MEXICO, Mo. — The autumn harvest season is a hectic time for farmers, and Steve Hobbs is no exception.
Each day his corn stands in the field, it’s vulnerable to the forces of nature. As the three-term incumbent in Missouri’s 21st District, time spent away from this fall’s campaign can allow his challenger inroads toward taking his seat.
Time is money, and both jobs are precious. Hobbs is still trying to find the best way to balance the two – and to spend time with his family. There has to be a balance, but there also must be priorities.
“Some days I don’t get to farm,” Hobbs says. “Some days I’ll give out signs all morning and farm in the afternoon. You can’t be everywhere, even though you want to be. I had to turn down an event recently because it was my turn to host my daughter’s cross-country team for a barbecue.”
The day to come will be a long one, but Hobbs is in good spirits. He’s ready to get to work. It’s homecoming weekend in Mexico, and school’s out for parent-teacher conferences. Hobbs has returned from dropping off fruit plates and shaking hands at the high school, and now it’s time to head back into the corn for the afternoon.
Later, he plans to go to the homecoming parade, then venture into Columbia for a forum with the Boone County Republicans, which Hobbs says he hopes won’t last too long. He wants to make it to at least the second half of the Mexico High School football game to see his nephews play.
For the past six years, Hobbs has commuted to the Capitol from his farm in Mexico. He lives on Route KK just about a mile west from where he grew up.
"Things just don’t change around here," Hobbs says. "Most of the neighbors have been here forever."
Driving out to meet his combine, Hobbs points out the fields he owns, the ones he rents and the ones owned by someone else. Things look much as they did when Hobbs graduated from Mexico High School 30 years ago.
One thing has changed for Hobbs and his family. Hobbs’ father, Dean, died this year after actively farming right up to the age of 74. On the route, Hobbs points to another of his dad’s fields and has to correct himself.
PERSONAL: 48. He is married to Carolyn Hobbs. They have two daughters, 14 and 12.
PARTY AFFILIATION: Republican
OCCUPATION: 21st District representative since 2002. He is president of Hobbs Farms, Inc.
EDUCATION: Graduate of Mexico High School, 1978.
BACKGROUND: Chairman of the House Conservation and Natural Resources Committee; served on the Special Committee on Agri-Business, the Interim Committee on Emerging Issues in Agriculture, the Appropriations – General Administration Committee and the Budget Committee during the 94th General Assembly. He enjoys farming and cooking.
“I guess it’s mine and my mom’s now,” he says.
In a fluke of geography, Hobbs parents’ house is a quarter mile outside the 21st District. His father never got to vote for him as state representative, and his mother won’t either, he notes wistfully.
Hobbs turns his semi-trailer truck deep into the corn and shows how recent rains have cut ditches through the cornfield and left a corner soggy with mud. He maneuvers a tight four-point turnaround that leaves him flush with the combine, somehow managing not to get stuck.
Once the monstrous green John Deere combine starts shaving corn kernels and spitting them into the hopper, Hobbs talks about how he first got involved with politics. He guides the mechanical claw while he tells of this early involvement. It was at an MFA farm supplier forum aimed at young farm families in Columbia in the mid-1990s. The forum’s call for greater civic participation among farmers really hit home.
“The message was that being a good farmer is not enough,” Hobbs says. “You’ve got to start being more active in your communities, with school boards and civic groups.”
Hobbs became more active in supporting local candidates, but it was helping Kenny Hulshof in a campaign for the 9th District congressional seat that pushed Hobbs even further into the political arena. Hulshof is now running for governor.
“The man has so much integrity," Hobbs says. “I thought, ‘That’s the kind of elected official we need.’”
Hobbs didn’t really like the direction the state was going in 2002. Term limits prevented Ted Farnen, D-Mexico, from running in 2002, and that meant an open seat for the 21st District.
Hulshof suggested Hobbs run for the open seat.
“I looked at my two daughters, and I thought I could make a difference not just for them but also for a lot of other kids," Hobbs says.
The 2002 race was difficult because Hobbs had known his Republican primary opponent, Mike Rose, all his life.
“I mean, we played ball together,” Hobbs says. “We tried to keep the race clean.”
Hobbs came out on top.
“I’m the only Republican I know of in this district to ever be re-elected,” he says.
It’s Oct. 6, and Hobbs is attending a candidate forum in Hallsville. He’s a plainspoken man with a humble, if self-deprecating, tone. His homespun style contrasts starkly with all the other regional candidates in both parties.
Hobbs warms up the crowd by making light of the fact he was the only Republican candidate not wearing a tie. Then he thanks the people for attending and for their support. He talks about his family. He lauds the Hallsville community for gathering the 700 signatures attached to a grant application that will all but restore a health clinic that closed there in 2006.
Hobbs is a leading advocate for bringing the clinic back but maintains that “the power is really in the community."
Of his own role in the process, he says, "We just try to guide it in the right direction.”
He gives as much credit to his constituents as he does to himself or his fellow lawmakers.
“My time at the Capitol has been some of the best experiences of my life,” Hobbs tells the audience. “Thanks. It’s been an honor to represent you.”
Hallsville City Clerk Cheri Reisch is a lifelong Hallsville resident who is active in local Republican politics. She says Hobbs is a hard worker who represents the values of his district.
“Steve has passed eminent domain and property rights legislation,” Reisch says. “He’s personally worked with Hallsville with fighting to keep the University Health Clinic and now with efforts to bring it back. Also with the schools and the city. … I think we should send him back for his last term.”
Back in the cornfield inside his combine, Hobbs says it has been a joy to work with such excellent people in Jefferson City.
“Down there you have a friend in every town, and we take care of each other,” Hobbs says.
Hobbs is most proud of his work to curtail eminent domain. He played a key role in advancing legislation on the issue in 2006. Hobbs says he feels strongly that private property owners should be compensated fairly for land the government needs.
“A lot of people told me that if I tried to do what I wanted to do with property rights that they’d break me,” Hobbs says. “It was satisfying that those same people were patting me on the back when the governor signed the bill with the same language.”
Hobbs says the eminent domain bill especially taught him how to work with broad coalitions to bring people together.
He has more plans he’d like to see through if he’s elected for his final term.
Hobbs says he would like to see the new Hallsville clinic serve as a pilot program that could be replicated in rural communities all through the state. He also hopes a planned plant sciences facility will bring employment opportunity to Mexico to replace the manufacturing jobs it has lost in recent years.
Hobbs has a nephew who helps him with the farm work on his days off from classes at MU. It reminds him of the regrets he has about never making it back to school himself.
“Not going to college is the biggest mistake of my life,” Hobbs says. “The farming commune went bad in the 1980s, and my brother was in college at the time. We didn't have the money to send us both. I just never went back.”
Hobbs never attended college and says he tells young people every time he has the chance to avoid making the same mistake.
Still, he says, “I love being a farmer. I would still be a farmer if I had a college education.
“In the past, opponents have tried to beat me over the head with it,” he says about his lack of a college degree. “I don’t think it’s the only test to prove you’re capable of serving.”
The farmer is a small businessman. Operating a business is a lot like making the government operate, he says.
“Face it,” Hobbs says, “the biggest thing we do is spend taxpayers’ dollars – your tax dollars. If you’re responsible with your dollars in your business, then you’ll be responsible in government.”
The corn is good this fall. It’s a little wet, but Hobbs says it’s some of the best he’s ever seen. In a difficult election Hobbs doesn’t seem too worried, but he’s likely to take any good omens he can get.