BY JAKE WAGMAN
ST. LOUIS, MO. (Post-Dispatch) • Months after he first discussed the goal of seeking the Republican nomination for governor, St. Louis businessman Dave Spence remains a virtual unknown to most party activists across Missouri.
As he travels around the state pressing his case, party leaders are meeting — most for the first time — a man who does not fit the standard template of a candidate for statewide office. About the closest he’s come to an elected office is serving as the rush chair of his fraternity.
What party leaders do know about him is that he sold his plastics company in 2010 and is now wealthy enough to fund at least part of his own campaign. And, at the moment, he may represent the Republicans’ best chance of unseating Gov. Jay Nixon.
Shortly after making his bid for governor official in November, Spence donated $2 million to his campaign, instantly giving him the largest war chest of any Missouri Republican running for state office.
While Democrats begin to scrutinize his personal life and business record, Spence will have to work to convince voters that he is serious about a campaign that even those who know him did not see coming.
His nascent campaign — using the slogan “A Conservative for Missouri” — has focused so far on one key theme: job growth. Spence believes his unconventional candidacy — he derides “lifetime politicians” — will be a selling point, even if his wealth might make him hard-pressed to meet most people’s idea of an average Joe.
“Honestly, I think one of the best attributes I have is that I haven’t been in the political system,” he said. “I’m a regular citizen trying to do something extraordinary.”
Spence, 53, spent most of his childhood living with his mother and sisters in Overland. After graduating from Kirkwood High School, he went to the University of Missouri-Columbia, where his fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, was a big part of his campus life.
Few if anyone pegged him to seek the state’s top job some 30 years later.
“It’s as astonishing to his close friends as it is to everybody else,” said John Hofman, a friend who was in the fraternity with Spence.
Still, Hofman believes Spence is up to the challenge.
“The people that know Dave, I can’t tell you how excited they are he is making this sacrifice,” Hofman said. “He is truly a guy that came out of Kirkwood High and went out and made it on his own.”
Like that famous advice from “The Graduate,” Spence went into plastics to make his fortune.
Spence’s father started a rubber distributor in the family’s basement, which grew into a plastics company where Spence worked as a teenager. But the company failed in the early 1980s, before Spence was old enough to become more involved.
So in his mid-20s, he sought out his own plastics company. In 1985, after approaching a dozen banks, he finally received a small business loan to purchase Alpha Packaging, which then had about 15 employees in a warehouse north of downtown St. Louis.
At Alpha, Spence began taking the excess plastic from bottles to produce molded wheels for barbecue grills and gym rings for outdoor swing sets. Today, Alpha Packaging manufactures more than a billion pharmaceutical bottles and other plastic containers each year from its headquarters in Overland and factories around the U.S., as well as one in Europe.
In 2010, Irving Place Capital, a private equity firm in New York that has been acquiring packaging companies, agreed to buy Alpha for a reported $260 million. Spence stayed as chief executive for about 15 months, leaving his position at the end of November.
After selling the company, Spence bought a sprawling $8 million mansion in Ladue. The 10.8-acre estate includes a golf green, private lake, 6,000-bottle wine cellar and a regulation squash court.
In March, Spence registered with the Coast Guard a 45-foot boat, the “Alpha Bet,” which replaced a smaller vessel, the “Alpha Dog.”
Spence and his wife own a waterfront home at the Lake of the Ozarks and a $5 million retreat in Park City, Utah, where Spence is an investor in a restaurant. Spence is also the registered agent of a holding company that owns a 1995 LearJet.
Spence says he donated use of the plane in 2010 to help shuttle medical supplies and personnel to earthquake victims in Haiti.
He has given at least $1 million to help the Betas build a new house at Mizzou. Spence also paid for a new weight room and football uniforms at Roosevelt High in St. Louis, where his wife, Suzanne, volunteers.
“I’m a living, breathing example of the American dream,” he said. “If people want to knock me for it, I guess they’ve made up their mind ahead of time.”
CHRISTIE PLANTED A SEED
The sale of his company left Spence with more than money — he also had time to spare.
But “something was gnawing at me,” he recalled.
When he saw New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speak at a local fundraiser in September, a seed was planted.
“I just kind of said, ‘You know what? This is something I could be interested in,’” Spence said about running for office. “The more I learned about it, the more intrigued I got.”
The idea of being the state’s chief executive — as opposed to holding a legislative position such as congressman or senator, which are also on the ballot in 2012 — appealed to him.
“If you look at a CEO’s skill, and if you look at a governor, it’s a very good fit,” Spence said. “I think it’s a position where you can get things done.”
Spence’s timing to enter the race could not have been better. The GOP’s putative nominee for governor, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, was losing support amid a wave of unwanted headlines.
On Nov. 15, Spence declared he was in “100 percent” on a campaign for governor. Days later, Kinder, who had already planned his own campaign announcement in Cape Girardeau, did an about-face, dropping out of the race and endorsing Spence.
Before jumping into the governor’s race, Spence had not been actively involved in politics. County records show he did not vote in the last local election in April, though he did regularly cast a ballot in presidential elections.
His unconventional entrance into the race — he confirmed his candidacy with a text message to the Post-Dispatch — caught even party leaders off guard.
“He has made his interest in public office known, but his entrance into the race for governor was unexpected,” Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Missouri GOP, said at the time.
While Spence’s inexperience may be a liability, his lack of any type of legislative record could represent a curveball for Democrats, who for months had carefully assembled an opposition file on Kinder, only to see him drop his bid.
A fundraising plea from the Missouri Democratic Party last month carried the subject line, “Who is this guy?”
“His name is Dave Spence and you’ve probably never heard of him (no worries, we hadn’t either),” the party’s executive director, Matt Teter, wrote.
Spence’s hometown state senator, Republican John Lamping, sees the plastics mogul as part of a wave of “hard-charging type A’s” making the leap from business to politics. The former head of the St. Louis company that produces Germ-X, John Brunner, is already on the ballot for U.S. Senate.
“You are going to see people that no one ever heard of getting involved in every cycle,” said Lamping, an investment adviser who put his own money into winning a seat in the Legislature.
Despite his wealth, Spence has contributed to only a handful of GOP campaigns in the last decade. But in 2004, Spence donated $1,000 to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, one of the most influential Democrats in Washington. At the time, Alpha had a plant in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“We had a customer that leaned on us” to make the donation, Spence said.
His transition from the corner office to the campaign trail includes adjusting to the scrutiny that comes with running for public office. Opponents have already seized on a 2004 arrest for driving drunk, which resulted in the state suspending Spence’s drivers license for three months.
According to the police report, Spence was pulled over by Warson Woods police shortly before 3 a.m. His blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.12 percent after he told officers he had several beers at a baseball game. (The legal limit is 0.08 percent.)
Spence has described the arrest as the “one blemish on my record.”
Spence has been meeting with party officials around the state since forming his campaign committee in November. About the only ones who have not expressed enthusiasm, Spence says, are those already part of the political establishment.
“The only people, in my mind, that have been negative about me getting involved are the people in Jeff City,” Spence said. “I’m not sure everybody wants change.”
Among Spence’s first trips as a candidate was to southwest Missouri, a bastion of GOP support that is critical to any Republican running statewide.
One of the area’s lawmakers, state Rep. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, said he is “going to reserve judgment” on Spence, though he applauded him for putting in his own money to gain a foothold on the nomination.
—”‘Seed money’ is what people always call it,” Hough said.
Danette Proctor, chair of the Greene County Republican Central Committee, met with Spence and described him as a “great candidate,” though she pointed out that he is not the only Republican in the race for governor. Bill Randles, a former lawyer from Kansas City, has been campaigning for more than a year.
Though there is a wide cash gulf between the two campaigns — Randles reported $2,800 in the bank — neither candidate has secured the support of either grass roots or establishment Republicans. Spence’s only prominent endorsement comes from Kinder.
Spence’s campaign so far has focused almost exclusively on job growth. He has criticized Nixon on economic development and said he supports right-to-work laws, which prohibit making joining a union a requirement of employment.
“We just don’t have a leader in Jefferson City that, I think, knows how to get people back to work,” Spence said. “We need more taxpayers, and not more taxes.”
While it is conceivable that another Republican may enter the race for governor — state Auditor Tom Schweich has been mentioned as a possibility — the chances grow slimmer the closer it gets to Election Day.
Even starting his campaign about a year before the general election might not give Spence enough time to match the organization of Nixon, a veteran of more than a half-dozen statewide campaigns.
If Spence is to win the GOP nomination for governor, he’ll need more than his own finances to scare Nixon, whose campaign raised $17.3 million in the 2008 election cycle.
Spence’s bid may find support from other St. Louis business leaders, who have expressed mounting frustration with Jefferson City since a proposal to spur a cargo hub at Lambert died amid gridlock between the state House and Senate.
Already, a pair of St. Louis businessmen have chipped in $100,000 each into Spence’s campaign, though the state’s major GOP donors are still on the sidelines.
Spence declined to commit to opening up his checkbook again, preferring instead to wait to see if the campaign can generate its own fundraising momentum.
“I made the investment in the campaign because I think it’s an investment in Missouri,” Spence said. “I can’t expect people to follow me and support what I’m doing unless I’m doing it myself.”
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