JEFFERSON CITY — Whether you’re betting on poker, pugilism or politics, it always pays to pick a winner.
And nobody in Missouri knows this better than former Gov. Roger Wilson.
Four years ago, Wilson’s political future looked dim. After he dropped out of the gubernatorial primary when he faced Bob Holden’s massive financial war chest, it looked like Wilson would be moved into the basement of the Missouri Democratic Party.
But after getting in on the ground floor of State Auditor Claire McCaskill’s successful bid to unseat Holden, Wilson again finds himself in the penthouse. McCaskill named Wilson the party’s chairman as one of her first official acts after winning the primary.
Wilson, a native of Columbia, was one of the first established Democrats to endorse McCaskill and had served as chairman of McCaskill’s primary campaign.
“Claire asked me, and I said yes,” said Wilson, a vice president at Rockwood Capital Advisers. “My partners at Rockwood said, ‘Go ahead. We know you have that political genetic defect.’ ”
Wilson, who rose from lieutenant governor to governor after the death of Gov. Mel Carnahan, served in the state’s top office only a couple of months. He had already withdrawn from his primary campaign when he was thrust into the governor’s chair.
If there are any feelings of getting revenge against Holden, however, he isn’t voicing them. Wilson has a reputation as one of the state’s most polite politicians.
While Wilson said he has not met with Holden since becoming party chairman, he did extend an olive branch.
“If he were to say to me, ‘Roger, there is something I’d like to do,’ I’m going to help him,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he wants to reshape the party around what he sees are a new generation of Democratic politicians.
He said he broke ranks to support McCaskill’s challenge of Holden because he felt she gave Democrats the best chance to win in November against Matt Blunt, the Republican candidate and secretary of state. “At this point in Missouri’s history, I’m glad Claire is willing to run,” Wilson said. “I felt like we didn’t stand as good a chance with independent voters. The negatives were too high. I’d seen the same thing happen in the Gray Davis situation (in California).” Gray Davis was the Democratic governor of California who lost a recall election last year.
But the top spokesman for the Missouri Republican Party disagrees, arguing that Holden.
“Roger Wilson represents the same old failed Democratic agenda,” Paul Sloca said.
In the run-up to Election Day, Wilson plans to remain active on the campaign trail. He wants to help raise money for Democratic candidates, court the media and control the direction of debate.
“The emotional hot-button issues need to be relegated to a second tier,” Wilson said. “Those things get trotted out like a show horse. They have nothing to do with government.”
In recent elections, Republicans focused on cultural issues and outpaced Democrats in rural areas. The GOP now controls both chambers of the General Assembly.
“I’m not saying that we don’t care about guns, don’t care about abortion or don’t care about gay marriage. I want pro-gun Democrats and pro-life Democrats in the party,” Wilson said. “I want them helping us on economic issues. I think people understand that they’re hurting.”
Wilson cites his family’s experience with the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq as motivation for him to stay politically engaged.
His daughter Erin was four miles from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and his son Drew recently returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq. Drew, a Marine, was a member of the U.S. forces when they captured Baghdad and when they surrounded Fallujah before the first cease-fire. He is scheduled to return for his third tour in February.
“I wish I was as cool as him. He’s a very steady young man,” Wilson said. “Watching your wife terrorized when a report comes over the wire that four Marines have been killed in Baghdad sends you on a roller coaster I don’t expect everybody to understand.
“It scares you to death,” Wilson said. “Any parent is scared to death when their kid is in harm’s way, and he’s been in places a whole lot of parents wouldn’t want their kids to be.”
While Wilson declined to divulge his post-election plans, he said he still aspires for a return to the governor’s office.
Wilson said his inability to match Holden’s campaign fund-raising was the biggest obstacle in his aborted gubernatorial candidacy of 2000. He has a few ideas for dealing with the problem in the future but knows the competition will be stiff.
“Out of 5.4 million Missourians, there are probably 5.39 million who want to be governor,” Wilson said. “You have to be realistic.”