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."
These days, GOP leaders play down the idea that Hulshof is the anointed candidate. "There are supporters for both candidates on the state committee," says party chairman Doug Russell. "There are some that feel it would be better not to have a primary. Primaries are not always bad things. It's important to keep it on a positive level."
Since announcing her candidacy on January 26, Steelman has been on a tight and disciplined schedule, attending Republican events and cold-calling for dollars. At the end of 2007, her campaign committee had $296,773 in the bank. She's retained a consultant, Jeff Roe, a former Republican operative and author of the blog The Source. Roe had been working on her campaign for treasurer. When she entered the race for governor, his Kansas City-based firm, Axiom Strategies, quickly switched gears. Her deputy treasurer, Doug Gaston, took a leave from his official duties and began work on her gubernatorial campaign from Jefferson City. But as of the official candidate filing date on February 26, Steelman had yet to hire an experienced campaign manager.
It's too early to count Steelman out, says pollster and Saint Louis University professor Ken Warren. "Kenny Hulshof is popular in Republican circles, but to tell the truth, Sarah Steelman has more name recognition with the voters at large."
Dave Robertson, a University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor, is less optimistic about Steelman's chances in the August 5 primary, mainly because he believes Hulshof will raise far more money. But, he adds, her youthful looks just might prove to be a valuable asset.
"In the battle of images, she can hold her own," he says. "Especially with Jay Nixon, who looks like this typical Missouri politician, upper-middle-aged white guy."
The Steelmans linger at Montauk's opening-day scene long enough to see a fisherman haul in a lunker. David and Sarah had only a few hours of sleep after attending a Republican dinner the night before in St. Charles, and David forgot to pack the tackle box. "I've fouled up the fishing," he proclaims. The couple, their son Michael, and David's mother, Maxine, climb into a black Chevy Suburban and head for breakfast at the lodge.
Sarah notices that the car rolling ahead of them belongs to Frank Barnitz, the Democrat who won the 16th District Senate seat that Steelman abandoned in her 2004 bid for treasurer. The Oldsmobile Aurora bears a Jay Nixon campaign sticker on the back window and a personalized license plate, number S-16. "I never used that plate," she says, almost under her breath. It's a modest-sounding but pointed observation.
To Steelman, whether a state official uses reserved license plates is an important distinction. "I just don't think elected officials should be treated any differently than regular citizens," she says. "It just doesn't seem right to me to have a special plate because you're elected by the people." (Her Suburban's plates say "LIVFRE.")
Steelman has built her career around such righteous assertions. And in the year of John McCain's presidential nomination, Steelman, a longtime supporter of the Arizona maverick, plays up her own independent streak. "That's why the 'establishment' doesn't always rally behind me," she says. "I'm interested in standing up for taxpayers and voters."
Recently, she had a run-in with fellow Republicans over Show Me Ethanol. The $82 million plant cannot qualify for a cheap, taxpayer-financed loan until its investors comply with the treasurer's strict conflict-of-interest policy. The Associated Press reported in January that the ethanol plant's 700 investors include Chillicothe state representative John Quinn, his wife Mary, and the governor's brother, Andy Blunt. Steelman's policy requires the elected officials and their relatives to sell their shares. As a result, the loan has been delayed for more than a year.
A top agriculture official and old senate colleagues paid visits to her office. "I caught so much grief from people," she says quietly, while sitting in a booth at the McDonald's in Salem. A Rolla Bulldogs baseball cap shields her eyes and her long hair falls down around her face like a protective curtain. The intense lobbying on Show Me Ethanol made her doubt her hard-line stance, she says. Then she sought advice from her two wise men, her 82-year-old father, John Hearne, and her father-in-law. "They agreed with me — of course not," she says, her voice rising to a stubborn tone. "Elected officials shouldn't reap the benefits."
Steelman avoids naming those who have opposed her various crusades. She says she harbors no grudges. Her husband, though, can't help but keep score. Says David Steelman: "I remember the enemies."
David Steelman plays a central role in his wife's campaigns. "He is a very, very analytical thinker, and that helps her," says Franc Flotron, a former senator from Chesterfield and friend of the family. Flotron adds, "She is by no stretch of the imagination David's pawn."
An older generation will remember David Steelman as the hotshot politician; his home district elected him as a state representative in 1978, the year he graduated at the top of his University of Missouri-Columbia law class. In the House, he rose to the rank of minority floor leader.
David Steelman earned a reputation as a gloves-off campaigner in 1992, when he ran for attorney general and lost to none other than Jay Nixon. The race was a slugfest. "That thing digressed into, 'You smoked dope. You didn't pay your child support,'" recalls Nixon's former campaign manager, Chuck Hatfield. Hatfield adds that Nixon had in fact admitted to trying marijuana, and Steelman's first wife had gone to court, seeking support for their daughter. A Steelman campaign with Sarah as the candidate would be just as aggressive, Hatfield predicts. "They're not going to overlook anything," he says. "They're not afraid to not only punch back, but to throw the first punch."
Now a lawyer in private practice, Hatfield still crosses paths with the couple. He and David have mutual friends, and he has worked with the treasurer's office on behalf of clients. "She's surprising," he says of Sarah. From a distance, Hatfield says she seems pugnacious. "That whole thing with 'We're not going to invest in terrorist companies,' it looks like she's going out of her way to start a fight." Up close, he says she's unassuming. "Interpersonally, she's not quite as aggressive as some politicians you'll run into."
Hatfield concludes: "I haven't quite figured her out."
As a six-year-old in 1964, Sarah and her family rang doorbells for Barry Goldwater. John Hearne raised his three children in the conservative cause, and Steelman remembers the volunteer-run bookstore her father opened after Goldwater's landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson. "I remember going up to The Freedom Center," she says, before ticking off authors in the store's collection: William F. Buckley, as well as the more obscure Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.
At home, Hearne liked to host political discussions with Sarah's neighborhood friends, Democrats included. "I've always been able to appreciate other points of view," she says. But Steelman did not deviate from her father's influence. In 1976 she tagged along with him to the state convention. "I actually got to meet Ronald Reagan then," she remembers. As a senior at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1980, she led a few of her Pi Beta Phi sorority sisters to Iowa for a weekend working a phone bank for Reagan. "It's really pure, grassroots Republican politics that I've been interested in," she says.
Her brother Tom Hearne notes that while they were growing up, Democrats dominated state government, as well as Jefferson City society. He thinks that's why his sister comes across as a right-wing populist. "Growing up in that environment made me, and I suspect Sarah, appreciate the people who've always been on the outside a little bit, looking in."
Steelman chose to announce a second run for treasurer from her parents' Jefferson City kitchen. In a speech recorded by the Missourinet radio network, she called the Hearne home a "magical" place, where a ten-year-old girl was welcome to participate in political discussion. "We didn't discuss polls and triangulations. We discussed ideas. We dreamed and debated about where they might take a people, a nation."
Seated at the kitchen table and reading from a script, she said, "It's a different kind of politics than what has become the norm today. It's a politics that brings me here today, not to tell you that I want to hold an office, but that I want to be your partner. Together we can put the power back where it belongs."
Behind her, relatives unfurled a banner with the slogan: "Power to the people."
The party faithful pack into The Columns banquet center in St. Charles on a Friday night in February to hear their leaders give patriotic speeches and crack jokes about Democrats. "Barack Obama managed to carry Missouri, despite Claire McCaskill's endorsement," Governor Matt Blunt says of his former opponent. "Who would've thought Claire McCaskill would endorse the candidate of youth and inexperience?" A slide show playing on the back wall highlights Republican accomplishments: the number of abortion clinics reduced from ten to three, and "NO NEW TAXES" among them.
A Republican candidate's late-winter calendar is full of Lincoln Day dinners like this, but one cannot afford to skip St. Charles. A populous Republican stronghold, the county delivered 59 percent of the vote to George W. Bush in 2004.
In the room full of dark suits, Hulshof's faded-copper hair and round, boyish spectacles are easy to spot. Tossing his head back in laughter, he stands just beyond a gauntlet of kids who are itching to put campaign stickers on anyone who wanders past. Later, Hulshof will give a rousing speech full of poignant imagery: his cotton-farmer father's weathered hands, his uncle Francis exchanging salutes with the first President Bush, and a young war veteran saluting Reagan's casket with an amputated arm.
A former economist and stockbroker, Steelman lacks Hulshof's lawyerly ease in front of a live audience. In St. Charles, she relies on a script. She begins the speech by relating a conversation she had with her son Michael after one of his basketball games. "What is winning, Mommy? What's the definition?" she recounts. "It's not you becoming governor. Winning is making Missouri a better place to live."
Steelman goes on to talk about her record: "I am proud to be pro-life," she says, reminding the audience that as a state senator in 1999 she cast the deciding vote to ban "partial-birth" abortion. The bullet-point draws applause, but the extra attention only seems to make her more nervous. Steelman recovers her poise once she's back in familiar rhetorical territory: "It is the governor's job to fight and work hard for the people of this state. I'm committed to doing that with all my strength."
Later, Steelman says she lost her place in the script, and she regrets using one. "I'm embarrassed that I did so poorly that night." She says she performs better with few notes. "We've had a running discussion about that in the campaign."
Steelman is shy, and even in a one-on-one setting, she lets others do the talking. "It's hard for me to talk about the things I've done. David gets on me for it," she says. During the pre-dinner mingling in St. Charles, Steelman gets an assist from Willliam "Buddy" Hardin, a local activist and friend of her consultant, Jeff Roe. Hardin, a barrel-chested man whose suit lapels are covered with stickers, introduces her to several people. Steelman greets each of her new acquaintances with a long, earnest handshake. "She's not your traditional, kiss-a-baby, look-how-great-I-am politician," Hardin says.
Hardin acknowledges Hulshof's popularity, but asserts, "An informed primary voter has to look at electibility. A female candidate has some advantage, at least getting the door open for a closer look."
With her petite figure and chiseled features, Steelman has never wanted for attention. "She's an attractive candidate — physically," says Scott Alford, a Republican committeeman who lives in Steelman's rural part of the state. Alford is often amused to watch one local supporter's response to her presence. "Every time he sees her, he goes up, 'I gotta get my hug.'"
Flotron, the former senator, first met Steelman when she was a legislative intern. He says he didn't give much thought to her future in politics. "Understand that I'm male, and she's overwhelmingly attractive," he explains.
One anonymous commentator on the political blog PubDef labeled her a MILF. The commentary doesn't stop at such locker-room-style assessments. Several blog followers can't resist resurrecting an old Jefferson City rumor about her dalliances with fellow senators. Says Steelman: "It's just rumor-blogging. People will say anything and make stuff up."
Contrary to the image of Steelman as the capitol flirt, her friends and colleagues say she's a dutiful mother. As a senator, she skipped social functions to watch her sons play sports. (Sam, 21, and Joe, 19, are now away at college.) Reached at home one evening in March, Steelman says her after-hours routine began at her parents' home to help her mother, who has Lou Gehrig's disease. Then she stopped at the grocery store in Rolla and had just finished making dinner for Michael and David. Steelman planned to skip dinner herself; she wanted to squeeze in a workout.
"I used to be amazed at how she could do it," says Ken Jacob, a former Democratic senator whose office was next door to Steelman's for several years. Jacob is one of the few politicians who knew Steelman before her marriage in 1985. In graduate school at the University of Missouri-Columbia, they ended up in the same class on a primitive form of computer programming.
"I do recall being totally stuck and needing that class for graduation," Jacob says. "We were on the same team. Sarah saved me. She's deceptively smart. I think sometimes people don't give her the credit she deserves."
Steelman's consultant, Jeff Roe, boasts on his firm's Web site that he turned five Senate and thirteen House seats in northwest Missouri from blue to red. Should a Republican adopt a slogan associated with the Black Panthers? Roe didn't think it was a good idea. Steelman didn't listen. "I liked it," she says. "I'm the one running."
She says the slogan defines her career, which began in 1998 with a run for Senate against a sixteen-year incumbent. Democrat Mike Lybyer was chairman of the appropriations committee, and he had endorsements from the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and members of the Missouri Farm Bureau.
In the late 1990s, the legislature's attempt to ban partial-birth abortion consumed state politics. Lybyer cast the vote that let stand Governor Mel Carnahan's 1997 veto of the ban. "That was the beginning of the end," says Catherine Lange, a Republican from Cuba who worked on Steelman's campaign.
Steelman was helping her husband host a local radio show called Right Talk, and she thought Lybyer was out of touch with the conservative district. She had the backing of Missouri Right to Life, but she didn't draw many supporters to the campaign trail. Two weeks before Election Day, she held a fundraiser at a winery near Hermann, and only two men showed up. "There were a lot of empty picnic tables," she says. David Steelman recalls how it looked as though his wife wouldn't win even conservative Gasconade County. "We left that fundraiser feeling pretty down."
Steelman, though, bested Lybyer with a stunning 58 percent of the vote. "I beat him. I even beat him in his own township," she says in a voice full of satisfaction. The headline in The Salem News, the twice-weekly newspaper in her husband's hometown, trumpeted: "Power to the People."
Steelman thought the headline was perfect. "We need to keep power in the hands of the people."