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Power play: Nixon and GOP legislator flex their muscles over Martinez nomination

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 10, 2009 - St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann says he wasn't offended when a top aide to Gov. Jay Nixon warned him of possible fallout if a county legislator succeeded in blocking the governor's choice for economic development director.

But Ehlmann added that he hoped Nixon and his staff learned something from the confrontation, which ended Tuesday when the state Senate approved local lawyer Linda Martinez for the post by a voice vote.

That lesson? At a time of economic stress, illegal immigration remains a hot topic in Missouri among the public and politicians.

Still, Ehlmann and other Republicans, including the legislator in question -- state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville -- also may have gained some knowledge during the dispute.

When Nixon wants something bad, he's not afraid to throw his considerable political weight around.

Nixon communications director Jack Cardetti offered the standard praise of Tuesday's Senate action: "Gov. Nixon believes Director Martinez's Senate confirmation is an important step in helping to turn Missouri's economy around and giving Missouri businesses the tools to grow and create jobs."

Cardetti also played down that fateful phone call made by Nixon's chief of staff John Watson last week to put pressure on Rupp, who had forced a delay last week in a Senate vote on Martinez's nomination.

Watson telephoned Ehlmann, who coincidentally was in the state Capitol in Jefferson City when the dispute first boiled over.

As Ehlmann recounts it, Watson said, " 'This is not good for St. Charles County if your senator is over here trying to kill this nomination.' "

Ehlmann, a former state senator himself, observed with a chuckle that, "I wouldn't call it that I was 'threatened.' ''

But then he added that he could understand why some -- notably Rupp -- might interpret Watson's call that way.

Cardetti said that Watson's call simply reflected the strong lobbying campaign that Nixon launched on Martinez's behalf. "The governor's office called business leaders and local leaders around the state to support Linda Martinez,'' Cardetti said.

In any case, Ehlmann -- who sits on Nixon's economic stimulus council -- said he briefly served as a intermediary between Rupp, Martinez and the governor.

Ehlmann relayed Nixon's ire to Rupp. And the county executive also told Martinez that she had made a mistake in not seeking out Rupp and other state senators when the controversy first broke.

"I wanted the governor's office to know how important this issue is for St. Charles County and its residents,'' Ehlmann said.

At issue was Martinez's 2007 role as one of the lead opposition lawyers in the court fight involving Valley Park's law prohibiting businesses and landlords from hiring or renting to illegal immigrants. (Valley Park is in southwest St. Louis County.)

At one point, 18 lawyers were representing the opponents, which included the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Valley Park's defenders, which included then-Mayor Jeffery Whitteaker, said its actions were aimed at taking a stand against illegal immigration and the businesses who encourage it.

Opponents said the measure violated Missouri's landlord-tenant laws, the U.S. Constitution and the federal Fair Housing Act.

After several judges ruled against Valley Park, its residents became concerned about the hefty legal bills. Ten months ago, Whitteaker lost his bid for re-election.

Martinez's nomination swiftly resurrected the divide over the issue, even though Nixon and Republican legislative leaders initially focused on her strong background in economic development. She is a partner at the prominent law firm of Bryan Cave, and represents a number of high-profile clients, including the St. Louis Blues, BJC Healthcare and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

But illegal-immigrant activists also weighed in with their objections, including prominent conservative Republican Phyllis Schlafly, leaders of the state's Constitution Party and a group called Missourians Against Illegal Immigration.

Rupp sought to delay Martinez's nomination after hearing from "dozens and dozens'' of critics concerned about her involvement in the Valley Park case.

In a statement sent out Monday, for example, Missourians Against Illegal Immigration decried Martinez's "public advocacy against Missouri's commonsense laws."

As late as Monday, Nixon aides were saying that the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry backed Martinez.

Spokeswoman Karen Buschmann said that wasn't the case. The chamber "does not have a position on Martinez's confirmation,'' Buschmann said. "We also were not involved or took a position on the Valley Park incident."

The St. Charles County Council, Ehlmann said, is considering an anti-immigration measure that would dovetail with a state Senate bill sponsored by Rupp to allow the attorney general to pull the business licenses of firms that hire illegal immigrants.

Ehlmann said that Rupp was within his rights, and fulfilling his legislative duties, when he sought assurances from Martinez that she opposed illegal immigration.

"This is not a little thing,'' Ehlmann added.

Rupp also vented his frustrations Tuesday morning on the Senate floor, as he accused Nixon of improperly strong-arming critics.

But Tuesday afternoon, with Martinez confirmed, both lessons from the battle seemed to be taking hold.

Nixon spokesman Cardetti emphasized that "the governor has a strong record of supporting efforts to crack down on companies that hire illegal immigrants."

And Ehlmann sought to tamp down any tensions with Nixon. "If there's any damage done to our relationship with the governor,'' the county executive said, "We're certainly going to work to repair it."

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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