SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – AJ Exner is a DNA testing expert running for state representative in Missouri’s 135th district, hoping to unseat a one-term Democrat who flipped the seat blue in 2020.
Exner is approaching the race from a “families first” perspective, and with two young boys of his own, he says he feels the same pain that regular people and families have felt over the past few years.
“The key part of my platform is putting families first,” Exner told The Heartlander. “I think there’s a lot of things that need to be fixed. There’s a lot of things that can be done in this region to help make a better life for families in southwest Missouri.”
Exner believes it’s important that the person representing a district at the Capitol deals with the same issues their constituents face, because they can then better understand a need for urgency to solve those issues.
“A big thing is the economic impact on families. I could’ve told you a year and a half ago that there was a baby formula shortage because we had a really hard time finding it,” he said. “We were dealing with it firsthand and we were struggling as a family to make those ends meet. I had family all over the midwest who were looking and trying to find cans of formula for my son.”
“As I talk to people, I’ll say “Hey, there are ways that, from a state level, we can insulate ourselves as a region to protect ourselves from these terrible Democratic policies that are happening on the national level. But, it’s going to be best done if you vote for a Republican.’”
A large component of Exner’s families first platform is focused on education and bettering the system as a whole, and that includes empowering parents.
“We need to get teachers better resources and better equip them, but we also need to get parents better resources to be able to make decisions that are best for their kids,” he said.
“If [parents] are zoned for a school that is not good enough for their kid – if they need something more or something specialized, whether it’s special education or a gifted and talented program – we need to have more resources for parents when it comes to educating their kids. Because in the end, the kids only get one shot.”
Exner realized the issues with the education system when his now-6-year-old son was in kindergarten during the COVID-19 pandemic. The school opted to move to a “blended” class schedule where students split their classwork between in-person classes and virtual schooling at home, which Exner said put immense stress on his family and so many others.
“For me, I worked for a testing laboratory at the time and I couldn’t stay at home with him. My wife had a full-time job that she couldn’t get away from. We just couldn’t do that,” Exner said. “Plus, he was a kindergartener. I couldn’t imagine a kindergartener sitting in front of a computer screen for eight hours.
“So, there were just a lot of concerns at the time that prompted me to say, ‘Hey, this is a place where I could do something about this. There is legislation that can be done and there is an opportunity for me to take on that fight for families in the region.’ Not just for my own, but for a lot of others I knew who were battling these same things.”
Exner says working as a DNA analyst with the Missouri State Highway Patrol has given him a unique perspective into the work officers put in to keep communities safe, and believes supporting law enforcement coincides perfectly with putting families first.
“Working first-hand with detectives and law enforcement officials all over southern Missouri, I have such a heart for them and what they do day-in and day-out,” he said. “I want to get them good resources to help recruit good officers, keep good officers, and to be able to do the things that they need to do.
“Continuing to give them resources and to help them better protect families in our region is important. I think safety is the number one issue for a lot of families in Springfield.”
Exner’s relationship with and support of law enforcement likely helped him land resounding endorsements from the Springfield Police Officers Association and the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police.
“AJ is a strong advocate for conservative values and understands the importance of public safety as a prerequisite for success in all areas,” the Springfield Police Officers Association said. “Our leaders sometimes forget that no matter how pretty the parks are, and no matter how smooth the roads are, if people do not feel safe in the community, they will not stay. AJ Exner understands this and is committed to giving law enforcement the resources we need to keep Springfield, and the rest of our state, a safe place to live and play.”
As for the campaign itself, Exner said his favorite part is knocking doors in the 135th and talking with constituents about what issues they’re most concerned with.
“For me, I look forward to door-knocking. I love getting to knock on doors and get to meet the young single mom who has her own concerns,” Exner said. “We talk about childcare, we talk about groceries. Every hundredth of a percent that inflation goes up, that single mom feels it. I’ve got my boys and I feel [those issues] on a deep level.”
— AJ Exner (@AJExner) August 20, 2022
The general election is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 8. Exner hopes his door knocking and family-centered campaign can unseat incumbent state Rep. Betsy Fogle, who narrowly upset then-incumbent Steve Helms in 2020 by less than 100 votes. Before then, Missouri’s 135th District had been represented by a Republican for over a decade.