Steve Hodges: A Democrat - and he is conservative

Sunday, February 24, 2013
Steve Hodges speaks after receiving the nomination of the Democratic 8th District Congressional Committee. (Fred Lynch)

A trip to the state capitol for East Prairie, Mo., native Steve Hodges several years ago solidified his decision -- Jefferson City, Mo., would be where he could make a difference. There he would be conservative, and a Democrat, even if some would argue one term does not belong with the other.

Hodges, a state representative running for the 8th Congressional District seat recently vacated by Jo Ann Emerson, believes they can and do -- and he wants to apply both philosophies while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hodges, 64, was selected by Democratic committee members earlier this month to run in a June 4 special election. He will face Republican Jason Smith, Missouri's House Speaker pro tem; Bill Slantz, a Libertarian; and any independent candidates who can gather a sufficient number of verifiable signatures from registered voters before a March 30 deadline.

Hodges' bids for office have shown a record of success and an ability to raise needed funds -- but he has entered a race viewed as an entirely different animal.

Missouri's 8th District has been represented by a Republican for the last 30 years after being a Democratic district for many years. Voters have swayed toward Republican support, but Hodges has managed to hold on to his office. In the last round of House races in November 2012, he was one of only a handful of Democrats to win a seat for a state legislative district within the 8th.

In the 2012 race against Republican Neal E. Boyd, Hodges won with two-thirds of the vote. He also ran unopposed for his seat in 2008 -- another sign that Hodges' work as a legislator, no doubt helped by his affable personality -- was working to keep him popular with Southeast Missouri voters.

Hodges tags himself as conservative for several reasons. He holds that he is pro-gun, pro-life and fiscally responsible. His House resume shows what one would expect to see from a Southeast Missouri legislator: he is serving or has served on committees for agribusiness, agriculture policy, education appropriations, health-care policy and small business.

In the House, Hodges is known to work with Republicans as well as he does with his own party. His colleagues admit it readily, and he sums up the relationships this way:

"If they took a vote in the Missouri House right now through the representatives, and they said which Democrat do you respect and get along with the most, I think I'd be up there at the top," Hodges said. "I respect the other people's side. I'm not ugly to people, and I call them by name when I know them. I just think it's better to be that way."

Hodges asserts he gets along the same way with his constituents.

"People who know me, they know what kind of person I am. They know who my dad was and where I come from. They know what my wife's and my three children are like," he said.

Hodges, like his father, was a grocery store owner in East Prairie for many years before he entered politics. He also coached little league basketball for 22 years, spent 12 years as a member of the local school board, was a substitute teacher and remains an avid sportsfisherman. His wife, Amy, a retired teacher, sends out a weekly legislative newsletter, "Steps of the Bootheel," in which Hodges details issues in the House and how they apply to his constituents in the 149th district, which covers most of Mississippi County, about half of Sikeston, Mo., in Scott County, all of New Madrid County and the northern part of Pemiscot County. Before redistricting in 2012, he served the 161st district, which included parts of the now 148th, 149th and 151st districts.

Conversations with Hodges often quickly turn to three subjects – poverty, education and agriculture, and the connection he sees among them. On the first topic, he doesn't view the 8th district's impoverished situation too differently from challenger for the Congressional seat, Smith, who has said he sees breaking the "generational reliance on welfare" and deregulating to help small businesses and farms create jobs as keys to turning around the district's economic fortunes. The district is the poorest in the state and has the largest population with the smallest number of bachelor's degrees.

"In my time here in East Prairie, I am seeing third generations," Hodges said. "I have seen children come up welfare dependent, and then their children come up welfare dependent. That's wrong. But in the same respect, so many of these people, because of their socioeconomic background, the children have a very difficult time getting away from where they are. There's no incentive for them."

Hodges believes a shift in agriculture, and the way farms no longer provide income for multiple families as was the case years ago, is a main reason for an exodus of families from small towns within the 8th. Businesses based on farm communities weren't able to hold on either, just meaning the lack of jobs was cause for many to become less and less stable.

"I think the thing I would concentrate on mostly is finding ways to create jobs in Southeast Missouri," Hodges said.

It is for that reason he supports Medicaid expansion, which many Republicans in the state legislature oppose.

"I think there will be tremendous opportunity in the medical field in the future. That's what makes the world go around -- jobs," he said. "Gov. Nixon has got this as a priority. We have been told by the majority party that they don't want any part of it; they don't see the sense in creating more bureaucracy. But I tell you what, that would be a great source of new jobs."

Although his voting record in the House often aligns with that of Republicans, Hodges has faced some criticism from the opposing party when it comes to conservative issues. For that, Hodges has an explanation.

"If you're responsible, you do what you have to do in tough times," Hodges said. "So, that's what I did."

In the 2012 veto session in the Missouri House, Hodges changed his vote on Senate Bill 749, which allows employers to decline to provide insurance coverage for abortions, contraception or sterilization. In a House veto override attempt, Hodges decided to stop supporting the bill, which led to Missouri Right to Life dropping its endorsement of him. He voted for the bill in the regular session, but changed his mind when he said the information in the bill changed. Despite pressure from Republicans, he resisted voting for the veto override.

"The sign of ignorance is if you don't analyze the information and then make a decision," he said.

Another reason?

"I was about to go from a poor state representative district to a poorest state representative district. So, some of the things that were contained in this particular bill became important to my new constituents," he said. "You've first got to respond to the people you represent."

Hodges said he doesn't expect that as a member of Congress he always would agree with fellow legislators, but he promises the effort will be there.

"I'm always going to be interested in what people think, and if I just say I'm not interested, that's wrong," he said. "We're not going to go hand-in-hand skipping down the hall, but I think you need to develop friendships and associations and points of respect."

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

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