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Federal crime blights career of once popular politician

In Region

3:15 pm on Thu, 04.12.12

Legally, the federal misdemeanor that former Gov. Roger Wilson pleaded guilty to Thursday may mean little. But in terms of his political career and image, it changes everything.

For more than a decade, Wilson, a Democrat from Columbia, was arguably one of the most charismatic Democrats in Missouri politics.

In 1991, when Wilson – then 42 – announced that he was running for lieutenant governor, he offered his typically candid explanation that touched off laughter from his audience: He wanted to be governor but had been told he needed to run for lieutenant governor first.

Roger Wilson
Roger Wilson

Wilson’s speeches often drew the most applause and cheers, with his political jabs at Republicans often the pithiest. At a Democratic event in Springfield, Mo. in the early 1990s, he filled in as a last-minute replacement speaker for then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Wilson ignited several standing ovations.

Wilson already was well-known by then, serving as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee for much of the 1980s. With no legislative term limits at the time, Wilson had emerged as one of the leading public faces opposing various actions by then-Gov. John Ashcroft, a Republican daunting in his own right.

But in the contest for lieutenant governor, Wilson also showed a political weakness that is ironic, given his current legal trouble: He hated calling donors for money.

(On Wednesday, Wilson pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor charge of laundering campaign money, totalling $8,000, to the Missouri Democratic Party.)

The 1992 Democratic candidate for governor, Mel Carnahan, ended up helping Wilson financially in what turned out to be an unexpectedly close race with then-state Auditor Margaret Kelly, a Republican.

Wilson won re-election in 1996 and was seen as the Democrat most likely to be the party’s nominee for governor. Instead, by 1998, he found that he had been outmaneuvered – and outraised, money-wise – by a fellow Democrat, then-state Treasurer Bob Holden, who also rolled out some prominent early endorsements, including then-U.S. Rep. Richard A., Gephardt.

Soon after, Wilson made clear that he wasn’t running for governor in 2000 -- or for anything else -- and candidly acknowledged his distaste of the "dialing for dollars" that candidates must increasingly undertake.

He also made news during his second term by confirming that he planned to take on an outside job -- as a financial consultant -- to augment his part-time salary for lieutenant governor, which at the time paid far less than the other statewide offices.

But on the night of Oct. 16, 2000, everything changed. Gov. Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash, along with his eldest son and a key aide. A stunned and visibly saddened Wilson was sworn in as governor.

Soon, however, Wilson embraced the final months of the job, taking actions on major issues before turning over the job to Holden in early January. With the encouragement of Jean Carnahan, the governor’s widow, Wilson and his wife also briefly moved into the Governor’s Mansion.

After leaving office, Wilson dove into his job as a financial consultant for a St. Louis area firm, good-naturedly fending off frequent reporter queries as to when he might jump back into politics.

By 2004, Wilson did re-enter the political world -- on behalf of someone else. He was a vocal surrogate for then-state Auditor Claire McCaskill and her insurgent bid against Holden. After McCaskill defeated Holden in the 2004 Democratic primary for governor, she installed Wilson as chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party.

During that time, Wilson was outspoken about his concern about the U.S. conflict in Iraq; his son, a Marine, served several tours on the battlefield.

Wilson led the state Democratic Party until February 2007, when he unexpectedly stepped down. The political air was filled with rumors that he would run for the 9th District congressional seat in 2008, which was being vacated by Republican incumbent Kenny Hulshof, who was running for governor. But Wilson chose not to do so.

He told the Columbia Daily Tribune at the time that he lacked a desire for a job that took him away from his family.

By June 2009, Wilson had been named the temporary chief of Missouri Employers Mutual, the state’s largest provider of workers compensation insurance. He became the permanent president and chief executive in January 2010.

Unfortunately for Wilson, now 63, his stint at Missouri Employers Mutual now will likely doom any hopes of resurrecting what had been seen long ago as a promising political career.

For the moment, at least, the Boone County Courthouse still bears his name.

Jason Rosenbaum contributed information for this story.

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