Conventional wisdom had a plan for the state senate this session, but then again, so did Senator John Lamping. In a very candid interview with a very candid person we discussed his background, serving in the state senate, and some of his personal life. We think you will come away from this piece with a deeper knowledge of the Senator from St. Louis County. Below is part on that is continued from our print edition. Part 2 will be online after session begins tomorrow. Enjoy!
The Missouri Times: So, you grew up in Saint Louis?
Senator John Lamping: Born and raised in St. Louis. South Saint Louis County in a very large family. I’m the oldest of 5; the Lamping family is a very big family. My grandfather was 1 of 8 and 6 of those 8 had at least 8 children. My father was the first in that generation to go to college. My family was all builders. My grandfather built the neighborhood I grew up in and built the house I grew up in.
TMT: So were you related to the former president of the St. Louis Cardinals?
Lamping: My second cousin, Mark Lamping, was President of the Cardinals for a period of time. We all grew up together in Assumption Parish.
TMT: What year did he leave the Cardinals?
Lamping: It’s been a four or five years now when [John] Mozeliak [Vice President and General Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals] took over, you know, along with [Bill Dewitt] my cousin was the President. Then [My cousin] went to New York to build the Giants/Jets stadium. He’s now the President of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
TMT: High School?
Lamping: I went to Saint Louis University High School, as did my father.
TMT: With [Missouri Attorney General] Chris Koster?
Lamping: Yes actually, Chris was a year behind me.
TMT: Did you guys know each other during school?
Lamping: We did not.
TMT: And then Princeton after that?
Lamping: I went to Princeton, yes.
TMT: How did that come about?
Lamping: As a youth I was a fairly good amateur soccer player. I had the opportunity to go to Germany to play there a little bit during the summer. [Saint Louis University] High school was a top-ten team and I was captain of the team. Some friends of mine a few years ahead of me on my club soccer team went to the Ivy League, and when it came time to pick a school I decided I wanted an Ivy School, I ended up going there.
TMT: What is Princeton like?
Lamping: Princeton is a long way from South County.
TMT: I would think so.
Lamping: [Laughing] Yes. Princeton today is very, very different. Princeton in 1981 was transitioning from being what you think it to be; Ivy League schools were all male until the 1970’s. Before that they were predominantly sort of prep schools for the wealthy. The admissions process had as much to do with who you knew as who you were. So first with co-ed, and then this process began of trying to create different kinds of diversity on campus including economic diversity. Again, my father was the first to go to college, my broader family is very much working-class, blue collar. One of my classmates at Princeton was Michelle [Robinson] Obama. Very same thing, my roommate was an African-American from Chicago. They were transitioning their student makeup. Today when you go onto an Ivy League campus it doesn’t look anything like it did in 1965. At Princeton, for example, the majority of students are women. As many of 40 percent of an incoming freshmen class identifies as non-white. It’s a definite change. It was in that transitional phase while I was there. I was employed and a student athlete to be able to afford it. It was a great life experience, and made great friends.
TMT: And then you went to New York City?
Lamping: I got out of school in 1985, the middle of the Reagan Revolution so the economy was booming. I went to work on Wall Street. I started as a currency trader for a firm that doesn’t exist anymore. I’m 50 now, so the first half of my professional career was spent in New York involved in all different aspects of the capital market.
TMT: Can you explain what your job was there for a guy walking down the street?
Lamping: I was a trader. I traded currency and bonds, never really the stock market. What that meant was than an organization would give me capital to invest and then I would invest it with a relatively short time horizon. So my time horizon might be two weeks or two months but not a whole lot longer than that. It’s a cutthroat environment. You sink or you swim. The training class I was hired into was mostly MBA’s. That’s where I met my wife. She had gotten her MBA from Cornell. I met her on the first day of my first job, actually. We dated six weeks and we got engaged. In a year, half that training class was gone because they had failed. She was a trader too; we did basically the same thing in different parts of the market while we were out there.
TMT: What was the best thing about living in New York City?
Lamping: The pulse. The energy and the pulse. It’s a young person’s world. When you go onto a trading floor today, 35 is old. 5 years into it I ran options trading for a major brokerage firm, Global Options Trading. I got to travel to Hong Kong and Tokyo and London. And…you’re 5 years out of college and that kind of thing happens in New York, but it doesn’t happen here. It’s funny I’ve been back in Saint Louis for about 15 years and until I got to politics I didn’t find anything else with a pulse for young people. When you go down to the capital, you see a lot of young people, twenty-somethings. They have important jobs, they are chiefs of staffs and they are writing legislation. Saint Louis, we don’t really have that here. We don’t have an industry that gives tremendous opportunity with young people.
TMT: You’ve done a lot of work with children. A lot of your charitable work is with children. Where does that come from?
Lamping: I’m used to being around big families. My mom decided to go back into the workforce. My parents were married kind of before the sexual revolution. 10 or 12 years into their marriage, she decided she would go back to school and get her masters and work. I’ve got two sisters in my family that were born late. And in a lot of ways the older siblings and myself kind of raised those guys. I’ve always just enjoyed children. My wife is 1 of 8 and when we decided to have children we had 3 relatively quickly. We moved back to Saint Louis because we are family-centric and we didn’t want to raise a family on the East cost, so we decided to bring the family back here and raise them here. After we settled in for four or five years we ended up adopted 3 more children, so, that’s how we came to six.
TMT: How did you come to that decision?
Lamping: Well the first one was easy. The first one was Emma, who is now 12. My wife is very, very strong. She was a female trader when there were no female traders, so she was definitely mentally strong and intellectually formidable when I met her. Back in the late 80’s when you started hearing about these Chinese adoptions and there were as many as half a million little girls in Chinese orphanages just because they are little girls, and my wife had seen that and said there is going to come a time when we are going to adopt one of these girls. That time ended up being in 2000 when we decided to do it. We adopted Emma in ‘01. Then, you know, you work through social workers that do home studies. There is a big part of the process; they ask as a parent with a Chinese child, “Well, what are you going to do to perpetuate her culture? How will you handle that she is a non-white child in a white household?” At first our plan was just to raise her like any of our other kids. Then it occurred to us that there was something to this, and we decided we would go back to China and adopt again. That way we would have 2 little girls and that way they could go through life together as sisters with the same ethnic background. Whatever challenges there were they could share that experience together. So we adopted Shelby in 2003. And then what happened with out last child, Dimitri, this is what traders do, they make quick decisions. We gave assistance, we had helped, with the agency that did our adoption, they also bring teenage Russian children and find them homes, because it is very difficult to place older children. They solicited us in ‘04 for some help and for whatever reason they decided to include the names of the children in the email they sent. And there was one child that was 7, and he was separate in age from the others. I kept that email for a few days at work and I emailed it to my wife and all I put in the email was a question mark. I walked in the door that night and she said “Okay.” And that’s how we adopted Dimitri.
TMT: What is something that people who want to know you better should know about your wife?
Lamping: When people meet me and talk to me, they are talking to Caryn. Caryn and I are completely connected; the most important thing in each of our lives is that we have a successful marriage and that we are together forever. We are on the same page; we have the capacity to convince each other to get on the same page. We have a standing policy if we disagree. We will not go to bed in an argument. We settle it. Whatever you see me doing, if you think I’m doing a good job, she could do a much better job than I. She’s just so extraordinary with my family that that’s where the children are best served. My children would never have the same life experiences if it were me at home and her in the workforce.
TMT: You’re traveling across the state today. Do you mind sharing why?
Lamping: Sure, it’s craziness. 3 months after I get elected my daughter Emma gets invited to go to Blue Springs Missouri where there is a gym that develops girls who make the Olympic Team and the National Team. She had just started gymnastics and won two state titles. In May of 2011 we set up a house in Kansas City where my daughter trains six days a week in Blue Springs about 5 or 6 hours a day. The first year or so two of my kids were in college, one of them was [in St. Louis] and three of the kids were in Kansas City. And after the first year Emma won state titles in her age group for every category. So this year what I do is drive to Kansas City late Thursday night and then I come back Monday morning. So, it’s a pretty crazy life.
TMT: You consider yourself a born-again Catholic. Can you tell us about your religious background?
Lamping: Born and raised catholic, parochial grade schools, Jesuit high school and then somewhere between college and coming back to St. Louis I lost the energy for my faith. We had children baptized in the northeast, but not really knowing what my convictions were. We were back in St. Louis not more than a year or so and we found St. Alphonsus Rock Church, it’s a Catholic church on North Grand about half a mile past the symphony. There was a pastor named Father Maurice, and he brought a lot of traditional stuff, long sermons and gospel choirs, mass was a few hours. At first our children couldn’t go, but I started attending 8 a.m. mass and over time our entire family joined the church. My wife always had a strong sense of faith and it brought our faith together as a family and all my adopted children were baptized there. That’s why I say I’m a born again Catholic, because of the Rock Church.
TMT: You seem to be a person who has their life together, why politics?
Lamping: I never thought [politics] would be the case. If you met me Oct 1 2008 you’d find someone very involved with my family and my community and the pleasure to serve at inner-city schools. I was on the Board of Trustee’s for [SLU High School] and Fontbonne University. I was part of the Social Venture Partners, and we invest in other non-for-profit agencies that are primarily focused on disadvantaged youth. That was kind of what I was doing at the time. Quite frankly, each individual agency was doing their thing but I saw the problems were just getting bigger. At Social Venture Partners we’d go through the grant process and see all the people out there trying to help. And 2008 was very personal to me. I knew Michelle Robinson [Obama], but I haven’t known her since college, and my roommates went to school with Barack Obama. One of my friends actually just told me that Barack Obama’s daughter spent the night at his house last Saturday night. We had the same circle of friends that were my age and I thought, “If they can run the free world, there’s got to be something I can do.” I knew enough people in Republican Party politics. In March of 2009 I introduced myself to them, I said I’d volunteer. I do charitable work today and I’m involved in these things and if you can use me in what you do and if I can make a difference I’d volunteer to do something. And that’s how I got into politics.
TMT: What did your wife say?
Lamping: Oh, same page. We’re always on the same page. If anything, she’s very passionate. We were brought up by our parents to learn how to be independent to take care of ourselves. You know, kids reach that age as a teenager or in college where they think they are independent. My mother told me when I was a kid “You’re not independent until you’re financially independent.” The most important thing is to learn how to take care of yourself. Then when you can do that, and if you’re blessed with a spouse, you learn how to take care of that other person. And then you learn how to take care of your family. Then if you’ve figured that out, you turn to your community to see what you can do what you can do for them. That’s how we were. The idea of turning to politics, we thought well that’s part of the community now. I thought that maybe these problems in the inner city had something to do with policy. Maybe something in policy leads us to these shattered landscapes we have here in the [St. Louis]. I considered a few different races and a few different things and I ended up running for this office and I’m glad I did. It does allow me to have all these other things going on in my life while I’m in office and it’s an interesting place to be.
TMT: You arguably come to your second session as the most influential senator from a district that to many political observers say you have no business representing. How did the campaign come together and what approach did you take to winning a district that many were pessimistic about your chances of winning?
Lamping: I asked the group that suggested that I run for this office. I asked them if the district was kind of left leaning and they said yes, it was left leaning, but that it could be won. And I said ok. By the time that campaign was over, I had done everything I wanted to do and if I won, fine, I’ll go serve and if I lost, fine, I win, I go back to care for my family full time. I was blessed. I think things happen for a reason. People came together, some of the young people; they came to work together with me. This is during the heart of the recession, 2009. Law school students had nowhere to go. If you look at who came to work for my campaign, it was a bunch of twenty-somethings who were law school grads who came knock on doors, because they had nowhere else to go. We sat down a year before Election Day and did comprehensive strategic planning, short and long term. We were very methodical and consistent. We had done everything we thought we needed to do to win, and I thought I was going to win on Election Day. At the end, when I won by 100 votes. Remember the district is overwhelmingly Democrat, but we did everything we thought we needed to do. Along the way, my opponent also did some things that helped my cause that you just can’t plan, so that’s how it went.
TMT: You walked into one of the most contentious leadership situations in senate history.
Lamping: It was unfortunate. I knew Kevin Engler was angling to be the President of the Senate. It was unknown to me that there was even a challenger. Obviously it became apparent toward the very, very end. I didn’t even meet Rob Mayer until maybe 10 days before I was elected. There is a responsibility that we, the returning members had, to organize in a way that would be most productive. Part of that is about convincing our incumbent members about what we were thinking and why we were thinking it.
TMT: And you were an incoming member at the time.
Lamping: I was an incoming member. It was a responsibility of those that were already there to do a good job of organizing themselves and it is clear that they had not done a good job of that. I felt like that day was disjointed at best. We left the building that day, there was a message that we left that nobody had planned and it was not an all inclusive, which is important in what we do. In retrospect, it was fitting for where the whole thing went. The group of people that just left of the building, there’s some very big personalities, very big. There were people that had started in the minority and gone to the majority and long histories of all the battles they had fought, fights they had amongst each other that produce things like ill will. It would have been difficult for those upperclassmen to manage themselves in a way that would have been perceived to be very productive. It was a collection of ideas and interests and philosophical opinions.
TMT: You walk into a room of Senators and they are literally flipping a coin to decide who their leader was, what’s going through your mind?
Lamping: Well, I voted for Kevin Engler. Tom, I wish I had voted for him, because he’s been just a phenomenal person in the office and I think he’ll do very well in the position he’s going to hold today. But, again, I’m an uninformed voter that day. I only know 5 or 6 people in the caucus. But you knew it wasn’t a good day the day that all went down.
TMT: You came out of the gate; the Business Journal named you Rookie of the Year, that must be an honor.
Lamping: It’s nice to be honored in such a way. I don’t know the history of it that much, but I’d just as soon have the team win and as long as I’m on the team that wins, I’m happy.
Part 2 will be available at www.themissouritimes.com tomorrow.