The attendees, mostly above the age of 60, settle in for a home-style meal and meeting once each week. It's the kind of atmosphere where everyone knows each other's name, and attendees are more likely to great each other with a hug than a handshake. Newcomers are quickly welcomed.
On a Friday morning, just cold enough for a jacket, Sen. Michael Gibbons is that newcomer. He walks into the room, calling little attention to himself, and sits down at a table with a small cup of vegetable soup, but the crowd quickly comes to him. He is not a new face for Columbia's Pachyderms.
The senator, who is campaigning to be Missouri's attorney general, doesn't miss a beat from the moment he's introduced as a special speaker for this week's meeting. His hand is immediately extended, shaking hands with the more than 50 attendees, as he claps a few familiar faces on the back, exchanging hellos as he approaches the wooden podium.
Gibbons is a long-term politician and the top Republican leader in the Senate. He's given countless stump speeches and spoken from behind podiums from his home in Kirkwood to Jefferson City. But here he seems most at home as the guy who simply sat down at the dinner table, and wants to join the conversation too.
When Mike Gibbons, 49, gets home, he's got something waiting for him that's familiar to most husbands. It's the kind of thing they try to avoid.
"My wife has a lengthy list of things I haven't done around the house. That's not exactly what I want to do, but it'll be something to do that doesn't involve campaigning," he said, speaking about what he'll be doing after the Nov. 4 election.
But his to-do list hasn't piled up because he's been sitting with his feet propped up, watching Monday Night Football, or because he's been spending too much time at the lake.
Gibbons, unlike most husbands, has been crisscrossing the state during his campaign for attorney general.
Gibbons' start in public office began with his 1986 election to the city council of his home town of Kirkwood in St. Louis County. Kirkwood has been a long-time base for the Senate Republican. For 20 years he practiced law with his father in Kirkwood until his dad's retirement in 2005. Gibbons is still active in local organizations like the local Kiwanis club.
Joe Godi, also a member of Kirkwood's Kiwanis club, shares more than an organizational tie with Gibbons. He is also a city councilman in Kirkwood.
"He's liked by everyone," Godi said. "I don't know anyone who doesn't like Mike."
Godi was first elected to the city council in 1972, and is back on the council again after coming out of retirement. He was never on the council at the same time as Gibbons, but said he knows both Gibbons and his father well.
Godi described Gibbons as a "hard worker" and "his own man." He also said he valued Gibbons' honesty and strong work ethic as a politician and as a person.
"He looks at everything in perspective," Godi said. "He's low key. He's a very soft-speaking person."
Gibbons left the city council in Kirkwood in 1993, after his election to the state House. Eight years later, he moved into the Senate. And in 2005, his colleagues made him the chamber's top leader, the Senate president pro team -- a post to which he was re-elected in 2007.
The Senate president pro team is one of the chamber's most powerful positions. He assigns bills to committee and rules on points of order.
Godi's description of Gibbons as soft-speaking and low key were the overriding characteristics of his leadership style in the Missouri Senate. He formed a near partnership with the Senate Democratic leader - Mada Coleman, D-St. Louis - to tone down the partisan rhetoric that had deeply divided the Senate.
"We'd demonstrated that in today's extremely partisan world, that civility and common sense and courtesy can still be applied even though there is a very vigorous debate or battle on the issues," Gibbons said on the last day of the legislature's regular session May 16.
In 2007, he sponsored a bill that would ensure that rape and sexual assault victims would not be financially responsible for related exams. This is part of a series of victim advocacy bills Gibbons has sponsored.
He's also made consumer protection a priority, by sponsoring bills surrounding consumer credit and identity theft.
"He has to be a hard working guy to do what he does: balancing his job as a state senator with his job as an attorney, with campaigning for a higher office with being a parent," said Joe Hipskind, chair of the general business division at the law firm where Gibbons now works, Stimson Morrison Hacker.
This year, Gibbons faced another challenge -- he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
In a written statement in late February, Gibbons announced his cancer to the public.
"I will have surgery in early March to remove the prostate, and with it, the cancer," he said.
After surgery, Gibbons was back in the Capitol near the middle of the legislative session.
The senator is married to Liz, and has two children, Danny, 26, and Elizabeth, 19. Danny Gibbons graduated from MU in 2005 and works in Baltimore. Elizabeth Gibbons is a freshman at Westminster College in Fulton.
Hipskind said that every working parent has to face challenges, but the Gibbons family sees some unique ones. Hipskind is a father of three.
"Mike's children are a little bit older than my children, but it's always a challenge in this day and age, where work seems to be all-consuming," he said. "So may parents work, of course, but Mike has had to work basically two jobs."
Now, Gibbons is wearing a third hat, as he campaigns to become the state's attorney general, replacing Democrat Jay Nixon, who has held the office for the past 16 years.
He's running against Democrat Chris Jouster, who Gibbons supporters at the Pachyderm club meeting have whispered about as a "turncoat Republican," referencing his shift from the Democrat to the Republican Party.
But Gibbons rarely brings up the fact that he's campaigning against anyone. Instead, he focuses his speeches on the office he's running for.
If elected Missouri's next attorney general, Gibbons said he wants to take the "people and family oriented platform" in Missouri state government forward into the next administration.
"I want to focus on justice, not on headlines, and not on climbing the political rungs," he said. "It's about making sure that justice is done for the people of Missouri. It's about working every day to make sure that the people in this state are safer and more secure every day.
One of Gibbons' biggest focuses during his campaign has been on Internet crime. Earlier this month, he proposed creating a Cyb Crimes Unit in the attorney general's office that would designate staff to specifically target these crimes.
"This is a constantly evolving thing," he said. "There are some people out there and they are using the Internet as a weapon."
Gibbons also wants to create an alert network for Internet crime through the attorney general's office that could give citizens up-to-date information about online threats.
While he's outlined multiple initiatives for the office, including his focus on Internet crime, Gibbons also said he's hoping to redefine what the attorney general's office stands for and make it less about politics.
"As attorney general, you're not setting policy anymore, and you shouldn't through your actions," he said. "My intention is to do everything possible to help protect the people of the state."
But he's known to make a joke to his supporters about his opponent, Democrat Chris Jouster, when it comes to what the attorney general's office is all about.
Gibbons thinks he and Jouster see things a little differently. At the Pachyderm Club, Gibbons reminded his supporters that the attorney general is not meant to be a "super prosecutor."
"I know my opponent, when he puts on his cape and flies around, tries to pretend like that's the most important part of the job," he said.
It's the kind of dinner table joke one family member makes about another who's not sitting at the table. He's not malicious, and barely raises his voice, except to laugh. He;s just a straight to the point kind of guy, grounded in small town values.
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