On the evening of May 22, 2011, then Governor Jay Nixon was in the basement of the Governor’s Mansion, getting ready to hop on an elliptical machine and sweat out some of the stress only a chief executive can know.
Sunday evenings were routinely his favorite time to work out; the TV positioned in front of the elliptical allowed him to catch the end of weekend NFL games, at least during football season.
The legislative session had ended just nine days earlier. A Missouri summer, maybe with a dash of leisurely hiking and fishing thrown in, if time allowed, beckoned from right around the corner.
But a phone call from his counsel changed all of that.
“And he said, ‘There’s a weather pattern in Joplin that’s really, really bad.’ And so I flipped to The Weather Channel and started to work out, and quickly couldn’t do that. And ended up not leaving that office for about six hours, down there in the basement of the mansion,” Nixon said.
Early the next morning, the Nixons ventured southwest to see the aftermath of the historic EF-5 tornado. Nixon says he was about to experience his darkest moment as governor.
“I would say that the next morning when I was down there and, for the first time, was able to see the devastation—that was really, really…you had to kind of go back in a room and steel yourself and realize that this was something that was gonna take you a while,” Nixon said.
The twister, a mile wide, had rendered nearly every building within eyesight into splinters and debris. The only way into the disaster zone was on foot.
First responders were working around the clock. Survivors were frantically searching for their loved ones. The morgues were already filling up. Natural gas leaks wafted through the air, and St. John’s Regional Medical Center, now Mercy Hospital Joplin, was destroyed.
“We came to the top of the hill and we looked past the hospital,” Nixon recalled. “You realize when you got to the top of that thing how long the tornado path was—six miles is a long way on the ground,” Nixon said.
Nixon says his wife’s face said it all.
“I honestly had never seen that look in her eyes any other time. And I felt the same thing,” he said.
The Joplin tornado killed 160 people.
Natural disasters, and the emergency response to address their aftermath, comes with the territory of leadership.
During Nixon’s tenure, Missouri saw floods, drought, blizzards, an ice storm and tornadoes.
“I think that there’s a true role there. Collective action really helps people. It gives them strength when things come along,” Nixon said.
He says his administration also saw emergency management into the digital age.
“When I first was governor, I mean, my gosh—when we needed to see who needed stuff, they were calling us on the phone or faxing us stuff, for a generator in an ice storm or whatever,” Nixon said.
“When I was reelected, one of the things I did in the transition to my second term was to read a history of the 44 governors who had come before me,” Nixon said.
In reading that, Nixon said he came to a clear conclusion: “sometimes you find history and sometimes history finds you.”
Transition to a new governor, a legacy forming
Nixon turned over the reins of leadership to Governor Eric Greitens on January 9, 2017. Since then, some of the causes Nixon opposed, like Right to Work, have won approval of both the legislature and the governor's pen and are on their way to becoming law.
“I’m not going to be publicly critical of the governor. It’s a tough job,” Nixon said.
As for the Republican super-majority legislature, Nixon says he hopes lawmakers think of what’s good for all of the state, not just for “some political constituencies.”
When future generations look back on Nixon’s eight years in office, he says he hopes they find a few key themes.
“That I worked hard to improve education. That I worked hard to turn the economy around. That I didn’t waste people’s money,” he said.
Also, he wants to be remembered for balancing budgets, for his administration’s ethics, and for his devotion to the "least among us," including his work to establish the mental health hospital in Fulton, Missouri.
Following up on a campaign promise
In a 2008 gubernatorial debate held in Springfield, Nixon pledged to lower the number of women and children turned away from Missouri’s domestic violence shelters, which were operating at full capacity. At the time, around 5,000 women and children were turned away each year in Missouri.
Those numbers have only gone up; according to the Missouri Coalition on Domestic and Sexual Violence, the year 2015 saw 17,000 unmet requests for shelter, as KSMU reported in this series.
“One of the things you fight really hard when I try to put perspective on my service is, I try to think about the good things we did. But often times your days were spent worrying about the things you didn’t get done,” Nixon said.
The state’s overflowing domestic violence shelters, he said, is one area where the victims are still struggling.
“For folks that are still in those challenges, I hope that folks in their communities are reaching out and helping them,” he said.
The great outdoors
Nixon says he hopes he is also remembered for the good he did for Missouri’s state parks and for his conservation efforts. He and his wife, former First Lady Georgeanne Nixon, are both avid outdoors enthusiasts.
“We also invented the State Park Youth Corps, which brought kids from the inner city. That was almost 400,000 hours of time spent in the parks,” he said.
Encouraging Missourians to get outdoors with the 100 Mile Challenge was “just kind of fun,” he said.
“Hopefully, I’ll have a little more time to fish and hunt now that I’m not governor,” he said.
And he’s proud, he said, that the Missouri Department of Conservation has its first female director, Sara Parker Pauley, who was selected late last year to lead the agency.
He also oversaw the reintroduction of elk to south-central Missouri, connected the Katy Trail across the state, and says he tried to improve water and air quality “without being a tail-pipe sniffer.”
On his relationship with the press
Since the 2016 election, there’s been some contention between the press corps and the executive office, both at the state and federal levels. Republican Governor Eric Greitens so far does not hold regular press briefings, and generally does not take off-topic questions from journalists.
Nixon himself took some flack for not always being accessible to the Capitol press corps; yet those reporters who attended his many press conferences around the state had the ability to ask off-topic questions whenever he traveled.
When asked whether that was a strategy of his, Nixon said, “I felt from the very beginning, that I wanted—that the best way for me to govern, that I could do the best job, was to govern staying in contact with all sections of the state.”
“In eight years as governor, I only didn’t take questions one time, wherever I was doing a press event. One time. And that was in the Capitol. And there was a reason why,” Nixon said.
And, he adds, he “wasn’t that hard to find.”
When asked what he feels the Missouri press corps could do a better job of covering, he said it comes down to accuracy and good writing that their readers or listeners can recognize and connect with.
“If true journalists try to compete with Tweeters, they’re making a mistake,” he said.
From a bellwether state to solid red
When Jay Nixon, a Democrat, came to office in 2008, he garnered the support of a wide swath of rural Missouri. Even in traditionally Republican Greene County, 54% of voters cast their ballots for Nixon in the 2008 General Election, compared to about 43% for the Republican candidate, Congressman Kenny Hulsof.
Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama were neck-and-neck in Missouri, with McCain eeking out about a one percent victory in the Show-Me State.
That, too, has changed in the past eight years. Missouri has, in both the statehouse and in elected statewide offices, become much more Republican.
When asked if Nixon feels responsible for that, he says he wasn’t elected governor to represent one party.
“I didn’t think of being governor as being partisan. I just really didn’t,” Nixon said.
He said during his first inaugural ceremony, he closed his eyes during the finishing prayer and heard the words of his late mother.
“And I just had this thought, and my mom said, ‘Serve everybody,’” Nixon said.
“I certainly don’t want to be critical of other elected officials, but I think I laid out a pretty clear path,” he said.
That path to garner statewide support included being fiscally conservative, he said.
“When the numbers got small on the Democrats’ side, it ended up being, as you can see from the Bernie Sanders stuff, it ended up being farther to the left. And that’s just not where I came from,” Nixon said.
He says he might stay involved with the Missouri Democratic Party, “if they need help,” but that he’s eager to hand the baton of politics off to a younger generation.
“I gave 30 years to it. It’s time to do something else,” Nixon said.