EMERSON, Jo Ann

EMERSON, Jo Ann
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1950–

Biography

Though Jo Ann Emerson never held elected office prior to succeeding her late husband, Representative Bill Emerson, her upbringing, work experience, and marriage suited her to the task. Within a short period, Emerson established herself as one of the Republican Party’s leading Members. “I never sought this job. Fate put me here,” she said. “So I want to take the skills that I have, whether it’s coalition building or strategy or being able to solve problems, and put them to work. I’m very locally oriented. I want to get things done for the folks back home.”1

Jo Ann Hermann was born in Bethesda, Maryland, on September 16, 1950, the daughter of Ab Hermann, a former professional baseball player and executive director of the Republican National Committee, and Sylvia Hermann. She grew up near Washington and was initiated into politics at an early age. Hale Boggs, the Louisiana politician who eventually became House Majority Leader, was a neighbor and the families socialized often. After graduating in 1968 from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Jo Ann Hermann earned a B.A. in political science from Ohio Wesleyan University four years later and pursued a career in public affairs as a lobbyist. In 1975, she married lobbyist and Missouri native Bill Emerson, and the couple raised two daughters, Victoria and Katharine. In 1980, Bill Emerson defeated an incumbent Democrat from a district representing the sprawling agricultural and mining region in rural southeast Missouri to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Jo Ann Emerson worked as a deputy communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee in the early 1980s.2

Shortly before his death from lung cancer in June 1996, Bill Emerson asked his wife to consider taking his seat, a request repeated by his staff and constituents.3 Emerson agreed, and her first campaign reflected her husband’s conservative philosophy and skills as a consensus builder. Her slogan was “Putting People First.” And she said that she planned to make the seat “a living memorial to Bill.”4 For a role model, Emerson looked to family friend Lindy Boggs, who had served with distinction in the U.S. House for nearly two decades after succeeding her husband in 1973, when he was killed in an airplane crash.5 Two elections were scheduled for the same day that following November: a special election to complete the last two months of the 104th Congress (1995–1997) and an election to a full term in the succeeding Congress. Jo Ann Emerson received the Republican nomination for the unexpired term, but for the general election, Missouri election officials ruled that she was ineligible to run as a Republican. Richard Kline, who had already filed in the GOP primary against Bill Emerson, took the Republican slot on the general election ballot. Accordingly, Jo Ann Emerson formally entered that race as an Independent, though always affiliating herself with Republicans. Emerson won the special election with 63 percent of the vote and simultaneously won the full term with 51 percent. In each of her eight re-election campaigns, Emerson was returned to office without difficulty, consistently capturing about 70 percent of the vote.6 In January 2000, Emerson married St. Louis labor lawyer Ron Gladney. Emerson has six stepchildren, two with Bill Emerson and four with Gladney.

When Representative Emerson entered the 105th Congress (1997–1999), she received assignments to three committees: Agriculture, Small Business, and Transportation and Infrastructure.7 In the 106th Congress (1999–2001), Emerson earned a seat on the exclusive Appropriations Committee which required her to give up her other assignments. She subsequently served on numerous Appropriations subcommittees, ranging in jurisdictions from Agriculture to Energy and Water Development. She became an Appropriations subcommittee chairman, or “cardinal,” during the 112th Congress (2011–2013)—leading the Financial Services and General Government panel.

In her early House career, Emerson’s legislative interests were firmly local: improving Missouri’s highways and securing federal funds for a bridge over the Mississippi River named after her husband, Bill. She also supported mining and timber interests, more student loan grants, and agricultural research. She also played a role in revitalizing the Rural Caucus in 2000, serving as one of its two co-chairs. Representing an agricultural district, Emerson focused on trade issues. She worked in bipartisan fashion with Democrats to prod U.S. officials to reopen trade with Cuba. In the spring of 2001, Emerson traveled to Havana, where she and a delegation of lawmakers opened a dialogue with Cuban leader Fidel Castro about expanding agricultural trade relations, to free the flow of American-grown rice and other commodities to the island nation.8 Emerson also partnered with Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern to fund efforts to feed international schoolchildren with U.S. commodities as part of the McGovern–Dole Food for Education program.9

Emerson maintained strong relationships with House Members from both parties. “Her voting record is a conservative one, but certainly she is a bit of a maverick,” remarked Norman Ornstein, a noted congressional observer. “You can’t always predict where she’s going to come out.”10 This independent streak was displayed in an emotional speech on the House Floor during a debate on whether to fund embryonic stem cell research. Emerson said that while her “pro-life credentials are unquestioned,” she had to “follow [her] heart” and vote for the bill, which had been opposed by House Republican leadership and was later the subject of President George W. Bush’s first veto.11

Emerson was also a strong proponent of prescription drug re-importation, which would allow American consumers to buy drugs manufactured in the United States for sale in other countries. She changed her vote on a 2003 House bill overhauling the Medicare program when she had assurances from party leaders that drug re-importation would be endorsed in the final legislative language.12 The House bill passed with her vote, but Emerson voted against the final law when the provision was omitted.13 Despite her moderate reputation, Emerson became a vocal critic of President Barack Obama, and opposed Democratic efforts to reform healthcare and the financial services industry.14

After winning re-election to a ninth term in the U.S. House, Emerson announced she would resign to head the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, an advocacy organization that represents more than 900 electric cooperatives across the United States. “I am not leaving Congress because I have lost my heart for service—to the contrary—I see a new way to serve,” Emerson said. “I did not go seeking this opportunity, but I am excited about the new challenge it offers to find ways to promote strong rural policy.”15 Emerson formally resigned on January 22, 2013, saying her House service was the “greatest honor” of her professional career.16

Footnotes

1Lloyd Grove, “The Congresswoman’s House of Memories; Jo Ann Emerson, Following in Her Husband’s Footsteps,” 27 November 1996, Washington Post: B1.

2Politics in America, 2004 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2003): 590–591; Congressional Directory, 108th Congress (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2003): 153.

3Grove, “The Congresswoman’s House of Memories; Jo Ann Emerson, Following in Her Husband’s Footsteps.”

4Ibid.

5Lorraine Adams, “Keepers of the Flame,” 1 November 1998, Good Housekeeping.

6“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.

7Since the 104th Congress (1995–1997) had already adjourned sine die at the time of her special election, Emerson was not assigned to any committees.

8Deirdre Shesgreen, “Emerson Says Cuba Visit Was Productive Despite Failure to Get Results,” 17 April 2001, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: A4.

9James Collins, “Rep. Emerson Suggests Strong Link Between Hunger, Terrorism; Feeding Children Abroad Is Good for U.S. Farmers, National Security, She Says,” 5 July 2002, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: A5.

10Deirdre Shesgreen, “Rep. Emerson Has Conservative Record, with Some Surprises,” 17 October 2000, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: A13.

11Congressional Record, House, 109th Cong., 1st sess. (24 May 2005): H3830.

12Jon Sawyer and Jessamyn Blau, “Prescription Drug Vote Came Down to Emerson, Push for Reimportation; Missouri Republican Believes Measure Could Save Billions in Drug Costs,” 29 June 2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: A5.

13Congressional Record, House, 108th Cong., 1st sess. (21 November 2003): H12296.

14Politics in America, 2012 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2011): 570.

15Seung Min Kim, “Jo Ann Emerson to retire in February,” 3 December 2012, Politico, http://www.politico.com/story/2012/12/jo-ann-emerson-retiring-84508.html (accessed 29 May 2013).

16Congressional Record, House, 113th Cong., 1st sess. (22 January 2013): H200.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Southeast Missouri State University
Kent Library Special Collections & Archives

Cape Girardeau, MO
Papers: 1996-2013, ca. 100 boxes. More than 100 boxes of material from Emerson's tenure in the House of Representatives from 1996 to 2013, including press releases, hearing booklets, correspondence, speeches, videotapes, and approximately 11,000 photographs.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Jo Ann Emerson" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Agriculture
  • House Committee - Appropriations
    • Financial Services and General Government - Chair
  • House Committee - Small Business
  • House Committee - Transportation and Infrastructure
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