Building on victory in the 161st District

Friday, September 21, 2007
Steve Hodges handed out candy with other elected officials Tuesday during the Stoddard County Fair parade in Dexter. (Kit Doyle)

When term limits kept Lanie Black from running again for his 161st District Missouri House of Representatives seat last year, a political bout ensued that became a priority for both state party organizations.

In one corner: Gary Branum, a respected New Madrid County farmer running on Black's legacy of agriculture-based Republicanism, with Black as his trainer.

In the other: Steve Hodges, a well-known businessman, substitute teacher, high school football referee and former sports coach from East Prairie, running on a populist message of helping the disadvantaged in one of the poorest legislative districts in the state. Hodges' trainer was former governor Warren Hearnes and his wife, Betty, a statehouse veteran who held a seat for 10 years in what was then the 160th District.

The fight went down to the wire, but in the end, the final decision went to Hodges, with the East Prairie political newcomer (though he was once a school board member) winning by only 152 votes out of more than 10,000 cast.

The victory was an important one for state Democrats, giving them back a historically Democratic seat in historically Democratic Southeast Missouri. And now that Hodges' freshman session is over (one in which he was elected freshman class president by freshman members of both parties), he's working not only to help his constituents but to strengthen the party's base in Southeast Missouri.

Steve Hodges walked through downtown Dexter during the Stoddard County Fair parade Tuesday. (Kit Doyle)

"That victory taught us a lot of lessons," said Jack Cardetti, spokesman for the state Democratic Party.

'The perfect candidate'

Cardetti said the 161st District race was one of the most hard-fought victories in the state, as each party poured support in money and campaign materials into the race.

"Lesson No. 1 is you have to find the right candidate. Steve Hodges was the perfect candidate for that district, someone people already know and trust, someone who's right on supporting schools and rural health care. He's a guy who's been part of the community."

At fall fairs and festivals and Democratic party meetings throughout Southeast Missouri, both in his district and outside of it, Hodges has been a fixture this season. A tall, large-framed man built like a football player with an easygoing, friendly personality, Hodges' mere presence in the statehouse and at those events is an inspiration for Democrats who long to see Southeast Missouri turn its favor on them once more. The change is already underway, say Democrats, as Hodges is one of three Democratic Bootheel representatives, two of them elected last year.

But Hodges may not be the typical "liberal" Democrat Southeast Missouri voters have spurned time and again.

Hodges said he meets regularly with the "Bootheel Mafia" during the legislative session, a body made up of Southeast Missouri legislators. The group is predominantly Republican, except for Caruthersville Democrat Terry Swinger of the 162nd District and Campbell Democrat Tom Todd, the 163rd District representative who also took a seat out of Republican hands, in 2006. Hodges said he'll reach across the aisle and vote against the party line if it's in the interest of his district.

His predecessor was known to do that on at least one high-profile occasion, when Black voted against cutting the state's Medicaid overhaul, one of only six House Republicans to do so.

What Hodges saw as being in the best interests of his district often went with the party line in his first session, though. According to the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, a not-for-profit organization that advocates "progressive" issues, Hodges voted against the sale of MOHELA assets, against private school vouchers, against the intellectual diversity bill, for the restoration of Medicaid cuts and against the MO HealthNet program. But he also voted for a bill promoting abstinence-only sex education in public schools and for barring the state courts from making rulings pertaining to taxing, spending and budgeting, the coalition reported. On the coalition's scorecard, Hodges rated 80 percent, which could lead to his being labeled a "progressive" in an area where that term is anathema, even though Hodges is anti-abortion and signed a pledge not to vote for any tax increase.

"I have two of the poorest counties in the state," Hodges said of taxing. "Don't you think my people are hurting down here?"

Two moments

Two of his proudest moments in the opening session were voting against the MOHELA sale and against school vouchers.

The Republican Party plans to use those votes, and Hodges' party affiliation in general, against him when the next campaign season comes around, said state Republican Party spokesman Paul Sloca. The chairman of the 161st District Republican Committee, Kevin Mainord, didn't return calls for comment.

"It's a very important race," Sloca said. "We feel confident about taking that back, because a Republican candidate is going to be running on a strong record of Republican accomplishments" in the areas of education, health care and illegal immigration.

Sloca calls Hodges' seat a "very, very vulnerable" Democratic seat that can be retaken in a "predominantly Republican" area, despite the Bootheel's long history of Democratic dominance.

As for Hodges' conservative leanings, Sloca says look at the voting record.

"There are a lot of Democrats who pretend to be conservative ... but more often than not, I think their voting records will tell the difference." They have to toe the party line, Sloca said, and the Republican Party line is better for Southeast Missouri.

Democratic spokesman Cardetti echoed Hodges, reaffirming that not all Democrats are the same.

"He didn't always vote with the Democrats. The first question he always asks himself is what's best for the district."

And next year, Cardetti said, the reputation Hodges has already built will help strengthen the Democratic foothold in Southeast Missouri, where three Democrats already hold seats and the party is hoping to become strong again.

If other candidates follow Hodges' example, that might happen.

As a candidate Hodges worked tirelessly, said Betty Hearnes, who, along with her husband, offers Hodges advice whenever he needs it.

"When he ran, he worked night and day," she said.

Hodges' work ethic and amiable personality has already made an impact in the state legislature, Cardetti said.

"He made a difference in Jefferson City right off the bat," Cardetti said, the first time a freshman Democrat held that post in more than a decade. "He was elected president of the freshman class, which is something both parties vote on. That shows what kind of leadership skills both parties saw in him. He really hit the ground running up here, and he really is making a difference."

That difference wasn't shown in the outcome of bills he co-sponsored, which ran the gamut from extending the state's Medicaid program through 2010 instead of 2008 to requiring school districts to have alternative education programs. Most of them never even made the floor. But Hodges was just a freshman, giving him little clout in the House chamber, and despite the gains, his party is still the minority.

Helping constituents

Where Hodges hopes to make a real difference, and strengthen his re-election hopes, is through constituent services, the backbone of being a state representative.

The legislative session ended in May, but Hodges' schedule is still full.

"The only block of time I have free is Sunday morning," Hodges said. That's when he attends church.

From those county fairs to his weekly Friday morning radio show to serving as a liaison between his constituents and the state bureaucracy by doing things like getting MoDOT to install a broken culvert near a farm field, Hodges never stops the work of building up his political strength and the strength of his party. All the while, he continues to look forward to 2008, when he knows his district will be a huge Republican target.

He expects to keep his seat, though he said he will continue to work for it as hard as ever. And if not next year, then in the near future Hodges expects a major change in state politics, and he wants to be part of that change.

"I'm anticipating winning the majority, and I'm going to work very hard for myself and other people to make that happen," Hodges said in a few free minutes Wednesday. The next day he'd be off to take part in meetings of the Mississippi River Parkway Commission in Wisconsin -- a multistate group that seeks to promote tourism up and down the Mississippi River.

Hodges' work for his constituents includes things like helping find funding for the Southeast Missouri Network Against Sexual Violence's Green Bear program, which educates children in school about sexual abuse. When state funding was cut this spring, Hodges set up a meeting with NASV director Tammy Gwaltney and personnel from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to find a way around the funding dilemma. The funding was restored, and Gwaltney said the meeting was key in that restoration, though all area legislators showed great concern.

"Steve went to the next step, besides just making some calls to making this meeting happen," Gwaltney said.

Scott City Mayor Tim Porch is also happy with the work he's seen Hodges do early on. Porch was a vocal supporter of Hodges' predecessor Lanie Black, a Republican, for the work the former representative did to advocate for Scott City, the northernmost city in the district. Hodges talks to Scott City leaders on a regular basis to hear their needs and concerns, Porch said.

While Hodges hasn't had time to do as much for the city as Black, Porch said he thinks as time goes on, Hodges will be instrumental in assisting Scott City.

"My gut feeling ... he's there to do what's right for this district, and I think he will," Porch said.

That kind of work, Hearnes said, is what will do the most to help Hodges keep his seat.

"Down here we're still in a position where if you can make a meeting and work for people, you can get elected," Hearnes said.

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