Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R)
Missouri 8th District
Mark Twain might not recognize life on the Mississippi below St. Louis today. The Ozark Mountains to the west flatten out, and the river is hidden behind levees, which ordinarily, except during the terrible flood of 1993, screen small towns and river roads from rows of barges tethered together, full of coal and corn and soybeans. The Mississippi today is an industrial waterway. But it was never really all that romantic. Twain’s steamboats, as he was at pains to point out, were dangerous, noisy contraptions, forever blowing up or getting embedded in roots and branches in the river currents. This is one of the oldest settled parts of the United States. French settlers founded such Missouri towns as Cape Girardeau in the late 1700s. The big influx started a few years after the 1811 earthquake at New Madrid. The spongy Mississippi Valley land is seismically very active, and this was the site of one of the most devastating earthquakes in U.S. history.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The southeast quadrant of Missouri—the river valley and the hills to the west, with coal and lead mines, plus the Bootheel that hangs down in the far southeast—has not seemed to change much in half a century. For years, there has been a population outflow from the Bootheel, as machines replaced low-wage farmworkers and crops shifted from cotton to rice, corn, and soybeans. Dairy cattle, pigs, apples, and berries, plus some timber, are among the area’s other products. But this is also home to Missouri’s Lead Belt, a mining region rich in ore minerals such as lead, zinc, copper, silver, and cadmium. Reynolds and Iron counties produce about 80% of the nation’s lead; the Environmental Protection Agency ordered a cleanup of massive piles of lead waste in recent years. An aluminum smelting plant in New Madrid provides more than 1,000 jobs. Still, the only big growth here has been around the retail and medical hub of Cape Girardeau and along Interstate 44. The poverty rate in the Bootheel is the highest in the state. At a point 20 miles south of Rolla, in Phelps County, is Edgar Springs, the home of 190 residents and the population center of the nation, according to the 2000 census. Ten years earlier, that designation was 35 miles to the northeast in Steelville.
The sprawling 8th Congressional District, the largest in Missouri, covers the state’s southeast corner. Its political heritage is mixed. The Bootheel was as solidly Democratic as the Mississippi Valley around Memphis once was, and some mining counties show traces of Democratic sentiment. Cape Girardeau is heavily Republican and an incubator of Republican talent: It is the hometown of Rush Limbaugh and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder. Once a safely Democratic district, it has been represented since 1980 by Republicans. This was one of the rural areas that trended Republican in the Clinton years. George W. Bush won 63% in 2004, and John McCain won 62% in 2008—including 66% in Cape Girardeau.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R)
Elected: Nov. 1996, 7th full term.
Born: Sept. 16, 1950, Washington, D.C. .
Home: Cape Girardeau.
Education: Ohio Wesleyan U., B.A. 1972.
Family: Married (Ron Gladney); 8 children.
Professional Career: Deputy communications dir., Natl. Repub. Cong. Cmte., 1984–91; Dir., State Relations & Grassroot Programs, Natl. Restaurant Assn., 1991–94; Sr. V.P., Pub. Affairs, American Insurance Assn., 1994–96.
The congresswoman from the 8th District is Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican first elected in 1996 to replace her husband, Bill Emerson, who had died in office that June. Jo Ann Emerson grew up in Bethesda, Md., in a Republican family. Her father was executive director of the Republican National Committee, but her neighborhood was bipartisan. Next door lived Democrats Hale and Lindy Boggs, who served in Congress nearly 50 years. In 1975, she married Republican Bill Emerson, then a Washington lobbyist. In 1979, spotting the vulnerability of the Democratic incumbent in the Bootheel district, he went home to Missouri to run, and won with 55% of the vote. In 1995, he was diagnosed with cancer. After Bill’s death, Jo Ann decided to put her considerable political résumé to work by running for his seat. She had worked for the American Insurance Association and the National Restaurant Association, and as a press aide for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Leading state and national Republicans quickly endorsed her. Missouri law bars reopening the filing deadline if an incumbent dies less than 11 weeks before the primary, so she ran as an independent. Democratic contender Emily Firebaugh, a timber company owner, attacked Emerson as a product of Washington, and spent $831,000, slightly more than Emerson. The Republican nominee, Richard Kline, was less trouble. In 1995, he had used pepper spray to try to place a Veterans Affairs Department doctor under citizen’s arrest; his campaign never really got off the ground. Bill Emerson’s record, Jo Ann Emerson’s conservative views, and the poignancy of her situation all worked toward her victory. She won 50%; Firebaugh got 37%; and Kline, 11%.
|Jo Ann Emerson (R)||198,798||(71%)||($1,285,597)|
|Joe Allen (D)||72,790||(26%)||($62,069)|
|Jo Ann Emerson (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (72%), 2004 (72%), 2002 (72%), 2000 (69%), 1998 (63%), 1996 (50%), 1996 (63%)
In the House, Emerson has had a moderate-leaning voting record with sometimes conservative positions on cultural issues. On the Appropriations Committee and its Agriculture Subcommittee, her priority was rescuing falling farm commodity prices. She wrote the Trade Sanctions Reform Act of 2000, which partially lifted embargoes on five nations. And she worked with other members from farm districts to open agricultural trade with Cuba. She championed protection of U.S. food aid programs from international trade restrictions and crusaded for hunger relief, an issue that Bill Emerson popularized. She and Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts lived for one week on a $21 food budget to dramatize the plight of some food stamp recipients and to gain additional funding for nutrition programs. Her bill to remove liability for federal agencies that donate excess food to shelters was enacted in 2008. By 2009, Emerson had accrued enough seniority to ascend to the ranking Republican slot on the Financial Services Subcommittee.
Emerson earned a footnote in history by casting the deciding vote in 2003 on the House version of the Republican bill creating a prescription drug benefit in the Medicare program. She initially opposed the bill, but changed her vote in exchange for a promise from Speaker Dennis Hastert for a subsequent floor vote on her priority bill, which would have allowed consumers to import American drugs from other countries where prices are lower. She got the vote as promised, but the second-ranking GOP leader, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, worked aggressively against it. Emerson won the floor vote, but the bill ultimately failed to pass Congress. Emerson took her revenge a few months later by voting against the final version of the prescription drug bill.
After Democrats took control of the House in 2007, Emerson voted for five of the six bills in the new majority’s first “100-hour” agenda, including one she co-sponsored, to permit the government to negotiate prices with drug companies. She also voted for a Democratic bill to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program. On the major foreign-policy issue of the 110th Congress (2007-08), Emerson reluctantly supported President Bush’s to send more troops into Iraq. But she voted “present” on a war-funding bill in April 2008 and said that she had many sleepless nights “thinking about this.” Emerson, now remarried, has a personal connection to the war. Her stepdaughter served with the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq.
Her independence has not seemed to adversely affect her influence among House Republicans, perhaps because she has been up-front with party leaders about her views. And it has not affected her electoral prospects; she has won re-election without difficulty every two years. In 2008, she ended speculation about her future by declining to run for governor.