Missouri Gov. Nixon discusses last months in office, Ferguson, the presidential race and what’s next | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri Gov. Nixon discusses last months in office, Ferguson, the presidential race and what’s next

May 2, 2016

Portions of the audio interview have been reserved for use in a future segment.

After Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was re-elected in 2012, he said one of the first things he did was go to his father’s home in Arkansas and read a full history of all 54 governors that came before him. He thought he should figure out what he could really do to make a difference in his last term.

However, what he learned then has also impacted his approach to his last months in office and what comes next — Nixon said he will not run for another elected office.

“A couple of things became clear for me: oftentimes you find history but many times, history finds you,” Nixon told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “And so, I want to live my life in a way that if there are other opportunities to serve, I won’t do things to diminish my ability to do so, but I think my next step will be one where history finds me.”

Nixon said he would work as hard in his last 100 days as governor as he did in his first 100 days, and that he’s still juggling exactly what he’ll do with his time when he leaves the capitol building.

What’s next, then? There’s the opportunity his law license provides, business openings, the idea of working in an administration of a president or helping other governors. One thing is for sure, though: no more campaigning for election.

“I don’t think I will run for office again,” Nixon said. “It’s been 30 years in elected office, three branches of government. I’m getting out, hopefully, with my integrity and sense of humor. That would seem to be a good exit plan.

“I’m not saying that if people ask me to serve in the future — in an administration of a president or if a governor asked for some service — I certainly, with my bent for public service, would be more than willing to help our country, our state or others that need that help. As far as elected office, I’ve had the great opportunity to serve in the state legislature, to serve in the judicial branch as the chief legal officer of our state for 16 years and now to be chief executive…that’s a wide swath of opportunity. I have no desire to run for the Senate or Congress or any of that sort of stuff.”

Listen to an excerpt of our full interview, St. Louis on the Air’s first one-on-one, with Nixon as governor. As he said during it:

“It’s nice to be on public radio, I can go in full-sentences and multi-syllabic words for a minute.”

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the discussion — ranging from his thoughts on Ferguson in hindsight, ending childhood hunger and the final days of the Missouri legislative session:

On the final days of this year's Missouri legislative session:

“I’m very appreciative, in a bipartisan way, that the legislature got the budget to me early,” Nixon said. “We look at Illinois and they don’t have a budget from last year and you look at Kansas and they’re not able to fund the budget that they have. While there will be some differences in what the perfect number is, the fact that the legislature came together and got the budget to me in an early fashion is extremely important. That’s one of the reasons why, earlier this week, we were reaffirmed with the highest credit rating in the country, that triple A gold standard rating.”

Nixon said he hoped to see more ethics bills make it to his desk and that no future bills that “put discrimination in our constitution,” such as SJR 39 continue to be discussed. “There are some things out there that just don’t need to be law,” Nixon said.

On Voter ID laws:

“I believe we should try to make it as easy to vote, not put impediments to vote,” Nixon said. “I’m looking at ways to do early voting, vote on the weekends, things of that nature. Putting up impediments to make it more difficult for senior citizens, minorities and disabled folks who may not have a driver’s license...just doesn’t seem like a positive step forward in a democracy.”

On a fuel tax increase:

Nixon said that the proposal he supported earlier this year would have been a smaller fuel tax increase that would be within the Hancock Amendment, which limits the amount of revenue the state can make from collecting taxes, and that would have been a better method to invest in transportation infrastructure.

“We have the seventh longest road system in the country, here in the middle of the country, but one of the lowest income lines to pay for that,” Nixon said. “I don’t think the little band-aid that the legislature did with $20 million for cost-share program is anywhere near long-term needs. If that gets to the ballot to increase that small increase, especially fuel prices now, I suppose I would support it. I’m not sure it will make it through the House.”

Read More: Senate-approved fuel tax increase gets hearing before Missouri House committee

On University of Missouri System funding:

“I don’t think that punishing the university financially, which ultimately leads to more difficulty to do their mission, is the proper method to mete out punishment if I even agreed with them over what they were punishing them about,” Nixon said.

He also stated that he was proud of the progress made since January, when the Missouri legislature was talking about zeroing out the budget for higher education in Missouri.

“We’re now in a situation where we have a base funding increase of four percent,” Nixon said. “We have a tuition freeze for next year and a total of $71 million for higher education. The balance for the University of Missouri System will be far more than what it would have been. It is a net positive overall.”

On Ferguson:

Nixon said that, given the benefit of hindsight, he would do things differently in Ferguson today.

“We established principles at the beginning of that process and our two principles were speech and safety,” Nixon said. “No one doubts there was a lot of free speech there. As far as the safety side, I think it is important to note that throughout those months, there wasn’t anyone else shot or killed during those months of turmoil. When you compare that to the over 50 people killed after Rodney King and those riots, the almost 100 in Detroit, the deaths in Cincinnati, when they had their riots, I’m proud of law enforcement  and other teams that worked hard to protect the rights of people to protest. Things aren’t perfect, I’m not saying that, but I think the changes we’re making as a result of that will make a long-term difference.”

St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh interviews Missouri Governor Jay Nixon.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

He also said that he thought municipal court reform, alongside many of the recommendations made by the Nixon-appointed Ferguson Commission, will have a long-lasting positive effect on Missouri as a whole … even if the courts eventually rule that St. Louis County can’t have a more stringent revenue standard for fines and fees than the rest of the state. The law is currently in an appeals process.  

“Even if that issue is lost, the number of 20 percent is much lower than what it is now and that part of the law will be sustained,” Nixon said. “Yes, there are risks involved in the level but the concept and strength of that law and limitations, those portions are not part of the sections of the law that are in challenge before the courts.”

Read more: On the Trail: Lawmakers content to wait for judges before altering municipal overhaul

When asked about criticisms made of his leadership in regard to the night of the Grand Jury decision and business destruction that took place in Ferguson, Nixon said that he is still active in working with business owners to rebuild.

“It was a dangerous night … there were some reactions that night, there was gunfire,” Nixon said. “You’re not going to ask a fireman to go into gunfire unarmed to put out a fire. They don’t sign up for that duty — combat — they sign up for the other duty. While the images were not good and the loss of property, we’re working very hard to make sure that is taken care of, overall we didn’t have loss of life and there were no significant injuries that night.”

Although Nixon said he wished nothing would have happened the night of the Grand Jury decision, he hopes that history will look more kindly on the incidents of August-November of 2014.

“When history looks at this, they won’t be happy to see those images but those would be put in perspective if we would have had national guardsman or cops that would have fired back that night as opposed to stepping back a bit,” Nixon said. “Think about the history of Kent State and how long we as a country have had to deal with that. An unarmed, young African American shot in the streets of Ferguson that night would have been a legacy that would have lasted much longer than the rebuilding of a building.”

On ending childhood hunger:

Nixon’s newest initiative, No Kid Hungry, is an effort to end childhood hunger that is being carried out through the national nonprofit Share Our Strength. The program utilizes available federal dollars with no additional state funding to make sure schools have an active school breakfast program.

“The thing about childhood hunger is that it is a solvable problem,” Nixon said.

He recently visited Rogers Middle School in the Affton School District, which has a student program that coordinates to make sure school breakfasts are available in pick-up bags to remove the stigma of eating breakfast at school.

“The science is there: If kids are well-fed, they will do better in school,” Nixon said.  “Quite frankly, these days, kids that aren’t getting food aren’t necessarily poor, they’re just so busy. We need to make sure we get good nourishment to these kids and that they start life realizing higher quality food leads to healthier lifestyles.”

On childhood suspensions:

Nixon said that he is paying attention to recent reporting on out-of-school suspension numbers for kids in grades K-3.

“Any time you have out-of-school suspensions for kids of that age, you are putting in play a whole series of other potential problems,” Nixon said. “We’ve got to work hard to keep discipline in our schools but to find ways we’re not just pushing kids back into difficult homes or out on the street at a very young age where they would get into more trouble than they would have if we kept them in school.”

Read more: In Missouri, suspensions more frequent and harsher for young black students

Nixon said he thought that the suspension discussion is one Missouri is having because the state has learned its lesson from the challenges in Ferguson.

“Unlike some states, we have listened, we’ve learned and we’re trying to do better,” Nixon said. “Consequently, discussions of this type are now had out in the open with journalists and public officials. We are not saying this is not a problem in our state. We are instead saying that when you look at the numbers and you have a disproportionate number of one ethnicity or one region, we need to look at the processes around this. … The bottom line is that if you see overwhelming numbers of any race or ethnicity that have more significant challenges in any area, then you need to study and look at it so that people, regardless of their background, can have equality of opportunity.”

On Missouri's national image:

After the events in Ferguson in 2014 and the events at Mizzou in the fall of 2015, many have commented on the beating Missouri’s image has taken nationally. Nixon said that people make a mistake in conflagrating the two events and that the state is moving forward because of them.

“They were quite different,” Nixon said. “Those students weren’t in danger and they were able to exercise their rights. One could argue whether the football team should have said what they said but one could argue, the way they were playing, that they had gone on strike a couple of weeks earlier. The point is that I don’t put those two together. I know the public externally can do that but we spend a lot of time trying to make sure people know how fine the people of Missouri are, how if there is a problem, we don’t hide from it, we try to work our way through it. That’s one of the points of resilience that will pay off in the long-run.”

Nixon also said that the bipartisan group of legislators who said “no” to SJR 39 showed that Missouri is moving forward in regard to discrimination.

Read more: SJR 39, 'religious shield' proposal, defeated in Missouri House committee

On the 2016 presidential race:

“I’m not a political prognosticator but were I, it would be clear that the Democratic nominee is well on her way to be the next president of the United States,” Nixon said.

He also remarked that “the shallowness of discussion, the xenophobic attitudes, the flat-out meanness of policies and the lightness of intellectual touch by Donald Trump and some others is disappointing,” but he said, “I have a deep trust in electorate not only of Missouri but America that will elect the most qualified, capable candidate to be the next President of the United States.”

Nixon said he believed that if Trump were to be the Republican presidential nominee, Senate races will be contested.

In regard to Bernie Sanders’ impact on Hilary Clinton, Nixon’s Democratic candidate of choice, he said that Clinton is paying the price for being a centrist candidate compared to Sanders, but that elections are eventually won in the center.

“I think Sanders’ impact, to sensitize, whether Democrat or Republican, to the plight of the middle class, students with too much debt, to the fear we have of foreign trade because of jobs lost...all of those are legitimate issues that Secretary Clinton will have a better education on because of Bernie Sanders and more sensitivity to how important those issues are,” Nixon said. “Those are issues on which the right and the left have kind of agreed.”

Coming up in July, Nixon will be part of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

“I’ve been at every one since 1988,” Nixon said. “I enjoy that part of the American democracy.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.