Many travel to Van Buren to see 'democracy in action'

Sunday, February 10, 2013

VAN BUREN, Mo. -- It's usually a sleepy place this time of year.

The rolling Ozark hills of Carter County are sparsely populated, good for producing timber.

Van Buren, the county seat, has a population listed at just north of 800. It comes to life every summer when the floaters enjoy themselves on the Current River and the Jolly Cone opens for business.

Saturday was an unusual day.

About 425 men and women descended on The River Centre at the Landing to watch an unusual political spectacle unfold. Seated at the front of the crowd were 84 individuals who would decide the GOP candidate for the 8th Congressional District special election. The nomination was made necessary when in January JoAnn Emerson resigned her post as U.S. representative to become the president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. On Saturday, Missouri House Speaker Pro Tem Jason Smith won the nomination, hoping for a special-election victory June 4, just about the time the floating season will hit its peak.

A cold, cloudy day February morning brought the largest crowd River Centre owners Tom and Della Bedell have ever hosted at their building.

They've hosted wedding parties, lots of concerts, even a rather large meeting involving the national park service, but nothing quite like this.

The meeting was called to order at 10 a.m., with people arriving at 8 a.m. Some traveled as long as three and a half hours to watch the nomination, which played out like a reality show -- with six rounds, including pauses for voting and counting -- as candidates were eliminated with each round of voting.

Among those in attendance was Ryan Nonnemaker, a policy director for the Missouri's Senate Majority Caucus.

"I came to see democracy in action," he said. "Just here to watch the process. I drove three-plus hours. Nice, windy roads."

Carter County was chosen because of its central location in the district.

Many in attendance were there to offer support to a particular candidate. Larry Wilson and Carrie Tracy fell into that category.

Wilson drove "a couple of hours" from Dent County to support Bob Parker. Parker had a boisterous following come to the meeting -- dressed in red T-shirts and yelling in support -- but Wilson came with a quiet demeanor and was not wearing a Parker shirt.

He and his wife were part of a group called Douglas County Citizens for Liberty, which supports politicians who keep a close watch on constitutional matters.

"I don't like the changes I've seen [in government]," he said, including what he views as overreaching of the executive branch. Wilson said he previously attended an 8th District forum in Ava, Mo.

Carrie Tracy was there to support her husband, Clint, who put his hat in the ring for candidacy. Clint Tracy, Cape Girardeau County presiding commissioner, has had his ear attached to a cellphone for several weeks trying to garner support. When asked whether the process had been stressful, Carrie Tracy said being in a military family prepared her.

"It reminds me of that life," Carrie said during the hour leading up to the start of the nomination voting. Clint Tracy was the only candidate who had military experience.

"I'm proud of the work the committee members have done, and I'm here to support the process," she said. "It's a different process, having been in different elections in the past. But everyone's worked hard in their own way. We've made friends with a lot of these guys."

The emotional toll on relationships was on full display. The process pitted lifelong political allies against one another. In one of the more emotional scenes of the day, longtime GOP supporter Lloyd Smith withdrew his nomination, presumably to allow votes to go to longtime ally Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.

Tony Dugger watched throughout the process as one friend after another was eliminated. Dugger, the 141st District representative, drove from Wright County to watch the voting unfold. He served in state government with candidates Smith, Todd Richardson and Scott Lipke, and had several other friends among the candidates.

"I came to see who I would be working with," Dugger said. "I'm happy and sad as they fall out. I think it's a good experience to be here today."

As the hundreds were filing out of the River Centre, Della Bedell said she had a good experience, too.

They had 25 to 30 people stay at their hotel Friday night.

"For this time of year, it was real good," she said.

bmiller@semissourian.com

388-3652

Pertinent address:

River Centre, Van Buren, Mo

Map of pertinent addresses

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