Nixon's choice: Examining the possibilities for Missouri's next state auditor
Filling Tom Schweich’s void in the state auditor’s office may be one of the most important decisions of Gov. Jay Nixon’s tenure. He’ll have to pick somebody who can perform the tasks of an important office – and contend with the rigors of maneuvering through statewide politics.
As chief executive of the state, Nixon has filled lots and lots of vacancies – everything from an opening for Howard County surveyor to slots on the Missouri Supreme Court. This time, the pressure is on: Some want Nixon to select an African-American for the job, which would bring the state to a weighty milestone 194 years in the making. And others feel Nixon, a Democrat, should take the unlikely step of appointing a Republican to the post.
Whatever Nixon does, it will have a long-term effect on the state’s political environment. The auditor’s office can be a springboard to bigger and better things – just ask U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, former Attorney General John Ashcroft or former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond. But perhaps more importantly, it will provide a bit of procedural closure to a particularly sad chapter in the Show Me State’s recent history.
Technically, the governor’s pool of appointees is infinite – though it should be noted that either a certified public accountant or an attorney has done the job in recent memory. (Former state auditor Susan Montee is a double threat as a CPA and attorney.)
With those caveats in mind, here are some possibilities:
Nixon has tapped core members of his staff to fill fairly significant vacancies. He picked a longtime aide, Paul Wilson, to be on the Missouri Supreme Court and another stalwart, Karen King Mitchell, to serve on the Western District Missouri Court of Appeals. (And, of course, he appointed his longtime chief of staff John Watson to serve as auditor on an interim basis.)
So it wouldn’t be too surprising if Nixon looked to someone within the state governmental bubble to serve as auditor. One person highlighted by the Missouri Times was Jeff Harris, a former state representative from Columbia who serves as Nixon’s policy director. One potential advantage? The Cornell law school graduate has run a statewide campaign before, albeit an unsuccessful one.
A group of 100 black political leaders suggested Nixon consider Celeste Metcalf, a certified public accountant who is currently the director of Office of Equal Opportunity within the state’s Office of Administration. Another African-American who’s been mentioned is Kelvin Simmons, who ran the Office of Administration before transitioning into lobbying.
One person who’s technically not in Nixon’s inner circle is Missouri Public Service Commissioner Robert Kenney, although he worked for Nixon when he was attorney general. The St. Louis native was head of the Mound City Bar Association, an organization banding together African-American attorneys. He also was Attorney General Chris Koster’s chief of staff before he was appointed to the PSC.
If Nixon decides to look outside of state government, he may decide to select someone currently operating one of Missouri’s county offices.
One name that’s been thrown out often is St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones, who’s widely seen a rising star within city politics. Jones served in the Missouri House for two terms, so she’s familiar with the hustle and bustle of the state political scene.
The Missouri Times pointed to Boone County Treasurer Nicole Galloway as a possibility. Galloway is a certified public accountant who resides in the oversaturated Columbia media market. So she may have a leg up on transitioning into what can be a high-profile job of pointing out deficiencies in government.
It’s also not out of the question that Nixon may look to a county prosecutor for the job, especially since McCaskill was Jackson County prosecutor before she was auditor. Hypothetical possibilities include current Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters-Baker, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce or former Cass County Prosecutor Teresa Hensley.
And if Nixon wants to avoid a potentially costly attorney general primary, he may consider appointing St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman to the post. But whether Zimmerman would want to actually make that transition is an entirely different question.
Of course, if no county officials fit the bill, Nixon could always look within the municipal ranks for an appointee.
That could include longtime St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green, who possesses nearly two decades worth of experience auditing the city’s various departments. It should be noted though that Green, who is also the vice chairwoman of the Missouri Democratic Party, said last year during an episode of Politically Speaking that she’s declined several opportunities to run for state auditor.
(One possible hang-up, besides not wanting the job, is that St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay would fill a comptroller vacancy – and effectively give him control of the powerful Board of Estimate and Apportionment.)
Another possibility is St. Louis License Collector Mavis Thompson. The lawyer and nurse used to work for Nixon before she was appointed to the license collector’s office. Unlike Green, Nixon – not Slay – could pick Thompson’s replacement to the post.
One out-of-the-box choice could be Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who was a prominent attorney before becoming the chief executive of the state’s largest city. But since James is currently campaigning against a particularly weak field of opponents for a second term in office, it’s highly unlikely Nixon would make this type of selection.
The governor could potentially look to the Missouri General Assembly for a successor for Schweich – although the field of Democratic possibilities has constricted dramatically over the past couple of election cycles.
The same group that recommended Metcalf also suggested state Rep. Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat with a degree in political science from Stanford University. She’s currently second-in-command of a diminished House Democratic Caucus.
Another possibility is state Rep. Gina Mitten, a Richmond Heights Democrat and one of the few state lawmakers with a Washington University law degree. And House Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, is one of the select legislators with both a law degree and a MBA.
One possibility is that Nixon could convince state Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, to give up his bid for attorney general and become state auditor instead. But this type of decision is fraught with risk, as there may be pressure for the governor to call a special election for a seat that may be taken over by a Republican.
When Nixon was elected to a second term in 2012, he earned the right to appoint people from his party to vacancies. But one of the underlying tensions in replacing Schweich is the circumstances behind his re-election.
Schweich was one of the first Missouri Republicans in generations to not face a Democratic opponent. In some respects, Libertarian Sean O’Toole has a stronger claim to be appointed since he actually put his name on the line against Schweich.
That’s one of the reasons why some – including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page – are suggesting that Nixon appoint a member of Schweich’s staff as his successor. That would include people like deputy auditor Harry Otto, chief litigation counsel (and former Greene County prosecutor) Darrell Moore or chief of staff Trish Vincent.
Nixon has a much larger field of Republican possibilities within the Missouri General Assembly. That includes CPAs like House Speaker Pro Tem Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, or potential state Senate contenders such as state Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Boone County. The governor also could select people who he’s had a traditionally good relationship with in the past, like Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, or former Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph.
Still, Nixon will be under some pressure from Democrats not to take this route – especially if it gives a GOPer more than three years to build up name recognition and gravitas for a U.S. Senate or gubernatorial bid. Still, it would certainly result in an unorthodox twist to the governor’s consequential decision.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.