JEFFERSON CITY — In a surprising announcement that could reshape Missouri’s political field, Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell said Tuesday he will not seek re-election next year because of his wife’s ill health.
“There are challenges in my life that as a husband and a father, I must put first,” Maxwell said while announcing he would not seek a second four-year term in 2004.
Specifically, Maxwell said his wife, Sarah, 38, has been dealing since January with an increasingly painful nerve or bone condition that has so far defied a medical diagnosis. Maxwell said caring for his wife and two daughters — ages 12 and 7 — must come ahead of campaigning. But he plans to serve the remainder of his lieutenant governor’s term, which ends in January 2005.
The announcement marked the second time in recent months that Maxwell — an aggressive and hard-working campaigner — has backed away from a political contest.
In May, Maxwell announced that he would not challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Kit Bond despite heavy courting by Democratic Party leaders. Although he didn’t mention it then, Maxwell said Tuesday his wife’s health was also one of the reasons he skipped the Senate race.
His withdrawal from the lieutenant governor’s race creates a void for the Democratic Party, which has no other candidates for the state’s second-highest executive office. Party executive director Jim Kottmeyer vowed only that there would be a “strong candidate.”
State Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, said he was saddened to hear Maxwell’s announcement and would not comment on his intentions to run for the vacated position.
Jacob said he and Maxwell have been close friends for more than 20 years, when they attended law school together at MU.
“He’s probably the best public servant I’ve ever worked with,” Jacob said of Maxwell.
Jacob has served for more than 20 years working as a part of the legislature in Missouri. Jacob will not be allowed to run for the state Senate again in the 2004 election because of term limits and is considering his future political aspirations.
Maxwell, 46, was appointed lieutenant governor on Nov. 15, 2000, to fill the vacancy created when Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson moved up after the death of Gov. Mel Carnahan. Maxwell’s appointment came just a week after he was elected to a full four-year term as lieutenant governor and allowed him to start immediately, instead of waiting to be sworn into office in January 2001.
Before becoming lieutenant governor, Maxwell served for four years in the state House and for almost eight years in the Senate.
Unlike many statewide elected officials who live in Jefferson City, Maxwell commutes daily to the Capitol from his Mexico, Mo., home about 45 miles to the north. Sarah Maxwell remains employed as the executive director of the County Employees’ Retirement Fund, also based in Jefferson City.
Democrats and Republicans alike expressed sympathy for the Maxwell family.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, of Cape Girardeau, who previously had said he would challenge Maxwell, said he was shocked by Maxwell’s announcement and had not realized his wife was ill.
“Joe is a friend ... and I salute him as a guy who made a decision that displays he has his priorities right in his life,” Kinder said while adding that his own campaign plans remain unchanged.
Republican Pat Secrest, of Manchester, a former House member, also is running for lieutenant governor.
At least two Democrats — Gracia Backer and Claire McCaskill — said Tuesday they have no plans to run for lieutenant governor in Maxwell’s place. Backer, a former lawmaker who now directs the state’s Employment Security Division, lost to Maxwell in the 2000 primary election. McCaskill, now state auditor, remains likely to challenge Democratic Gov. Bob Holden despite hopes by state party leaders that she will turn her ambitions elsewhere.
Maxwell said his exit from the lieutenant governor’s race does not necessarily end his political career. In the past, he has frequently mentioned his desire to run for governor some day.
“I have always been candid about my ambitions to seek higher office in the years ahead, and those are dreams we still hope to fulfill. But not right now,” Maxwell said.
Jarred Thorpe of the Missourian contributed to this report.