Six-year incumbent, newcomer face off in 149th House District race

Friday, May 25, 2012
Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, speaks at a SADI board meeting in Cape Girardeau on Thursday night. Hodges is running for the 149th House District. (Laura Simon)
Neal E. Boyd speaks to students at Cape Christian School on April 19. Boyd, a former winner of the television program "America's Got Talent," is a Republican candidate for the 149th District of the Missouri House of Representatives. (ADAM VOGLER)

The new 149th Missouri House District is the poorest in the state. In some parts, more than 30 percent of its people live below the poverty line. In each of the counties that it includes portions of -- Mississippi, Pemiscot, New Madrid and Scott -- the median income for its workers doesn't come anywhere close to the state average.

Smoking rates are higher. Teenage pregnancy is rampant. Jobs are not plentiful.

Still, the two men who want to represent the district in the state legislature say that is all the more reason voters should have an effective lawmaker in Jefferson City, Mo., who will fight to make life better.

The men obviously disagree on who that man is. On Nov. 6, voters will settle the matter at the ballot box by choosing between a six-year incumbent Democrat and the 2008 winner of "America's Got Talent" and first-time candidate who now says he's ready to apply Republican principles that he's held for a lifetime.

Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, says he knows the district, its people and its problems better than anyone and that he has the experience and legislative know how to get things done.

But Neal E. Boyd of Sikeston counters that he's ready to serve and make a difference to an area by fighting for jobs, reducing taxes and galvanizing growth in the economy.

"I believe my vision and ideas for the area are better," said Boyd, 36. "I see a district where continuing education is prevalent for displaced workers, where jobs become more plentiful through ending job-killing regulations. I believe in reducing taxes allowing business owners to thrive and hire new workers."

But Hodges, first elected in 2006, says his focus on constituent services is what he's most proud of.

"My sales pitch is going to be that I'm knowledgeable in my district," said Hodges, 63. "Everything I've done for the past six years is I look at my district first. We're supposed to take care of our constituents first and I've done that."

Lines for the new 149th, which take effect next year, were drawn last year to reflect population changes that came to light from the 2010 census data. The boundaries include a significant portion of Mississippi County, a sliver of Scott County (including about half of Sikeston), all of New Madrid County and the northern part of Pemiscot County.

The district has a population of 36,470 people, with about 75 percent of those above the age of 18. In the 2010 election, more voters in the district voted for Republicans, although it was close at a split of 54.8 percent to 45.2 percent.

The statewide average for people living below the poverty level is about 14 percent, but three of those counties has significantly more impoverished people. The lowest percentage in those counties is Scott, which has 18 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. The highest is Pemiscot, where 31.8 percent living below that line.

The statewide median income is $46,262, according to the 2010 census data. But all of those counties have median incomes well below that number, as well. The lowest median income is in Mississippi County at $29,586 and the highest of those counties is New Madrid at $32,895.

"Not a lot we can be proud of about those numbers," Hodges said. "Poor people have problems. Some are sick. Others are immobile. My interests are going to be to support social programs such as child care, caring for the elderly. I've supported legislation for the blind."

Boyd, however, believes the emphasis should be on cutting taxes and promoting job growth. Boyd says the biggest difference between he and Hodges is the right-to-work issue. While Hodges is pro-union and is against right to work, Boyd said Missouri should adopt right-to-work laws that give employees the right to decide for themselves whether to join or financially support a union.

"With Arkansas and Tennessee next door to the district, we are unable to compete for the jobs that our citizens need," Boyd said. "Look at the evidence. Most of the states that have had job growth in the past few years are right-to-work states. Let me be clear, I don't think that right-to-work will fix our economy overnight or is a cure-all, but it should be in the state's toolbox."

Hodges acknowledges he gets grief from some constituents about his support of unions. But he defended his position, saying that unions raise a worker's standard of living. They also are big community supporters, Hodges said.

"They're good people," Hodges said. "The standard of living is better because they're in unions, so what's wrong with that?"

Both men have their supporters. According to Hodges' April campaign finance report, he had about $4,500 cash on hand and had already spent about $60,000 this election cycle. But Hodges said his campaign is filing an amended report that, if it were filed today, would show about $17,000 cash on hand.

Boyd didn't file a report with the Missouri Ethics Commission in April because he said there was nothing to report. But both men said they are ramping up fundraising efforts, each with events planned.

Former judge Stanley Grimm of Cape Girardeau doesn't live in Hodges' district, but he's contributed financially to his campaign.

"He's a very intelligent guy," Grimm said. "I just like the way he handles himself and I thought he was doing a great job of representing the people, not only in his district, but in Southeast Missouri. So I have a high, high regard for him."

But Peter Myers of Sikeston is pulling for Boyd. Myers is self-employed, managing several Southeast Missouri farms. But he's also a retired farmer as well as a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture executive who worked in Washington, D.C., and former state representative. Myers said that Boyd is an excited candidate who is knowledgeable about the issues.

"Of course, he's going to be learning more if and when he gets elected," Myers said. "But he's up to speed on the issues. ... He's been a Republican for as long as I can remember, which is fairly important. He's not just flip-flopping parties or anything like that for his own advantage."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

Sikeston, MO

East Prairie, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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