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For a politician looking to connect with the camouflage set, this would seem an ideal photo opportunity: fishermen standing shoulder-to-shoulder along the banks of an Ozark river, their rods poised above the icy water. State Treasurer Sarah Steelman has come to Montauk State Park, not far from her home in Rolla, to witness the opening of Missouri's trout-fishing season, an event that draws outdoorsmen by the hundreds every March 1.
With an arm around her twelve-year-old son, Steelman takes in the scene from a small bridge over the Current River. She chats with the other elected officials and park bureaucrats milling around, but she doesn't make much of her recent announcement that she's running for governor. "I don't like talking about myself," Steelman says. "I'd much rather listen to somebody else."
Steelman, 49, married into a well-connected south-central Missouri political clan. The patriarch, Dorman L. Steelman, was a legislator, a state Republican Party chairman and a judge. His name adorns the lodge at Montauk. While Sarah circulates quietly, her silver-haired husband, David — an ex-lawmaker himself — meets and greets with a booming voice. Yet it is Sarah who brought the family name to statewide office. Says David Steelman: "My dad, who passed away, said he never thought he'd say the gutsiest politician he knew was his daughter-in-law."
Sarah Steelman launched her political career in 1998 when she unseated an entrenched incumbent state senator. She arrived in the Senate the youngest of five women. It did not take long for her colleagues to find out that the soft-spoken mother of three wouldn't necessarily toe the party line. As a freshman, she came out against lawmaker pensions. Then in 2002, she threatened to filibuster a Republican-sponsored plan to finance stadiums, including one for the St. Louis Cardinals. There's an ambitious streak to Steelman, too. She wanted to run for secretary of state in 2004. Losing out in the intra-party jockeying to former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, Steelman tacked over to a crowded treasurer's race and emerged victorious.
As treasurer, Steelman gained national recognition as a pioneer in "anti-terrorism" investing. A Wall Street Journal article last June noted that she contacted 49 other state treasurers and urged them to promote laws that would compel public pension funds to divest from companies doing business with state sponsors of terror. Appearing on CNN and FOX News, the woman who guards Missouri's piggy bank cut a striking figure, with her bright blue eyes and long blond hair, which cascaded in soft waves down her shoulders.
The national exposure prompted reporters back home to wonder whether, come 2008, Steelman might dare challenge fellow Republican, Governor Matt Blunt. Steelman readily admits she wanted the top job, but balked at taking on an incumbent, however unpopular. "I've always said, 'If [Blunt] wasn't going to run, I was going to run.'" After raising more than $6 million to fend off Democrat Jay Nixon, Blunt announced in the late afternoon of January 22 that he wouldn't seek re-election.
Blunt's revelation was a shocker. Steelman had no idea it was coming when, earlier that same day, she held her own press conference in Jefferson City, saying she planned to seek another four years as treasurer. A few hours later, she was driving to Rolla for a campaign kickoff when she heard word about Blunt. She promptly cancelled the Rolla event and began weighing her chances in an open governor's race. Four days later, she announced her candidacy at her brother's home in Springfield.
Why run for governor? "I thought this was a good opportunity for me to help make a difference in Missouri, with some of the ideas I'd like to pursue." She adds simply, "I thought I'd do it."
Steelman wasn't the only one rushing onto the field. Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder announced his bid first, but quickly pulled out, presumably to make way for Congressman Kenny Hulshof. A former prosecutor from Columbia, Hulshof had first expressed an interest in the governor's mansion in 2004. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Republicans wanted Steelman to step aside for Hulshof, too, but she refused.
Steelman says no one ever contacted her directly. "I never have gotten into the games, and the closed-door meetings, and picking who's gonna do what," she says. "I'm not part of the good ol' boys network, and I don't want to be."
Steelman is pro-gun and anti-abortion. As a state senator in 2004, she sponsored the bill that created a ballot question on gay marriage. Voters responded to that question — whether to create a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman — with a resounding yes. Still, Steelman's conservative pedigree contains at least one flaw — an affiliation with trial attorneys. Like the former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, her husband makes his living on personal-injury and product-liability cases. And in 2004, Steelman was the only Republican senator to vote against tort reform. The bill in question would have limited damage awards in medical malpractice suits, among other restrictions.
Some Republicans thought David Steelman's law practice had a dubious influence on her vote. Steelman counters the bill went too far because it would have shielded drunk drivers from liability. But party insiders have not forgotten Steelman's opposing role in the struggle over tort reform. That's one reason they like Hulshof, or as Ladue Republican Betty Sims put it: "This is Mr. Clean. He's a hard-working farm boy. He doesn't have baggage."