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As Senate leader, Kinder emerges as a passionate conservative

February 15, 2001
By: Lauren Shepherd
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Passion is a word many who know him use to describe the Missouri Senate's new top leader -- and an emerging figure in the state Republican party.

Until just a short time ago, that passion was described somewhat negatively by his critics as the dogged singlemindedness of a conservative idealogue.

But with his father's death last summer and his election as president pro tem, the top post of the Senate, colleagues -- including even one of his harshest critics -- say Peter Kinder has tempered that drive and seasoned it with compassion.

"He is equally as passionate, but it seems to be from a more moored perspective," said Sen. David Klarich, R-Clayton, who ran against Kinder for the GOP nomination for Senate pro tem.

"He's really been grounded in his philosophy," said Klarich, who has known the Cape Girardeau legislator for 10 years.

Kinder, once was known for his support of far-right issues like bans on abortion and same-sex marriages. But on the night of the special elections last month when his Seante leadership was assured, Kinder spoke about how he wanted to make improving inner-city school in St. Louis and Kansas City a priority.

And despite leading the GOP to control the Senate for the first time in more than half a century, not one head has rolled among Senate staffers.

Some senators now say Kinder's passion could also be called intensity--a hyperness that is evidenced each day on the floor of the Senate.

For example, figeting with the small, wire-rimmed glasses in his hands, the president pro tem jumped to his feet last week and squinted at the mass of papers threatening to tumble onto the floor

Unable to stand still, Kinder shifted his weight from one foot to the other, found the elusive paper and announced new committee member assignments.

Only moments later, Kinder was on his feet again. Standing at the back of the chamber, he was huddled with a fellow senator, whispering intently.

One more minute and the politician was back behind his Senate chamber desk to introduce a piece of legislation aimed at limiting the pay that the private lawyers involved in the state's lawsuit against the tobacco industry can earn.

Several Republican senators said this intensity and drive is necessary to successfully push a Republican agenda through a Senate still deeply divided between 16 Democrats and 18 Republicans.

"He's a passionate and principled legislator," Klarich said. "He is making a concerted effort to be conciliatory, but he hasn't tempered his opinion."

Even several senators who disagree with Kinder's conservative philosophy said the legislator is equipped to deal with the pressures of the job as president pro tem, mostly due to the strength of his convictions.

Sen. Ed Quick, D-Liberty, former president pro tem and now the Senate minority leader, said Kinder's "dedication to his issues" will serve him well as a leader.

The dedication and passion that helped Kinder ascend to his position have evolved, though, in the past year.

Last summer his mother and father were involved in a car accident in Georgia. Kinder's father, James, was killed and his mother was injured--a tragedy that his fellow senators believe has permanently changed Kinder.

"He's more circumspect," Klarich said.

Although Kinder does not talk much about his father's death or it's impact on him, he does believe his father's life as a pediatrician in Cape Girardeau changed his beliefs about leadership.

Specifically, Kinder said his father's decision to leave private practice after 49 years to work in a a county health unit, taking care of the poor left Kinder with a feeling of responsibility for "our brothers and sisters in need."

Besides his father's death, several senators also said his rise to power has helped take some of the bark out of Kinder's conservative bite, even if it hasn't changed his opinions or his agenda.

Sen. Betty Sims, R-St. Louis County, agreed, saying Kinder has a strong belief in his convictions, but that "he thinks more before he speaks now."

"He chooses his words carefully," she said.

But Sims said, Kinder's basic qualities have not changed since she first met him when the two served on a White House commission in the early 1980s.

"He leads by friendship," she said. "He's the least demanding person I've ever met in my life."

Although Kinder may not be a demanding leader, Klarich said he is a "detail-oriented" one who enjoys his powerful position in the chamber.

"His real forte is his vision for the future," he said. "He'd much prefer orchastrating the musical event than playing for it."

And with only two weeks on the job, Kinder has already been receiving good job performance reviews from both parties.

"The jury is still out" on Kinder's abilities as president pro tem, said Gov. Bob Holden. But "I think everything I've seen so far shows he's handling his duties very well."

Kinder, himself, has already begun to evaluate himself and his role in his new job.

It's stylistic," Kinder said of his position. "It doesn't involve changes in ideology."

"But moving into a leadership role forces you to look at old responsibilities and new responsibilities differently," he added.

Kinder, a 46-year-old unmarried lawyer and newspaper columnist, has served most of his adult life in public office. Since his school days at Southeast Missouri State University and the University of Missouri, Kinder has been involved in politics -- whether as a College Republican or a delegate to the 1976 state Republican convention.

After graduating from law school at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Kinder was recruited to manage the successful 1980 congressional campaign of Bill Emerson in the 10th congressional district, which covers all of southeastern Missouri. He then worked with the Congressman for 15 months in Washington D.C. before running his second campaign in 1982.

The politician and lawyer fell out of political life after 1983, working as a lawyer for Drury Inn. Four years later, Kinder tried his hand in journalism.

Kinder was hired as an assistant publisher for the Southeastern Missourian newspaper by the company's president and former GOP legislator, Gary Rust. Kinder still continues to write a regular column for the paper as well as two editorials a week.

When the Cape Girardeau state Senate seat opened in 1992, Kinder saw an opportunity to get back into politics. Kinder's opponent was former state Rep. Betty Hearnes, wife of former Gov. Warren Hearnes.

"We ran a spirited campaign," Kinder said. "We came from behind to win comfortably."

"I've been here ever since," he added.

In his eight-year tenure in the upper chamber, Kinder has made a name for himself as a vocal, hard-nosed conservative. From opposing gay marriages and abortion to advancing the rights of gun owners, Kinder has been on the far right end of the political spectrum.

But the Kinder name has not always been associated with passionate conservatism and Republican ideology.

"I come from a long line of Democrats," Kinder said.

Both of Kinder's great-grandfathers were Democrats holding political office in Cape Girardeau--one was a state senator in the 1800s and the other held a county office.

"Both of them were Harry Truman Democrats," he said. "Actually, I have a treasured letter from Harry Truman to my grandmother hanging on the wall of my office."

The Democratic legacy, though, was unraveling by the time Kinder's father had a son.

"My father believed the Democratic Party had left people like him behind," Kinder said. "By the time I came along, my dad was a Republican."