Four decades ago, St. Joseph residents wouldn’t have doubted that all politics is local.
In 1982, someone from this city didn’t have to travel far to knock on the door and say hello to members of St. Joseph’s legislative delegation. State Sen. Truman Wilson and all three of St. Joseph’s state representatives lived within the city limits.
Things are different today. Since 2019, Buchanan County’s state senator has lived in Parkville. Redistricting has created a second Senate district for Buchanan County, but primary election results mean that the ultimate winner will come from either Maryville or Chillicothe.
On the House side, the redistricting process created a seat that runs from south of Platte City to rural Buchanan County all the way up to the Andrew County line. It even doglegs close to St. Joseph along the south Interstate 229 corridor near Menards.
Its representative will be Sean Pouche, who listed a Kansas City mailing address in his candidate filing with the Secretary of State’s Office.
In fact, of the five elected officials representing Buchanan County — two senators and three representatives — only two will come from Buchanan County. Rep. Brenda Shields, a Republican, lives in the rural county and represents District 11 covering the South Side and parts of St. Joseph east of the Belt Highway.
Rep. Bill Falkner, whose District 10 includes the core of Downtown and the North End, is the only person in the state Legislature who actually lives in St. Joseph.
He said he doesn’t think the city will be underrepresented in Jefferson City.
“I’m always looking out for St. Joseph,” said Falkner, a Republican and former mayor who ran unopposed this year. “I don’t see that I’m the Lone Ranger on that. All the representatives in Northwest Missouri, they do a great job of standing up for St. Joe.”
Do fewer representatives with a local address translate into reduced clout for St. Joseph? The answer is in the eye of the beholder.
“I don’t think our clout has diminished as population has shifted because we’ve responded to that with this coalition of local leaders working together,” said Tama Wagner, director of the St. Joseph Community Alliance which promotes a shared vision for the city. “I think it’s important to be there, prepared to be an advocate, to be visible, to constantly be reminding not only our legislative delegation but our congressional delegation, what matters to St. Joseph.”
Wagner serves as the Buchanan County coordinator for the annual Great Northwest Day at the Capitol. It’s a lobbying effort on behalf of 19 Northwest Missouri counties, with St. Joseph being the largest population center.
She said participants at Great Northwest Day speak with one voice on regional issues that affect St. Joseph, like support for manufacturing and the 139th Airlift Wing.
She also said some lawmakers, like Sen. Dan Hegeman of Andrew County, are strong advocates for St. Joseph even though they don’t live here. Hegeman, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, can’t run again because of term limits.
Hegeman said doesn’t think St. Joseph will lose much if he’s replaced by Rusty Black, a Chillicothe Republican who won the 12th District Senate primary in August. Black faces Michael J. Baumli, a Democrat from Maryville, in the November general election.
“St. Joseph is the hub of the region,” Hegeman said. “I think the region will be fine. I am not worried at all.”
Over time, those in St. Joseph might be less worried if the city could reverse decades of stagnant or declining population, which has contributed to the loss of representation in the state capital. In the Kansas City region, Platte and Clay counties added a combined 48,000 residents in the 2020 Census, while Buchanan County lost about 2,500 people in the same period.
With that added population came additional legislative representation at the expense of places that aren’t growing as much, like St. Joseph.
Consider that in 1962, Clay County and Platte County each had one seat in the Missouri House, compared to three in Buchanan County. Today, there are four representatives for Platte County and eight in Clay. Buchanan County is stuck on three, one of which is shared with Platte.
“It’s something that we need to address,” Falkner said. “In St. Joe, we need to bring younger people in.”
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