Analysis: Gap grows between Mo.'s top officials as Kinder prepares for likely gubernatorial run

Monday, November 23, 2009
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, right, joins Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson on stage after the finish of Stage Two of the Tour of Missouri in Cape Girardeau.
Fred Lynch

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- As he builds toward a potential bid to become chief executive of Missouri, Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder first is repositioning himself for a role as chief challenger to the current administration.

Since Democrat Jay Nixon became governor in January, Kinder's official responsibilities have declined -- some by his choice, others at Nixon's insistence -- while Kinder's political duties have simultaneously increased.

Gone is the cooperation that existed between Missouri's top two executives when Kinder, a Cape Girardeau native, worked under fellow Republican Gov. Matt Blunt for four years. In its place is a new tension as Kinder prepares for a likely challenge of Nixon in the 2012 elections.

Unlike the president and vice president, Missouri's top executives do not run together as a political duo. Missouri is one of 18 states that hold separate elections for governor and lieutenant governor.

As a result, Missouri's No. 1 and No. 2 executives "really are a team of rivals, particularly when you've got a partisan difference," said Marvin Overby, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

In this case, "I think Peter Kinder certainly sees himself as gubernatorial material and is looking at national tides," said Overby, later adding: "He doesn't want to be associated too much with the state of the state if he is going to be running as the alternative."

The separation between Missouri's governor and lieutenant governor began shortly after Nixon took office Jan. 12. Two weeks later, Nixon rescinded Blunt's appointment of Kinder as chairman of a committee preparing for the 2010 census and placed the panel under the leadership of Nixon's new administration commissioner.

Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti said Friday that the decision was a financial one. The lieutenant governor had sought to hire three employees and lease an office for the committee, which would have cost about $175,000 more than by using the Office of Administration's staff and facilities, Cardetti said.

Soon after changing the census committee, Nixon also took away Kinder's role as chairman of the Missouri Development Finance Board, instead appointing his own economic development director to the post. Cardetti said the governor "wanted to go in a different direction" and "put his footprint on the organization."

Earlier this month, Kinder voluntarily stepped down as chairman of the Missouri Tourism Commission. That move came after deep tourism budget cuts by Nixon and several months after Kinder clashed with Nixon's administration over a proposed cut that could have canceled the 2009 Tour of Missouri bicycle race.

No longer in those official leadership roles, Kinder may feel greater freedom to criticize Nixon's decisions. Kinder spokesman Gary McElyea used a more diplomatic phrase. The resignation as tourism chairman should enable Kinder to be "a more staunch advocate for the tourism industry," he said.

"He's made a calculated decision as to how he can be more effective in the political climate in Jefferson City," McElyea added.

The separation between Missouri's governor and lieutenant governor extends beyond official boards and commissions. The two seldom talk in a substantive way. And they sometimes work against each other in the halls of the Capitol.

As the only Republican in a statewide executive office, Kinder assumed control of the Missouri Republican Party after the 2008 elections and has increased his involvement with Republican legislative leaders. As governor, Nixon exercises control over the Missouri Democratic Party.

McElyea said Kinder "was very instrumental with behind the scenes maneuvering on the budget" this year. As Nixon sought to expand government health care for low-income adults, Republican legislative leaders and budget negotiators met privately with Kinder in the waning hours before a budget deadline. Republican House members ultimately refused to pass Nixon's health care plan.

During the past four years, Blunt provided Kinder numerous opportunities to enhance his profile. Blunt transferred gubernatorial powers to Kinder on a total of about 100 days as Blunt traveled out of state.

Nixon hasn't transferred his gubernatorial powers for a single minute to Kinder, not even when he flew to Iraq and Afghanistan this summer. In fact, Nixon's office doesn't typically inform Kinder's office when the governor is traveling out of state.

The gap between Nixon and Kinder was apparent earlier this month when police swarmed a Jefferson City office building near the Governor's Mansion believing there was a potential hostage situation.

Kinder didn't know Nixon was at a business meeting in Dallas. Nor was Kinder privy to official updates from law enforcement as the event unfolded. Instead, the lieutenant governor watched the scene from his Capitol window, posting online messages on Twitter about sharpshooters, a hovering helicopter and hostage negotiators and doing a TV interview by telephone in which he urged people to "pray for the hostage."

McElyea said Kinder got some of his information from "sources" in law enforcement and from people inside the building. As it turns out, there was no hostage.

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