JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Potential political trouble has again found Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and his nascent campaign for governor.
A few months after Kinder repaid the state for hundreds of nights in hotels that he billed to taxpayers, a newspaper's interview with a former nude model who says she encountered Kinder frequently, and sometimes forcefully, at a strip club has created a fresh public relations hassle for the Cape Girardeau Republican.
Kinder denied the woman's assertions on Thursday, calling them a "bizarre story (that) is not true." But facing an uphill contest against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon in 2012, Kinder's stumbles have some conservatives questioning his suitability to stand as the party's nominee for governor. Kinder hasn't formally announced his intentions, but is widely expected to run.
"Most of the news stories we are having about the lieutenant governor are having a sort of negative twinge to them. These are not stories that his campaign team would love to come out," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
The latest trouble for Kinder arrived this week in the Riverfront Times, a weekly newspaper in St. Louis. In an interview, former Penthouse magazine model and exotic dancer Tammy Chapman said she regularly performed dances for Kinder at a since-closed strip club in Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
After initially declining to answer questions about the story, Kinder issued a statement Thursday. "Like most people I am not proud of every place I have been but this woman's bizarre story is not true," Kinder said. "The Democrats have tried to use these tactics against me in the past and they have failed."
Chapman said she met Kinder in 1994 — while he was a state senator — and that he came into the club and purchased lap dances. She said Kinder invited her to attend campaign and charity events, which she declined. She also said that twice during lap dances, Kinder would "grab me by my shoulders and pull me down forcefully."
"The first time I dealt with it because he was such a good customer," Chapman said this week in an interview with The Associated Press. "The second time I told him I didn't want to see him anymore, but he kept coming in."
Chapman, 39, said that earlier this year, during a conversation at a St. Louis bar where she worked, the pair exchanged small talk and that he invited her to stay at his condo in suburban Brentwood. Kinder's campaign pays for the condominium, according to campaign finance records.
The state Democratic Party seized on the controversies and said Thursday they raise questions about Kinder's judgment.
"Peter Kinder is obviously in a pretty sad and desperate place right now. Unfortunately, Kinder would rather blame others for his own recklessness than take responsibility and offer a real explanation for his inappropriate behavior," Democratic Party spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki said.
While the response from Democrats was to be expected, the issues may also create trouble for Kinder among some members of his conservative base. On Thursday, Kansas City conservative talk radio host Greg Knapp told listeners he "would have a problem with someone who is a regular customer at a strip club while he is trying to tell you he is for traditional, conservative values. And then it makes me think that some other Republican has got to step up to run."
Renee Hulshof, the wife of 2008 GOP gubernatorial candidate Kenny Hulshof and host of a Columbia radio show, wrote on her Twitter account, "I would like to know from my fellow Mo repubs what we are doing about a gubernatorial candidate."
Kinder is not accused of wrongdoing involving Chapman, and other Republicans didn't hesitate to defend him. Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Lloyd Smith said Thursday that Kinder remains "a leader in our party" and the episode with Chapman seems to be a "setup deal." Smith said Chapman previously lived with a Democratic congressional candidate who lost a 1998 race to Republican Jim Talent.
The story about Chapman and Kinder comes a few months after he repaid the state more than $54,000 to cover in-state hotel expenses. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that some of the stays occurred while Kinder was attending sporting events, society galas and a tea party rally. Kinder has said the stays were related to official events, even if he attended some personal or political functions after the work day.
Kinder faces a tall order in knocking off Nixon, who has benefited from the bully pulpit of the governor's office, has a larger campaign bank account and has been highly visible leading the state through a series of natural disasters in recent months. The accumulation of political headaches could deepen the challenge.
"It's just not something that you want at the top of your ticket," George Connor, the head of the political science department at Missouri State University.
Salter reported from St. Louis.