Democrats who will select a candidate to run in a June special election to fill a congressional vacancy in Missouri's 8th district have changed their plans for a nomination meeting that was to be combined with a candidate forum Sunday.
Committeeman Mike Masterson of Cape Girardeau said members of the committee that will select a nominee in the election to replace former U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson will still meet Sunday in Poplar Bluff, Mo., but will not vote to select a candidate. The committee will, however, hold a closed forum with two candidates, state Rep. Linda Black of Bonne Terre, Mo., and Todd Mahn of De Soto, Mo. The committee plans to nominate a candidate Feb. 9 during a meeting at a yet-to-be determined location. Republican and Libertarian committees will also meet Feb. 9 to conduct nominations. Emerson resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday to begin a new position with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Gov. Jay Nixon on Wednesday set a special election for June 4.
The reason the Democrat committee is closing the forum to the public is not yet known, as the committee's vice chair, Cindy Jenks, did not respond to messages left by phone and email Friday. Several committee members have confirmed that the committee's chairman, Art Cole, has resigned, but it's not clear who has taken his place as chair.
Masterson and state Rep. Steve Hodges, who is also a committee member, both said Friday they do not feel the forum should be closed to the public.
State law appears unclear on whether the committee should be considered a public governmental body that must abide by the Missouri Sunshine Law, which requires open meetings and records.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster's office could not say whether the committees are public bodies -- there is no case law and the office has offered no opinions on the matter -- that are subject to open meetings and records laws.
Republicans in charge of two public forums organized by the party in recent weeks for possible nominees to answer questions were quick to criticize the Democrat committee's decision to close the forum.
"This process should be as open and transparent as humanly possible," said Eddy Justice, chair of the Republican committee. "To hide any part of it smacks of having something to hide, of decisions being made by a select few in a smoke-filled backroom, embarrassment due to lack of organization or a combination of all three. These committees are public organizations and their activities should function accordingly."
Marvin Overby, a political-science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, provided some historical context on the status of political party committees as public governmental bodies.
In a 1944 landmark case, Smith vs. Allwright, Thurgood Marshall, acting as chief counsel for the NAACP, successfully challenged "white primaries," which prevented African Americans from voting in some southern states. Marshall later became the Supreme Court's first African-American justice. In the case, the Supreme Court found parties to be "quasi-official organizations," and therefore subject to federal law when it came to holding primaries.
"It is not clear whether or not that sort of logic could be extended further to non-primary selection processes, especially in the case of special elections like this," Overby said. "But the logic laid out does say that the government has the ability to regulate these things."
In Missouri, political party committees are established by state law, including specifics such as when the committees are to meet and that each committee is to name a man and woman to the chair and vice chair positions. A spokeswoman reached at the attorney general's office said she was unsure what executive office, if any, would be responsible for holding the committees accountable to obeying laws.
Numerous calls made to the Missouri Democratic Party headquarters' press line, director and general business line seeking comment on the committee's organization were not returned Friday.
The Missouri Sunshine Law does govern quasi-public governmental bodies in addition to public governmental bodies. Public governmental bodies are defined by the Sunshine Law as any legislative, administrative or governmental entity created by the constitution or statutes of the state or by order or ordinance of any political subdivision or district.
A separate potential issue for the Democrats is the committee's makeup. A list of committee members provided to the Southeast Missourian on Friday shows two counties as having male representatives in the chair and vice chair positions. Missouri revised statute 115.619 states legislative district and county committees must elect a chair and vice chair, "one of whom shall be a woman and one of whom shall be a man." A review of the Republican committee roster shows no violations of the male-female requirement.
Hodges said Friday he believes the committee is unaware of the statute requirement.
"If that is the case, we are doing something wrong and need to fix that," he said.
The Democrats also appear to be less organized within the 8th district when compared to Republicans -- 18 legislative districts will have no voting members on the Democrat committee that will choose a candidate for the special election because the districts did not elect representatives following the Aug. 3 primary election. Congressional committees are composed of the chairs and vice chairs of Missouri House district legislative committees and county committees within the congressional district's boundaries.
Hodges, one of the only remaining Democrats serving in the Missouri House from a district that lies within the 8th Congressional District, has long lamented what he perceives as a failure of Democrats to pull together in a region that has grown ever more supportive of Republicans during the past few decades.
At their upcoming nomination meeting, 86 Republicans will cast 100 total votes to nominate a candidate. Sixty-eight Democrats will cast 72 votes.
Hodges called Democrats' failure to find representation in the form of smaller committees "regrettable."
"It does reflect something about our organization. If, as a party, we are wanting to be viable and effective, even if they need to fill two positions, somebody needs to come up and take [chair and vice chair seats on committees]," he said. "I just think we are putting out the wrong image."
Committee members reached by the Southeast Missourian Friday could not provide a reason for Cole's resignation. Cole did not return calls or email after messages were left.
Southeast Missourian editor Bob Miller and managing editor Matt Sanders contributed to this report.
Poplar Bluff, MO