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Party Chair Roger Wilson

September 03, 2004
By: Ben Welsh
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Gov. Roger Wilson handed over the keys to 100 Madison St., the Missouri Governor's Mansion, to newly elected Gov. Bob Holden in January 2001.

Now after more than three years away from Capital politics Wilson, 55, is back in town.

Last month he moved into the Democratic Party's storefront office one block away from the mansion after gubernatorial nominee Claire McCaskill picked Wilson as party chair.

"Claire asked me and I said yes," said Wilson, a vice president at Rockwood Capital Advisers who was among the first established Democrats to endorse McCaskill. "My partners at Rockwood said go ahead we know you have that political genetic defect."

Wilson had chaired McCaskill's primary campaign against Holden. Four years ago when he was lieutenant governor, Wilson dropped his own campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor. It was a move that virtually handed the nomination to Holden who had amassed a huge financial war chest.

But if there are any feelings of revenge, they're not being voiced by Wilson who has enjoyed a reputation as one of the state's most polite and civil politicans.

While Wilson said he has not met with Holden since becoming party chair, he extended an olive branch.

"If he were to say to me, 'Roger, there is something I'd like to do,' I'm going to help him," Wilson said.

After the state auditor won the Democratic primary, McCaskill made putting Wilson in charge of the party machine one of her first official acts.

Wilson said he wants to reshape the party around what he sees as a new generation of Democratic politicians.

The Columbia Democrat said he broke ranks to support McCaskill's challenge of Holden because he felt she gave Democrats the best chance to win in November.

"At this point in Missouri's history, I'm glad Claire is willing to run," Wilson said. "I felt like we didn't stand as good a chance with independent voters. The negatives were too high. I'd seen the same thing happen in the Gray Davis situation."

But the top spokesman for the Missouri Republican Party disagrees, arguing that McCaskill is inseparable from Holden.

"Roger Wilson represents the same old failed Democratic agenda," said Paul Sloca, spokesman for the Missouri Republican Party.

In the run up to Election Day, Wilson plans to stay active on the campaign trail. He said he wants to help raise funds for Democratic candidates, court the media and control the direction of debate.

"The emotional hot button issues need to be relegated to a second tier," Wilson said. "Those things get trotted out like a show horse. They have nothing to do with government.

In recent elections, Republicans have put the focus on cultural issues and out paced Democrats in rural areas. The GOP currently controls both chambers of the General Assembly.

"I'm not saying that we don't care about guns, don't care about abortion or don't care about gay marriage. I want pro-gun Democrats and pro-life Democrats in the party," Wilson said. " I want them helping us on economic issues. I think people understand that they're hurting."

With four months left in his term as governor it is unclear what Holden's future role in the party will be.

Wilson cites his family's experience with the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Iraq War as motivating him to stay political engaged.

His daughter Erin was four miles from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and his son Drew recently returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq. Drew captured Baghdad with the Marines and was a member of the American forces that surrounded Fallujah before to the first cease-fire. He is scheduled to return for his third tour in February.

"I wish I was as cool as him. He's a very steady young man," Wilson said. "Watching your wife terrorized when a report comes over the wire that four Marines have been killed in Baghdad sends you on a roller coaster I don't expect everybody to understand.

"It scares you to death," Wilson said. "Any parent is scared to death when their kid is in harm's way and he's been in places a whole lot of parents wouldn't want their kids to be."

While Wilson declined to divulge his plans for after Election Day, he said he still has aspirations of making a return to the Governor's office.

Wilson said his inability to match Holden's war chest of campaign contributions was his biggest obstacle in his aborted gubernatorial primary candidacy four years.

Wilson had dropped his gubernatorial bid before the plane-crash death of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan which put Wilson into the governor's chair for the remaining three months of Carnahan's term.

Wilson said he has a few ideas for dealing with the problem in the future but knows the competition will be stiff.

"Out of 5.4 million Missourians there are probably 5.39 million who want to be governor," Wilson said. "You have to be realistic."