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Government, Politics & Issues

With a year left in office, Nixon looks at his political past, present and future

Gov. Jay Nixon
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
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Gov. Jay Nixon

As he heads into his final year in office and his last legislative session, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon prefers to focus on the positive.

That means highlighting the state’s balanced budgets and drop in unemployment, and downplaying his political battles with the Republican-controlled General Assembly or the criticisms lobbed his way during the unrest ignited by the Ferguson police shooting in August 2014.

“I reread just a few weeks ago my first State of the State address,’’ the governor said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio. “And in that State of the State address, I talked about five shared values that we have as Missourians. And then I laid out five policy goals within those five shared values.

“And so, I’m kind of grading myself,’’ Nixon continued. “Of the five, we made really significant progress on four.”

What are those four somewhat-successful goals?

  • Education: Nixon says the state’s public-education system, although not perfect, “moves forward and delivers;’’
  • Fiscal discipline: He cites the state’s balanced budgets, even during the lean years of 2009-10 and Missouri’s retention of its notable AAA bond rating;
  • Economic growth: The governor points to thousands of new jobs, and the state’s dramatic decline in its unemployment rate, which federal labor officials tag at 4.7 percent. That’s down from a high of 9.8 percent in early 2010
  • Health care: Although Nixon has failed so far to expand Medicaid, the governor points to the addition of 100,000 children to the state’s health-care rolls, primarily in the federal/state Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). He also cites the expansion of mental health programs, and the construction of a new state mental-health facility in Fulton, Mo.

Nixon added that he is optimistic that his fifth goal – ethics reform – may be tackled in 2016 by the General Assembly, as a result of misbehaviors that forced out then-House Speaker John Diehl, a Republican, and state Sen. Paul LeVota, a Democrat, last spring.
“Well, I’m glad that it’s an election year and we’re going to talk about ethics," he said. "Let’s talk about it a lot. Let’s get an ethics bill passed. If folks want to be against what 75 percent of Missourians support, which is campaign donation limits, then let’s do it in public. And then when there’s an election, let’s let people see that their representative either supported it or didn’t support that.”

Republican legislative leaders in the Missouri House and Senate say that tighter ethics restrictions are a top priority for them as well.

Sticks with bipartisan focus

Any success in passing ethics legislation will depend on the support of the huge GOP majorities in both chambers. That doesn't bother Nixon, a Democrat.

Some of those same Republican figures have blocked Nixon on many other issues, notably his efforts to expand Medicaid coverage.

But the governor says he’ll stick with his longstanding approach of trying to seek compromise and working with Republicans – even if he fails. When he deals with his legislators, he said, he focuses more on the people they represent, and less on their political party.

“One of the reasons that Washington is broken in many people’s eyes and irrelevant to lives out there, is that folks can’t get along,” Nixon said.

Partisan battles, he said, are often “an excuse for not doing something.”

But as he looks behind and ahead, Nixon says he’d prefer to exude optimism.

“I’m a very positive person. I get up in the morning and the glass is always half full, never half empty,” Nixon said. “I try to remain positive and optimistic, and move on.”

As he prepares for his final year in office, Nixon said he also wants to emphasize “how much I enjoy the opportunity, the high honor that the public has given me. I’m never going to be a whiner or a complainer. … I just don’t look at the world that way.”

Gov. Jay Nixon talked with St. Louis Public Radio shortly before Christmas.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Jay Nixon talked with St. Louis Public Radio shortly before Christmas.

Economic downturn altered aims

When he campaigned for governor in 2008, Nixon had emphasized his plan to restore Medicaid coverage to the 300,000 Missourians who saw their coverage cut or eliminated by the General Assembly in 2005. He also promised to address the rising cost of college with more student aid.

But by the time he took office in early 2009, Nixon and his team were confronted with the devastating economic downturn that hit the nation. Missouri saw 100,000 people join its unemployment rolls between January 2008 and February 2009.

Over the next two years, Nixon had to cut about $1.5 billion from the state’s budget. The trims would have been worse if not for the billions in federal aid that poured in.

In any event, Nixon’s campaign promises took a hit.

Nixon and Missouri’s health-care community made a stab at expanding the state’s Medicaid rolls by about 35,000 in 2009, without using any state dollars. But the General Assembly rejected that idea.

After his re-election victory in 2012, Nixon renewed his call for the state to expand its Medicaid rolls as recommended by the federal Affordable Care Act. The federal government promised to cover all the costs through 2016 – roughly $2 billion a year – and up to 90 percent after that.

But Republican legislators generally have blocked the plan, largely because of their opposition to the ACA.

Nixon said he hopes to once again call for Medicaid expansion in 2016, although he acknowledges the obstacles. Referring to legislative critics, he said, “Unfortunately, some of these people are looking at this as a political issue, not a health-care issue.”

On the higher-education front, he has been a bit more successful with persuading the state universities and colleges to enact tuition freezes. Nixon has announced four such freezes since taking office. The latest will go into effect for the 2016-2017 academic year.

Speaking broadly about his efforts to carry out his goals, Nixon said, “You do … what you can.”

governor nixon
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
“The fiscal stuff is really important. I know that’s boring, but running this state correctly, openly, honestly and ethically, is really important,” Gov. Nixon.

Highlights success indoors and outside

Nixon has been particularly proud of his administration’s handling of the state’s economic challenges, adding “the fiscal stuff is really important. I know that’s boring, but running this state correctly, openly, honestly and ethically is really important.”

His focus on the economy is one reason Nixon has visited hundreds of businesses over the past seven years to promote their success.

The governor said his aim, in part, is to promote what the state’s role should be in encouraging economic growth. “Businesses are basically a group of people who are doing things,” he said. “If you get the right people in a system that allows them to move forward, you’re going to succeed.”

Among his administration’s other achievements, Nixon said, has been expansion and improvement of the state park system and related outdoor facilities -- especially when many states are cutting back.

He cited those who see Missouri as the nation’s top state when it comes to hiking and camping. “We’re going to finish the Katy Trail all the way to Pleasant Hill,’’ noting that the trail already “the longest rails-to-trails project in the country.”

More than 90,000 miles of the state’s river shorelines have been cleaned under his watch, Nixon said. “We’re leaving the state better than we got it, from the conservation standpoint.”

“This outdoor economy is really important,’’ the governor said.

Nixon also has a personal interest. He’s an avid hunter, and his his office regularly sends out photos of him with deer and game birds he has shot.

“When I’m an old man,” said Nixon, who’ll turn 60 in February, “I want to be able to hunt and fish in the state.”

In recent days, Nixon has led the state's response to Mother Nature's deluge of rain. Addressing natural disasters also is something he's had to deal with -- notably the disastrous and deadly tornado that flattened much of Joplin, Mo., in 2011.

Ferguson continues to cast cloud

Nixon has come under heavy criticism from all sides since the August 2014 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

Some fellow Democrats continue to blast the governor for failing to do enough to ease racial tensions, while Republicans blame Nixon for the arson and unrest that took place in late November after a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Wilson.

Both sides also fault the governor’s oversight of the state Highway Patrol and the National Guard. Democratic critics contend Nixon allowed too strong of a law-enforcement presence, especially in August, while Republicans say the governor failed to deploy enough forces during the November unrest.

Reflecting on the controversy, Nixon displayed few regrets. “When you look back, you’re first of all very proud of the law enforcement folks and the National Guardsmen who showed a incredible level of discipline,” he said. “We didn’t have a Kent State-type of situation” where police actually shot at protesters.

“Second, these are issues all across our country,” the governor said. “Race and police and law enforcement and social policy, these are very difficult issues.”

He added that he was particularly proud of the Ferguson Commission, which he created to examine the issues and propose changes. The commission put in place, said Nixon, “a positive framework for a lot of things we can do in the future.”

In his view, the panel also created “a mentality out there that folks should come together and help on these issues, rather than step away from them.”

“Are these difficult issues? Yes, they are,” Nixon said. “They were difficult before I became governor, and they’ll be difficult issues after I’m governor.”

Gov. Jay Nixon
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
“We’re leaving the state better than we got it, from the conservation standpoint.”

Assessments are mixed

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, contends that Nixon’s performance, or lack of, when it comes to Ferguson “has hurt him a great deal.”

But despite their frequent differences on Ferguson and various other issues, Nasheed has praise for Nixon’s overall performance as governor. “His good outweighs the bad,’’ she said.

Nasheed particularly lauded Nixon’s success earlier this year in blocking Republican efforts to enact right-to-work legislation, which would curb union rights in the workplace.

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis.
Credit Provided by Ms. Nasheed's office
Jamilah Nasheed

“He will continue to push back,’’ she said, although acknowledging that as 2016 kicks in, Nixon “is a lame duck.”

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican now seeking to succeed Nixon, has been at odds with the governor for years. Aside from their differences on issues, Kinder has repeated complained that the governor never talks to him – not even to notify Kinder when Nixon is out of state or out of the country.

“He’s a loner,’’ Kinder complained during a recent appearance on St. Louis Public Radio’s Politically Speaking podcast.

That accusation as been leveled for decades at Nixon by politicians in both parties. But the governor’s allies say his independent streak is among the reasons he often has been the top vote-getter, Democrat or Republican, on statewide ballots. Although he lost two bids for the U.S. Senate, Nixon won a record-setting four terms as Missouri attorney general. He handily captured and retained the state’s top job in 2008 and 2012, defeating his GOP rivals by huge margins.

Dave Robertson, a professor who heads the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, observed that the governor’s clout will be limited as he heads into his final year. But Robertson added that Nixon will continue to be a major political player in state government because of his power over the state budget and his veto pen.

During his tenure, Robertson said, Nixon has succeeded in blocking some conservative initiatives, or forcing their moderation.

“He’ll also be remembered as being relatively popular, and effective, at a time when a lot of governors in other states have had a very, very difficult time trying to navigate the very difficult waters of politics in the 21st century.”

Nixon offers own appraisal

The public is most receptive to leaders, said Nixon, “who have two attributes. No. 1, they appear to know where they’re going. And No. 2, they appear to be having a good time doing it.”

With that in mind, Nixon said he hopes that most of the 6 million Missourians “appreciate that I understand the diversity and the complexity of this state. And that I share deeply in my DNA the core values of Missourians. And that I work very, very hard every day to improve our government and improve what we do as a state.”

He’ll be satisfied, he added, if “ultimately, I’m judged as ‘That’s a fellow who worked really hard for us, was honest doing it, and gave all of his energy to make the state better'.”

Nixon is more circumspect when it comes to his own future. He has yet to decide, or disclose, what he hopes to do after leaving office in January 2017.

"Life for me, hopefully, will not end when someone else becomes governor,'' he said, with a chuckle. "And last I checked the constitution, someone else will.”

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