Missouri: Eighth District|
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R)
Last Updated June 4, 1999
Mark Twain might not recognize life on the Mississippi below St. Louis today, where the land flattens out and the river is hidden behind levees, which ordinarily--except during the terrible flood of 1993--screen small towns and river roads from the sight of rows of barges tethered together, full of coal or soybeans. The Mississippi today is an industrial waterway. But it was never really all that romantic, for 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 swirling river currents. This is one of the older-settled parts of the United States: French settlers founded Missouri towns like Cape Girardeau in the late 1700s. But the big influx started just a few years after the 1811 earthquake centered on New Madrid; the spongy Mississippi valley land is also seismically very active, and this was the site of one of the most devastating earthquakes in U.S. history.
Outwardly, the southeast quadrant of Missouri--the river valley and the hills to the west, with coal and lead mines (the area produces most of the world's lead) with their miles of tunnels, plus the Bootheel that hangs down in the far southeast--hasn't changed much in 50 years. For years there has been a big population outflow from the Bootheel, as machines replace low-wage farm workers, and the only big growth here has been around Cape Girardeau and along the route of I-44; in the 1990s growth rates are picking up, as people seek lives in small communities.
The 8th Congressional District covers this southeast quadrant of Missouri. The political heritage is mixed. The Bootheel was as solidly Democratic as the Mississippi Valley around Memphis used to be, and some of the mining counties are Democratic. Cape Girardeau, the boyhood home of Rush Limbaugh and also the starting point of the 1996 Clinton-Gore bus tour, votes solidly Republican, as do surrounding counties. For many years this was a safe Democratic district; since 1980, it has been represented by Republicans.
The congresswoman from the 8th District is Jo Ann Emerson, elected in 1996 to replace her husband Bill Emerson, who was first elected in 1980 and died in June 1996. Jo Ann Emerson grew up in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, in a Republican family (her father was executive director of the Republican National Committee) but next door to Democrats Hale and Lindy Boggs, who served in Congress over a period of 50 years; their daughter, Cokie Roberts, babysat for Jo Ann. In 1975 she married Republican Bill Emerson, then a Washington lobbyist with Capitol Hill experience; as a congressional page in 1954, he was on the House floor when it was fired upon by Puerto Rican terrorists. In 1979, spotting the personal vulnerability of the Democratic incumbent, Bill Emerson went back home to Missouri to run, and won with 55%. In 1995 he was diagnosed with cancer, but missed few votes during radiation therapy. Two pieces of legislation passed in 1996 memorialize him: the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, setting national standards to encourage donations of unused food, and the Bill Emerson Bridge across the Mississippi at Cape Girardeau.
After Bill's death on June 22, Jo Ann Emerson decided to run and announced on July 10. ''I was so totally focused on a mission to keep the seat and make it a living memorial to Bill,'' she said. She had political experience of her own: she worked for the American Insurance Association and National Restaurant Association and had been a press aide at the National Republican Congressional Committee. Her views are conservative--for the balanced budget amendment, against gun control, for abortion restrictions, for property rights--and she was immediately endorsed by Senators Christopher Bond and John Ashcroft. But while she was named the Republican nominee in the contest for the remainder of her husband's term, to be held also on November 5, she could not run for the Republican nomination in the August 6 primary: Missouri law bars reopening filing for new candidates if an incumbent dies less than 11 weeks before the August primary, so Emerson ran as an independent in the general. Democrats had a serious candidate, Emily Firebaugh, a timber company owner and lifelong area resident, who attacked Emerson as a product of the Washington suburbs. Firebaugh eventually spent the impressive sum of $831,000, more than Emerson's $806,000. The Republican nominee was less trouble: Richard Kline, who in 1995 had used pepper spray to try to place a Veterans Administration doctor under citizen's arrest. Bill Emerson's record, Jo Ann Emerson's conservative views on issues, and the poignancy of the situation all worked in the same direction: toward an Emerson victory. For the full term she received 50% of the votes, with 37% for Firebaugh and 11% for Kline. A better gauge of opinion may have been the two-way contest for the short term, in which Emerson won 63%.
Emerson was given her husband's seats on Agriculture, and Transportation and Infrastructure. On Transportation she secured funding for local projects, including $8 million for the Bill Emerson Bridge, but voted against the final version of the transportation bill in May 1998, because of what she considered a potential reduction in veterans' disability benefits. Amid the argument over the tobacco bill, she co-sponsored a bill for full funding of benefits for veterans with tobacco-related illnesses. Emerson traveled to Kyoto for the November 1997 climate change conference, starting off with a skeptical attituded toward the theory of global warming. ''You're setting policy for 78 years. It's daunting,'' she said. Returning home, she said the treaty would impose high costs on farmers in the United States and would put them under a competitive disadvantage with countries like China, which the treaty exempted: ''If this gets implemented, this decimates the 8th District of Missouri.'' Emerson worked to help pass the Birth Defects Prevention Act in March 1998; southern Missouri has one of the nation's highest rates of birth defects. A property rights supporter, she got her portion of the district excluded from the American Heritage Rivers project. She opposed the Republican delays of the flood relief bill in spring 1998 and secured an $8 million flood control project while holding out on supporting the leadership on the budget in June 1998. She conducted an interactive drug summit in the district in November 1997, and worked to get money for district projects--$475,000 for soybean cyst nematode research and the University of Missouri Delta Center in Portageville, a $4 million guaranteed loan to Interlochen, a cement block producer in Sikeston. She supported the farm aid package in October 1998.
The 1998 Democratic candidate, former Circuit Judge Tony ''Hang 'Em High'' Heckemeyer, attacked her for backing a Superfund bill that he said would save legal fees for insurance companies and small business; Emerson charged that 80% of his contributions were from lawyers. She outspent him almost 3-1 and won 63%, the same as her win for the short term in 1996. In November 1998 Emerson moved to the Appropriations Committee and its Agriculture Subcommittee. Her first priority seemed to be doing something about low prices for farm commodities. In February 1999 she complained that with $4.99 beans, $2.15 corn, $2.60 wheat and 58 cent cotton, farmers can't get production loans: ''Producers simply cannot afford the continuation of these tough market conditions, and I believe that Congress must continue to aggressively look for solutions to the problems in our farm economy.''
Safe. After a competitive 1996 contest, Emerson performed better in 1998, a sign that Democrats may be conceding this marginal district to her.
- Pop. 1990: 568,385
- 62.7% rural;
16.8% age 65+;
- 94.7% White,
0.4% Amer. Indian,
0.5% Hispanic origin;
60.1% married couple families;
28.3% married couple fams. w. children;
24.9% college educ.;
median household income: $18,207;
per capita income: $9,300;
median gross rent: $179;
median house value: $37,900.
|1996 Presidential Vote|
|1992 Presidential Vote|
National Journal Group offers both print and electronic reprint services, as well as permissions for academic use, photocopying and republication. Click here to order, or call us at 877-394-7350.