Missouri’s lieutenant governor faces stripper issues
It started with a photo published in St. Louis' Riverfront Times -- a cellphone snap of Missouri's Republican lieutenant governor, Peter Kinder, grinning with former Penthouse Pet Tammy Chapman at a pantless bar in St. Louis.
The shot initially prompted an awkward nondenial from Kinder's office. (Kinder is unmarried.) "I really highly doubt the lieutenant governor is going to a bar where they don't wear pants on a night when they don't wear pants," Kinder's spokesman told the Riverfront Times, which runs ads for the bar that proclaim "Every night's a pantless party."
But then Chapman told the Riverfront Times that Kinder had indeed been at the pantless bar earlier this year.
She added that Kinder, the GOP's odds-on favorite for Missouri's 2012 gubernatorial race, used to be obsessed and physically aggressive with her in the 1990s, when she was a stripper. She said that when she saw him again -- when the photo was snapped -- he asked her to live in a campaign-financed condo.
Kinder denied the condo and harassment charges, but it didn't much matter; the nation's latest sexless sex scandal -- the most recent in a series featuring New York Reps. Anthony Weiner and Chris Lee -- was already on.
Though the general election is still more than a year away, the controversy has cast a pall over the GOP's hopes of retaking the Missouri governor's office, currently held by an unusually popular Democratic governor, Jay Nixon.
A Kinder-financed poll of likely voters taken a few days after the Riverfront Times first published the story -- but before it had reached full statewide attention -- showed Kinder picking up voter support since May but still trailing Nixon, 48% to 41%.
Kinder has also recently faced criticism for charging taxpayers thousands for stays in luxury hotels, and the dearth of other obvious GOP hopefuls -- something of an enigma in an increasingly conservative state -- has pushed Republicans into an uncomfortable dilemma: Do they support a problematic yet high-wattage candidate or throw their weight behind a potentially weaker unknown?
At first, damage control mobilized in Kinder's favor as state party dons blamed the "liberal media" for spreading an "unsubstantiated" story, according to a leaked memo.
But Kinder soon admitted to seeing Chapman in the '90s about 10 times when he was a state senator, quoting Dean Martin lyrics to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to describe his "innocent" attraction to her: "My what lovely scenery, cupid's own machinery," he said of seeing her at the strip club.
He also took the blame-it-on-my-youth defense. "As a young single man, 17 years ago, I made a foolish choice," the 57-year-old Kinder told the Post-Dispatch. "I had no thought that I would run for any statewide office, much less possibly run for governor someday."
Some conservative discomfort has since migrated from private to public.
"An attempt to excuse his poor decisions because it happened when he was 40 fails to pass muster," wrote Republican State Rep. Kevin Elmer in a Tuesday editorial in the Joplin Globe. "I am a 40-year-old state representative, and I can tell you, sitting in a dark club sipping wine while watching women take off their clothes for money is impermissible behavior for someone elected to be a leader in the community."
Southwest Missouri GOP committeeman Tim Garrison also withdrew support for Kinder, saying Kinder’s claim that he only stopped by the pantless bar to use the bathroom "do not pass the laugh test," according to a letter obtained by the Post-Dispatch. Kinder says he has not been to a strip club in 10 years, but that didn’t sway Garrison.
"I am sorry, but the price of cavorting with Penthouse Pets in your 40s is that you don’t get to be governor of a Bible Belt state in your 50s," Garrison wrote.
-- Matt Pearce in Kansas City
Photo: Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, center, talks with Missouri residents in a serving line at the Missouri State Fair Governor's Ham Breakfast earlier this month in Sedalia, Mo. Credit: Kelley McCall / Associated Press