Two campaign veterans, one newcomer seek spot to challenge Emerson

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Democrats looking for someone formidable enough to take on Republican U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson will choose between two candidates making their fourth campaigns and a retired teacher in her first bid for office.

The winner of the Aug. 8 primary will face a foe who received 72 percent of the vote for the past two elections and started the election year with more than $300,000 in the bank.

The candidates are Veronica J. Hambacker of Salem, a 58-year-old retired teacher who filed first. Gene Curtis of Matthews, who has run four times but only been the party nominee once, filed next. And E. Earl Durnell of Cabool filed on the last day. Durnell ran twice as a Republican, in 1994 and 1996, and lost a bid for the Democratic nomination in 2000.

The Libertarian Party found a candidate from Cape Girardeau, Branden McCullough, who is also a candidate for a Ph.D., doing coursework at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

Hambacker is a county party leader, former president of the Missouri State Teachers Association and a two-term elected member of the Public School Retirement System board of trustees.

She said she hopes to use those connections and appeals to traditional Democratic donors to build a base to challenge Emerson. And Hambacker said she sees a need for Democrats to build a districtwide organization that rivals Emerson's political committee, Team Emerson.

"I am going to work with these really vibrant young people in this district and bring them up to the level we need to be," Hambacker said.

Durnell is a 70-year-old farmer who herds cattle in Howell, Douglas and Texas counties. He's compelled to run, he said, to raise awareness about ballooning federal deficits and debt and a drain of jobs from rural areas of the district.

Voters are ready to listen to alternatives, Durnell said. And he's ready to help anyone who seems likely to build a strong effort against Emerson, he said.

Curtis did not return calls to his home for an interview. He was the Democratic nominee in 2002, receiving 27 percent of the vote.

Emerson's chief of staff, Lloyd Smith, said his boss would let Democrats fight among themselves and did not want to be interviewed for this article.

Cape Girardeau County Democratic chairman Tom Neumeyer is already a strong supporter of Hambacker. "She's a very serious candidate, and she's out to win the seat," he said.

The mood is ripe for a Democratic message, Neumeyer said. "People don't like this kind of nonsense. Right now we have big oil running the country. And it is not for the betterment of the people that this has happened. Mrs. Emerson has aligned herself with the Bush administration across the board."

If a strong challenge to Emerson can be mounted, support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would be essential. But the committee doesn't help during a primary, spokeswoman Kate Benningfield said.

Democrats hope to make a national campaign for Congress out of 435 individual House races by urging lobbying reform in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal and rewriting the Medicare prescription bill, she said.

"We want to reflect the needs of families across the country and not the profit margins of the big pharmaceutical companies," Benningfield said.

Hambacker taught for 33 years in junior high schools in Viburnum and Salem. She and her husband, Jon, have a 13-year-old son, Jonathan. "He is my inspiration for doing this," she said. "I was beginning to feel if I didn't get really involved he will have no future."

The federal debt -- more than $9 trillion -- and the war aims of President Bush worry her, she said. "When we think we can design and develop democracies for all the countries of the Middle East we are deluding ourselves and jeopardizing our future."

Durnell sees the federal deficit and debt, the foreign trade deficit and trade agreements that allow jobs to be transferred out of the country as the biggest threats to the nation.

"I am getting alarmed at the methodical, gradual deterioration of the economic posture of this nation," he said. "We've got a Republican-controlled Congress, and since Bush took over it is spiraling out of control."

Any disruption of oil supplies or reluctance of foreign lenders to buy government bonds could cause severe problems, Durnell said. "We are heading to an economic catastrophe under these Republican economic policies," he said.

However, McCullough, the Libertarian candidate, said he believes that both parties are catering to interests opposed to restraining government spending. The federal government needs to cut spending and be restructured to limit its scope.

One of the first steps would be to repeal the No Child Left Behind Act, he said. The federal government imposes far too much regulation on schools for the money it provides, he said, so the best solution is to eliminate both.

By eliminating programs that can be done better by state and local governments, McCullough said, the federal budget could be balanced.

"State and local governments or private charities are much more competent and much more efficient in dealing with social problems," he said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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