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The Kansas City Star - Kenny Hulshof: This Conservative Has an Independent Streak

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Location: Camdenton, MO

The Kansas City Star - Kenny Hulshof: This Conservative Has an Independent Streak

Kit Wagar

As a young prosecutor, Kenny Hulshof could often be found playing basketball in Cape Girardeau's Indian Park, a popular gathering spot for the city's black community.

Morley Swingle, the elected county prosecutor who hired Hulshof, said he was impressed by Hulshof's ability to be accepted there even though a player or two might have passed through his office.

"Here is a guy playing against somebody he was prosecuting or a member of their family," Swingle recalled. "But they liked Kenny because he was a good guy and a good player."

It was an example of the easy manner, quick wit and Everyman quality that would make Hulshof one of the top prosecutors in the state and propel him to six terms in Congress.

It is also an example of how the conservative Republican with the moderate image seems always to have one foot in at least two worlds.

Now a candidate for governor, he also has been a highly recruited baseball player coming out of high school, a lawyer who longed to be a radio disc jockey, a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee and a member of a country-rock band.

He has been a death penalty prosecutor who dabbled in community theater and, in his words, "the only member of Congress who plays drums at Mass every Sunday."

Perhaps most surprising, by upbringing and early inclination, Hulshof once appeared destined to become a conservative Democrat rather a leader of the Missouri GOP.

He grew up in Mississippi County at a time when southeast Missouri was a bastion of southern Democrats. Hulshof's first political hero was Jerry Litton, the charismatic congressman from Chillicothe who died in a plane crash in 1976 on the night he won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

Hulshof spent the summer of 1980 serving an internship on a Senate subcommittee on the staff of Democratic U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton. And when he decided to run for Congress in 1994, Hulshof said, his mother had two reactions.

"The first thing she said was, ‘You're too nice for politics,' " Hulshof said. "After I had said ‘as a Republican,' she started shaking her head and said, ‘Whose kid are you?' "

Many interests

Hulshof, now 50, developed his eclectic interests growing up on the family farm near Bertrand, not far from the Kentucky state line. His parents raised hogs and grew cotton, wheat, soybeans and corn. Hulshof remembers his dad as the hardest-working man he's ever known.

Growing up in the waning days of Jim Crow, Hulshof was accustomed to playing and working with African-Americans. Black and white children often played together because they lived nearby, he said. Beginning around the age of 8, Hulshof said, he was expected to hoe and chop cotton alongside groups of 20 to 40 black men who came to work the farm.

In high school, Hulshof played basketball and was a star first baseman who was recruited by the Twins, the Reds and the Phillies. But Hulshof also had won an academic scholarship.

"My father and I had a father-son talk in which dad does the talking and the son does the listening," he said. "He talked about how few ballplayers make it. But a full-ride scholarship at the University of Missouri — it was sound advice and I took it."

Hulshof earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics, spent the summer after graduation in Washington, then was off to law school at the University of Mississippi.

As a youngster, Hulshof learned to play piano and taught himself to play drums by listening to 8-track tapes of the Doobie Brothers. In law school, he developed an interest in radio and had worked hard to lose the twang of his native southeast Missouri.

"My mother was appalled because, here I had a law degree, and I was sending demo tapes to radio stations all over the country," Hulshof recalled with a laugh.

But during his first year in law school, Hulshof said he had fallen in love with the courtroom and decided to go into criminal law. After graduation, he returned to southeast Missouri and spent three years in the public defender's office in Cape Girardeau.

He also caught on as a disc jockey for a small station serving Gordonville-Cape Girardeau. He said he wasn't very good, so he worked the overnight shift on weekends. He also dived into community theater, helping build sets and snagging the lead and singing in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

In late 1986, Swingle had been elected prosecutor and hired Hulshof as his first chief assistant. While some prosecutors offer lenient plea bargains because they fear their evidence might not hold up, Hulshof was fearless about going to court, Swingle said. "He had a great courtroom presence," Swingle said. "He was articulate and handsome — just what you look for in a trial lawyer. He was very persuasive in getting the jury to see the case the same way he did."

The attorney general's office also noticed Hulshof's work, especially his defense of Jerome Mallett, who had killed a state trooper in 1985. Mallett was convicted and later executed, but the prosecutor was so impressed with Hulshof's defense that he later recommended him for a job.

In 1989, Hulshof moved to the attorney general's office. He worked as a special prosecutor who would take over cases too complex for local law enforcement to handle. He handled some of the most high-profile murder cases in the state, often describing the crime in graphic detail.

"Try to put yourself in (the victim's) place," Hulshof told one jury. " have your head yanked back by its hair and to feel the blade of that knife slicing through your flesh, severing your vocal cords, wanting to scream out in terror but not being able to. Trying to breathe, but not being able to for the blood pouring down into your esophagus."

The state Supreme Court later overturned the conviction and several others that Hulshof won, saying his techniques crossed the line into testimony and sought to inflame the jury.

Hulshof said he thought he was being a tough, but fair advocate for the murder victim. But the Supreme Court changed the standard to force prosecutors to tone down their rhetoric, he said.

Political career

In 1992, Hulshof applied to become Boone County prosecutor. But he had to win the support of the Boone County Republican committee. He lost by one vote.

A new opportunity arose in 1994 when Rick Hardy, the Republican nominee for the 9th District congressional seat, backed out for health reasons. Hulshof was interested in the post, but the campaign would be a long shot, taking on Democratic Rep. Harold Volkmer, an 18-year veteran of Congress.

Hulshof said he sat on the porch swing of his house in Columbia and told his soon-to-be-wife, Renee, about his long-ago decision to forgo a baseball career. He said he didn't want to pass on a bid for Congress and later regret the road not taken.

Hulshof made a spirited bid, but lost 50 percent to 45 percent. Hulshof made another run two years later, barely winning the GOP primary by 165 votes. But he went on to upset Volkmer by ridiculing Volkmer's statement that people were not overtaxed.

Hulshof arrived in Washington in 1997, was given a seat on the Ways and Means Committee and was elected president of the Republican freshman class.

Over the next 11 years, Hulshof earned a reputation as a reliable Republican vote, on the conservative side of lawmakers labeled centrists. He has been a solid conservative on social issues, a bit more moderate on foreign affairs.

He co-wrote the law creating education savings accounts for high school and college costs. He backed reduced tax rates for dividend and interest income and has been a fierce defender of tax subsidies for ethanol production.

As he has campaigned for governor, Hulshof has called himself an unapologetic conservative. His more moderate image stems from his support for programs such as Ticket to Work, which allowed disabled workers to keep their jobs without losing government aid.

But it also springs from his ability to seem comfortable in almost any setting.

"I would say I'm an independent conservative," Hulshof said. "In our political culture, there is too much saying, ‘If we disagree, then you're wrong.' I value your opinion even though I disagree with it. I'm an independent who respects other points of view and I'm not in your face about it."

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