JEFFERSON CITY — The slate of Democrats seeking a vacant southeast Missouri congressional seat was in flux Thursday, just two days before party leaders are expected to nominate someone to succeed resigned U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson.
One of the leading contenders dropped her bid for the seat, a second candidate acknowledged he also was thinking about bowing out, and a third person stepped forward to declare his candidacy for the 8th District seat. The shuffling added to the uncertainty for Democrats, who are to meet Saturday in Poplar Bluff to select someone to run in a June 4 special election against Republican state Rep. Jason Smith, who was nominated by his party last weekend.
Missouri's 8th District stretches across 30 counties, from the outer suburbs of St. Louis to the agricultural-base of the Bootheel and west to the rolling Ozark hills. For 32 years, much of area had been represented by either Bill Emerson or Jo Ann Emerson, who succeeded her husband after he died in 1996. Jo Ann Emerson resigned Jan. 22 to become president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
Smith, who is a 32-year-old legislator, attorney, farmer and real estate partner, is expected to have a political advantage in the Republican-leaning district.
State Rep. Linda Black, who had been considered one of Smith's likely challengers, said Thursday that she would not seek the Democratic nomination.
"When voters elected me to another term as state representative last November, it was with the expectation that I would serve a full two-year term," said Black, D-Bonne Terre.
Poplar Bluff chiropractor Jack Rushin, who got less than 25 percent of the vote as the Democratic challenger against Emerson last November, said Thursday that he also is considering whether to withdraw from Saturday's Democratic contest. Rushin said the 2012 election was "a grueling race" and acknowledged: "I'm just not excited about going back-to-back" in elections.
As others were having second thoughts, state Rep. Steve Hodges announced he was belatedly entering the 8th District Democratic race. Hodges, of East Prairie, is a former grocery store owner and high school sports referee who spent a dozen years on a local school board and and was elected to the Missouri House in 2006. Although of opposite political parties, he praised Emerson.
"Rep. Emerson just did a fantastic job," Hodges said. "If I get the opportunity to serve, I'd want to follow in her footsteps and improve upon on it."
The other two Democratic candidates in the race are funeral home owner Todd Mahn, of Festus, and Markel Fitchpatrick, a sales manager for a heating, ventilation and air conditioning company who previously served as the mayor of Blodgett.
Mahn said he has contacted all 72 members of the 8th District Democratic committee who will be voting on Saturday and feels good about his prospects of winning the nomination. He described himself as "pro-life" and noted that he is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association.
Mahn said he wants to pursue a job-creation agenda that includes cuts to corporate tax rates and more government spending on highways and a "technology hub." He praised President Barack Obama's proposal to provide $1 billion to create 15 technology institutes across the country. Under Obama's plan, communities and academic institutions that win the grants would work with the federal departments of defense and energy and with businesses to develop manufacturing technologies.
Mahn said jobs are particularly important in the 8th District, which has the lowest median household income in Missouri and has areas with above-average unemployment rates.
"I want to be the voice for those working-class people that are barely hanging on above poverty," Mahn said.
Fitchpatrick said his greatest priority would be to bring down energy costs by supporting the development of synthetic fuels. He supports higher tariffs on foreign-made goods that compete with U.S. products. And Fitchpatrick said he backs a comprehensive immigration package that would attract people with the brightest minds to the U.S. while putting those here illegally on a path to citizenship by teaching them English and forcing them to pay a fine.
"Right now, there is a need for level-headed thinking and bipartisanship and working together with the Republicans to get the job done," Fitchpatrick said.