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It's incumbent vs. incumbent in four Missouri House races

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 23, 2012 - While they may have the highest profile, U.S. Reps. Russ Carnahan and William Lacy Clay aren’t the only incumbent Democrats running against each other in next month’s primary.

Because of redistricting, eight Democrats in the Missouri House are squaring off against each other. After Aug. 7, only four will return to a legislature likely to be dominated by the Republican Party.

In three of the races, an incumbent who does not live in the district is crossing over to run against another incumbent.

Unlike the 1st congressional district primary, which is turning into an expensive affair fueled by radio and television ads, campaigns for state House seats are characterized by more face-to-face contact and direct mail.

With few issues separating the contenders, candidates point to their professional and political accomplishments as evidence they should be returned to Jefferson City.

72nd District

Two years ago, state Rep. Eileen McGeoghegan squeaked by in a Democratic primary that saw her beat her closest competitor by 10 votes.

But the St. Ann Democrat’s path to re-election isn’t getting any easier as she squares up against state Rep. Mary Nichols, a Maryland Heights Democrat who's accumulated more money and some key endorsements.

Like other races featuring two incumbents, neither candidate is thrilled about the situation. McGeoghegan chose to run in the 72nd District – which encompasses a big portion of her old legislative area – as opposed to the 73rd District.

Nichols stressed several times during a phone interview that – unlike McGeoghegan – she actually lives in the district she’s seeking to represent. But McGeoghegan pointed out that she bought a former St. Ann fire house three years ago to make her husband, who is paralyzed, more comfortable.

Both candidates say they’re sweeping through the north St. Louis County district, which encompasses Bridgeton, St. Ann, Breckenridge Hills, Overland and Maryland Heights. 

Also running for the seat is Paul Berry, a political newcomer from Maryland Heights who’s raised little money thus far. Berry did not return a message from the Beacon.

“I think it’s unfortunate that it worked out that way, but it is what it is and you’ve got to get out there and work,” McGeoghegan said. “I’ll let my resume speak for me. … I always put people first. I listen to what they’re saying. I listen to what they’re saying. And I’m honest and I’m very open.”

Added Nichols: “I think the way to win this is to go out and do it the old-fashioned way -- talk to people on a one-on-one basis and go door to door.”

Both Nichols and McGeoghegan are veterans of municipal government. Before narrowly edging out fellow Democrat Doug Clemens in 2010, McGeoghegan was on the St. Ann Board of Aldermen. Nichols served four terms on the Maryland Heights City Council before being elected to the Missouri House in 2010. McGeoghegan's husband Leo McGeoghegan currently serves on the St. Ann Board of Alderman.

While the two are somewhat similar in their political views, they have some differences. McGeoghegan, for instance, was one of a handful of Democrats who voted for legislation allowing employers to exclude coverage for abortion, contraception or sterilization in health insurance. Nichols voted against the bill, which Gov. Jay Nixon eventually vetoed.

The two have also have sponsored legislation in line with their professional and personal backgrounds. Nichols – a Realtor by trade – sponsored bills this session on home construction and liability. McGeoghegan sponsored a bill this year changing the wording on van accessible parking signs.

As she transverses the district, McGeoghegan says voters are particularly concerned about foreclosures. North St. Louis County has been particularly hard hit by the housing crisis, and McGeoghegan said the legislature needs to to help.

“When I’m out knocking doors … I see lawns three feet high and shutters falling off,” McGeoghegan said. “I’m talking to one of the neighbors and I’m like ‘what’s with the Smith house over there?’ And they’re like ‘oh, it’s the saddest thing. He lost his job. They cut her down to part time. They couldn’t afford the house they’re living in. They let it go into foreclosure and they’re living in a shelter.’ That should not be! That should not be. We need to really address this.”

Nichols also said the economy is a common concern when she goes door-to-door throughout the district.

“Voters are still concerned about the economy and the jobs,” Nichols said. “They’re losing their middle-class jobs. That’s something that has to be taken care of.”

Both candidates cite their responsiveness as a reason to be elected. McGeoghegan, for instance, recounted how she personally answered phones from constituents who called. And Nichols said she’s regularly held office hours throughout her tenure as a public servant.

Thus far, Nichols has raised more money – over $35,000 – according to the Missouri Ethics Commission website. McGeoghegan has taken in $13,647.99 during the cycle. Nichols also has about $9,000 of cash on hand compared to the $2,500 that McGeoghegan has left in the bank.

74th District

State Reps. C.M. Spreng, D-Florissant, and Sharon Pace, D-Northwoods, are now facing each other in the contest for the Democratic nomination for the 74th District state House seat race.

Spreng, a 2009 graduate of University of Missouri, is now working toward a degree in sociology and social work at UMSL. Spreng has served as a state rep since 2010 and is married to former state Rep. Michael Spreng, who lost a bid to become mayor of Florissant. As of this month, Spreng has raised $37,448.76, and has $10,614.78 cash on hand.

Before replacing former state Rep. John Bowman in 2008, Pace was an alderwoman for Northwoods for eight years. Pace has raised $9,900, with $8,132.70 cash on hand.

During her time in the legislature, Pace said she was instrumental in passing some legislation -- experience she said her opponent doesn't have. Pace is also running for a third term, which she says gives her more overall experience in public office than her opponent.

But Spreng said she sees herself as the true incumbent since she currently lives in the district and has lived in north St. Louis County her entire life. Pace lives a few blocks south, and if elected, would move to reside within the new district.

Both candidates have been knocking on doors to gain some perspective from voters.

Spreng said many discussed their concerns for unaccredited public schools in north county, like the Riverview Gardens district. However, Spreng disagrees with a bill signed a bill July 7 that authorizes the expansion of charter schools. Public schools need to be fully funded, she said.

She added that it’s also important to find a balance between doing what’s best for teachers and for students.

“It takes both of them for any education to happen,” she said. “It’s a combination of protecting teachers’ rights while having them do the best job they can in educating our children.”

Pace, who serves on the House's Health Care Policy Committee, said she supports the Affordable Care Act, particularly the provision allowing those with pre-existing conditions to buy affordable insurance. Her district, can receive health care that previously wasn't available. Implementing the act at the federal and state level would greatly benefit her district and the state.

In March, Pace was among the Democrats who spoke out against a bill to limit some women's access to birth control and abortion. Some women have health conditions that can be regulated by birth control, she said. As a contraceptive, and as a means to regulate health conditions, Pace said birth control should be available for women. She said she would continue to fight against legislation to restrict women's right if elected.

Spreng said she would also like for Missouri to invest more into small businesses, which she described as the backbone for the economy. Giving tax breaks to corporations as an incentive to come to Missouri or St. Louis is not ideal, she said. Providing tax breaks to smaller businesses and investing more in smaller businesses will stimulate job creation, she said.

“In Florissant, we have a lot of small businesses here and they thrive because they don’t have big-box store competitors,” she said. “If we use our tax credits more wisely on small businesses and give them better incentives to grow and expand, our taxes will go to better uses.”

75th District

When Missouri House district lines were finalized earlier this year, state Rep. Sylvester Taylor’s residence was placed just outside of the 75th District.

And by "just outside," the Black Jack Democrat means that his subdivision is literally across the street from a district that includes parts of Blackjack, Dellwood, Castle Point, Moline Acres and Jennings.

Rather than face state Rep. Steve Webb, D-Florissant, in a district where he’s not particularly familiar, Taylor is instead on a collision course with state Rep. Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack. Gray, who did not return messages from the Beacon, is the daughter of former state Rep. Elbert Walton, an attorney whose political faction has quarreled with Taylor in the past.

Taylor – who served on the Black Jack Fire District Board before winning election in 2010 – said he’s been working hard to win support in the north St. Louis County district, much of which is territory where he served as a state legislator and on the fire board. He's also an electrician with I.B.E.W. Local 1 in St. Louis. 

“So I mean, it was a logical choice,” Taylor said. “I mean, it’s across the street from me.”

Gray, a legal administrator by trade, was elected in 2008 after her stepmother -- former state Rep. Juanita Head Walton -- left because of term limits. Gray said she should remain in office because she's been productive and effective.

"I sponsored nearly 20 bills and passed several pieces of legislation, while in office," Gray wrote. "I had several bills to pass in the House and held many hearings in the Senate. I have the support of the majority of the Democrats in the Senate, several of whom have co-sponsored my bills. I have presented bills to increase colon cancer awareness and sickle cell education, which gained the support of the NAACP."

Gray also wrote that she offered up "resolutions formally recognizing student-athletes and women veterans." 

Before Taylor and Gray could square off in the electoral arena, the two fought in court in a case that set a precedent for residency rules after redistricting. Gray argued that Taylor shouldn’t be allowed to run in the new 75th district because his residence isn’t located there, a claim denied by St. Louis County Judge Steven Goldman.

Taylor noted that the Missouri Constitution has different rules on who can run for a House seat after redistricting.

Ultimately the Supreme Court unanimously sided with Taylor and in turn removed uncertainty for other state representative candidates running in districts this year in which they don’t live.

Thus far, Taylor has outflanked Gray in fundraising. According to the most recent campaign finance report, Taylor raised over $16,000 and has $18,592.31 of cash on hand. Gray raised $4,894.80 during the quarter and has $4,004.02 of cash on hand.

The district is home to Riverview Gardens and Jennings school districts, two struggling school systems. Riverview Gardens has also lost its accreditation. As he goes door-to-door, Taylor said people in the district want legislators to improve the schools. And he said that he wants to play a role in assisting them, although he wouldn’t delve into specifics.

“I think it’s our job as legislators to help the school district,” Taylor said. “My job is to pass legislation to help them do their job. And to be honest, there are some things that I’m looking at if I get re-elected we can take a peek at. But we got to get there first.”

The two voted differently on legislation that could expand charter schools. Taylor voted in favor of Sen. Bill Stouffer’s legislation, while Gray voted against it.

87th District

Of the state House races with incumbents, the race in the 87th district may be gathering the most attention.

The two incumbent legislators angling to represent an eastern St. Louis County district are stressing their progressive credentials and their effectiveness in a bid for a new term.

The homes of state Reps. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, and Susan Carlson, D-University City, were drawn into the new 87th District, which encompasses parts of University City, Clayton, Ladue, Richmond Heights and Brentwood. The district is home to Washington University and the St. Louis County Government Center as well as some highly desirable public schools.

Both candidates were involved in politics before winning election to the legislature. Newman, for instance, served as the executive director of the Missouri Women’s Coalition and the women’s vote director for both the Missouri Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee. She also worked professionally as a teacher and for Trans World Airlines.

An attorney, Carlson previously worked with the U.S. Department of Justice and as a law professor at Washington University Law School. She was a trustee for the Metropolitan Sewer District, a national board member for the American Civil Liberties Union and a board member for Missouri NARAL’s political action committee.

Coincidently, both Carlson's and Newman’s spouses have been involved in high-profile public policy cases. Gerry Greiman – Carlson’s husband – recently led the legal fight to overturn redistricted congressional maps; in the 1990s, he got the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Ladue’s ordinance against political signs. Burt Newman successfully struck down a law mandating photo identification at the polls and also fought in court against the state’s conceal and carry law.

Both candidates have plenty of cash on hand for the final stretch. In the latest fund-raising quarter, Carlson raised $39,623 and has $45,635.46 in the bank. Newman raised $18,410 and has $41,890.77 of cash on hand.

Newman took a rather unconventional route to the Missouri legislature. She lost a hard-fought primary in 2008 against Clayton attorney Steve Brown, who resigned from office the next year after pleading guilty to felony obstruction of justice charges. She then won a special election in 2009 and was re-elected after a contested primary in 2010.

In a phone interview, Newman said her role in the legislature is as a counterbalance to a substantial Republican majority. She’s been a vocal opponent of efforts to impose a photo ID requirement to vote, curtail abortion rights and allow employers to exclude abortion, contraception or sterilization in health insurance coverage. And she’s advocated adding sexual orientation into state and county nondiscrimination laws.

“The prime thing that voters are telling me is my leadership,” Newman said. “I chair the House Progressive Caucus, the largest Democratic caucus with almost 40 members. We are not able to advance legislation on our own because of the numbers and because we are in the minority. Sometimes, basically the bills we file go in the trash or have absolutely no movement. And I recognize that.”

Newman said her role as the chair of the House Progressive Caucus is to “push back and fight back.” She received national attention, for instance, when she introduced a bill restricting insurance coverage for vasectomies while Republicans were pushing to restrict contraception. Along with other Democrats, she vocally opposed installed Rush Limbaugh into the Hall of Famous Missourians.

“I have my own record, I have my own activism,” Newman said. “And that’s what I focus on. I mean, people need to hear from me. … I moved into my campaign office the very next day after we adjourned. And we have knocked or talked to over 4,500 households in 105 degrees. But to me, that’s what our job is. That’s part of it. You have to talk to voters.”

After a decisive victory in a crowded 2010 primary, Carlson asked for and was appointed to the House Rules Committee and the House Judiciary Committee. The Rules Committee is a powerful clearinghouse for bills before they hit the floor, while the Judiciary Committee handles changes to crime regulations and court procedures.

Carlson was also appointed to a committee examining changes to the Missouri nonpartisan court plan; she then opposed the revisions. Carlson was also an opponent of the contraception legislation and efforts to alter the Missouri Human Rights Act.

Carlson said in a phone interview that her advocacy and her expertise as a lawyer serve the highly educated district well going into the future.

“I’ve enjoyed the work a great deal because I really can sit down and wade through these things,” Carlson said. “I do that more quickly and more effectively than a lot of people, especially with term limits. We don’t have a lot of people who have that background when they came in, but they were there for a good number of years and they developed it over time. Now with term limits, lots of people don’t have that time to develop that kind of skill.”

While in the judiciary committee, she said she regularly contributed to crafting wide-ranging legislation that eventually passed. Sometimes she introduced amendments, she said, while other times she reviewed other legislators' ideas to make sure they were feasible.

"I think I'm more effective and can better represent the people in this area than my opponent," Carlson said.

The 87th District is home to some of top-ranked public schools in the area, including the Clayton and Ladue school districts. Both candidates have expressed concerns about the Turner decision and whether students in unaccredited school districts -- such as St. Louis -- may transfer to nearby accredited districts. 

Carlson said that she would support legislation "that would limit the number of transfer students in light of the staff, space and other resources of the receiving district." She also penned an op-ed about it in the Post-Dispatch.

Newman said in an interview that "we cannot take a physical influx of students as much as we want to unless you give us resources." She also said she was concerned about students who are not able to transfer.

"You’re leaving behind those without transportation, you’re leaving behind people with special needs," Newman said in the interview. "And then what happens to them if they're left behind?" 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.