Dave Spence may be a long shot to win the governor’s race. But don’t tell him that.
The St. Louis businessman and political neophyte is betting that politics, like most things in life, is about timing.
And as he sees it, the winds of change are blowing his way this election cycle, not in the direction of career politicians.
Campaigning in Washington last week, the Republican argued that Missouri is stalled in an economic quagmire and the state’s leaders are too polarized to do anything about it.
“I’m running because we are simply following a broken business model in Missouri,” Spence said.
“We are near last in every measurable category from 50th in job creation to 49th in higher education funding. We’ve got unaccredited schools, we are losing jobs left and right in this state and we’ve had zero percent job growth for the past three years. Even Illinois, with a $25 billion deficit, or whatever crazy number it is, is growing at 1.3 percent. I thought, wow, who is going to be the leader who jumps in there and starts solving some of these issues?”
Spence has never run for office before. He was virtually unknown in state politics until late last year when he announced he was running for governor and would be a rival to the presumptive Republican nominee Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder. Kinder’s campaign came apart after a series of unflattering personal issues made headlines.
In All Counties
Since then. Spence, 54, has been crisscrossing the state introducing himself to Republican officials and the public. The centerpiece of his campaign is economic development and he is making the case that what Missourians need more than anything right now, is a CEO who understands how to grow the state’s economy.
He says what he lacks in name recognition is more than made up by his real-world experience running a successful manufacturing business.
“Whether you have a Democrat, Republican or Independent behind your name, we have to start acting like adults and getting things done in our state, he added. “This ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ type of mentality is tearing apart our state... We’ve got to wake up and realize that Missouri was a once proud state that needs to get its momentum back.”
Recent polls show Spence leading in the GOP primary race which includes Bill Randles, a lawyer from Kansas City. Spence has an overwhelming fundraising advantage having poured millions of dollars of his own money into his campaign war chest.
Should he prevail in the August primary, Spence would still be a heavy underdog in a race against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon — a veteran of more than a half-dozen statewide campaigns. Nixon, who leans conservative, has a formidable battle-tested political organization.
That doesn’t bother Spence who says that despite his popularity, Nixon is vulnerable on the economy.
“I think they (Nixon administration) are clueless,” Spence said. “They have had three economic development directors in three years. It’s bad leadership. If you have been suing businesses for 16 years like Jay Nixon has, how can you all of a sudden say you’re an economic development director guy the next day as governor? He doesn’t get it. He has never been in the real world, he has never had to make payroll, he has never had to sign the front of a paycheck. So how can he talk to businesses about expanding?
“I think it is fine that we helped Ford out, and I think it is great and fine we helped other people out, however, we don’t have a comprehensive plan, we do not have any vision, we don’t have a plan going forward. It’s all reactionary and that is not vision. Leadership is part vision and you need to know where you want to go and that is what I do, I do economic development. That is what I have been doing for 27 years.”
Spence’s political naiveté surfaced during the campaign. His campaign has experienced a few missteps. He made national headlines and was the butt of many jokes after his campaign website indicated he had earned a degree in economics from the University of Missouri. In reality, he earned a degree in home economics.
“It was my fault,” Spence acknowledged. “I didn’t check it before it was posted. I wasn’t the greatest student and I didn’t have enough credits to graduate in four years which is what I wanted to do so I opted for a degree in home economics. But I don’t think my academic performance in college defines me. I think my record after college speaks for itself.”
At the age of 26, after being turned down for a loan by 10 banks, Spence was eventually successful in obtaining a small business loan which he used to acquire Alpha Packaging, a small plastic bottle manufacturing company in north St. Louis.
At the time, the business had about 15 employees and approximately $350,000 in annual sales. Over the next 25 years Spence guided the business through a robust expansion building additional plants throughout the United States and making the company an international leader in the sale of pharmaceutical bottles and other plastic containers.
He sold the majority interest in the company in 2010 for a reported $260 million.
He said that the skills that are necessary for growing a business are the same for growing a state’s economy.
“You want a governor who is going to figure it out and surround himself with good people, because it is not about one person. You are the CEO and you put a team together that you lead and that is what we need in our state. The governor appoints 12 out of 16 positions (in state government) and I would venture to say 10 of these positions right now are (the result of) cronyism and that is no way to run a state,” Spence argued.
Spence characterized himself as a commonsense conservative but not necessarily an ideologue. “There’s been too much of that in Jefferson City,” he added, “there should be more focus on getting things done. We need someone who can unite people with different viewpoints.”
Spence has been under fire recently by some groups for his positions on minimum wage and right to work legislation. He says Democrats have distorted statements he has made on the minimum wage issue. He said he is not against it but that it doesn’t make sense for the state to have a higher minimum wage than the federal minimum wage.
“Why would we make it tougher for any Missouri business to hire anybody?” he asked. “I just don’t think that is good, common sense.”
He said he does support right to work legislation but isn’t against unions providing they have a value proposition that makes sense for its members.
“Here is where we are. We are surrounded by six out of eight states that are right to work states. I am for it. I also realize it is a hot potato. But I’ve met with union members and union heads and listen to their point of view. Some things I’ve heard from union members is they don’t like money taken out of their paychecks for political contributions they may or may not agree with. They don’t like being hired out of a hall because there are a lot of politics played and there seems to be a discrepancy in fairness to the different union members. There is just a lot of politics.”
Spence said he enjoyed being back in Washington. He said he had fond memories of the town after spending part of a summer moving equipment from a factory his father purchased. He also complimented the city’s leadership and economic development effort.
“It’s a beautiful area and you have a lot going on. You have some major employers here. I give you guys credit, you are not waiting for someone else to solve your problems,” he added.
Spence says his campaign is gaining traction.
“You know what the problem is? You have a lot of candidates who talk at people versus with them. As I’ve gone around the state people are saying the same thing. They just want brighter days ahead. They want optimism. They want to have Missouri growing again,” he said.