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On the trail: Black could pick up Democratic mantle in GOP-dominated 8th District

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2013 - With all the focus on the scramble for the GOP nomination in the 8thcongressional district, it may be easy to forget that whoever gets the nod will have to face a Democratic candidate.

State Rep. Linda Black hopes to make people remember a little bit more.

“People feel like they have no more voice,” Black said in a telephone interview last week. “Whenever they elect someone, they go off to Washington, D.C., and they never think about home again. I think that’s what sets me apart from the rest of the field. I work so closely with the constituency and I vote for them every time.”

Black – a Democrat from the St. Francois County town of Desloge – is one of several contenders angling for the Democratic nomination in the southeast Missouri-based district. Party committees will choose the nominees for the June 4 election.

While some well-known elected officials – including Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, House Speaker Pro Tem Jason Smith, R-Salem, Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, and former Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau – are running on the GOP side, Black appears to be the only one in elective office seeking her party’s nod.

The cold hard numbers may explain. Former U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson – the Cape Girardeau Republican who resigned last month to head the National Rural Electric Cooperative Organization – won re-election last year with 71.9 percent of the vote. She also beat back a strongly funded challenge from Rolla Democrat Tommy Sowers in 2010, winning 65.6 percent of the vote before the 8th District went through redistricting.

Even Black acknowledged her candidacy wouldn’t be easy.

“Like most of us, we can read the numbers, and how they read is not well for a Democratic candidate,” Black said. “But as time passed, there were more and more people in the Bootheel who said, ‘We’ll get unified and support a good candidate.’ And that message kept coming to my phone, to my house and to my office. And so, it was really that my decision was because people just kept saying ‘we want you to do it; we want you to be our person.’”

“And so, I just decided, ‘You know, we resist things that we should pursue,’” she added. “And I just thought, ‘OK, I will continue on.’”

Black said she hopes to focus her campaign on assisting the diverse farming community of the 8th District, as well as attracting businesses large and small. She’s also plans to showcase what she dubbed her “commonsense, conservative values” as a member of the Missouri House.

For instance, Black was one of the only Democrats who co-sponsored Rep. Mike Kelley’s bill to arm school personnel. She’s repeatedly voted for bills to restrict abortion. And then-House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, even appointed her to chair a committee overseeing the state’s correctional institutions, a rare distinction in a chamber dominated by Republicans.

Black has some ideas for how a Democrat could win such a solidly GOP district. First, she said, is "having the correct team in place to run a well-organized campaign and second is reminding those voters of the 8th congressional district that it wasn’t that long ago that they were all voting Democrat.

“And the issues that most people jumped parties on are exactly the issues that I fight for in the state House every year.”

Black's record includes a well-publicized vote against overriding the governor's veto of legislation allowing employers to exclude insurance coverage for abortions, contraception or sterilization. Black – who opposes abortion rights – lost her endorsement from Missouri Right to Life because of that vote.

Black said her vote “saved human life.” She said on the House floor that “if we cut off contraception to women, we’re going to create more abortions.

“So Missouri Right to Life and I differ on that. We’re allowed to differ but still allowed to be 100 percent pro-life,” she said. “And I am 100 percent pro-life.”

As Black noted, Democrats held the 8th congressional district seat for decades before Bill and Jo Ann Emerson come on the scene. But Jeremy Walling, a political science professor at Southeast Missouri State University, said that Democrats in the district were typically more conservative than “contemporary” Democratic members of the U.S. House.

He added he would be “shocked” if he “woke up the day after the special election and anyone but a Republican was elected to the seat.” That’s the case, he said, regardless of whom the 8th Congressional District Republican Committee selects.

“When you look down the list of people who are mentioned as potential frontrunners among the Republicans, there are some big names and some heavy hitters,” Walling said. “When you look at the Democrats, it's people that Democrats know. The Republicans are people that everyone knows. Since the party is sort of hand-picking this person, it’s unlikely that it would be somebody very extreme.”

Still, as Walling noted, “most of the Republican candidates that seem like the likely nominees are the people that most of the voters of this district would find acceptable.”

But Black noted that he she could appeal to a population center that includes southern Jefferson County, St. Francois County and Washington County -- as well as the rest of the district.

"The dynamics of the district have changed after the congressional redistricting," Black said. "And the population from Ste. Genevieve, Jefferson and Washington County that was added is instrumental in helping the success of a Democrat candidate."

Other Democrats seeking the seat besides Black, according to the Southeast Missourian, include 2012 nominee Jack Rushin, De Soto funeral home director Todd Mahn and former Blodgett Mayor Mark Fitchpatrick.

The Hagler Factor?

Black, by the way, is married to Jon Hagler, a Dent County native who’s served as the director of the state Department of Agriculture since Gov. Jay Nixon took office in 2009.

Besides his penchant for wearing awesome cowboy hats, Hagler – who holds a doctorate in political science from Washington University – gained attention when he helped forge a legislative compromise changing a voter-approved initiative, Proposition B, restricting dog breeding.

That likely endeared Hagler to many rural voters who opposed the 2010 proposition. He got a notable ovation at a 2011 rally of rural residents opposed to Prop B.

Black, though, said that Hagler’s job restricts his ability to campaign for her.

“My husband is a wealth of moral support for me,” Black said. “But as far as this campaign, his support is all he lends at this time because of his position as agriculture director. And we’re very cognizant of his role in my seeking of the 8th Congressional District nomination.” 

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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