Mo. Sen. Koster visits city firefighters in campaign for attorney general post

Friday, August 1, 2008
In this March 12, 2008 photo, Sen. Chris Koster, D-Harrisonville, speaks in the Senate Chamber in Jefferson City, Mo. A former county prosecutor, Koster is one of four Democrats seeking the party's nomination for Missouri Attorney General in the upcoming primary. (AP Photo/Kelley McCall, File)

State Sen. Chris Koster, locked in a fierce four-way battle for the Democratic nomination for Missouri attorney general, is looking everywhere he can for votes.

Koster came to Cape Girardeau, not usually a stronghold for Democrats, on Thursday for what his campaign billed as a "Roundtable Discussion with First Responders and Workers Regarding the Important Partnership between Local Communities and the Attorney General's Office." He drew three people, all Cape Girardeau firefighters, including two of the leaders of Local 1084 of the International Association of Firefighters, to the event at VFW Post 3838.

That didn't deter Koster, who chatted with Dean Lynn, president of the local, and Randy Sander, the treasurer, about topics ranging from collective bargaining rights for public employees to enforcing prevailing wage laws and dealing with employers who use illegal immigrant labor. Koster asked the union leaders to spread the word to fellow firefighters that their statewide organization, along with many other union groups, have endorsed him in the hotly contested race.

Koster, a first-term lawmaker and former Cass County prosecuting attorney, faces state Reps. Jeff Harris of Columbia and Margaret Donnelly of St. Louis, along with Kansas City schoolteacher Molly Williams, in the Tuesday primary. The winner will face state Sen. Mike Gibbons, who is unopposed in the Republican primary, in the November election.

Worker rights

Koster began the conversation with the firefighters by asking whether a 2007 Missouri Supreme Court decision had changed their relationship with the city. In that decision, the court ruled that all workers, whether employed by public entities or private companies, are guaranteed collective bargaining rights under the Missouri Constitution.

The ruling addressed worker rights but did not detail the responsibilities of public entities under the law. Missouri has made the issue of formal contracts and negotiations voluntary for local governments, requiring only that representatives "meet and confer" with union representatives.

The ruling hasn't changed the way the union is treated by city leaders, Sander said. "We give them a letter, then they laugh and say this is what we are going to do."

Koster replied that he expects additional court cases to define the rules more completely. "The Supreme Court has cracked the door open, and what happens next is really interesting," Koster said. "It seems to be that a court will add branches to this tree."

Koster's opponents have sought to make points by focusing on his switch late in 2007 from the Republican to the Democratic Party and more recently filed complaints with the Missouri Ethics Commission over his campaign finances.

Koster has been accused of stepping over the limits of state campaign finance law by working to gather large contributions passed through local political party committees. Koster said he expects to be cleared by the commission and is using techniques used repeatedly by Republicans and Democrats to finance their campaigns.

Koster said he has three goals as Missouri attorney general — combating Medicaid fraud, which he said consumes 10 percent of Missouri's $6 billion annual Medicaid budget; enforcing prevailing wage laws that require public works projects pay wages at or above the rates in private construction; and to create a new division in the office that will focus on enforcing antidiscrimination laws on behalf of women, the disabled and minorities.

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