Candidates on both sides of the aisle have filed to run in a Christian County state House district, setting up a race to replace an embattled Republican lawmaker.
Republican Jamie Ray Gragg, a businessman, and Democrat Amy Freeland, a quality assurance analyst, have filed to run in the 140th district — encompassing northern Christian County, including Ozark, McCracken and part of Fremont Hills up to the northeast corner of the county.
The seat is currently held by Rep. Tricia Derges, who is facing 23 federal charges and has been barred by the state party from filing for re-election as a Republican. She still intends to file to run again in the district, her attorney Al Watkins said Monday, "whether she is operating under the Republican moniker or not."
"Her beliefs are her beliefs, her faith in our political system remains intact and ultimately her posture with respect to her candidacy will not be affected at all," Watkins said.
Watkins and the state GOP continue to exchange letters as the attorney requests an in-person meeting to discuss Derges' candidate filing. The state committee "stands by its decision" to not allow Derges to file with the party.
Gragg, who owns Ozark Mountain Tops and Artworks, earned 17.1 percent of the vote in a four-way Republican primary in 2020. Derges inched out a victory in that race by 139 votes before running unopposed in the general election.
In an interview Monday, Gragg said he pledged after his unsuccessful 2020 candidacy that he would only run again "if I see that it's necessary."
"I don't believe in replacing good with good," he said. "So I'll sit back, I'll watch, see if the person who is in does a good job ... but I see that there is a need. So I jumped back in."
Freeland began participating in politics in 2018, canvassing for ballot measures that were priorities for progressives, such as increasing the minimum wage and passing the ethics and redistricting reform package commonly referred to as "Clean Missouri." But she believes the area hasn't been well-served in Jefferson City.
"People around here seem genuinely interested in supporting their community," Freeland said Monday. "But one thing I noticed pretty quickly is that elected officials tend to get in the way of that. We have had a pattern of state representatives who ignore the will of the voters and pass policies that hurt them."
Gragg is putting his prior experience as a minister front and center, and is touting "local control of education" and lower government spending among his top issues. He said he didn't have an "agenda" and was prioritizing "individual freedoms" of constituents. Freeland, acknowledging that "it's been a very long time since this area was represented" by a Democrat, is zeroing in on public education, "affordable and accessible" health care, and "transparency and ethics."
The Christian County district under the new Missouri House map leans heavily Republican, according to a third-party online redistricting tool. Based on past elections, it is estimated at 73.49 percent Republican and 23.59 percent Democratic.
Watkins and GOP lawyers trade letters
An attorney representing the Republican State Committee wrote back to Watkins' request for an in-person meeting last Thursday.
The attorney, Lowell Pearson of Husch Blackwell, said Watkins' letter "cites no legal authority" supporting his argument to allow Derges to file as a Republican.
Pearson said "there is no constitutional right to run for office," and rejected Watkins' argument that the charges against Derges are merely allegations because she "has admitted violating multiple legal requirements related to controlled substances."
"The Missouri Republican Party and MRSC have a right to only associate with persons who reflect the valus (sic) of the Party and MRSC," Pearson wrote. "Dr. Derges does not. While I thank you for your letter, the MRSC stands by its decision regarding Rep. Derges."
Watkins called the letter "curiously non-responsive" to his request for a meeting, writing in a response to Pearson on Tuesday morning that "the wholesale absence of a response to the one request is telling."
"In light of the foregoing and in keeping with her long-standing observance of her duties and commitment to her constituents, my client has opted to forge forward," Watkins wrote.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Two candidates file to run for Rep. Tricia Derges' House seat