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Luetkemeyer boldly goes where he hasn't gone before

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 17, 2011 - For almost two hours, U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer engaged in a typical August recess event for a member of Congress. He held court at a forum -- this one at the Wentzville City Hall -- and fielded questions from about two dozen businesspeople who largely shared his views about no tax hikes, less federal spending and fewer regulations.

Luetkemeyer promised to stand firm against any tax increases although he allowed that he might support getting rid of some tax breaks. He attracted the strongest applause when he pledged to "get the EPA off the backs of the entrepreneurs, the job creators, the oil and coal industry."

But what was most noteworthy about this morning's event was that the Wentzville City Hall -- in fact, much of the city -- is not within Luetkemeyer's current 9th District. Most of Wentzville, including downtown, is in the 2nd District.

That will change when new boundary lines kick in for the 2012 election, when Wentzville moves into a newly configured 3rd District that Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, hopes to represent.

Today's event marked the first of many stops that Luetkemeyer plans to make over the next 15 months as he seeks to get acquainted with the outer suburbs of the St. Louis area that will largely end up in the new 3rd District. The turf will include part of Jefferson County, most of St. Charles County and all of Franklin, Warren and Lincoln counties.

As of January 2013, the new 3rd District will span across about half the state. It will stretch from the St. Louis suburbs to just west of Jefferson City, where Luetkemeyer resides. The upshot: Missouri's state capital will be represented by the same congressman as much of suburban St. Louis, about 100 miles away.

Luetkemeyer believes he will have an advantage in seeking the post, since it also will take in about two-thirds of his current 9th District -- which will disappear in 2013, when Missouri officially loses one of its nine congressional districts. The northern part of his current district -- including Kirksville and Hannibal -- is shifting to the 6th District.

Thanks to Republicans controlling the General Assembly, Luetkemeyer's gain was a loss for the current 3rd District congressman, Democrat Russ Carnahan.

In the redistriciting, the current 3rd District was split among four neighboring congressional districts, and Carnahan's residence got tossed into the 1st District, now represented by fellow Democrat William Lacy Clay.

The new 3rd District will have only one incumbent congressman residing in it: Luetkemeyer.

And Carnahan is entertaining no plans to run in the new 3rd, instead looking elsewhere.

So far, Luetkemeyer has no challengers -- Democratic or Republican. But he expects to attract rivals by the time candidate-filing kicks in next February.

Strong Conservative with Soft-spoken Style

Wednesday's event featured the congressman displaying his typical low-key approach. While passionate about his issues, Luetkemeyer speaks softly and avoids demonizing his opposition.

In fact, most of his sentences about Democrats included the phrase, "They're good (nice) people, but..."

Luetkemeyer told his audience -- some of whom were incredulous -- that they needed to realize that many Democrats were sincere in their beliefs, even if they were flawed.

"They truly believe in more of a socialist approach ... in the Keynesian philosophy" that more government spending can spur economic growth, Luetkemeyer said.

The crowd chuckled when Luetkemeyer observed that many Democrats "are scratching their heads, wondering what happened to the Republicans."

Still, Luetkemeyer made clear that he is solidly in the conservative camp, socially and fiscally.

Last winter, for example, he caught some environmentalists off guard when he succeeded in winning House approval of an amendment that barred federal funding for the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Luetkemeyer said the panel had produced "corrupt findings" that have been used by "climate alarmists" to push for cap-and-trade legislation that would increase energy costs in Missouri.

Now, Luetkemeyer believes that improving the economy hinges, in part, on "reining in the EPA, reining in OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration).'' He contends such agencies are imposing regulations that stymie businesses.

Sharing that view is Pat Dolan, the chief financial officer for a tool and die company in Franklin County. At Wednesday's forum, Dolan advised that "one way to get (the EPA) out of the way is to starve their budget."

Luetkemeyer said that's what he hopes to do.

Wednesday's event was hosted by the Missouri chapter of the National Federal of Independent Business. State director Brad Jones said the group plans to hold a number of similar events for Luetkemeyer in the St. Louis area that will become part of the new 3rd.

His Wentzville audience was supportive -- and conservative. Several attendees urged Luetkemeyer to oppose extending the payroll tax cut sought by President Barack Obama, which they noted was money collected for Social Security. One man said the tax cut hurt the program and offered little help for taxpayers or businesses.

Most also called for curbing unemployment benefits, which they said was too costly to business and the government and led to too many people living off the aid instead of looking for work.

"We can't afford it,'' one businesswoman said. "They're young. Make them get off their butt and get to work."

The audience groaned when Luetkemeyer said the estate tax is likely to go up unless a Republican defeats Obama. Ditto for the Bush tax cuts.

(The congressman said in an interview afterward that he has no plans to endorse any of the Republicans running for president, until one becomes the nominee. He does have praise, however, for U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who chairs the House Budget Committee and may be considering a White House bid.)

Luetkemeyer emphasized that he backs a balanced budget amendment as a way to force spending cuts. He said that the public -- and the states -- share some of the blame for the overspending.

"Part of the problem is that the states like these federal dollars,'' he said. "They are willing to give up their sovereignty for these dollars."

The chief problem in Congress, continued Luetkemeyer, is that "you can't find a middle ground. The 'left' says we have to keep entitlements and raise taxes. Our philosophy is that business can do it, individuals can do it."

Luetkemeyer emphasized that he is not giving up any ground on certain key principles: "We are not going to increase taxes, period."

And spending, he added, must be cut.

While he's concerned about whether Congress can reach any sort of agreement, Luetkemeyer said he was heartened that the public seems to be engaged and informed.

That goes for constituents in his current district, as well as those in his hoped-for future one.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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