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Jay Nixon's back-to-basics campaign: health care, education, economy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 16, 2008 - Attorney General Jay Nixon is stumping in rural Missouri during these final weeks of his Democratic campaign for governor, making one more effort to convince voters that he's the best candidate to solve Missouri's health, education and the economic problems. This tour undoubtedly is a fun part of Nixon's campaign, not so much because of the issues he's addressing but because it takes him back to his own small town roots. During a recent interview, he talked fondly of rural Missouri, mentioning the fervor growing out of stops in places that are barely dots on the map and finding people enthusiastic about the election and, he says, eager for the change he is proposing. 

For a minute, during an interview, he puts the issues aside and talks about his heart-warming memories from these trips: the small town band marching down Main Street, its silver tuba flashing in the sunshine and punctuating the air with booming notes; the sight of little hands waving American flags during campaign stops; the puzzled look of a baby bearing a 'Nixon for Governor' sticker on its bib; the jovial adults greeting him with open arms and firm handshakes; and the smell of Missouri ham with trimmings served up at too many places to count.

Whether he's campaigning in Plattsburg or Neosho or Nevada, he says, "I notice that Missouri not only has great people but I notice that they understand that we are going in the wrong direction."

Nixon's Trio of Priorities

With that, he launches into a now familiar complaint -- that Missouri has taken a wrong turn on health care, the economy and higher education. These are the three key issues that Nixon is emphasizing. Others, such as transportation, don't get mentioned much because Nixon, like his GOP opponent, U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, wants to tackle that after the election.

Nixon blames Republican Gov. Matt Blunt for the state's health and economic problems, and says bipartisan inaction explains Missouri's ranking of 47th in per capita spending on higher education.

Nixon has been campaigning for the job for a long time, starting when everyone assumed Blunt would be his opponent. But Blunt dropped out in January and was replaced by Hulshof, who won the GOP primary.

Even through the primary, Nixon made the campaign a referendum on Blunt's health-care cuts. He says his focus and arguments haven't changed much even though he's facing a different opponent.

Taking on Hulshof

Nixon says Hulshof has supported Blunt's economic policies as well as the Bush administration's trade deals and tax breaks that he says have sent jobs overseas.

"All that has led to a situation in Missouri where we've lost more jobs in the last year than the number of jobs lost by all border states combined," Nixon says. "We've got to restore health cuts and make college affordable, but before we do all that, we've got to get this economy moving."

His campaign plays up Missouri's economic dilemma with a photo of a plant's gates shut tight by a rusty chain and a padlock. Although Hulshof points to a study showing that Missouri has a generally good business climate, Nixon and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said during a conference call Tuesday that such comments suggest that Republicans in general are insensitive to economic problems facing ordinary people.

Embracing Science and Technology

If elected, Nixon says he'll pay extra attention to higher education and workforce issues, and he promises to look to life sciences and technology initiatives for their potential to create more high-paying jobs in Missouri and to lure companies to relocate here.

His emphasis on life sciences and technology is closely tied to his hope of putting college within the reach of more Missouri families. To that end, he is proposing to help children from middle-class families by making it easier for them to afford college. Under his Missouri Promise program, students make certain promises and the state rewards them with a tuition-free, four-year college education.

The program expands the number of students who would be eligible for the state's existing tuition-free program in community and technical colleges. Students could then attend four-year college tuition free if they maintained "B" averages and completed 50 hours of community service a week. The Nixon campaign says the proposal would cost $61 million. Some lawmakers and educators have praised the proposal, but it's unclear how it would be funded.

A Nixon spokesperson didn't say exactly how Nixon would fund Missouri Promise, but he suggested that it would involve setting different priorities. "Budgets are about priorities," he said. "Gov. Blunt made it a priority to give one wealthy developer a $95 million tax credit. Congressman Hulshof made it a priority to give billion in special tax breaks to companies that ship Missouri jobs overseas. For Jay Nixon, helping families afford college is absolutely a top priority. The money is available in the state's budget to implement the Missouri Promise. ... We just need to start making college afforadability a priority in our state."

Restoring health insurance

Of all his issues, perhaps Nixon has hammered on health care the most. He has repeatedly said it's unacceptable for more than 700,000 Missourians, including about 120,000 children, to have no health insurance. For months, he has insisted that he would restore roughly 100,000 Missourians whom Blunt removed from the old Medicaid program.

Republicans have called Nixon's plan too expensive, but he says Missouri can finance his plan partly by taking advantage of federal health dollars that Blunt has turned away. He says it's unconscionable not to throw the uninured a lifeline.

Stories on the campaign trail have convinced Nixon that he has the right position on health care. On campaign stops in cities and small towns, says he he hears plenty of stories from parents who want to work but can't because they'd lose meager health benefits or who are unable to afford medicine or who can't afford the out-of-pocket cost of sending a sick child to a specialist.

Hulshof has defended Blunt's health-insurance policies, saying Missouri couldn't afford the continuing growth in Medicaid. He wants to rely, at least in part, on market forces to help Missourians buy health insurance if he wins the governor's race.

Reaching Across the Aisle

If Nixon wins in November, how successful would he be in getting his health, education and economic packages through a Legislature still likely controlled by Republicans?

"I plan to work in a bipartisan way," he says, adding that he has reached across the aisle since the days he served as a state senator. "I can tell you that in my six years in the Senate, we worked with each other."

Nixon says he doesn't want to add to what partisanship has "done already in Jefferson City in the last four to six years."

He says he wants to provide a "respectful relationship" with the Legislature so that all sides can get moving on his health-care and education initiatives. He is optimistic that he can get members of both parties to enact measures that "make significant and real steps on both those issues."

Not so fast, say GOP lawmakers

GOP lawmakers seem less sure.

House Speaker-elect Ron Richard, R-Joplin, says Nixon "has never worked with me. But if he's elected, he'll have to look across the aisle because the House will remain in Republican hands."

In the event Nixon wins, Richard advises him to work on issues for the common good, such as economic development, whether they come from Democrats or Republicans.

Missouri Senate Majority Leader Mike Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, says Nixon has been helpful during the last four years. "I'm not saying that he reached out that much, but I'm sure he's capable of doing it," Gibbons says, who's now the GOP candidate for attorney general.

As an aside, Gibbons says Republicans will do a lot better in November than many people think, due to the resurgence of interest in the party after Sen. John McCain's selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate on the national GOP ticket.

Gibbons points to his own relationship with former Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, and says Nixon would find harmony with a Republican-controlled Legislature. Being a good governor, he says, is less a function of politics and more a function of leadership.

"You have to sit down with the other side and focus on end results and try to accommodate the other side's interests. Whether he's a Republican or Democrat, the next governor will have to have a good relationship with the Legislature."

Mending Fences With Women, Blacks

In his years as attorney general, Nixon has shown an ability to grow, mend fences and shore up relationships with women and black people, in particular.

Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City, remembers the time when Nixon was on the "wrong side" on the abortion issue, mainly because he was an attorney general enforcing Missouri's laws. She says he developed a pro-choice position over time.

"He has had to defend laws we didn't like, and that caused tension," she says. "He was doing his job. But he definitely has made progress with women. He has had a lot of conversations with them on the issues. His wife, Georganne, has helped him understand when it comes to reproductive and workplace issues and helped him bridge the gap."

Likewise, Nixon ran into some political heat when he found himself attacking St. Louis' desegregation case and saying that settling it would help Missouri save money. That comment didn't go over well with some of Missouri's black citiizens, even though most of them knew Nixon was no proponent of segregated schools.

Former Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White says those comments hurt Nixon in the eyes of some black voters. But White, who is African-American, notes that black lawmakers in Jefferson City also had a hand in determining the outcome of the case.

At any rate, White speaks highly of Nixon and his record as attorney general, saying he never "held anybody back because of their race." White praised Nixon's employment record, pointing out that he hired African-American attorneys to help with the tobacco litigation and put black professionals in important jobs, such as special assistant to the attorney general.

Moreover, Nixon can take credit for pro-consumer initiatives that have been beneficial to black Missourians. These include his work in cracking down on high interest rates by co-called payday lenders.

Most important, White says, is that Nixon "stands head and shoulders" above Hulshof, and White says that positive view of Nixon won't be lost on African-Americans when they vote in November.

Getting Away From It All

Nixon is from DeSoto, but state law requires the attorney general to live in Jefferson City. He likes the place but doesn't consider it the best place to unwind. For that he retreats with wife and kids to his father's cabin on the White River in Arkansas.

"My father's getting up in the age (82)," Nixon says, "I enjoy spending time with him. Getting the fly rod out and pulling in a few trout -- that relaxes me."

Back home in Jefferson City, he says, "We're almost at the empty nest stage. We enjoy time with the boys. We don't get as much time with them as we'd like but..." he pauses and laughs, "they might think we get too much time with them."

Other than trout fishing and relaxing on the White, Nixon says his second best way to relax is "playing hoops." Once the campaign is over and he has a little time on his hands, he says he looks forward to getting to a regular gym and playing full games of basketball.

(not) Tooting His Horn At DeSoto High

Nixon didn't say whether he could best Barack Obama on the court, but he's definitely sure he could never outplay Bill Clinton on sax. That's clear from a story he told about shaking hands with the band director in Plattsburg in northwest Missouri. Nixon discovered to his delight that the two of them shared the same name. That revelation led the attorney general to tell the band director about the time he realized just how poorly he had performed as a saxophone player at DeSoto High. Nixon summoned the courage to tell the band director he wanted to quit.

"I was scared. I knew he'd say I couldn't do that because it was a small band and he needed players."

But the band director looked Nixon square in the eye and said, "Jay, you're making the right decision."

As Nixon chuckled about the memory of the meeting with his band director, he added that, unfortunately, he still wasn't out of the woods. Due to a shortage of musicians, Nixon, the football player, was still ordered to wear a band uniform.

"So at half-time, I had to run off the field, squeeze into this huge band uniform over my (football) pants and get back on the field."

The best-kept secret, he says with a laugh, was that while he was allowed to stand in the formation "they never let me put a reed in my saxophone."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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