Special election needed to fill 158th District seat

Friday, August 10, 2007

State Rep. Nathan Cooper's pending resignation from the Missouri House will force a special election to fill the seat, but Gov. Matt Blunt will set the date for the contest. Local political parties will choose the candidates.

Cooper has represented the 158th District of the Missouri House since January 2005. The district, which leans strongly Republican, includes most of Cape Girardeau's voters.

On Monday, in anticipation of his guilty plea to federal felony charges of immigration fraud, Cooper instructed his campaign treasurer, Victor Gunn of Cape Girardeau, to transfer all his political money -- $65,792.89 -- to a continuing committee called "Friends of the 158th."

Gunn said he was unaware of the reason for the transfer when he made the transaction.

"It is a candidate committee, and he can do what he wants," Gunn said. "I am just the treasurer. He didn't indicate what his future plans to deal with that were."

In an interview Thursday afternoon, Cooper said he moved the money to have it available to support a candidate in the district. But under a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling, the committee can donate only $325 to the party's candidate.

Gunn learned of the pending charges Wednesday night, he said. And he's already planning to seek the GOP nomination for the seat. Gunn is one of 18 members of the Cape Girardeau County Republican Central Committee who will select the party's nominee. There are 10 vacant seats on the 158th District Committee, not counting the seat held by Cooper himself.

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle, who, along with his wife, is also a member of the central committee and the 158th District committee, said Cooper shouldn't wait to resign his legislative post or his committee seat.

"I can't imagine he would be shameless enough to be a convicted felon and not immediately resign from any position of authority that he holds," Swingle said.

Should Cooper try to hold onto his committee post, his support would be fatal to any candidate, Swingle said. "Any person that a convicted felon casts a vote for I would vote against."

Blunt issued a statement Thursday indicating he would call a special election quickly to make sure the district is represented.

Blunt is also likely to call lawmakers into special session beginning Aug. 20. Because state law does not automatically remove felons from office, it's possible that Cooper could remain in office during the upcoming special session. Cooper declined to give a specific date for his resignation.

Diane Diebold, vice chairwoman of the GOP central committee, said she needed to research the exact method of nominating a replacement for Cooper. She noted the vacant seats on the committee and that the central committee has a meeting scheduled for Aug. 27.

"If someone comes to the meeting and wants to be on it, we can fill it," she said.

Cooper won his seat in an unopposed general election in 2004 following a Republican primary against Eugene "Pete" Frazier and Phil Brinson. Frazier, reached Thursday, said he was uncertain about whether he would seek the nomination. Frazier is the GOP's county treasurer. "I haven't had an opportunity to talk to my family," he said. "I am just kind of shocked right now."

The Cape Girardeau Democratic Central Committee has a meeting set for Aug. 28, chairwoman Brenda Woemmel said. The resignation of Cooper could give Democrats an opening for the contest, she said. "As working people look at what they are doing and what some of their representatives are doing, we might have a real chance."

Democrats have 20 members on the 158th District Committee and nine openings.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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