POTOSI, Mo. – As Rep. Paul Fitzwater was coming towards the end of his last term in the House, many residents in HD 144 were evaluating their prospects to fill his seat. Republican residents of the district that includes Washington, Reynolds, Iron and Wayne counties saw November 2018 as their time to seize Fitzwater’s seat. Candidates started to create their committees, secure campaign funding, and file their paperwork, but when Fitzwater resigned in late September, once tentative plans had to quickly become concrete.
The Representative resigned to take a position on the Board of Probation and Parole in September and in doing so, left his seat vacant for the 2018 legislative session. The Governor called for a special election the following October and the candidates who thought they had another whole year to campaign suddenly needed to be ready by February.
To challenge for a House seat to represent the southeastern Missouri district, Democrats quickly selected their candidate – though it was an easy process as Iron County commissioner Jim Scaggs was the only candidate.
“It’s been kind of overwhelming since that meeting, that unanimous vote from the 144 legislative district for the Democratic Party nomination,” Scaggs told MyMoInfo. “I’m just going to deliver a message. Whether people are going to vote for me, that will be their decision, but we’re going to run a race and we’re going to run it hard. We’re going to run it for all the people in the district, not just for the party.”
Several Republican candidates have stepped forward to challenge Scaggs, but perhaps too many. As of publishing this article, four Republican candidates – Beau Gooch, Chris Dinkins, Scott Schrum, and Vincent Clubb – have filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission, but according to candidates Gooch and Clubb, there may be as many as seven Republicans are campaigning.
“I know there’s like seven of us that are vying for the Republican nomination,” Gooch said. “That’s what they said. As far as who has been working the festivals, there’s really only four of us.”
“That’s what I heard,” Clubb confirmed. “I know there is four and I’ve heard of two others and there was possibly a third, so it’s definitely going to be interesting.”
Dinkins is less sure about the number of her competitors. “I am not sure if there are seven on the Republican ballot or if it might be closer to six,” she said. “There has been a lot of names thrown out there.”
The sheer number of candidates put the HD 144 GOP committee members in a challenging predicament. Just over 30 committee members will meet in the Reynolds County courthouse to vote on who will be their Republican candidate on October 28.
Dinkins, who worked closely with Fitzwater during his years in the Missouri Legislature, thinks that the discrepancy between the number of people announced versus names who have filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission may show a lack of familiarity with the political system.
“I don’t know if some of them are really familiar with the process of what they need to do. I know some of them that have mentioned [that they are] running, have not really been involved with our GOP Club or committees in the past,” she said. “As far as to say why they haven’t followed through with the process, I’m not really sure.
The committee members naturally want the strongest candidate to keep the seat, but the political views of the district are complicated to assess. While the district voted for Donald Trump by over 75 percent in 2016, there is a significant presence of union workers in the district. Several candidates report that their potential constituents want change in their community. In order to deliver, candidates are willing to be above simple partisan obedience.
“The state rep position is not about voting along party lines, but it’s not about trying to ‘Make Missouri Great Again’, it’s about trying to make your district great again,” Clubb said. “In order to do that, you have to work back in the district. It’s not about going up to Jeff City, but coming back to the community and trying to help out the community.”
“It’s a [political] blend. I don’t want people to think of me as a Republican or Democrat, but the person I am,” Gooch said. “From talking to a lot of people in our area – we’re a very rural area – and folks here have been struggling a lot. Our education, our schools have really been de-funded by the State and Federal Government.”
On the other hand, because of Dinkins’ experience in the House, she wants to remain cautious, keep achievable goals, and make sure that she keeps her promises.
“I think the district has come along way from when it last elected a Democrat to state office,” Dinkins said. “I want to help the everyday citizen. I’m not out there to think I can change the world; I don’t want to have an unrealistic expectation about how things are. I want to focus on individual needs of each area. I want to focus on supporting technical schools and technical education in our high schools so our kids can get good paying jobs, right here in our area after graduation.”
Interestingly, despite the impending important Republican nomination meeting next week, the candidates seem to be more focused on solutions than Republican talking points. Working with Fitzwater, Dinkins received calls from her constituents and so she knows what issues residents in HD 144 care about.
“We have a lot of calls about overreach of government. We have farmers that are trying to do something and DNR is requiring them to get a permit, things like that. There are a lot of Medicaid issues,” Dinkins recalls. “My goals are mostly are to be the liaison between the general person and the government.”
Gooch and Clubb are both NRA members, anti-abortion advocates, and supporters of big business, but above all, they do not want their district to be overlooked for financial, resource, and emotional investment opportunities.
Gooch wants greater cell-phone and internet coverage in their district. For him, expanded access to the internet will improve educational opportunities, allow remote workers to be able to work from home and see improvements to citizens’ access to healthcare information through their improved telecommunications infrastructure.
“I think there can be some call sharing between the cities and the rural communities to help allow full coverage with cell phones,” he said. “I find it funny that Afghanistan can get cell service in caves, but we can go right outside of town here and calls become lost.”
Clubb wants HD 144 residents to have jobs and he thinks a change in the political establishment is the best way to do that.
“Number one, it’s about getting people jobs; giving people an opportunity to work and not be stuck on Government assistance or afraid they are going to lose their job,” he said. “A lot of that is that people are tired of the establishment. They’re tired of the people that are up there, a lot of times it’s a revolving door. I know it’s more on the federal level, but you still see it on the state level as well.”
Regardless of political affiliation, the HD 144 candidates want the best thing for their district. Should they make it to the Missouri House, they want to make sure that they and their district are not lost in the crowd.
Michael Layer is a reporter for the Missouri Times and the Missouri Times Magazine. He joined the Missouri Times in August 2017 after graduating from Goucher College the previous May. To contact Michael, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @_MichaelLayer