By Eli Yokley
Globe Staff Writer
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson resigned from her congressional seat on Wednesday, creating a local vacancy in southeast Missouri that has revealed a legal gap of statewide proportions.
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder is one of more than a dozen contenders seeking the Republican nomination to replace Emerson in the 8th Congressional District. He is the likely front-runner, although it’s anyone’s game. But his mere presence in the race has asked an essentially unanswered constitutional question: How should a vacant lieutenant governor’s seat be filled?
State statute is unclear. The constitution and statute lay out specifically how to replace other statewide offices but say nothing specifically about the lieutenant governor’s seat.
One option is an appointment. Gov. Jay Nixon has said repeatedly that he would favor that option, and other governors have done so in the past.
In 1969, Gov. Warren Hearnes appointed William Morris, who had already been elected to the position, to serve the remainder of Thomas Eagleton’s term when he left to serve in the U.S. Senate. In 2000, when Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson took over as governor upon the death of Mel Carnahan, he appointed Joe Maxwell to serve out the remainder of his term. In both cases, the appointed lieutenant governor was waiting to be sworn in.
The circumstances in the potential Kinder vacancy are different. Kinder was just re-elected to his third four-year term in November, and his vacancy could create a three-year period of the position being filled by a gubernatorial appointee, not an elected representative.
Though the day-to-day duties of the job presiding over the Senate are largely ceremonial, Republicans are concerned that the main purpose of the job — filling in for an absent governor — would be given to an appointed official.
Mindful of that, the Missouri House of Representatives passed legislation Wednesday that would require a special election to fill in a vacated lieutenant governor’s seat. The bill would allow the governor to appoint a temporary placeholder who would fill the role until the next general election. Under the legislation, the temporary placeholder would not be able to run for the seat in the special election, removing the power of incumbency from the appointee in the election.
Joplin’s delegation to the House voted in favor of the bill, which is now headed to the Senate. The House bill was passed with an additional clause (also supported by the Joplin delegation) that allows the legislation, if passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, to go into effect immediately.
Right now, it is simply an academic debate — a broad discussion of a constitutional gap. In case Kinder wins the nomination and then wins the congressional seat, Republicans are already readying to build their profile for the lieutenant governor seat, if an election were to happen. House Speaker Tim Jones, for example, who embarked on a statewide tour late last year to tout his legislative plans, has been raising his profile and making efforts to extend an olive branch to the conservative wing of the Republican Party, most notably with his decision to sign on to pieces of “right to work” legislation. On Monday, Jones is set to deliver the Republican response to the governor’s State of the State address.
The 8th District Republican Congressional Committee — made up of 86 members — is set to meet Feb. 9 in Van Buren to choose the nominee from a crop of more than a dozen candidates. Kinder is the presumed front-runner, but Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, has also garnered attention from members of the committee. Lloyd Smith, the former executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, and Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, are also in the running.
The nominee, along with nominees from the other parties, will then be placed on the ballot for a special election June 4, Nixon announced.
Eli Yokley is the Statehouse correspondent for The Joplin Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Move draws criticism
Jo Ann Emerson officially vacated her congressional seat at midnight this past Monday to take her new position as CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Her move from her legislative office to leading an advocacy group with potentially a seven-figure salary drew criticism by some but fits her history of career choices. Before serving in Congress, she served in advocacy roles for the National Restaurant Association and the American Insurance Association.