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State economic development director departs, amid reports of split with governor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 14, 2009 - Gov. Jay Nixon's office confirmed this afternoon what had been circulating for days in news outlets and the internet: Missouri Economic Development Director Linda Martinez is out.

And for the moment, the job's responsibilities will fall to Deputy Director Katie Steele Danner -- who, unlike Martinez, has a long Democratic resume. 

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican, also has weighed in -- on behalf of Martinez.

"Despite unemployment approaching 10 percent in Missouri and hundreds of thousands of residents unable to find work, Gov. Jay Nixon has refused to meet with the cabinet official he placed in charge of Missouri's economic development less than eight months ago,'' Kinder said in a terse statement.

"It is one thing for Gov. Nixon not to meet with me; it is simply astounding for him to ignore his own director of economic development. This behavior is unacceptable, and his refusal to put aside his petty political differences or halt the infighting among his staff has caused Missourians to suffer needlessly."

The state Republican Party sent out a similar statement minutes later.  The Republicans' assertions are based on Martinez's brief resignation letter, which reads:

"I am sorry we have been unable to meet and therefore we have been unable to discuss and reconcile our different views on how to move the State that we both love forward.Please accept this letter as notice of my resignation effective immediately."

However, Nixon spokesman Scott Holste disputed the implication. He said that Nixon “frequently meets with his Cabinet members and met with Director Martinez as recently as Sept. 10.”

Locally, Nixon and Martinez were together Sept. 3 when the two joined St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay in announcing a revitalization project planned for the South Side site of the old Carondelet Coke Corporation.

Martinez's demise in her job had been expected for the last few days, after Post-Dispatch gossip columnist Deb Petersonbroke the story with an account of alleged strains between Martinez and the governor.

Nixon had to do a lot of politicking in February, just weeks after taking office, to win Martinez's Senate confirmation. Conservative Republicans raised questions about her role in 2007 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.

Nixon's staff ended up enlisting the aid of St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, a Republican on good personal terms with the governor.

(The St. Louis Business Journal'saccount of Martinez's departure includes a lament from the local head of the St. Louis Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.)

During the last legislative session, Nixon and state economic development officials -- including Martinez -- were consumed with getting approval of the governor's economic-development package. It eventually passed, and Holste said that Martinez “played a big role” in getting the bill to the finish line. She and Nixon appeared together at public events to tout the bill's provisions.

Still, state Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, cited the challenges facing Martinez because of her lack of experience in dealing with the Legislature. He said her strength was in her experience in dealing with the various private factions of any economic development project.

Some of that was mentioned in Nixon's statement today about her resignation.

“Today, I accepted the resignation of Linda Martinez as director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development.

“I appreciate the work Linda has done over the first eight months of this administration. Her efforts to create jobs and to give the department increased economic development tools, including the successful passage of a bi-partisan jobs bill, will continue to pay dividends to the people of Missouri. I wish her success in her return to private practice, where she will continue to be an asset to this state.

“It is clear that we need to take our effort to create jobs to the next level. To that end, I have started a Show-Me Business Tour to meet with business leaders across the state to hear about the opportunities and challenges facing their companies.

“There is much work to be done to attract more businesses to Missouri and put more of our citizens back to work. We will immediately begin a search for a new director."

Danner was named as the interim director. She is a former state representative from northeast Missouri and held a regional federal post during the Clinton administration. Her husband is former state Sen. Steve Danner, a lawyer who made an unsuccessful bid for state auditor in 1994 and has served multiple tours in Iraq (generally using his legal skills).

The couple was at the Democratic presidential convention in Denver last year.

The Danners also are on good terms with the governor.

(Freelance writer Jason Rosenbaum contributed some information for this article.)

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.