House cleaning coming for 2003; parties jockeying for position

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- When the opening bell rings in the 2003 legislative session, the Missouri House of Representatives will be a vastly different place.

Not counting the handful of incumbents who undoubtedly will be knocked off in this year's elections, at least 84 representatives from the class of 2001-2002 will not be back -- a majority of the 163-member body.

A new House speaker is a certainty, and a change in minority party leadership possible.

Current House Speaker Jim Kreider, D-Nixa, said it is difficult to predict what the chamber will be like next year.

"When that many new members come at once, the rules can be wiped out; traditions lost," Kreider said. "... We'll just have to wait and see."

As he is among the 73 members term-limited in the House, Kreider's two-year reign as speaker is definitely at an end, though he hopes to return to the General Assembly next year as a senator.

Leading contenders

The No. 2 ranking House Democrat, Speaker Pro Tem Mark Abel of Festus, has made no secret of his desire to succeed Kreider. State Rep. Denny Merideth of Caruthersville made an unsuccessful bid for the post two years ago and is another possible replacement. Freshman state Rep. Russ Carnahan of St. Louis, the son of former Gov. Mel Carnahan and U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, is also said to be pursuing the job.

Depending on the collective outcome of the fall House elections, however, those or other Democrats could find themselves instead vying for the post of minority floor leader.

At present, Democrats hold an 87-76 House majority, with 82 seats needed for control. A net gain of six seats for Republicans would propel House Minority Floor Leader Catherine Hanaway of Warson Woods into the speakership.

Scott Baker, a Missouri Republican Party spokesman, said the heavy Democratic criticism of Hanaway's strong leadership of the GOP caucus in opposition to using the state's Rainy Day Fund to address budget shortfalls and on other issues shows they take the takeover threat seriously.

"That is the best evidence yet that Catherine Hanaway is going to be the next speaker," Baker said. "Democrats knew it merited going after her."

Republicans last controlled the House in 1954. Assuming the party protects or builds on its one-vote Senate majority, a House takeover would produce the first GOP-dominated legislature since 1948.

In addition to the term-limited, 11 other House members eligible for re-election are either seeking higher office or stepping away from public service, contributing to the high number of open seats.

Because Southeast Missouri House districts have steadily shifted into the GOP column in recent years, the region doesn't figure prominently in the Republicans plan to gain ground, though they must keep from losing seats.

Seeking gains

Baker said the key areas for GOP gains look to be in northern Missouri and the St. Louis metropolitan area.

Democrats, meanwhile, will also target the St. Louis region, as well as southwest Missouri.

Mike Kelley, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said Democrats will look to regain ground lost in Southeast Missouri in recent years, especially in upper Bootheel counties.

As to Hanaway's tough stances this session, Kelley said they will be detrimental to Republicans rather than advantageous.

"She has shown she is not ready for prime time," Kelley said.

"She has to rally people to the cause of electing Republicans when she has proved she can't provide leadership on balancing the budget."

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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