Changes likely to come in Congress only after election

Sunday, October 13, 2002

By David Scott ~ The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS -- It's a lesson from the first day of Political Science 101: Little change comes about in Congress from the ballots cast on Election Day. Incumbents almost always win.

The same is likely true this year in Missouri, where the state Republican Party thinks its best chance to unseat an incumbent is in the 3rd District -- the seat held for 26 years by Dick Gephardt, who just happens to be the House Minority Leader and a possible candidate for president.

But even if all nine of Missouri's incumbents -- five Republicans, four Democrats -- retain their seats, change is afoot in state delegation, most of it at the top. Depending on which party takes control, Gephardt, along with Republican Roy Blunt, are certain to continue their rise in the House leadership.

For Gephardt, first elected to his south St. Louis district in 1976, that means a promotion to speaker if Democrats take back the House.

"I don't know if people can fully understand how big a deal this would be for all Missourians, especially in St. Louis," said Mike Kelley, executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party. "The speaker of the House is one of the two or three most powerful people in the world."

The advantages for Missouri are so easy to count -- and almost all in dollars -- even the state's Republicans admit "Speaker Gephardt" would be a good thing. Even better would be "Speaker Blunt," said John Hancock, director of the state GOP.

Blunt's line of ascension to speaker is less direct than Gephardt's, but he has rounded up more than enough support to move up in the Republican leadership next year after the retirement of Texas Rep. Dick Armey, the current majority leader.

Should Republicans retain the House, Texas Rep. Tom DeLay plans to take over for Armey as Majority Leader, leaving Blunt in line to become majority whip, which is No. 3 in the GOP's House leadership. The top Republican, Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, moved up to his current job in 1998 from Blunt's current post, chief deputy whip.

"I think that, ultimately, Roy Blunt will be speaker of the House," Hancock said.

Blunt likes his party's chances to keep control of the House. He has not had to campaign heavily for himself and has been raising money and campaigning for other Republican members.

"That's one of the things you try to do if you hope to be a leader in Congress," Blunt said. "My opportunity here to be in the House leadership virtually all the time I've been here is extraordinary."

The value of having a member of the state's delegation is no better illustrated that in Massachusetts, where former Speaker Tip O'Neil secured funding for Boston's Big Dig -- a $14.6 billion project to bury two miles of interstate highway under the city's downtown.

"How many years has Tip O'Neil been dead?" Kelley said. "And they're still building with money he brought back to his district to put those highways underground."

This is the first election since the state's Congressional district lines were redrawn following the 2000 census, a process that made most seats safer for their incumbents. All three St. Louis congressmen -- Gephardt, and freshmen Republican Todd Akin and Democrat William Lacy Clay -- saw improvements as did Blunt, Democrat Ike Skelton and Democrat Karen McCarthy, Kelley said.

Add Republicans Jo Ann Emerson and Kenny Hulshof to that list, Hancock said.

"Jo Ann has solidified herself as a very capable and effective legislator," Hancock said. "Kenny Hulshof is such a good candidate and has carried such a tough district."

The only other district is the 6th in northwest Missouri, where Blunt says freshman Republican Rep. Sam Graves has a bright future.

The GOP's highlight race is against Gephardt, who easily fended of challenges from St. Louis real estate developer Bill Federer in his last two re-election bids. This year, he faces State Rep. Catherine Enz, an eight-year veteran of the statehouse in Jefferson City.

Changes to the state's delegation could come from events outside the House, as well. A rare Republican who is popular in heavily Democratic Boone County, Hulshof is a prospective candidate to run against Democratic Gov. Bob Holden in 2004.

It's a decision Hulshof said he won't even consider until after Nov. 5.

"The first question I'd have to answer for myself is, 'Do I have a vision for where I'd like the state to go? If a majority of Missourians believe the state is heading in the wrong direction or is on the wrong track, what do I have to offer?"

"If I can't answer that question to myself, that ends the discussion," Hulshof said.

Gephardt's name, meanwhile, is always on the list of possible contenders for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. But should the Democrats take control of the House in November, that would mean risking his new seat in the speaker's office for only a chance at the Oval Office.

"I would dearly love to be in that dilemma," Gephardt said.


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