Chris Koster
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Chris Koster

Date: October 21, 2008
By: Chris Dunn
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Chris Koster likes his iced tea with one packet of Sweet 'N Low, even if he has to use his finger to stir in the sweetener. 

At least, that's how he solved the dilemma of having no spoon at the disability forum hosted by the Congress on Disability Policy in Columbia on Oct. 4. 

"The choices that I had were either my finger or my pen, so I chose my finger," said the 44-year-old senator, with a slight chuckle. 

Even if people don't know his name, what office he is running for or even who he is, they are drawn to him. 

"Who is that young man in the blue jeans?" asked an elderly woman after the disability forum concluded and people were still milling around the candidates who attended. When told that he is Chris Koster, and that he is running for the state attorney general, she said perkily, "I like him. I would vote for him."

Koster has represented the western Missouri 31st Senate district since 2004. His opponent is Sen. Mike Gibbons, R-Kirkwood.

"I have the unique experience of running against a colleague," Koster said during the second attorney general candidate debate on Oct. 9 in Poplar Bluff. "Sen. Gibbons and I have worked together in the Missouri Senate for four years. We are colleagues, friends."

Colleagues and friends, and now political opponents and friends. This is only one area where Koster has a little something from both sides of the same coin. 

He has walked the fields of rural Missouri and the Senate floor alike, while wearing his brown cowboy boots. He was born and raised in St. Louis, but practices law at the Kansas City-based firm of Dollar, Burns & Becker, L.C. Most notably, four years ago he was elected to the state Senate as a Republican, and today is running for the state attorney general's office as a Democrat. 

Koster officially crossed the aisle and joined the Democratic Party when he made his announcement on Francis Quadrangle on Aug. 1, 2007. But he began to feel what he described as the constraints of the Republican Party in 2005. 

"It was a long and gradual process," Koster said. "I felt that the focus of the Republican Party was narrowing, that my personal desire in the governmental realm was broadening, that I wanted to reach out to other issues and other constituencies that the Republican Party was simply never going to allow for."

One of those issues was stem cell research. 

"The stem cell debate of 2005 was unquestionably probably the largest single issue that separated me from the majority party," Koster said. "What the Republican Party tried to do in 2005 was try to make stem cell research in the state of Missouri a class B felony, punishable by 5 to 15 years in the Missouri Department of Corrections."

"That extremism had grabbed hold of the inner core of that party, to the degree that I no longer wanted to participate in," he said. 

However, the stem-cell research controversy was not a one-sided issue for the Republican Party. The Republican governor and several Republican lawmakers had opposed legislation to outlaw stem cell research. In 2005, some Republican senators actually conducted a near-filibuster to block even a vote on the stem-cell research ban that had been sponsored by a fellow Republican.

The recurring pro-choice/pro-life debate is another issue Koster has cited as moving him away from the Republican Party. He emphasized his belief that the government should not interfere with people's personal choices, and said he observed the Democratic and Republican parties change sides on this matter. 

"The abortion wars of the last three or four years led me to the conclusion that actually the position of the two parties had switched," he said. "It was the Democrats who were more quickly approaching a philosophy of moving the government out of the personal choice issues, and it was the Republican Party in its acquiescence to the extreme right that was coming to a philosophy that government should be involved in the most intimate decisions in people's lives." 

In 2007, however, when Koster still was a Republican, he had voted for that year's anti-abortion bill that imposed special licensing requirements on abortion clinics -- although Koster did not join his fellow Republicans in voting to shut off a Democratic filibuster that was blocking a vote on the measure.

Koster argues that his position on these issues and others has not changed along with his party affiliation. 

"The reason I changed the letter after my name, after having three years of experience in Jefferson City, was not because I changed anything about the issues that I've pursued," he said. "It had to do with the notion that the party that I used to be a part of was cracking down on the very things that I cared most about."

The oldest of four sons, Koster was born to a historically Republican family, at least on his father's side. But changing his party lines did not impact his relationship with his family, he said, and described his family as close. He talks to his brothers on a frequent and regular basis, even as many as three times a day. 

"My political decisions don't have anything to do with whether I'm invited to Thanksgiving dinner," Koster said. 

Koster said joining the political sphere was not his original intent when he attended MU and received a liberal arts degree. He had never been a part of student government, Model UN or any other government-based organization in school. His late father was a sportswriter, and Koster wanted to pursue sports writing or sports casting as well. 

But he was drawn to law, and in 1991, he received his law degree from the MU School of Law. From there, Koster served as an assistant attorney general in the state attorney general's office for two years. He then practiced with Kansas City-based law firm Blackwell Sanders until 1994, at which point he campaigned to be Cass County prosecutor and won his first election. 

That was a position he held for 10 years, and the experience he gained during that period now plays a major part in his current campaign. 

"When you're out in rural Missouri at 3 o'clock in the morning, busting a meth lab and knowing who to call, knowing how to handle the situation, knowing when and when not to send the SWAT team through the door this is not the kind of experience that you can just learn or pick up in law school," Koster said. "That 10-year period of my life, I think, was one of the most educational and professionally rewarding that I've had the experience to enjoy."

Koster often emphasizes that experience as a significant qualification he would be able to put to use in the attorney general's office. 

'My belief is that if you want to be the state's top law enforcement officer, it helps if you have experience with the law," he said in Poplar Bluff. "I carried a badge in my back pocket for 12 of the past 16 years - two years as the assistant attorney general and 10 years as a prosecuting attorney."

Pat Koster Thompson is Koster's mother, and is where he gets his copper-colored hair and blue eyes. She attended the general election season's third candidate debate between Koster and Gibbons, on Oct. 20 in St. Louis, and pointed out his experience in training young lawyers when he was prosecuting attorney of Cass County.

She said there are "220 young lawyers who want to get even more developed, who want to get better at what  they do. And the only way they can do that is by somebody who has already walked that path, and has experience in front of a jury, in front of a judge."

Another quality Koster frequently refers to is "fierce independence." He has been helping Chris Benjamin in his campaign for the 31st District seat, which Koster currently holds. Earlier this month, they had their second one-day tour throughout the district, which comprises four counties in western Missouri.

In his introduction of Benjamin to the small crowd that gathered outside the Cass County courthouse on Oct. 8, Koster said the district "is widely seen as the most independent -- and when I say independent, I mean fiercely independent -- 13th district in the entire state of Missouri." 

That independence is part of why he was voted into the state Senate in 2004, Koster later said. 

"The people in the 31st Senatorial elected me, I think, as an independent," he said. "It's important for the future of this state that centrist people who are not likely to move to the extreme either extreme, really are in leadership positions in this state."

Benjamin agrees. The two have known each other since Koster was the prosecuting attorney for Cass County, and Benjamin considers him a friend and mentor. 

"Folks back home here really, really like Chris Koster," Benjamin said. "He's done a great job for our district."

When asked why people should vote Koster into the attorney general's office, Benjamin also referred to independence. 

"The biggest thing is independent leadership," Benjamin said. "Not worrying about what affiliation you are, but working with all sides and bringing the sides together."

Koster's involvement in public policy as a state senator helped cement his resolve to become Missouri's next attorney general. With his combined experience as Cass County prosecuting attorney and as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Koster is confident he would be an effective attorney general. 

"The state of Missouri has one individual charged with standing up to the powerful when the powerful overreach, and that is the attorney general," Koster said. "What the state needs is someone who has the guts to stand up and protect the resources of this state, and I am the candidate that is better served in that regard."