NEW: Blunt’s former colleague disputes candidate’s ‘insider’ image

By Joe Yerardi

JEFFERSON CITY – If you were to believe what you’d heard from Robin Carnahan’s television spots, Roy Blunt comes across as a corrupt Washington insider.

Those who know Blunt best say this is far from the man’s true nature.

Bill Brown, provost at Southwest Baptist University, recalls Blunt’s tenure at the school fondly.

“He’s well aware of his public persona and brought that to the university,” Brown said. “He really raised the bar for all of us.”

Brown was dean of the college of Music, Arts and Letters when Blunt joined the school as president in 1993.

Brown recalls Blunt as an outgoing, affable administrator.

One memory stands out in particular.

Administrators and department heads were meeting prospective students at a school function. Brown was standing in the corner, eating a cinnamon bun when Blunt came up to him and said, “Are you here to eat your breakfast or are you here to talk with people?”

“He certainly meant it, but there was a friendliness to it,” Brown recalls, laughing.

That eagerness to raise the school’s profile was a signature of Blunt’s tenure at the school.

“He was able to create a sense of community. It was very important to him that everyone work together well,” said Brown.

Brown recalls that Blunt would put together a large number of social activities, scheduling them around sporting and trustee events that were sure to attract a diverse group of individuals. Blunt’s goal, says Brown, was plain to see.

“He wanted to bring different groups of people together — faculty groups, student groups — to build bridges among different groups of people,” said the provost. “Frankly, we had been in a situation where we kept ourselves segmented. We didn’t know each other.”

At all these functions, he would introduce everyone in the room and tell them how much they were appreciated.

One of Blunt’s favorite mottoes summed up his philosophy well, recalled Brown.

“He would say, ‘All issues are personnel issues,'” Brown said.

“I felt he was far more than simply a transition president for us and yet he was a terrific transition president. He really solved some problems for us,” said Brown, noting that the university had been running with a deficit before Blunt arrived. By the time he left, they were in the black.

“You just think, ‘How does he do it? How does he memorize all of this stuff and make it seem so natural and so thoughtful. He has a real knack for the public.'”

Not everyone is so sold on the candidate.

A poll earlier this month showed Blunt receiving only eight percent of Democratic votes.

Part of the reason may be Carnahan’s attack ads, which have accused Blunt of being a Washington insider. The Democrat has noted that he’s married to a former tobacco lobbyist.

Blunt’s ties to lobbyists recently became an issue when Carnahan used a clip of Fox News host Chris Wallace questioning Blunt over legislation he promoted that benefited the tobacco company for whom his now-wife lobbied.

In addition to his wife, Blunt’s son, Andrew, is a powerful lobbyist at the state level in Missouri.

For his part, Blunt has unleashed a barrage of negative advertisements against Carnahan.

He’s tried to tie her to President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who are deeply unpopular in Missouri. In one ad, viewers are treated to a quote from Obama declaring of a potential Carnahan win, “I need another vote. It’d be helpful.”

It wasn’t always this way.

When Blunt made his first forays into public office in the early 1970s, he had real crossover appeal.

First elected as county clerk in 1973, the former high school history teacher was a fresh face in Missouri’s staid politics.

He was elected secretary of state in 1984, in which position he pushed for the modernization of the office and for government reforms. He was popular with Democrats as well as Republicans.and was re-elected four years later with the support of many from the opposing party.

In fact, when pressed to say one good thing about her opponent at a recent debate, Secretary of State Carnahan noted her predecessor’s successes as secretary of state.

No longer.

“He surrendered that about him a long time ago,” University of Missouri political science professor Marvin Overby said of Blunt’s reputation for bipartisan cooperation.

Blunt came to Washington as a congressman in 1997. After just one term, he was elected majority whip. After Tom DeLay resigned as Speaker of the House in 2006, Blunt ran for his job, losing to now-Minority Leader John Boehner in part, over questions about his connections to lobbyists.

“Whips are not the ones to reach across the aisle,” explained Overby.

But Overby says that might not matter this year.

“Despite what people may claim they want, this isn’t a political era that’s about reaching across the aisle,” says Overby.

He notes that both candidates have had a difficult time claiming the mantle of the political outsider.

“It’s an odd campaign. You’ve got two political insiders. Both of them are the progeny of well-known political families running in a year when being an outsider is an asset. It’s something of a political spectacle to watch,” said Overby.

And, in a year with strong anti-Democratic sentiment among voters, it’s a spectacle with an ending that should favor the Republican, Overby says.