COLUMBIA — Kurt Schaefer doesn't mind giving advice, but he'd rather be the one making decisions.
The incumbent 19th District senator learned this about himself after advising countless legislators and policy makers as a prosecutor in the Missouri Attorney General’s office.
“After a while, it could get frustrating to see them not taking our advice, especially on policy issues,” Schaefer said. In 2007, he decided to fix that. He’d try to make the laws himself.
Schaefer, a Republican, ran for state Senate in 2008 and beat the incumbent Democrat, Chuck Graham, whose favorability sank after his drunken driving arrest the previous October.
Now Schaefer, who has become chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is running for re-election against Democrat Mary Still, a two-term 25th District representative in the Missouri House.
It is rare for a Republican to represent the Senate district that includes Columbia, which politically leans to the left. Schaefer, who won by fewer than 400 votes in 2008, was the first Republican to take the district since at least 1979. If he wins in November, it would be the first time a Republican would serve two terms in the 19th District seat, he said.
“My wife told me she’d leave me if I ever ran for office,” he said with a grin last week from his corner office at Lathrop and Gage, the Jefferson City law office where he is a partner. Schaefer left his post as a state prosecuting attorney to join the firm, which is based in Kansas City, with offices around the country.
Schaefer passed a rainbow-colored plastic slinky back-and-forth from hand to hand. The Lathrop and Gage logo is wearing off the side of the prop he often uses to keep his hands moving while he talks.
He and his wife, Stacia Schaefer, joke about her ultimatum now, but running for office was a big decision at the time. Stacia Schaefer had grown up in Jefferson City and gone to school with one of the daughters of former Missouri governor and U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft. She saw firsthand how life could get complicated for family members of public figures.
“But I don't think it has to be that way,” Kurt Schaefer said. After much discussion, they agreed that he would run, and they would turn the experience into a learning opportunity for their three children: Max, 14; Wolf, 11; and Lena, 7.
Kurt Schaefer reasoned that their kids could learn a lot more about how government works by watching their dad than they could from school. So far, he’s pleased with how it’s worked out.
“We put age-appropriate expectations on the kids. I think they’re very mature for their age,” Schaefer said.
The family lives in a modest red ranch-style home they had built two years ago on the south side of Columbia, on 11 acres at the corner of the historic Douglass Farm. Abby, their 9-year-old mutt, circles the hilltop field every morning and shies away from the coyotes they frequently hear at night.
The Schaefer couple lived in an updated slave cabin on the farm when they first moved back from Vermont. It was small but fully modernized, and having lived in rural New England, the farm's atmosphere suited their pace.
But the cabin felt too small after their first child was born. The Schaefers moved to a more modern development in Columbia and kept in touch with the Douglass family, from whom they eventually bought the land where their current house was built.
On an autumn Friday evening, Max and Wolf pack for an overnight scouting trip they’ll take the next day, and Lena turns white tissues into Halloween ghosts that she tapes onto the walls around the open-concept living area. An online music station featuring Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, not too loud, pipes lounge music from the living room, where wide windows offer a view of the autumn leaves in the surrounding woods.
Schaefer grew up the youngest of five siblings near St. Louis, in Town and Country. He describes his parents as both “great” and “fairly eccentric.” They traveled extensively as a family — Schaefer had been to all 48 continental states plus Canada and Mexico by the time he was 18.
Schaefer took up bass guitar at 13 and continued to play through college at MU. His band, Third Uncle (named after a Brian Eno tune), performed original songs in clubs around Columbia in the mid- to late-1980s.
"Our music was kind of comparable to the Smiths, or Echo and the Bunnymen. But I like all kinds of music," Schaefer said.
He said he thinks Columbia's music scene has changed a lot over the years. "Back then, we'd form a band just for the sake of an opening gig, to play something like all 1950s country covers," he said.
The Blue Note was still at its original location on Business Loop 70 when Schaefer started working there. By the time he left town for law school, he had worked his way from doorman to bartender to manager.
“It was so narrow behind the bar that there was really only room for three or four of us at a time,” Schaefer said. But customers would line up five or six deep. “You’ve got to be able to do multiple things at once,” he said.
Richard King, the owner, would tell them all to never make an empty-handed trip.
“If you’re going to the one end of the bar to get a bottle of beer, you better have something in your hands on the way down,” Schaefer remembered. It’s a lesson well-suited for someone with a constant need to move.
King described the scene as “one big happy family” in the Blue Note’s early days. "We all believed in the music," he said. But he was not surprised when Schaefer left town to attend Vermont Law School.
“That’s what ambitious people do. They move on,” King said. The friends kept in touch, and they reconnected when Schaefer returned to Columbia.
If Schaefer’s move into law didn’t surprise King, his shift to politics did.
“I was stunned,” King said. He recalled the Christmas party in 2007 when Schaefer shared his intention to run for Senate as a Republican.
“But you’re not a Republican!” King remembered saying. The revelation underscored what their relationship had been, and would continue to be, about: Music. Friendship. Not politics.
Schaefer, unfazed by his friend’s surprise, asked him to put up a yard sign with his name on it. King agreed without hesitation.
“But that does mean I’ll have to put up an Obama sign right next to yours,” he warned. As long as his own name was up there, Schaefer said, he didn’t mind a bit.
Schaefer said he always has been fiscally conservative, and he has long held an interest in politics. After taking a year off from college to backpack through Europe, he returned to MU to study geopolitics. But the professor he had hoped would become his mentor retired, so Schaefer shifted to physical geography, instead. This eventually led to his interest in environmental law.
While in college, Schaefer met Stacia Wyrick. He eventually traded the Blue Note for law school and music for love. He sold his last guitar — a Rickenbacker 4001 — to buy an engagement ring, a square diamond from Betz Jewelers on Broadway. Soon after, the two were bound for Vermont.
Stacia Schaefer got into design at a small, elite publishing house. Kurt Schaefer earned a juris doctorate in 1995 and a master’s in environmental law, magna cum laude, in 1996.
Politics & policy
In many ways, Schaefer’s path of career and family provided the tempo for his evolving political identity.
“Lawyers deal with the law, which is just codification of public policy. They’re all amateur political experts. And every lawyer thinks they know how to run a campaign. And they don’t, by the way,” he said.
But he would learn this later. First, he had another surprise in store.
Schaefer had taken a job with the attorney general’s office, assuming he'd be placed in the environmental division. Instead, they placed him — over much protest — in criminal prosecution, which he was sure he wouldn't like. Within two months, Schaefer was converted.
“You’re in court all the time, and it’s you and a judge and a jury, and you’re on your own,” he said. “I like the adrenaline. I like the fact that everything is live and spontaneous.”
The Schaefers started their family while he was working at the attorney general's office, and as their children grew, he began to look at public policy in still another way. Their children attended a magnet school where the curriculum for each student was built around an Individually Guided Education plan, or IGE. If a kindergartner already understood math, he could study with the first-graders, for example.
“But with MAP testing and No Child Left Behind, that took away some of that flexibility,” Schaefer said. “Instead, all third-graders have to be operating on the same page. It makes you wonder whether it’s a good idea,” he said. “And it’s not.”
Rather than protest educational regulations, Schaefer wanted to be in a position to change them.
He likens his role as a senator to that of a prosecuting attorney: “You just have to learn the facts, remember them and craft that into an argument,” he said.
To learn those facts, Schaefer tunes his ear.
Kristin Sohl has worked with Schaefer and other legislators in her role as a child health advocate. She is a pediatrician and medical director of MU's Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. She also created a program called Community Advocacy Through Resident Education, or CARE, which connects medical residents with legislators to talk about child health in Missouri.
"Legislators have said to me that plumbers unions have better advocacy in the statehouse," she said. And when doctors do talk to lawmakers, she said, it tends to be about reimbursements or tort reform instead of health.
"The idea is to break the ice, to keep doctors from being nervous about talking to legislators down the road," she said. Running the program keeps Sohl in touch with legislators, too.
She asks each legislator to meet about four times a year with one resident. Most of the time, she said, they'll spend up to an hour. Schaefer has participated from the start, as have Chris Kelly and Stephen Webber, both Democratic Missouri House representatives for Boone County. Still also participated in the program early on, Sohl said.
"Kurt Schaefer has always been an absolute advocate for children," Sohl said. "He meets with us, and is always willing to step up. He listens to residents and helps us navigate the Capitol and the legislative process."
Schaefer enjoys better name recognition now, as an incumbent, than he did in 2008.
At that time, he said, while he had plenty of connections in Jefferson City from his work at the attorney general's office and at Lathrop and Gage, the people who knew him in town were mostly bar and restaurant owners. It wasn’t a bad group of people to know, he pointed out, because between them all, they know everybody else. Nevertheless, he had a lot of work to do.
At first, he couldn’t get funding from the Senate Majority Fund, so he raised about $100,000 himself from friends and family, he said. He eventually did get some financial backing from his party, but Graham's campaign still outspent him.
“It’s not a good position to be in, because you don’t have the resources to get your message out,” he said. “And I don’t plan on finding myself in that position again anytime soon.”
It is certainly not a disadvantage Schaefer suffers this year. His campaign has brought in nearly $1 million as of the most recent campaign filings, compared to less than $250,000 by his opponent.
Money isn’t all that’s changed since 2008. Schaefer did some of his own canvassing then, going door-to-door to introduce himself and ask for votes in person. This year, he said, he has little time for it, between his law practice and ongoing work as the Senate Appropriations Committee chair.
Most legislators are done with state work when the session ends, but Schaefer stays in contact with the committee staff every day. He’ll often stop by the Capitol three times a week to consult on revenue and spending estimates or to get updates on interest rates for potential future bond issues, for example.
This level of involvement is a good match for Schaefer’s interests.
“Most senators are the political people, and their chief of staff is a policy wonk,” Schaefer said, but his relationship with Yancy Williams, his chief of staff, is just the opposite.
“I'm the policy person, and he's the political person,” he said. Williams is on hiatus from Schaefer's staff during the election in order to consult for the campaign.
If Schaefer wins re-election, term limits automatically would make his second term his last in the Senate. But that may not make this his final campaign.
“I'm just going to get through this election — knock on wood and don't jinx it,” he said. “But I always like to do new things. So win or lose, I'm sure I'll look at other things. We'll see.”
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.