Political leadership

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Replacing a member of Congress is no easy task, as we've found over the last several weeks.

When JoAnn Emerson announced she'd be vacating her post in favor of a CEO position, the 8th District began scrambling to figure out how to replace her.

This process hadn't faced us in 17 years, so many of us had questions. During the last several weeks, many of those questions have been answered.

We've learned a lot about the political process, about federal election laws that affect election dates; we've learned how important county and house district committees are; and we've learned that when it comes to leadership and transparency, the Democratic Party in Southeast Missouri could learn a few lessons from the GOP.

The Republican party has, from our standpoint, been organized since Day 1.

We commend Eddy Justice, the chairman of the GOP 8th District Committee. When news broke of Emerson's plans, there's no doubt Justice's phone buzzed non-stop for several days. There are 86 members of the 8th District Republican committee, and certainly communication had to go out to all of them. Yet Justice took time to explain to the media, and ultimately the public, the plans for the committee; he promptly returned calls and was forthcoming. The GOP organized three public forums; it laid out the schedule and rules of the forums well ahead of time, and Justice explained in great detail how the next GOP candidate would be selected. He helped put us in contact with committee members and, along with other Republicans, encouraged news coverage.

On the other side of the political aisle, answers have been evasive.

After numerous attempts and phone calls over more than two weeks, no one from the Democratic Party was willing or able to provide the newspaper a list of committee members until Friday afternoon. This is simply a list of all chairs and vice chairs of county and legislative committees in the 8th District. Several Democrats reached by phone directed reporters to Art Cole, then the 8th District Committee chair whose cell phone did not allow voicemails. Emails and text messages sent to Cole received no response. Several sources reached by phone told a reporter they would have Cole call a reporter here. No calls came.

Additionally, the state Democratic Party did not respond to our email request and multiple phone messages for information about the district.

Of the few committee members we did reach before Friday, they gave only sparse information about meetings and the process. In some cases, they didn't have answers. In others situations, it appeared some had information to share with us, but they wanted it to come from Cole.

On Friday, we learned several facts:

* Plans had changed, and the Democrats would not be selecting a nominee on Sunday.

* A forum-only format would be held instead. Originally the forum was to have been closed to the public, but it was decided Saturday to open it to the public.

* The chairman of the committee had stepped down.

* There are 68 members of the committee.

* 18 legislative districts were not organized and could not provide representation

These facts paint a picture that the 8th District Democrats are facing a leadership and organizational crisis. The group elected someone apparently incapable of leading; the group has been unable to come up with a clear plan for nomination; and it had no plan on how to respond to the media.

Is it any wonder the Republicans have routinely landslided the 8th District elections?

That's not to say that Republicans haven't had their flaws. Let's not forget it was Emerson, who just weeks into a new term, accepted a job as CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. We hope the next candidate, from either party, will not entertain other job offers days into a new term. The special June 4 election could cost more than $900,000, according to estimates provided by the Secretary of State's office. And our district will not have a vote in the House for more than four months.

Another mark against the GOP was that there were six districts in the Republican party -- two counties and four representative districts -- that didn't meet and nominate chairs and vice chairs as required by law, meaning there will be only 100 votes, not 112. As a result, some areas are underrepresented. On the Democrat side, 18 legislative districts did not organize. Bollinger County also did not form a committee. Democrats will have 68 members casting 72 votes. It also appears that women may be underrepresented. At least two counties -- Scott and New Madrid -- have two men in committee leadership, contrary to state statute that expresses a man and woman must hold the posts. It's interesting to note that only two candidates are known to be interested in the Democratic nomination -- a man and a woman.

The process itself isn't a clean one. We have concerns about representation. For example, on the Republican side, Phelps County has one more representative than Cape Girardeau County, which has 30,000 more people. There are also district committee members who reside outside of the 8th District because they are chairs or vice chairs of house district committees that lie only partly in the Congressional district.

It's important to remember these all are volunteer positions. The small committees are grass-roots oriented, comprised of people who care about politics. They meet and organize with little fanfare until the stakes are raised, as they are now. You'll find good people and good committee members in both parties. We're seeing how important it is for these committees to appoint leaders with the vision, knowledge and energy needed to move the parties forward.

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