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Rep. Rod Jetton faces challenge in re-election bid
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- If things go right for state Rep. Rod Jetton, in January he will become the first speaker of the House of Representatives from Southeast Missouri in 70 years.
But two things must happen on Nov. 2 for that to occur: Republicans must retain control of the chamber and Jetton must win re-election to his legislative seat.
John Howser, the Democrat challenging Jetton in the 156th District, is doing his part to ensure neither event takes place.
Howser, 61, said he was encouraged to run by residents in the district's three counties -- Bollinger, Madison and Wayne -- who feel it is time for a change in representation. A retired teacher and band director at Fredericktown High School, Howser said his 30 years working in public schools gives him solid credentials on education, an issue that will figure prominently in elections throughout Missouri.
As an incumbent and House leader, however, Jetton has some clear advantages. The Marble Hill Republican was first elected in 2000 and stood unopposed for a second term in 2002. Since 2003 he has served as speaker pro tem, the chamber's No. 2 post.
Jetton, 37, played a pivotal role in coordinating Republican House campaigns in 2002, when the GOP won a chamber majority for the first time in nearly a half century. He is actively involved in efforts to secure the party's dominance for another two years. None of his fellow Republicans is known to be challenging him for speaker.
As of Aug. 28, Jetton had raised $59,360 for his campaign, more than three times the $17,272 Howser had collected.
Despite his advantages, Jetton said he expects a lively election campaign, especially since a number of Democratic-leaning interest groups aren't keen on the idea him becoming speaker.
"A lot of folks in the state know I could be speaker and don't like my views on abortion, guns and tort reform," Jetton said. "They will work really hard to try to defeat me."
Howser said Jetton's conduct in office is a concern of many 156th District constituents. Particularly upsetting to some was Jetton's heckling of Democratic Gov. Bob Holden from the House floor during this year's State of the State address.
"A vast majority of people have said that you may dislike the governor and disagree with him, but you have to respect the office," Howser said.
Jetton said constituents generally have commended him for the incident, in which he took Holden to task concerning education spending.
"In the district, I've had a few Democrats give me a hard time," Jetton said. "What amazes me is the teachers who said they appreciated me standing up and defending education money when the governor was playing politics with it."
District residents, Howser said, are also troubled by Jetton's support of a budget-cutting plan pursued by House Republicans that sought to eliminate Medicaid benefits for as many as 40,000 low-income Missourians. The Senate, which is also Republican-led, later scrapped the plan.
"That has really hit home with his constituents," Howser said.
Jetton countered that Medicaid has become overextended and, as a result, spending needs to be more targeted so it provides the greatest benefit.
"When it comes to tightening up eligibility and ensuring the people who really need welfare get it, I've got nothing but support from my district," Jetton said.
Neither candidate faced opposition in the August primary. Although Jetton claimed 56.2 percent of the combined Republican and Democratic vote, primary results are a dubious guide as they are shaped by a variety of factors that won't come into play in the general election.
Still, each candidate drew stronger support than the other in his home county, with Jetton receiving substantially more votes in Bollinger County and Howser doing likewise, although to a lesser extent, in Madison County. The tallies were close in Wayne County, where Jetton claimed just 44 more votes than Howser.