Hodges: Democrats now plan open forum today

Sunday, January 27, 2013

After first labeling it a nominating meeting, then a candidate forum closed to the press and the public, 8th Congressional District Democrats late Saturday said a committee meeting today in Poplar Bluff, Mo., will be a candidate forum open to the public and press.

The changes were part of several shifts between Thursday night and late Saturday that saw one of three declared Democratic candidates withdraw his name from the pursuit of his party's nomination, the committee chair reportedly resign and the announcement of the altered nature of today's meeting.

Like the Republican and Libertarian parties, the Democrats' committee made up of representatives of state House districts and counties will decide the party's standard-bearer for a June special election to replace U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, who resigned last week to become president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The parties all plan to hold those meetings Feb. 9.

Democratic committee member Mike Masterson of Cape Girardeau said Friday that today's meeting, originally announced as one to select a nominee, would be a closed-door candidate forum. Then late Saturday, 149th District state Rep. Steve Hodges in a text to a Southeast Missourian reporter said the meeting, set for 4 p.m. at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Poplar Bluff, will be open. Hodges and Masterson had been critical of the initial decision to close the meeting.

Two candidates, state Rep. Linda Black of Bonne Terre, Mo., and funeral-home director Todd Mahn of De Soto, Mo., will take part the forum, Democratic committee members said Friday. Barry Aycock, a Parma, Mo., businessman and farmer who had expressed interest in the nomination, on Thursday said he will not seek the position.

The reason the Democratic committee first chose to close the forum to the public has not been disclosed. Cindy Jenks, the committee's vice chairwoman, did not respond to messages left by phone and email Friday. Several committee members have confirmed that committee chairman Art Cole has resigned, but it's not clear who will take his place.

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.

Whether the party's meeting could have been legally closed isn't readily apparent. 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 chair and vice-chair positions.

The Missouri Sunshine Law governs 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.

The latest opinion on the matter from a Missouri attorney general came from John Ashcroft in February 1979. It addressed specifics of the voting process. In 1976, Attorney General John Danforth issued an opinion that answered public body and Sunshine Law questions. A copy of the latter opinion is linked on the attorney general's website. However, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster's office was not aware of the opinion when the Southeast Missourian inquired Friday about the committees' status as a public body and the Sunshine Law.

The organizational uncertainty that seemed to surround today's meeting is reflected in the 8th District 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 gender requirement.

Hodges on Friday said he believes the committee is unaware of the requirement.

"If that is the case, we are doing something wrong and need to fix that," he said.

Democrats appear to be less organized within the 8th District when compared to Republicans -- 18 legislative districts will have no voting members on the Democratic committee that will choose a candidate because the districts did not elect representatives after 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 more supportive of Republicans during the last few decades.

At their upcoming nomination meeting, 86 Republicans will cast 100 votes to nominate a candidate. Sixty-eight Democrats will cast 72 votes. Both parties have some political subdivisions that didn't organize committees, but the Democrats have far more, leading to their much lower number of 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 on 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 contributed to this report.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

2750 N Westwood Blvd, Poplar Bluff, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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