“Boy, did you catch me at a bad time,” Lucas Kunce ’04 said as he picked up his cell phone. It was about 8:30 p.m. in Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, and Kunce apologized for not being able to talk just now.
“We’re putting up yard signs,” he said. “I’m gonna be out here ’til 3.”
While it is not unusual for Yalies or young people to join a political campaign, Kunce is not stumping for just any candidate — the yard signs have his name on them. At 24, Kunce is running to unseat incumbent Republican Mark Bruns in the Missouri House of Representatives. It is a campaign Kunce said he has been planning for three years.
Not many people decide to run for office at 24 — the minimum age of eligibility — but many of Kunce’s teachers, mentors, roommates and friends said they were not surprised that Kunce has decided to throw his hat in the political ring so soon.
“Lucas is very ambitious,” Jessica Miller ’04, a friend of Kunce’s, said. “I think he knew that he was going to make a difference.”
Kunce is running to capture one of 163 seats in Missouri’s House. His district, the 113th, encompasses Eastern Cole County, a district Cole County Democratic Committee Chair Thomas Minihan said was all over the map politically.
“Our top vote-getter in the county is [Democratic Congressman] Ike Skelton,” he said. “The legislature is controlled by the Republicans, but the courthouses are full of Democrats. It’s confusing politically.”
Kunce is similarly hard to pin down. He is against abortion and in favor of stem-cell research, two positions that he said made it difficult to raise money.
“I’m a pretty conservative Democrat,” he said. “ All these women’s groups that have a lot of money want legislation that protects the right to choose, and the right doesn’t want to fund stem cells.”
Kunce may face an uphill battle in this election, as Bruns was reelected in 2004 by a more than 30-point margin. Kunce acknowledged this challenge, but noted that his opponent was first elected by just 4 points in 2002.
Playing to Kunce’s advantage as a Democrat is the fact that the governor of Missouri, Republican Matt Blunt, has one of the lowest gubernatorial approval ratings in the country at 40 percent. A pending ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to allow stem-cell research, which has galvanized voters, is another factor Kunce said may help him in November.
Kunce said he is not running for national office because he thinks he can have more impact on the local level and hopes to work his way up within state government.
Miller said Kunce had always talked about returning to Jefferson City, where he grew up. Kunce said he comes from “not money” and that, when he goes door-to-door, people are surprised to hear what neighborhood he lived in as a child.
“I get a shocked look and they say, ‘and you went to Yale?’” he said.
His father works for the Missouri Department of Conservation. His mother was forced to quit her job to look after Kunce’s sister, who underwent three open-heart surgeries. This experience — and the medical bills stemming from it — shaped a key part of Kunce’s platform: lowering the cost of prescription drugs and health insurance.
Kunce ultimately managed to obtain a scholarship from Yale for his undergraduate education, and the Yale Club of New York also selected him as one of 50-60 students from around the country to receive special funding.
Charles Guggenheimer ’55, Kunce’s sponsor at the club, said Kunce is “one of the most wonderful students I’ve ever known.”
Guggenheimer said he particularly noticed the impressive number of activities Kunce was involved in on campus.
“Lucas had more interests, got into more things at Yale — did you know that he was the first male cheerleader? That’s typical Lucas,” he said.
Kunce became Yale’s first male cheerleader on the current incarnation of the team, in 2003, when Miller, who was looking for men to join the cheerleading squad, asked him to sign on.
“It was fun,” Kunce said. “It wasn’t fun enough to continue, but it was fun.”
Besides shaking pom-poms at basketball games for a year, Kunce also ran cross-country and played on the ultimate frisbee team for Jonathan Edwards College during his senior year. He said frisbee was the best thing he ever did while in college.
Of less amusement to Kunce was his arrest during his freshman year for throwing a burning box of Lucky Charms out into the snow. Angered by the smell of marijuana constantly wafting up to their suite from the floor below, Kunce said he and his roommates decided to get revenge by lighting the box on fire and letting the smoky smell seep into the room beneath them. The friends were charged with a misdemeanor.
Though he did, as Guggenheimer put it, “about 50,000 things” at Yale, Kunce was not involved in politics while at school. Ezra Seltzer ’04, one of his freshman roommates, said Kunce often talked about his political goals, but kept such discussions private.
“Lucas wasn’t the type of guy who you immediately knew wanted to run for office,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Sometimes you run into young political hopefuls at Yale who walk around with a fake smile like they’re trying to win your vote already. Lucas wasn’t like that. There would be ambitious political talk, but only to those close to him.”
After graduating with a major in classical civilizations, Kunce began law school at the University of Missouri. He is currently in his third and final year, and has said he will take time off if elected.
Carlotta Dus ’99 GRD ’07, who taught Kunce in Latin at Yale, said Missouri would be happy to have her former student in its legislature if he wins.
“It would be an extraordinary boon for the people in his community,” Dus said.
Miller said that, if he were allowed to implement his policies, Kunce would excel as a politician.
“It’s whether or not he can actually do what he wants to do,” she said. “Twenty-four is pretty young, and he’s pretty idealistic if he thinks politics is going to be a piece of cake.”