When support behind Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder’s pending gubernatorial campaign began to crumble last year, Republicans were left facing a serious question: Who could carry the party’s torch against the popular incumbent Democrat Jay Nixon?
In November, just weeks before Kinder was expected to launch his campaign, Dave Spence, a politically unknown St. Louis businessman, began to float his name for the seat. Two weeks later, after consulting his wife Suzie and four children, Spence launched his campaign for governor.
Instead of politics, Spence had spent much of his life at the helm of Alpha Packaging, a St. Louis plastics manufacturing firm. With the aid of a loan from the Small Business Administration, he said, he was able to acquire the firm at age 26.
“They believed in me,” Spence said of the loan during in a recent interview on his campaign bus while driving through southeast Missouri. “We used it for about two years and then paid it off.”
On the campaign trail, Spence has told voters his experience in business makes him uniquely qualified to take over the state as it continues to recover from the recession.
“The governor is the CEO of the state, and Missouri Inc. is failing,” Spence said, noting that he believes he would “look at things from a different perspective than someone who has been in office for 20 years.”
Spence, of course, is referring to Nixon, a former state lawmaker who served as the state’s attorney general for 16 years before being elected governor in 2008. Nixon took office in January 2009, after which the state’s unemployment rate reached its highest point during the recession in July 2009. Since, the unemployment rate has fallen, reaching its lowest point since July 2009 just this May.
“Clearly, you have an unemployment rate dropping the way we have,” Nixon said during a capitol news conference earlier this year. “We are clearly beginning to turn the corner.”
Still, Spence said that the state had dismal growth in terms of gross domestic product last year, and — pointing to lower education funding and less job creation than neighboring states — has made a key pillar of his campaign message the assertion that “Missouri is falling behind.”
His solution, in part, he said, is a set of priorities proposed by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, which include changes to employment law, strengthened restrictions on workers’ compensation litigation, and the elimination of the minimum wage escalator based on the state’s economic condition.
Another policy change that Spence indicated he would support is banning employers and employees from negotiating contracts that would require union membership, and in turn union dues, as a condition of employment. Supporters call the policy “right to work,” but it is derided among unions as “right to work for less” because of its potential impact on their ability to collectively bargain for benefits.
Spence said that he wants to bring all stakeholders to the table to discuss how to move forward with the policy.
“I prefer to call it ‘back to work,’” Spence said. He believes businesses are choosing to locate to neighboring states — like Arkansas or Tennessee — that have the policy in place instead of locating in Missouri. “We could live in denial, or we could get to the table with the unions and try to find a compromise.”
Spence said he believes the key to the state’s economic recovery is not necessarily in bringing new businesses to the state, but expanding the businesses that are already here.
“Why don’t we capitalize on what we do versus what we don’t do?” he asked, noting strong agricultural and research industries in the state. “That’s going to be our best source of growth.”
While Spence does not have a significant political record, he does have a business record, and, since he announced his candidacy last year, that record has been under fire by his political opponents. Democrats have repeatedly criticized Spence for his involvement in Reliance Bancshares, a bank that failed to repay funds it received from the federal Troubled Assets Relief Program.
In February 2009, the bank received $40 million in TARP funds. In May 2009, Spence was elevated from the bank’s board to its board of directors. Nearly two years later, the bank was unsuccessful in its turnaround, and Spence, along with other members of the board, voted not to repay the federal government for the loan.
Spence defended his role in the bank, noting that he purchased nearly $1.5 million in shares of the bank while it tried to raise capital to repay the bailout. The goal was to raise $20 million, but ended up with nearly $4 million — much of which was funded by Spence himself.
Spence said the criticism from Democrats is simply a distraction, and said he has nothing to hide.
“They are attacks, and they just don’t like the truth,” Spence said. “I’ve told the truth from the very beginning about all these issues.”
Spence’s largest financial supporter, so far, has been himself. At the end of the midyear fundraising quarter last week, Spence contributed $500,000 to his own campaign, adding to the $2.25 million he had already contributed to his own effort since entering the race in December. He said his self-funding is his way of putting his money where his mouth is to donors.
Nixon’s largest financial contributor this cycle appears to be the Democratic Governors Association, a national group set up to elect Democrats nationwide. To date, the group has contributed over $1.05 million to Nixon’s re-election effort.
Dave Spence is being challenged in the Republican primary by former Kansas City attorney Bill Randles. A tea party favorite, Randles began his campaign more than a year before Spence entered the race, but has not pulled support from much of the party’s establishment and has failed to raise significant campaign funds.