Did Sen. Chris Koster plant Molly Korth Williams as a fake candidate for Missouri attorney general? 

Editor's note: This column has been updated since it originally appeared on the Web on March 28.

It’s an election year. But Molly Korth Williams hasn’t taken the time to plant a sign in the front yard of her Brookside home.

This is a little strange. Because Williams is running as a Democrat for attorney general.

In filing the paperwork last month, Williams entered a crowded field of well-established candidates. Her qualifications to be the state’s top law-enforcement official are thin, to say the least. Williams has never held elected office, and she currently works as an eighth-grade teacher at St. Elizabeth School.

The surprise candidacy has prompted speculation that Williams is merely a name on the ballot to siphon votes from another woman in the primary, Margaret Donnelly, a state representative from suburban St. Louis. The other candidates for the Democratic nomination are state senators: Jeff Harris and Chris Koster, the ambitious former Cass County prosecutor who left the Republican Party last year.

Williams is obviously a plant. Only a fake or a delusional person would challenge three state legislators who have been raising money and campaigning for months.

So the question becomes, who sent her out as a stalking horse? Circumstantial evidence points to Koster. Molly Williams is golfing buddies with a judge named Joe Dandurand, a man who’s been called a mentor to Koster.

The magic of the Internet makes it pretty easy to connect Williams and Dandurand. A photo of the two of them together appeared in a 2003 newsletter of the Association for Women Lawyers of Greater Kansas City. The photo shows Williams and Durand at the association’s annual golf event. Other newsletters indicate that Williams and Dandurand played together in a foursome in 2004 and 2005.

Someone who’s played in the tournament tells me that participants choose their own partners. The collegial atmosphere comes through in a recap — written by Williams herself — of the 2004 fundraiser at Teetering Rocks Executive Links. The story ends with a nod to the decorations on the “Swift Carts for Kerry” driven by Williams and her teammates, “although Judge Dandurand clearly states that HE was riding in the cart that showed support for all our brave military and expressed NO political position whatsoever!” Ha ha ha.

Until recently, Dandurand presided over a judicial circuit that covers Cass and Johnson counties. He was the judge on a number of cases that Koster presented as prosecutor. He was rumored to be a candidate for the Missouri Senate seat that Koster is leaving. But last December, Gov. Matt Blunt appointed Dandurand, a Democrat, to the U.S. Court of Appeals of Western Missouri. (Calls to Dandurand’s office and home were not returned.)

Koster and Dandurand are chummy, I’ve been told, in spite of their allegiances to different political parties for most of their careers. Dave Drebes, the publisher of Arch City Chronicle, a political newsletter and blog, described Dandurand as a mentor to Koster, in a story that ran in the St. Louis Business Journal last August. Drebes spent time with Koster last summer as the new Democrat campaigned for the attorney general nomination.

The Dandurand link and a lack of any other plausible explanation convince me that Koster or someone acting on his behalf prompted Williams to run. She appears to be as unserious about her candidacy as she has been about her law career. The Missouri Ethics Commission shows no record of her having formed a campaign committee. Her three opponents, meanwhile, have a combined $1.6 million on hand, according to the most recent disclosures.

Alas, it costs almost nothing at all to confuse voters. Williams’ presence on the ballot creates another option for voters who tend to support women but may not take the time to study each candidate’s qualifications.

In a phone call, Williams insists that her candidacy is legitimate. "I'd like to serve the people of the state of Missouri," she tells me. A lawyer in good standing, Williams says she has had a "long, varied" legal career and has "temporarily" chosen to teach at her daughter's school. "I love doing it," she says.

Williams denies that she was prompted to run by anyone from Koster’s camp. But she is unable to discuss the specific things she would like to accomplish if elected. At this point, her candidacy amounts to little more than a declaration of eagerness and her outsider status. “I’m a lawyer,” she says. “I’m not a politician.”

Koster’s campaign offers a nondenial denial when asked about Williams’ candidacy and the speculation that she’s only a distraction.

“If she wants to run, that’s her right,” Koster spokeswoman Rebecca Kirszner tells me. “But no matter how many candidates are in this race, Chris Koster stands ahead of the pack. He’s the only candidate with real prosecuting experience and the only one with a message that appeals to the real issues voters face.”

Admittedly, the evidence against Koster wouldn’t hold up in court. But Molly Williams’ candidacy is too cheesy and appalling to ignore. Stunts like these are politicians’ ways of thrusting their middle fingers at the democratic process they claim, through capped teeth, to cherish.

“This is the one of the oldest and lamest tricks in the books,” says Richard Martin, chairman of Margaret Donnelly’s campaign. Martin says Williams’ candidacy is the kind of thing you see in local races, not statewide elections. “We’re running for attorney general, not tax collector or dog catcher.”

And it’s not as if Koster has built up much of a reputation for authenticity. He’s a serial office climber who first announced a run for attorney general in 1995, when he had been prosecuting crimes in Cass County for all of eight months. He explored a run for governor in 1999.

Koster, 43, was an unofficial candidate for attorney general before he switched parties. His support of stem-cell research would have made it difficult for him to win in the Republican primary, however. Catherine Hanaway, a former Republican Speaker of the House, also was contemplating running for the position. (Hanaway later decided to stay out of the race.)

Koster’s becoming a Democrat met with mixed reviews. He earned props for having the courage to call the far right’s influence on the Republican Party “toxic.” At the same time, observers have wondered if he would have joined the Monarchy Party if it increased his chances of being elected to a higher office.

I’d find Koster’s conversion more convincing if, a few months earlier, he hadn’t tossed meat to the nativist wing of the electorate and introduced legislation making it a crime to rent apartments to illegal immigrants. Koster also voted for the Medicaid cuts in 2005 that denied 100,000 people health care.

Koster says now that he regrets the Medicaid vote. But his explanation — he told The Kansas City Star that he did not know the cuts would be so far-reaching — might be worse than the deed itself. Which front-page story did you miss, Chris? The one headlined “89,000 Missourians would lose their coverage” or the one accompanied by a melt-your-heart picture of a 2-year-old with spina bifida?

The Williams affair is one of the instances that makes me wonder if politicians know how foolishly they’re acting. But perhaps the real silliness is expecting anything different.

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