Smart Decision 2012: Dave Spence, Republican for Missouri Governor
ST. LOUIS - Republican Dave Spence, 54, is a first-time political candidate and self-described proud husband and father of four. A seventh-generation Missourian and University of Missouri-Columbia alum, he currently resides in the St. Louis area with his wife of 22 years, Suzie Spence. With a Bachelor's of Science degree in Home Economics, Spence founded St. Louis-based Alpha Packaging, Inc. at the age of 26 and worked at the company for 27 years before recently stepping down as company president and CEO in 2011 after selling the business in 2010. Spence professes if he were elected Missouri Governor, he would work across party lines and utilize his personal insight and expertise to bring businesses and jobs back to Missouri while vehemently advocating and protecting "right to work." Earlier this month, Spence sat down with KOMU 8 at its sister station-KSDK in St. Louis-to discuss his platform and positions on several hot-button Missouri issues affecting voters in this General Election.
KOMU: Firstly, I want to set politics aside for a moment and ask you to tell me/tell our viewers, characteristically who is Dave Spence?
SPENCE: Dave Spence is a seventh-generation Missourian. I'm the father of four kids-20 to 14-oldest boy, three younger girls. I've been married to my wife Suzie for 22 years. I came out of, went to Ritenour High School until I was 16, went to Kirkwood after that, graduated from there, went to Mizzou, graduated in 1980, went into our family business, and after three years our family business failed during the recession of the ‘80s, and I found a little small business to buy in North St. Louis. It was 15 employees, 350,000 of sales, 12 banks that said, ‘Heck no, I'm not going to finance you.' The 13th one did, and in 1985, I started my American dream. So for all those years before I met my wife, I just slugged it out, didn't make payroll a couple times almost, and it was tough, tough tough. It was a lot of tough sledding when you buy a business and get it going. And so I worked really hard, and learned a lot of lessons, got married six years later. And so I'm really pleased with my lifespan so far. I sold the business in September of 2010. This year, they'll do about 230 million with 860 employees, and I'm really proud of it-it's like my fifth child. But again, I sold the business and have a smaller interest in it now. And I'm just an industrious, hard-working guy, and people who know me either through personal, church or the business know that I'm an honorable, upstanding guy who works really hard and tells the truth.
KOMU: And what inspired you to delve into politics?
SPENCE: Well, you know, I started looking at life through my kids' eyes, actually. It was last summer, and I have a son who's a junior at the University of Colorado, and I have a daughter who's [at] University of Alabama, and I started looking at it, and I thought you know what, unless we change some things, they're not coming back. And then I started thinking of all the kids' friends who had left and not come back, and they couldn't find jobs here. And then I really started studying why-you know, when you hear of I think a little part of St. Louis died when they sold the brewery. I think a part of Missouri's been dying as all these businesses have been being sold or leaving our state-just Charter Communications last week. So, you know, we're slowly rusting as a state. We're not growing, We're at zero percent growth over the last three years. We're 50th-dead last-in job creation for the last three years, and we're 48 in economic growth over the last 10 years. So you know this is not a new phenomenon, and I think in our elected officials, we accept mediocrity, and I just don't think that's right. I think we can raise the bar, work harder together, get a lot smarter, and I think we can get Missouri back on track.
KOMU: How would you essentially "sum up" Governor Nixon's first term as Governor?
SPENCE: I think he's a really good politician but a lousy governor. I don't there's anything he can say that he's really accomplished during his three and a half years-close to four years now. We're still mired at the bottom of the barrel in almost every economic category. Surrounding states are starting to recover-even Illinois with two governors in prison and a $15 billion deficit is growing at a higher rate than we are, and I'm a competitive son of a gun, and now you've got Kansas who just lowered taxes, and I think it's just time to raise our bar and expect more-and you know if you elect me and I don't do the job, fire me. Bottom line, and that's the world I'm coming from as being CEO of a company, and I just think we should expect more. I don't think we should play defense. I think we need to play offense.
KOMU: So, of the political offices, why Governor?
SPENCE: If you really think about it, the Governor is the CEO of the state. You surround yourself with good people who have expertise in the areas that you need. Of the 16 departments, you appoint 12 of the 16 departments-whether it be the Department of Economic Development, its Ag or Senior Services-all these different areas, you appoint. And I would want to go across our state-make sure it's fair, it's regionally representative of our state, ethnically representative of our state and get a lot of people involved. I think there's a lot of people who feel helpless, that they feel like they don't have a voice, and I think I really know business, and I know what businesses want-whether it be a farming business, a one-person LLC, or if it's Boeing or Cerner or whomever, a lot of the characteristics are the same. They want to lower the overhead cost of doing business in Missouri. I get that, and the people want government out of their lives versus in their lives, and I think that we send the wrong message in our state. I think we just send really conflicting messages to businesses, and I think there are thousands of businesses just barely hanging on.
KOMU: Both you and your opponent said at the September debate in Columbia that you would NOT expand Missouri's Medicaid program under the federal health care law, which specifies federal government would pay 100% of the cost for making more people eligible for Medicaid starting in 2014...until the states later fund a continued expansion. Why your opposition?
SPENCE: Well, here's the deal. I'm looking at it from a financial standpoint. I'm a very empathetic person, and I want to help people. That's been our whole life-my wife and I-of helping other people. But we're already $16 trillion in debt on a national basis, and it's continuing to spiral upwards, and unless we change something in Washington, D.C., it's going to continue to go up. We simply can't afford it, and I also think that Medicaid and some of the other social services are raft with fraud, and it's taking away from the people who really truly need it. So I'm not saying no forever, but as a percentage of our budget, it keeps creeping up and up and up, and I think we need to say time out, let's get the fraud out of the system, let's look at it. A federal-based solution I don't like. I don't think we do things well as a federal government. The only thing we do well as a federal government is probably the military. You know you look at the post office that's hemorrhaging cash, Fanny Mae, Freddie Mac, all these different agencies, social security going bust. All these things we don't do well, and once the horse is out of the barn on Obamacare and expansion of Medicaid, it's gone, and I'd rather have a market-based solution than a federal government-based solution.
KOMU: Is there a feasible alternative to expanding Medicaid?
SPENCE: I think there is. I think that my solution would be to get more people with a paycheck than an unemployment check. We're talking about the symptom here, but the cure is get our economy going and get businesses expanding and get businesses moving here and thus you have less of a tug on social services. Right now, we're a $24 billion industry called Missouri, Incorporated. That's what our budget is, and I'm just looking at this and saying that should be enough to cover the basic needs of our state, theoretically. Doesn't that sound like a lot of money? It does, and so I want to look at everything we do as a state, see how do we do it-do we do it well, should we do it at all, how can we apply things like lean practices in our state? I want to get the power of the Missouri state employee involved in the fix-up of our state.
KOMU: Despite statistics, you and your opponent(s) have drastically different views on the current state of the economy. What is your take on the current state of Missouri's economy?
SPENCE: I've been 68,000 miles, all 114 counties. I'm not going in for photo ops, cut a ribbon on something you didn't do. I've been talking to people, I've been visiting businesses, I've been visiting town squares, going to courthouses, visiting with the elected officials, meeting people in their homes, their farms, and it's not good. People are worried about filling their gas tank, putting food on the table, and they're barely paying their bills, and I would say that a majority of Missourians are that way. And they're worried, and they're worried that no one's listening to them, that the factory just left or my neighbor just lost his house or so and so just lost their job, or whatever. So, I don't want to paint a doom and gloom that's it's like hey, go jump off a cliff. However, I think we've got some really strong symptoms that need to be corrected. The biggest one is-we're not growing. You could paint whatever number on the unemployment number. I think people are getting numb to the unemployment number, to tell you the truth. You know, if you look at the one I look at called U6 under Bureau of Labor and Statistics, and it says we're at 14 percent. Now you could say oh, we just moved, we notched up, but we keep taking people out of the work force, and those people still are living here. What it doesn't take into consideration is the 40,000 recent graduates. So I think you can look through any lens you want to, and I'm not trying to be Negative Nancy here, but I just think we need to be realistic about where we are. We're at zero percent growth for three years in a row, and we're barely meeting the needs of our state. There's something systematically wrong.
KOMU: So realistically then, if you were elected Governor, how would you create jobs? Although Missouri's unemployment rate of 7.2% is below the national average, how will you further reduce that rate? What is a feasible unemployment rate we can expect to see in the next few months/years, if you are elected Governor?
SPENCE: I think we need to look at it honestly and say how many people are trying to find jobs, how many people are still in the work force and start from there. I think it's an election year, everyone's trying to inch in on the numbers and say look at this, look at this. I think you have to look at it as how many friends and neighbors are still unemployed, and I hear a lot. For the people who have a job, it isn't the job they want even mid-term, not even long-term. My plan-pretty simple. We need to be a right to work state, so it's not a condition of unemployment to have to join the union. I'm not anti-union, but if we're not growing, we need to look at what we're doing and do something differently. I think if a union provides a value, have at it. If it doesn't, they should have the choice. Second of all, I think we need to tighten up workman's compensation rules in our state and keep workman's comp. claims in workman's comp court, versus opening up, and we're one of the few states that do that. It's opening us up to higher costs of doing business in the state. It affects every one of us. Third, I think we need to have complete tort reform with loser pay losses. That's what Texas has, and they seem to be the number one economy in our country. Let's look at the best of what these other states have and bring it together. Also, I will take personal responsibility-even though I'll have a director-I will take personal responsibility for our Department of Economic Development, and we will not have what happened in Moberly, where they have $39 million worth of bonds [outstanding?], because that was "business 101." If somebody walked in your station and said I want $39 million worth of credit, wouldn't you check them out first? It was just poor management, and that's you have had three Department of Economic Development directors in three years.
KOMU: You mentioned that you were not anti-union, so I want to touch on that. In light of what has happened this past year in both statewide in Wisconsin and in Chicago with unions at odds with government, I'm interested in getting your take on unions and how you intend to formulate/maintain good relationships with them and work effectively with them to prevent these types of situations?
SPENCE: You know, I've sat down with them, and I think everyone wants to polarize a person one way or another-"Oh, you're this or you're that." I'm not anything. We got to get growing, and we've got to get businesses relocating in here, and we've got to get businesses thinking of Missouri, and they're not. Our governor just doesn't seem to hear "right to work" in his vocabulary, because he's taken in $2.5 million of money from labor unions, for labor bosses that came out of pay checks that those people probably didn't want to come out of. So I think he has earplugs on that he doesn't hear this. I've heard it all over the state, especially in southeast and southwest Missouri-that they want right to work, they want to be able to track businesses, and they all talk about, ‘Well, the factory that was gonna go here is now in Tennessee or Arkansas or Oklahoma or Kansas.' You know, Kansas is growing, and we better watch it, and we better get a level playing field, or there's gonna be a giant sucking sound on the western side of the state called Missouri businesses going to Kansas.
KOMU: According to the Missouri Commerce Department, Missouri's economy barely grew in 2011 but has maintained a AAA bond rating and balanced budgets. What is your current opinion of the state of the economy and the crux of your plan to move the economy forward, specifically?
SPENCE: First of all, let's qualify where we are with this AAA credit rating. It's been there since I was four years old in 1962, so for him [Gov. Nixon] to stand up on a commercial and take credit for that is disingenuous. You know, that's kind of crazy. Also, the balanced budget-it's in our Constitution, and we are a Republican-controlled Assembly that actually did the work, the House Budget Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee. So, don't take credit for things, Gov. Nixon, that you didn't do, because I give total credit to the House and the Senate. You know as far as getting the economy going, again, those things will work-I know what some other states are doing. Indiana's very close in size and GDP to us, and they worked in Indiana, because they had a strong leader in Mitch Daniels. I know that those will work, again I will hustle around the state-I'll be the state's number one salesman. I know what I'm talking about. That's something I've done all my life.
KOMU: Let's talk education reform. Obviously, you mentioned your children and their education as kind of a premise for why you want to take this job. You have proposed your "Back to Basics" proposal. Can you explain the foundation of this plan and how it differs from Governor Nixon's A+ Schools program?
SPENCE: First off, it's not just my kids. I'm not trying to be so myopic that it's all about me. I'm looking at everybody's kids, I'm looking at your generation that's just graduating. Of course, it's easy to look through your kids' eyes, but I'm looking through all of the kids' eyes and grandkids' eyes. I think we've cut higher education three years in a row, OK? I don't think that's a good thing to do. I think that's a matter of priorities, higher-education budgets for both two- and four-year schools would be a higher priority for me. I think the A+ program is working, I think it's great, I'm not trying to be like...everything he (Gov. Nixon) is doing is wrong. I think it's a good program. I do think it was a good idea to get out of "No Child Left Behind," and I think there needs to be an educator on the State Board of Education. I think that sounds a little silly to me that there's not an educator on that board. So, there's 522 school districts in our state. They're all different. I would push for less control out of Jeff. City and more control on a local basis. But, you know, we tend to concentrate on the school districts that are not doing well. We have 50,000 kids in unaccredited school districts. It would fill up Busch Stadium to standing room only-or Royals Stadium, to be equal opportunity. I think we're on the verge of partial accreditation in St. Louis. My wife and I have been down there for six years at Roosevelt High School on the Southside. We've worked hard. Everybody's worked hard in this community, and we're on the verge of at least a minor victory. You know, I think that again, we've got four districts that are unaccredited in our state. We tend to concentrate on what's not working, but I'd say probably the majority of school districts are functioning well. I think also education is one of those things where you never are perfect, so everybody likes to pick out the wrong things, versus what's right, but there are a lot of great school districts in our state.
KOMU: Let's switch gears and talk about the legislature. If you were elected Governor, how would you work effectively with Democrats in a majority-Republican legislature?
SPENCE: You know, I'm really more less about politics and more about progress. I really am. I really could care less about somebody's political affiliation. That's why I'm getting into politics. I think there's been too much of ‘Oh, I'm right, you're wrong,' I've been to a lot of the Democratic-elected officials. They're good people, and they're down there for the right reasons. I just am not hung up on that at all. I'm gonna walk the halls of the Capitol. I've been in all of their districts, I've met most of the people in the House and the Senate, and I really could care less about their political affiliation, because I think we've gotten so polarized and extreme on certain issues. We've got to come together and actually get something done.
KOMU: You've talked about your pledge to cut the size of the government. Can you explain, for our viewers, why you believe your zero-based budgeting plan will be good for the state and its taxpayers?
SPENCE: What I want to do is I want to apply business principles. Everybody says, ‘Well how does that work?' Well, in the real world, you look at everything you do, you look at every file drawer, every person, how are they doing. I think one of the biggest assets we have is the Missouri State Employees. We have 56,000 of them, and I think the have a lot of great ideas, and they're darned near last in pay in the country. They got a two percent pay, and they're still 50th. So, I want to get them thinking about improvements, and I'm willing to give them some of the savings back through an appropriations bill. It gives them a chance to control their own destiny. So, I think they have a lot of great ideas, and this administration under Gov. Nixon is very a very top-down administration, and if you didn't come in through the government, through Jay Nixon's Attorney General's office, you really don't have a voice. I want to get people going from what I would say people just showing up to work to having them think like entrepreneurs. I think there's a lot of great ideas out there. I know we need an IT upgrade in the state. We need to look at everything we do, and again, I'll look at it from a different lens. Zero-based budgeting makes sense to me. That's how you do budgeting in the business world, and what I'd like to do is get businesses throughout the state to lend accountants to help those divisions build a budget. We'll set a budget, and if they can save off that budget, I'm willing to give part of the proceeds back to those people.
KOMU: Missouri currently has 54 prisoners on death row. What is your position on the death penalty?
I think it's only 18, but I'm not going to give you a political answer on this. I am in favor of capital punishment, and I'll tell you why. I don't think about those people. I'm thinking about the victims and their families, and I've taken several calls from family members that lost somebody [due to the actions of] somebody who's still on death row, and there's no doubt, somebody's confessed-you know, I don't want to send somebody to a wrong punishment-but I think of victims and those families. Most people say, ‘Well, it's not a deterrent.' Gosh, I don't know, I will never be able to determine that. It depends on what lens you're looking through, but I just have tremendous empathy for the people I've talked to whose daughters were killed, and I just can't get over that.
KOMU: What is your current opinion on gay marriage? Politics-aside, is it plausible that regardless of who obtains office in November, we could see in the next few years the legalization of gay marriage? Even with a majority Republican legislature is it possible that Missouri will follow suit with Illinois in legalizing civil unions?
SPENCE: I think you have to pick your battles, and that's not one I'm willing to take right now. I mean I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, and I'm traditional marriage, and that's just not a battle I'm going to take on right now.
KOMU: Let's talk about your views on gun rights under the Second Amendment.
SPENCE: I'm a staunch defender of the Second Amendment. I don't think it's the guns. It's the people pulling the trigger. I'm an outdoor sportsman, and I know a lot of people are in this state. I know we have high crime areas, but I don't think it's the guns. I think it's the people pulling the trigger.
KOMU: In the past two years, you allowed legislation restricting abortions to become law by letting the constitutional deadline to sign or veto the bills to expire. Regardless of the laws that currently are in place to restrict abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, what is your view on abortions? Late-term abortions?
SPENCE: I'm pro-life, and I would have signed those bills. That's just my belief. You know, when you have kids, and you hear the heartbeat for the first time, it changes your viewpoint. It really does. I think maybe it wasn't as crystallized until I heard the first ultra-sound, and you realize what a miracle it is. Protect the innocent.
KOMU: Lastly, what's the first issue you would tackle if you were elected into office?
SPENCE: What I want to do is work with the incoming House and the incoming Senate to tee up pro-business legislation that's going to spark our economy and send a message loud and clear to the world that we're open for business in our state. What I really want to do is anything that interferes with that should be put to the side, and let's do the top four or five things. Not everybody's going to agree with them, but I know that they would work from a business standpoint, and one thing you'll know is as Governor, you'll always know where I stand, and I'm not gonna duck a question-just like during this interview. I will fight hard for Missouri businesses, because I think a lot of those businesses are out there saying, ‘Is anybody listening to me? I'm barely hanging on, and you know, I'd like to maybe expand, but I don't have that piece of mind or that confidence that our government in our state or our governor really gets-that I'm a business, and I'm barely hanging on.' I want to send loud and clear that we're open for business, get Missouri's economic engine going. I don't think we have to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at them, like our governor-everything is a reaction, everything's like, ‘Here's a problem, let's go react.' That's not planning. We're going to put competent people in place, I will take personal responsibility for it, and we will get Missouri businesses going. And I think the best source of new businesses are going to be your existing businesses. They will expand. I think we need to talk to people about how important it is to keep the dollars in Missouri, just like in Joplin. They issued all those contracts, and they went to out-of-state companies, and we've got 30,000 construction workers out of a job in our state. That doesn't make sense to me, so fight for Missouri jobs, fight for Missouri companies, get the level playing field with our neighboring states, and let's go. I'm ready to go.
KOMU: Any last words?
SPENCE: (To camera): I think I'm the type of candidate that you always think you're voting for, and you think that it's going to be the person that makes a change, and then you get in there and say, ‘Well, we didn't really do this or do that,' and you say, ‘Gosh, I'm disappointed in that person, you know they changed or whatever.' I don't want special interests to play a role in what I do. My vetoes and my opinions are not for sale. I want to truly lead our state back to prosperity, and I am in this purely and simply to get our state going. I have the skill-set, I have the courage, I have the passion, and I have the vision for where Missouri can go, and that's why I need your vote to get Missouri going.