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Union leader at Democrat Days: Without Nixon, Missouri would be another Wisconsin

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 5, 2012 - HANNIBAL -- Even with this fall’s election looming, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is continuing his credo of accentuating the positive and playing down the negative.

Take his address during the closing banquet for the weekend's annual Democrat Days in Hannibal. Nixon never used the words “Republican” or “Democrat,” as he instead chose to focus on the can-do spirit of average Missourians in confronting adversity.

Even so, Nixon’s political role in the continued combat between unions and Republicans was cast in stark terms by Saturday night’s keynote speaker, regional Teamsters president Jim Kabell.

Kabell’s speech described the power of one person to change history. Amid his series of examples – from the biblical figure Nehemiah to seamstress-turned-civil-rights-activist Rosa Parks to former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan – Kabell worked in Nixon as well.

"He has been a remarkable governor," Kabell said. "He's the most popular governor in this country today."

Without Nixon, said Kabell, Missouri likely would be facing the same battles over collective-bargaining rights that within the past year have engulfed legislatures in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere.

“In Missouri, if we didn’t have this man as governor, we’d be another Wisconsin, we’d be another Ohio,” Kabell said, citing governors’ decisions to sign into law various restrictions on workers’ rights. “We’d better wake up.”

Kabell did not detail the current efforts in Missouri’s Republican-controlled General Assembly to pass bills that would outlaw closed-union shops and make Missouri a “right-to-work” state, eliminate teacher tenure and make it more difficult for workers to sue employers for job discrimination. 

Nixon has signaled that he would veto such bills – he did veto a job-descrimination measure in 2011 – but he generally hasn’t brought up the topics and has sidestepped making many public comments.

Kabell’s point was that it was what people do, not what they say, that is important. And in 2012, the union leader said that Democrats and their allies in organized labor have to get voters out if they want to stop Republican attacks on their rights.

Nixon is among the Democratic candidates on this fall's ballot. At the moment, his chief Republican rivals are St. Louis businessman David Spence and consultant Bill Randles.

In 2010, Kabell noted that the Republican turnout in Missouri was about the same as in 2008. But Democrats turned out 1 million fewer voters, which he said was to blame for the huge wave of Republican victories – a scene duplicated in many other states, including Wisconsin and Ohio.

“Folks, we went to sleep,” the labor leader said. “That can’t happen in 2012. When we lost that election in 2010, the right-wing of the Republican Party decided they were going to crucify the United States, and they were going to start with organized labor.”

The threat is real for the future of the Democratic Party, in Missouri and nationally, he asserted. “Because, organized labor -- if they can chill us -- folks, you’re dead. That’s it. I don’t care what anybody says, you’re dead without organized labor. We’re dead without you. We have common interests.”

Nixon sat transfixed throughout Kabell’s address. Afterward, the governor made no public comments; he quickly left the banquet hall to head back to Jefferson City.

Obama the subject of racist attacks

Kabell also praised President Barack Obama and said that Democrats in Missouri and elsewhere need to be more vigorous in defending his record and in addressing one reason the labor leader said Obama has faced so much opposition since taking office in 2009.

Kabell lauded Obama's historic election as the nation's first black president. But looking at the almost all-white audience gathered in Hannibal, Kabell pointedly said, “There is way the heck too much racism in this country.”

He touched off a standing ovation.