program. Spence said he doesn't recall any details about that decision, but he said the federal bank bailout program helped avoid a potential economic disaster by providing banks with "extra cushion of capital."
Nixon's campaign referred questions about Spence's potential candidacy to the Missouri Democratic Party.
"It's hard to see the Republican Party turning to a guy who took a bank bailout," Democratic Party spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki said. "Hard to imagine that sits well with Republican primary voters."