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Beyond gridlock: How Democrat Nixon learned to live with a GOP Legislature

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2009 - State Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, is among the few people now in the Legislature who remember the last time the state had a Democratic governor while Republicans controlled the state House and Senate.

That scenario was on full display, for the first time in decades, in 2003 and 2004.

Republicans took over the state House in 2003 after huge victories in November 2002. The GOP had captured the state Senate just two years earlier. The governor was Democrat Bob Holden, who won a narrow election in 2000 and was on the political ropes for most of his four-year term.

The political atmosphere in 2003 was particularly rugged. The tense legislative session ended with the governor promising to veto a number of controversial measures -- dealing with abortion, concealed weapons and medical malpractice -- and threatening to call a special session.

That fall, the Legislature overturned Holden's veto of a law allowing concealed weapons. He and GOP legislative leaders also fought bitterly for two years over the state budget, with the Legislature ripping apart the governor's initial spending plans.

Today, another Democrat -- Gov. Jay Nixon -- officially will receive all the bills approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature during the 4-month session that ended May 15.

And as both sides acknowledge, those measures include some of the key initiatives sought by Nixon. Among them:

  • A comprehensive job-creation, economic-development package approved in the final hours;
  • A deal to freeze tuitions at public colleges and universities in exchange for stable state funding;
  • A plan to bid state contracts for license offices, thus ending the long-standing practice of doling out those contracts to allies of whoever is governor.
  • A temporary extension of state unemployment benefits.

Although there were political tensions, Nixon and Republican legislative leaders are currently soft-pedaling their differences.
Both sides seem to be accepting the state budget for the coming fiscal year, although Nixon plans to make some line-item vetoes in HB22, the massive capital-improvement bill that doles out more than $800 million in federal stimulus money.

(A spokesman said Nixon will retain the $12 million earmarked for Metro, the St. Louis area's financially troubled transit authority, and the $18 million sought for a new, 52-bed facility at the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center.)

The Senate did the governor a favor by killing controversial proposals dealing with abortion and judicial-selection. Nixon, in turn, says he's unlikely to call a special session to rehash any unresolved fights.

Nixon's health-care initiative

For the moment, the post-session political air is calm, even though the Legislature rejected one of Nixon's most sought-after proposals -- which would have expanded the state Medicaid program to cover at least 35,000 more people without costing any additional state money.

Shields and the state Senate resoundingly embraced the general health-care idea, while the state House overwhelmingly rejected it.

The Legislature also rejected Nixon's proposal to expand the state's A-Plus program that offers tuition-free education for two years at community colleges for qualified students. Nixon wanted to broaden the program to four years.

Although registering his public disappointment at such legislative losses, Nixon has avoided taking any post-session political shots and focus on his victories instead.

That approach illustrates the biggest contrast between 2003 and 2009, as Shields recalls it. Nixon, he said, has displayed more pragmatism and patience than his Democratic predecessor.

"The big difference came down to Jay Nixon having been a senator,'' said Shields, referring to the governor's six-year stint in the Senate from 1987-93, before beginning his record-setting 16-year tenure as state attorney general.

Although Holden had been a state representative for six years in the 1980s, Shields said that the impression during 2003-04 was that he failed to grasp "the intricacies of how laws were really made.''

A kinder, gentler Nixon

But there also are other obvious differences, starting with the personalities and predicaments of the two governors.

Holden -- generally a mild-mannered man with a team-player reputation -- felt a need to be publicly combative, in part to counter critics' assertions that he was politically weak, as reflected by his narrow victory in 2000.

Nixon came into office after a 19-point victory last fall. Still, he has gone out of his way to tamp down his old reputation as a political hotshot with a temper and promote instead an aura of cooperation and camaraderie.

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said Nixon is acting out of necessity. "He wants to get things done, and he's willing to compromise to get there,'' Robertson said.

To that end, the professor said that Nixon is seeking to "nurture and nurse'' Republican ties.

Nixon communications director Jack Cardetti points to Nixon's actions even before he took office in January. Nixon showed up at Republican legislators' post-election social gatherings and organized a joint pre-session news conference with Richard and Shields.

A number of legislators also were invited to dine with the governor in the historic governor's mansion.

The governor or his top aides also talked regularly with Richard and Shields during the session. Richard told reporters during his end-of-session news conference that he had just as much regular contact with Nixon as with his GOP predecessor, former Gov. Matt Blunt.

"The governor was very engaged. We talked once or twice a week,'' Richard said. "I can't complain."

Shields said he and Nixon also held behind-the-scenes meetings regularly in each other's offices, with their staffs in daily contact. Overall, Shields praised the governor as "pretty calm and rational in dealing with legislative leaders."

The notable exception was arguably the governor's public meltdown at April's Democratic Jefferson-Jackson dinner in St. Louis, where he declared to the partisan crowd that "a Democrat as speaker of the House would be really useful."

Nixon then went on to accuse House Republicans of apparently believing that low-income children "are supposed to work in the coal mines, get dust on them on all day...and then they can get health care."

Although some Republicans complained afterward about the outburst, communications director Cardetti denied there was any lasting fallout. "Legislators from both parties understand the governor feels passionate about health care,'' Cardetti said.

In any case, that flash of the old Nixon was soon extinguished, as the governor returned to his softer, kinder current self.

Health care still on the agenda

The governor's latest schedule of public events, for example, includes several that keep health care in the news, but do so in a conciliatory way. He is spotlighting a new state initiative, called Caring for Missourians, that his staff says "will help train more than 900 additional health-care professionals in Missouri."

The new program, proposed by Nixon, is in the state budget OKed by the GOP-controlled Legislature. Cardetti calls it yet another example of how "the governor has had great success in bringing people together."

Meanwhile, leaders of the state House and Senate plan to spend the coming months also focusing on health care. Richard and other House leaders plan to craft a proposal that reflects their view that the state should focus on helping people who can't get insurance coverage because of health issues, such as pre-existing conditions.

Shields said the Senate shares Nixon's view -- and that of hospital and business groups -- that insurance premiums for Missourians with coverage will continue to increase unless something is done to expand coverage to low-income working people without insurance who now show up in emergency rooms for treatment.

What's notable, say Nixon's allies, is that even his legislative critics are focusing on his pet topic -- and not ignoring it. And for the moment, there's no nasty, partisan wrangling.

Holden never had that luxury.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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