History of the 161st

Friday, September 21, 2007

The history of what is called the 161st District is a heavily Democratic one, though the geographic area of the district has changed over the years.

For 37 years a single Democratic representative held the 161st seat, Gene Copeland of New Madrid. At the time of his retirement from state politics in 1998, Copeland was the longest-serving member in the history of the Missouri House. The retirement came on the heels of a federal investigation into vote fraud in the 1996 election in New Madrid and Mississippi counties. The investigation resulted in a guilty plea from one of Copeland's campaign workers.

In the 1996 election, Copeland defeated Republican Lanie Black of Charleston. In 1998, Black took Copeland's former seat by defeating Betty Hearnes, wife of former governor Warren Hearnes and former representative of the 160th district for 10 years.

Black may have been the first Republican representative to serve in the 161st, breaking the Democrats' hold over one of the state's most faithful districts.

Black held the seat for eight years, until term limits kept him from entering the 2006 race. Black's absence opened the way for the political battle between Steve Hodges and Republican Gary Branum. Hodges won by a narrow margin, 152 votes, carried largely on the strength of his home county, Mississippi County.

Before 1991, the 161st District didn't cover all of Mississippi County as it does today. Part of the county's western portion was in the 160th District, which today covers only the western portion of Scott County and a small section of southern Cape Girardeau County. Ellen Brandom, a Sikeston Republican, succeeded term-limited Republican Peter Myers in that seat in 2006.

But the 160th was also once a Democratic stronghold. Betty Hearnes held the seat from 1979 to 1989, when she chose not to seek re-election in order to run for governor. Scott City Democrat Ollie Amick was elected to the seat in 1988 and 1990, before current Scott County Commissioner Dennis Ziegenhorn, also a Democrat, took the seat in 1992, when the district boundaries were redrawn and Amick's Scott City and Hearnes' Charleston were placed in the 161st District.

Like the 161st, the 160th District entered Republican hands in 1998, when Myers of Sikeston took the seat. Myers maintained the 160th seat until 2006, when Brandom was elected.

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