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Anheuser-Busch drops support of Holden over guns
By Jo Mannies ©2003
Post-Dispatch Political Correspondent
10/01/2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Post-Dispatch Political Correspondent

Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., the top corporate player in Missouri politics, is no longer backing Gov. Bob Holden - in large part because of their differences over concealed weapons.

Republican and Democratic sources say the brewery's decision not to support the governor's re-election next year is highly unusual in light of its long-standing reputation as a donor which gives generously to both parties and their candidates, regardless of their views.

Before Holden vetoed the bill last summer, sources say, a brewery lobbyist showed up at the governor's office to tell him that such action would end the long-standing support he'd enjoyed from Anheuser-Busch and its executives. Holden confirmed that position later in phone conversations with Anheuser-Busch Cos. Chairman August A. Busch III and corporate group vice president Stephen K. Lambright, sources said.

The brewery wouldn't confirm or deny the account, and the governor's office declined to comment. But Republican and Democratic sources familiar with the incident say it's among several recent dealings between the brewery and top state officials that underscore Anheuser-Busch's strong support for the bill to allow most Missourians the right to carry concealed weapons.

The Legislature overrode Holden's veto last month, and the measure will become law Oct. 11.

"This is a huge deal for Mr. Busch," said one high-level political source. Several who know Busch say he's an avid sportsman who also has strong concerns about personal security.

The brewery's decision could mean a big financial loss for Holden's re-election campaign. In his bid for governor in 2000, documents show that Holden received at least $50,000 from various Anheuser-Busch entities or executives. His Republican opponent, Jim Talent, received a similar amount.

State Auditor Claire McCaskill, a Democrat challenging Holden, disputes any ties between concealed weapons and the support she is getting from the brewery. The matter didn't come up in her initial meeting recently with Busch and brewery executives, she said. "My sense was ... there wasn't one issue or two issues driving their decision."

But after that meeting, an Anheuser-Busch official telephoned McCaskill to ask her position on concealed carry. "I told him that as a former prosecutor, I never thought it was a good idea," she said. "I also said that my focus now has changed, and that I want to work to make sure the restrictions (in the new law) are enforced."

The brewery declined to confirm or deny the accounts of its dealings with Holden and McCaskill. It also wouldn't comment on who it was supporting for governor.

In a written statement attributed to Lambright, the company said: "If such conversations occur between Anheuser-Busch and elected officials, they are considered private, and it is not our policy to comment on private conversations."

A spokesman later said the brewery would offer no further comment on its stance regarding concealed weapons.

In 1999, the brewery backed the concealed-carry measure - known as Proposition B - which Missouri voters narrowly rejected because of overwhelming opposition in urban and suburban areas.

In a statement at the time, Lambright explained that the company had always supported responsible gun ownership. "For several years, rumors have been perpetuated among consumers that Anheuser-Busch supports gun control legislation. ... For some consumers and retail customers, hearing this rumor is enough for them to boycott our products."

As a rule, issues haven't been the defining factor in Anheuser-Busch's dealings with candidates. Most major candidates in both parties who run for office make sure they stop by the brewery's complex on Pestalozzi Street and seek an audience with top executives. Most of those candidates leave with a generous donation check, or the promise of one.

Before the state's campaign-donation limits went into effect in the mid-'90s, the brewery often was the largest single contributor to candidates running for office.

For more than a decade, Anheuser-Busch has issued the same statement to explain its reasons for financially backing candidates in both parties. "We support the political process," the brewery said in virtually identical statements issued in 1992, 1998 and 2002. "... In doing so, we support candidates for local and state office from both sides of the aisle. ..."

The brewery's political clout is undisputed. Said John Hancock, spokesman for the Missouri Republican Party: "They are obviously a very important corporate leader in the state. Their support is extremely important to candidates and parties."

Added Mike Kelley, spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party, "Anheuser-Busch has been a strong supporter of the Missouri Democratic Party and Democratic candidates, in the past and present."

The spokesmen added that they've seen no difference in dealings with the brewery. But other sources in both parties disagree, and say that the concealed-carry issue appears to have taken on more significance - especially in the brewery's dealings with Holden.

At least two other candidates for other statewide offices say the concealed-carry issue came up in their meetings with Anheuser-Busch officials in the last few weeks. One declined to be identified. The other, state Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said, "We touched on the issue briefly. ... They knew where I stood."

Kinder, who is running for lieutenant governor, helped amass the Senate support needed to override Holden's veto. He said the brewery's position was well known among legislators, and not a major factor among legislators backing the override effort.

A spokesman for Secretary of State Matt Blunt, a Republican who expects to run for governor and backs gun rights, said he also has met recently with brewery officials and has been told that the brewery will support him. Blunt doesn't recall the concealed-carry issue coming up, the spokesman said. Blunt took no public position on the bill that Holden vetoed.

McCaskill said Busch and other brewery executives made clear to her that, in the contest for governor, they may support Blunt as well as her. "Anheuser-Busch is one of the largest and most important companies in St. Louis," she said. "I think their support speaks for itself."
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