A candid Jo Ann Emerson talks leaving Congress - KFVS12 News & Weather Cape Girardeau, Carbondale, Poplar Bluff

A candid Jo Ann Emerson talks leaving Congress

"The biggest change obviously is not coming home every single weekend to my home in Cape," Emerson tells me. "And that's the hard part for me." "The biggest change obviously is not coming home every single weekend to my home in Cape," Emerson tells me. "And that's the hard part for me."
"It feels a little strange," said Emerson. "The best part of the new job is that 90-percent of my old constituents are still my constituents, and I work for them still as head of this association that represents them. " "It feels a little strange," said Emerson. "The best part of the new job is that 90-percent of my old constituents are still my constituents, and I work for them still as head of this association that represents them. "
SIKESTON, MO (KFVS) -

She's home, but maybe not quite at home yet in a SEMO Electric Cooperative bucket truck. Jo Ann Emerson now heads up the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association which represents the country's more than 900 private consumer-owned electric co-ops.

After visiting with crew members back on May 31, we sat down for an in-depth interview back at the SEMO Co-op office in Sikeston.

"The biggest change obviously is not coming home every single weekend to my home in Cape," Emerson tells me. "And that's the hard part for me."

Emerson talked about the transition from Congresswoman to CEO; a position that's already taken her to eight states in less than three months.

"It's like having 47 different homes," said Emerson. "And it's just like going home, but in a different state because the people are great and genuine and have the same kind of values that we do here in southeast Missouri. So, that part's the same, even though they have different accents, which is why I really do love this job."

The NRECA oversees the co-ops that provide service to 42 million people in 47 states. And despite the change in position, Emerson says she sees a lot of similarities between her old job and her new one.

"The same sorts of things that I did in my Congressional career, I do now", she explains. "I don't go and make big speeches. I don't go and say alright this is the way we are going to do things, but rather what do you think? What kind of changes do you think we should make? What could we do to help people understand better the difference between co-ops and say industrial utilities?"

"And it's amazing that people really respond positively when you ask them," she adds. "And they're not used to that."

"Does it feel strange at all to be here in this capacity as opposed to in your former capacity?"  I asked.

"It feels a little strange," said Emerson. "The best part of the new job is that 90-percent of my old constituents are still my constituents, and I work for them still as head of this association that represents them. "

But, Emerson says a trip to the grocery store reminds her that not everyone realizes she's made such a major career change.

"And so they'll say oh my gosh, what's going on in Washington? And I'll say, well you know, I'm not in Congress anymore," Emerson said. "And then they want to know what I'm doing. And so, it's an interesting feeling. But, once I'm home, for oh I don't know about half a day, then I'm fine."

"It's no secret there were a lot of disappointed folks when you did decide after the election to take on this new position," I told her.  "Did you hear from folks? Did you get bombarded with emails and phone calls and Face book messages?"  I asked.

"I will tell you that I got nothing but really wonderful messages saying thanks so much for serving and being away from your family and doing all of the things you did to help us", Emerson responds. "And then I got a few-how can you do this?"

"How did you respond to that?" I asked.

"I said, you know I understand what you're feeling and it's a tough decision," explains Emerson. "Perhaps if you were in my shoes and you missed anniversaries and you missed your children's birthdays and you missed all of these important times in your family's life but yet you served people and worked for them for 16 and a half years, that you might think twice when somebody offered you the opportunity to actually have a great job and also be able to spend time with your family."

"Can you talk a little more about how the job offer played out?" I asked.

"Sure. I mean, I got asked a couple of days after the election", Emerson explains. "You're name's been submitted. We'd like to talk to you. And I kind of said what? And I said I'll talk to you, seriously not taking the whole we want to talk to you probably as seriously as I should have. And so I went to talk to the folks. And they called me a couple three days later and said we'd like to talk to you again. Then I started thinking hmm. But, I never thought it would come to pass. And it did."

"The timing was terrible", she admits. "There's absolutely no doubt. But on the other hand, Congress had not been quite what it had been when I first got elected. And it was very difficult to build consensus, to get things done to actually do what we were sent to Washington to do because everybody is only interested in the politics and not in our responsibilities to actually make good policy."

 Emerson's decision to leave Congress just weeks after winning re-election disappointed Heartland voters, and drew some negative press in Washington.

"She may be the perfect example of what Washington critics call the revolving door syndrome", CNN reporter Drew Griffith said. Congresswoman? Congresswoman Emerson? Drew Griffith with CNN," he called out as Emerson walked past him and into her office.

"There was talk of this revolving door syndrome in Washington," I said of the story. "Where someone would be in this position, and then they'll go into Congress, then they'll come back out. And they were using your decision as an example. How did that make you feel? How do you respond? I asked.

"I was angry at the story", she tells me. "I was angry at the story because the reporter had written the story before he did any interviewing. So, they already knew what they wanted to make the story say."

"Revolving door generally has meant that you've got a member of Congress who's the chairman of a committee that writes a Medicare bill, who then gets hired by the Pharmaceutical Manufacturer's Association to become a lobbyist," Emerson said.

So, you think an unfair characterization? I asked.

"Oh, I would say definitely unfair. And, I think quite frankly, I think misinformed," replied Emerson.

Still, Emerson acknowledges the timing of her move did not sit well, in D.C. or at home.

"I know I disappointed a lot of people," she said. "There's absolutely no doubt about it. But, I would not have left Congress for any other job but this."

 When Emerson and I spoke, the special election to fill her vacant seat hadn't taken place yet. I asked her questions about what that person faces. As we now know, Republican Jason Smith will be our region's new Congressman.

"Obviously, anybody new is going to have to learn the district", Jo Ann Emerson tells me.

And she learned quickly that can be a daunting task.

"Between the time that Bill Emerson was in office, the 16 years he was, and then the 16 and a half I was, you know I knew the district backwards and forwards," she said.

"Every little town, we visited or almost every little town," Emerson explains. "That's going to be the hardest part because it's a gigantic district, 5000 square miles, bigger than the country of Switzerland. So, as you try to get around and still hopefully get home in time for church on Sunday. It's tough and it takes a long time."

Emerson also suggests Smith learn to listen without injecting his own opinion.

"That's a hard thing to do and really hearing what they're saying," she said. "And taking it to heart and then making the best decision about how you vote on a particular issue."

Emerson says she left Congress not only to regain time with her family, but because Washington wasn't working the way it used to.

She says Smith may be entering some enemy territory.

"Getting to Washington it is, you know as a freshman, feeling like you're making any kind of contribution whatsoever in a totally dysfunctional institution," Emerson explains. "It's tough. It's tough right now. And it's far too political. And people aren't invested in doing what I think is right for the American people, which is sitting down and debating, knocking ideas around and saying you know what? We've got to show our constituents that we can get something done."

As we finish our interview, Emerson offers this advice.

"Listen to everybody. Listen to everybody regardless of party. Build relationships with people. Think more about what you share, value wise. Do you believe in having strong families and that sort of thing as opposed to party labels because at the end of the day, if you don't have preconceived ideas then you build those relationships which let you make what is a very difficult Congress into something that might actually be successful."

Copyright 2013 KFVS. All rights reserved.

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