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In second term, Nixon stakes his claim as governor and Democrat

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 23, 2013: Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s competitive streak is legendary, from the basketball court (until his knees gave out) to the political arena, where for decades many a fellow Democrat has kept a wary eye on Nixon’s unabashed ambition.

That is why the latest campaign finance reports have produced such a buzz.  Nixon – known for setting fundraising records -- has quietly raised little campaign cash for months.

Nixon says there’s no mystery. “I’ve been reading bills,’’ the governor quipped during a question-answer session with reporters during a stop last week in St. Louis.

“Over the last eight or nine weeks, I’ve been pretty much focused on bill review and things in that zone,” said Nixon (who still deploys sports metaphors).

But that’s been the case after each of the legislative sessions since he took office in January 2009.  This time, though, even some Democrats are noting a difference in Nixon’s demeanor.

Democratic consultant Mike Kelley contends that Nixon, freed from worrying about re-election, is embracing a new role. “The governor sees it as his duty to really be that line for common sense… against an irrational legislature.”

Added Kelley: “He’s putting a spotlight on the craziness that is the ‘flat earth society’ controlling the Republican Party.”

House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, is among the state’s top Republicans who contend that Nixon is actually becoming more political. Jones, for example, has accused Nixon of engaging in a “politically motivated stunt’’ with his recent decision to withhold $400 million from this fiscal year’s budget in case the General Assembly overrides his veto of the tax-cut bill, HB253.

Campaigning hard against tax cut bill

No question, Nixon has become more outspoken about his objections to the legislative measures that he has vetoed in recent weeks – most notably HB253.

Nixon has vetoed at least 85 bills since becoming governor – 29 of them this year – but none of the others has generated as much passion as HB253.

Nixon has made his veto of that measure his chief focus of the summer, traveling the state to outline his opposition and highlight errors in the bill. On Tuesday, for example, he plans to take that campaign to Springfield, Mo. – generally Republican turf.

"I have not been shy, and I will continue to do that," the governor said.

Monday, Nixon released a breakdown of how much money each school district in the state would lose, if his veto is overridden by the General Assembly when it convenes the annual September veto session.

“When you peel away the layers of political rhetoric and look at the facts you can clearly see the governor’s arguments are flimsy at best, and outright fabrications at worst,” said Jones. “This latest attempt is nothing more than a political stunt and something I hope people can see through easily. The governor wants to put the legislature in a corner on this issue, but we will not be bullied on something this important. The people of Missouri sent us to office to take the kind of bold steps forward that the most significant tax cut in nearly a century would provide.”

Jones and Stream also called the governor’s recently-announced budget withholdings “shameful” considering the state’s overflowing coffers, which contain a budget surplus of $450 million.

The governor told members of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association – many of them Republicans -- at a lunch last week that the bill was “riddled with errors and unintended consequences,” most notably the apparently unintentional elimination of Missouri’s longstanding sales tax exemption for prescription drugs, which would result in a sales tax hike of an estimated $200 million a year.

Nixon said he was open to working with legislators next year to revamp the tax code "in a thoughtful way."

Nixon contends that the bill could cut the state’s income by as much as $1.2 billion a year, if federal tax proposals also go into effect. He disputes backers’ assertions that the bill contains safeguards that would curtail implementation if state income growth failed to exceed $100 million a year.

The governor said the provisions are weaker than advertised and would have forced tax cuts in 2009, when the state was hit hard by the national economic downturn, and he had to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s budget so that it would be balanced, as required under the state constitution.

The tax-cut measure's backers contend that it would boost the state's economy by making the state more attractive to businesses.

Jones said in a statement Tuesday, “When you peel away the layers of political rhetoric and look at the facts you can clearly see the governor’s arguments are flimsy at best, and outright fabrications at worst,” the speaker said. "The governor wants to put the legislature in a corner on this issue, but we will not be bullied on something this important. The people of Missouri sent us to office to take the kind of bold steps forward that the most significant tax cut in nearly a century would provide.”

Nixon repeatedly has jabbed at the General Assembly for its promises to fix its mistakes. Some legislators “said they didn’t read or fully understand what they were voting on,” Nixon told the RCGA, prompting chuckles when he added, “I believe them.”

He warned against giving much stock to legislators’ pledges to “just trust us’’ to fix the errors next session.

Nixon’s harsh comments were noteworthy because they are so rare. For most of his tenure, he has avoided attacking Republican legislative leaders in public -- even in speeches at Democratic political events.  In fact, many of the governor’s addresses have been particularly notable because they avoided using the words “Republican’’ or “Democrat.”

Making more of his Democratic roots

Such preferences have, at times, produced friction between the governor and fellow Democrats. After last fall’s election, for example, the unsuccessful Democratic lieutenant candidate, Susan Montee, blamed her loss, in part, on Nixon’s diversion of campaign dollars – some that she said was slated initially to go to her -- into his own already fat war chest.

But now, some of that rancor may be easing. Nixon appears to have gone along with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Attorney General Chris Koster – who’s seeking to succeed the governor in 2016 – who both are seeking to wield more clout in internal party affairs, including the selection of a new chairman to replace the outgoing chair, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders.

The governor also appears more willing to highlight his Democratic credentials. On Wednesday, he plans to join President Barack Obama in Warrensburg, where the president is expected to speak on the economy and education.

In a statement, the governor said, “We are very proud that the president has chosen to visit the University of Central Missouri, where our Innovation Campus initiative got its start."

Despite perceptions to the contrary, Nixon's press secretary Scott Holste said records show the governor has joined Obama at least five other times when he has stopped in the state, including the president’s 2009 appearance in Arnold and his two visits to Joplin since its tragic and deadly tornado in 2011.

(Nixon made a number of other stops in Joplin as well, which also won praise from locals, who note that the city is in solid Republican territory.)

Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University, observed that Nixon may be seeking “to give himself a more Democratic record’’ in hopes of attaining a federal post should another Democrat – he’s already announced his support of  Hillary Clinton – win the White House.

Kelley, for instance, is among a number of Democrats who contend that Nixon is following the “Vilsack model,’’ a reference to former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat now in his second term as Obama’s agriculture secretary.

Various consultants and analysts have noted that Nixon is a rare political animal – a Democratic governor from an arguably “red state,” which could make him an attractive addition to any list of possible Democratic vice presidential contenders in 2016.

George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, contends that some of Nixon’s “across-the-aisle” credentials are likely overblown. “Some Republicans would challenge that,’’ Connor said.

The professor added that Nixon’s longstanding reputation as a go-it-alone Democrat also may make him less attractive to national Democrats

Fits the two-term mold

Veteran Democratic activist Richard Martin, who ran McCaskill’s first successful U.S. Senate bid in 2006, observed that Nixon’s latest activities may well be less about politics and more about the freedom felt by many two-term governors.

Martin contends that Nixon is simply “enjoying being governor,’’ something that many first-term governors fail to do, because – like presidents -- they’re so focused on preparing to run for a second term.

And Martin noted that Nixon will be only the second such Missouri governor in 20 years.

The state’s last two two-term governors – Democrat Mel Carnahan (1993-2000) and Republican John Ashcroft (1985-1993) – each wielded more muscle, and took more political risks, in their second term.

Ashcroft, for example, bucked many within his own party by strongly backing an education tax-hike proposal in 1991, although it lost at the polls. Carnahan subsequently successfully won legislative passage of  the state’s last major tax hike in his first term, then in his second term expanded the state’s family-planning programs (now dismantled).

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that Nixon – like the two-term governors before him – appears to be demonstrating to the General Assembly that his power matters, and he’s not afraid to wield it.

Robertson said that’s particularly important regarding HB253, which he said will influence how Nixon governs the next few years.

“If he can stand on this issue, and succeed in upholding the veto, he’ll be able to say to the legislature, ‘Look, I’m a real blockade. You have to work with me on your agenda a little bit more…if you want to achieve things going into next year’s election,’ “ Robertson said

“It’s a key moment for him,’’ Robertson continued. “If he loses, it will be an embarrassment to him. It will embolden Republican leaders in the legislature, going forward…There’s a lot riding on this, for a whole lot of people.”

At least three business groups, including the Missouri Chamber and the Club for Growth, have announced plans to run TV and radio ad campaigns against Nixon and for an override. Some of the ads already are airing

The new, feistier Nixon noted with a chuckle last week that the campaigns are largely funded by more than $2 million in donations from wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield, who gave money to each group.

“One guy against 6 million Missourians,” Nixon said. “I like our side.”

He then strode confidently away.

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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