BRANSON – Constant attacks and interruptions from Republican candidate Eric Greitens toward Democratic candidate Chris Koster became the focus of a gubernatorial candidate forum hosted Friday afternoon during the annual Missouri Press Association convention in Branson.
It was the first time for Greitens, a former U.S. Navy Seal and first-time politician, and Missouri Attorney General Koster to face off in a gubernatorial debate for the Nov. 8 general election. In addition to the main-party candidates, the forum included Green Party candidate Don Fitz, Libertarian candidate Cisse Spragins and Independent candidate Lester Turilli Jr.
Greitens didn’t waste any time – during his response to the moderator’s first question, he accused Koster of voting for a bill that would require rape victims to pay for the cost of a rape kit and voting against a bill that would protect the privacy of rape victims.
The question was regarding the candidates’ stance on legislation allowing businesses to cite religious beliefs when refusing service to same-sex couples, which was discussed this year and is expected to be brought up again.
During his one-minute response, Koster said he supports the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act, noting Missouri should protect religious leaders from having to participate in ceremonies they don’t believe in, but nothing further. Before bringing up rape victims, Greitens skirted around the question, saying that protecting religious leaders is “pretty common sense” and that there is a way to protect religious freedom while also ensuring non-discrimination, but offering no specifics.
The two also clashed on Right to Work legislation. Koster said he would veto the bill if passed by the legislature, while Greitens said he’s in favor.
“As governor, we need in Missouri more jobs and higher pay. It’s very clear that Right to Work leads to more jobs and higher pay,” Greitens said.
The pair again had opposite views when it comes to improving education in Missouri. Koster said it’s time to fully fund education and give more flexibility to school districts.
“No. 1 on my agenda is making sure that we keep the promise to the schoolchildren by fully funding Missouri’s foundation formula, which has been chronically underfunded for a long time,” Koster said. “… We’ll raise teacher salaries and raise teacher quality at the same time.”
Greitens said Missouri education has enough funding, it just needs to be better allocated.
“Big government liberals like Chris Koster think that the answer to everything is spending more money,” Greitens said. “The facts are clear: Missouri spends about the national average on our kids in schools, but, we’re 40th in teacher pay and 47th in starting teacher pay. We need to make sure that money actually makes it to the teachers and the kids, that it makes it into the classrooms.”
Koster said he is in favor of expanding Medicaid in Missouri, as he believes it will create new jobs and provide health care coverage for more Missourians. Greitens called Obamacare a “broken program,” saying that if citizens want more Obamacare they should vote for Koster and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The back-and-forth between the two main-party candidates continued throughout the forum, but Koster finally took the bait on one of the last questions of the event about plans to balance the state’s budget.
“The hope is the economy will pick up, but if the economy does not pick up, the next governor, whoever that is on this stage, will be looking at the potential for additional withholds,” Koster said.
Greitens said the solution is having a governor who will “insist on accountability and results in every department.” He added that he will appoint a Chief Operating Officer “who every day is going to wake up and make sure we’re running an efficient government with a focus on results and accountability.”
Koster didn’t agree.
“Eric just articulated that he wants to hire, his first act in office, a Chief Operating Officer. That’s you Eric, that’s what they’re trying to hire,” Koster said during his rebuttal, gesturing to the audience. “The governor is the person who runs the budget. And if you don’t know enough to operate the state of Missouri then you shouldn’t be applying for the job, my friend.”
Greitens offered his own rebuttal, saying Koster is a “deeply confused career politician” who doesn’t understand the difference between a CEO and a COO.
“The fact you don’t understand it Chris, you don’t understand what it takes to run a business or an enterprise, is one of the reasons the people of Missouri cannot elect another career politician,” Greitens said.
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-530-0138 or @NicoleRCooke.