In the midst of a heated presidential campaign, local elections can be drowned out in the deafening hullabaloo of partisan squabble. But as Nov. 2 approaches, candidates in the 23rd District state representative race are getting ready to make some noise.
The contest pits Democratic incumbent Jeff Harris against Republican challenger Dan Fischbach. As of early October, neither candidate had distributed typical political paraphernalia such as yard signs and stickers, and campaign Web pages remained under construction.
Harris, a 40-year-old lawyer, has been a popular speaker at civic events this fall. He said he’s spent much of the election season so far helping other Democratic candidates with their own campaigns.
On Sept. 29, Harris introduced former Texas Gov. Ann Richards at a campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. The week before, he was helping out another campaign in Kansas City. He also sat onstage at the Democratic National Convention during Kerry’s acceptance speech and recently introduced Secretary of State candidate Robin Carnahan at a local campaign event.
But Harris has found time to do some door-to-door stumping for his own campaign, and his yard signs recently started popping up on Columbia’s west side.
“We have plenty of signs; we actually have some left over from the last election,” Harris said. “We’ll be distributing them between now and the election.”
Harris’ stated plan for re-election is hardly a battle cry. “In my campaign, I’m going to continue to listen and respond to the needs of my constituents,” he said.
In a way, Harris’ campaign is an extension of his two years in Jefferson City, which saw him enter the General Assembly as one of 90 new freshmen representatives then quickly catapulted to the position of minority whip, the third-ranking Democrat in the Missouri House.
Fischbach, 54, jumped into the race close to the March filing deadline, when Republican Sam Giroux decided not to run against Harris.
“I kicked it around and decided I was not going to let Jeff Harris run unopposed,” Fischbach said. “He’s not an evil guy, but we do have some important differences.”
Fischbach, a straight talker with an expressive personality, grew up in South Dakota and served for 20 years in the U.S. Navy as an officer and pilot. He moved to Columbia seven years ago with his wife and two children.
Fischbach said rural values, learned during his childhood in South Dakota, are central to his political beliefs. When he campaigns, he sometimes carries a pocket-size copy of the U.S. Constitution tucked away in his blazer.
“I believe in the Constitution, but I think in some ways it’s been ignored,” he said. “I try to educate people about what it meant and what it’s supposed to do.”
Fischbach said the Constitution is especially important because it protects the rights of the individual.
“It’s about protecting the individual from the overwhelming power of the government, which is one of the overbearing problems of today,” he said.
Since filing for the race, funding has been challenge for Fischbach. His only major fund-raiser was cancelled, leaving him with only around $1,000 to spend on his campaign and making the purchase of political advertising nearly impossible.
In contrast, Harris has raised nearly $77,000. Harris was mum on his specific plans for spending the money. “We spend our campaign dollars wisely,” he said.
Fischbach acknowledges his funding problems and said he hasn’t been able to devote as much time to the campaign as he had hoped. He said he would use his candidacy to shed light on some issues he thinks need attention in the Missouri House.
“I can’t out-raise Jeff Harris, but I can try to raise some issues,” he said.
MU funding is a priority for Fischbach, who has two college-age children. His wife, Marge Skubic, is a professor at MU. Fischbach thinks funding for the state’s colleges and universities is inadequate.
“We are pricing our state-supported education out of the reach of many of our young people,” he said.
Fischbach cited data from Missouri’s House Appropriations office showing the University of Missouri system’s portion of the entire higher education budget decreased from 1994 to 2001. In 1994, the system received 44.9 percent of the higher education budget, but that number had dropped to 37.5 percent by 2001. In 2002, however, the system’s portion jumped back up to 39.7 percent. Under Harris, the system’s budget share was 37.5 percent in 2003 and 37.8 percent in 2004.
Fischbach blamed Columbia’s former democratic representatives for the decline in funding. He also questioned whether Harris is able to protect the university as a member of the Democratic Party, which is currently the minority in both the House and the Senate.
“If the Democrats didn’t take care of the University of Missouri when they were a majority, they can’t take care of the university as a minority,” Fischbach said.
Harris, however, said he has worked to form an alliance across party lines to watch out for the university’s interests. During his first legislative session in Jefferson City, Harris co-founded the University of Missouri Caucus. Today the caucus has more than 50 members.
“If you have an issue and you go to the legislature and only talk to Republicans or only talk to Democrats, I think that causes a division, and you’re not going to accomplish what you should accomplish as a legislature,” Harris said.
Both candidates identified medical malpractice liability reform, commonly called tort reform, as an important issue the legislature must address in 2005.
Last session, Harris filed House Bill 1428 which contained several provisions he hoped would reduce malpractice insurance premiums. But the bill never saw the light of day in the House.
Fischbach criticized Harris’ bill, saying it did not limit liability in situations outside medical practice.
“You can be 1 percent responsible for an accident, but if you’re the one with money, you’re going to pay 100 percent of the damages,” Fischbach said. “It was a smokescreen,” he said of Harris’ bill. “It was an excuse not to address the real problem.”
Jimmy Coleman, who lives in the 23rd District, said whoever gets elected needs to work toward creating more jobs in Columbia.
“There are jobs out there if you’re willing to change what you want to do,” Coleman said. “But it’s not easy to find the jobs that you want.”
Fischbach said having low tax rates is a key to getting businesses to hire more workers in Missouri. He said tort reform would help create a more business-friendly environment in the state. He also said the state needs to have a better educated workforce to encourage new business here.
Harris agrees that Missouri needs a better-educated workforce. In addition, he said the state should support partnerships between MU life sciences research and private businesses. Such partnerships would yield more jobs for the area, he said.
Columbia resident Diane Patrick said health care is an important issue for her in this election because she’s preparing to open a day-care business.
“I’m opening my own business, and I’m not going to be able to offer health care to my employees,” she said. “It’s not fair; health care should be available to everyone.”
Harris said he voted against, and will continue to vote against, cuts to Missouri’s MC+ program, which provides medical coverage to children in families with low incomes. He also said Missouri needs to help seniors grappling with prescription drug costs.
Fischbach said the health-care system in place is functional but costly for the state. He supports the use of medical savings accounts. With this government-run program, individuals would put aside money for future medical emergencies. There would also be a tax benefit to saving money to cover your deductible. This program would encourage people to seek medical treatment only when necessary and drive down insurance costs for everyone.
The race between Fischbach and Harris is refreshing for its lack of negativity. Both candidates have stuck to the issues and kept the debate above the fringe.
Harris recently gave a speech to the local chapter of the Retired Military Officers Association of America. Fischbach attended the meeting and approached Harris after the speech.
“I shook his hand and said, ‘That was a nice speech Jeff, and I appreciate your support of veterans,’” Fischbach said.