Jason Kander was new to Jefferson City when he got called into the political equivalent of the principal's office.
It was January 2009. Kander had been a state representative for all of two weeks when he got word that Ron Richard, the silver-haired House speaker, wanted to see him.
A few days earlier, Democrats had fumed when Richard, a Republican, blocked Kander from serving on an influential committee. They accused Richard of wanting to throw a blanket over a comer in the opposing party and said the speaker had referred to Kander — a smart, young lawyer with a military background — as "a political problem." Richard was pissed that his comment became public.
Kander, who lives in Waldo, reported to Richard's office on the third floor of the Capitol. The speaker sat at one end of a cherry table, with three members of his staff standing behind him. Kander, who is tall and lean and looks older than his 29 years, got the feeling that Richard wanted to "brace" him.
But the situation didn't intimidate Kander the way it would many new lawmakers. After 9/11, Kander finished his class work at American University in Washington, D.C., and enlisted in the Army National Guard. He had to get his knee fixed before he was allowed to join. During his first year as a Georgetown law student, he spent 20 hours a week in uniform, a fulfilling, if occasionally sleepless, existence.
After passing the bar exam, he pushed for deployment — and got it.
He worked as an intelligence officer in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, and took a mission to Jalalabad, a city linked to Kabul by a treacherous highway that cuts through a gorge.
"Even if there were no Taliban, it would just be an incredibly dangerous road trip," Kander tells me between bites of a Subway sandwich. In fact, the day after Kander and his team returned to their base, American soldiers were killed on what's known as J-Bad Road.
So when Kander found himself sitting across that cherry table, his wartime experience cheated Richard of the power a legislative leader normally wields. The speaker obviously expected an apology. He didn't get one.
"That didn't really concern me," Kander says, reflecting on the possible consequences of his actions. "I felt like ... I don't know, I thought about J-Bad Road. I was like, 'This is just a guy at a table,' you know what I mean?"
Months later, Kander and the speaker would clash again, this time over ethics reform.
Jeff City is sleazier than most state capitals. Richard's predecessor, Rod Jetton, doubled openly as a political consultant and eventually became a target in an FBI investigation into pay-to-play activities. And last year, three Democrats in the St. Louis area pleaded guilty to criminal charges.
Aware of the scuzzy atmosphere, Kander made ethics reform a cornerstone of his campaign in 2008 and even went so far as to return all personal contributions from lobbyists. Now that he's in office, he doesn't accept personal gifts. T.K. Smith, a co-worker at the Barnes Law Firm in Kansas City, notes that Kander elects not to use the special license plate that Missouri state lawmakers receive. "We jokingly call him Mr. Ethics," Smith says.
Last September, Mr. Ethics went to work. He pushed for comprehensive changes in the way political business is conducted in Missouri, working with Tim Flook, a Liberty Republican, to craft aggressive reforms. Their bill's most significant provision made it a felony to run campaign contributions through different committees — a form of money laundering that donors and politicians use to make it look like legislation is not bought and sold.