When George W. Bush introduced the soon-to-be-ex-Senator John Ashcroft as his choice for Attorney General, he noted that the first trait he desired in an AG was “unquestionable integrity,” and he proclaimed Ashcroft “a man of enormous integrity.” As Ashcroft, a favorite of the religious right, is assailed for defending the leaders of the South’s slavocracy, for proclaiming that in America “we have no king but Jesus,” for his pure-as-it-gets opposition to abortion and even some forms of contraception, and for much more his advocates use Ashcroft’s supposed integrity as a firewall. Responding to Ashcroft critics, Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, called his close friend “a person of absolute integrity…. [he] will have integrity to do what’s right.” The pro-Ashcroft line is: You may disagree with him on the issues–his defenders have to concede that–but you can’t question the man’s integrity. But when Ashcroft was governor in Missouri he rendered a decision that reaped a campaign contributor millions of dollars–and the probity of the deal was indeed questioned by a prominent newspaper and citizens in his state.
In 1992, the city of Branson–a tourism mecca visited annually by millions who attend the country-music halls there–was burdened by traffic congestion. Thirty thousand cars a day were jamming the town’s Country Music Boulevard in peak season. Ashcroft declared the situation in the Ozarks an “economic emergency” in order to build a road. This was the first time this gubernatorial power had been used to facilitate construction of a highway, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Ashcroft’s declaration opened the way for the quick approval of a $140 million, eighteen-mile bypass promoted as the solution to Branson’s traffic mess–a claim challenged by some locals, who blasted the Ozark Mountain Highroad as an “Ashcroft pork-barrel” project.
But there is no question that the new highway was beneficial to several key political contributors to Ashcroft, most notably Peter Herschend, an owner of the Silver Dollar City amusement center. The road–US Highway 465–would skirt Branson and swing by Herschend’s Silver Dollar City, making it easier for tourists to reach the site of shops, variety shows and rides. A Post-Dispatch analysis of land records found that the Herschend family stood to gain the most from the project. The proposed road would cross three stretches of Herschend-owned property, and in 1993 the family sold one of them to the state for $2.2 million. Locals called the road “Pete’s Pike.”
“They were trying to steal our market,” Jim Thomas, who runs two music-houses in Branson and who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic senatorial nomination in 1994, told The Nation. “Declaring Branson an economic emergency was an oxymoron. There was traffic, but we were at our peak for business.”
One did not have to be a partisan Democrat to wonder if Ashcroft’s support for the project was enhanced by his relationship with Herschend. In October 1994, as Ashcroft was campaigning for the Senate, the Post-Dispatch reported that Herschend, his wife and business had donated $12,000 to Ashcroft campaigns in the previous ten years and that Herschend had hosted fundraisers for Ashcroft. According to subsequent federal elections records, Herschend and his family contributed $18,000 to Ashcroft’s 1994 Senate effort and $7,000 to the Republican Party that campaign cycle. (Herschend’s son, Chris, worked on Ashcroft’s campaign staff in 1994.)