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Missouri Chamber's endorsement of Spence prompts strong Democratic push-back

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 13, 2012 - In a move that surprised some Democrats, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce & Industry has endorsed Republican Dave Spence for Missouri governor, rather than the incumbent Democrat, Gov. Jay Nixon.

Chamber chief executive Dan Mehan denied Thursday that the decision had anything to do with Wednesday’s legislative veto session, in which Republican legislators were unable to assemble the votes necessary to override Nixon’s veto of a bill -- sought by the chamber -- reinstating a vehicle tax that had been tossed out by the Missouri Supreme Court.

“Really, it has nothing to do with the veto,’’ Mehan said in an interview. Rather, “this is about Dave Spence and what he would do, if he wins.”

But that’s not how Nixon’s campaign sees it.

Said Nixon campaign manager Oren Shur: “We know that this particular organization and the candidate they’ve endorsed support imposing a new, retroactive car tax on more than 120,000 Missourians without a vote of the people – an effort that Gov. Nixon successfully blocked yesterday, so the timing of this endorsement isn’t surprising.”

Spence, a Kirkwood businessman, had supported reinstatement of the vehicle tax – which he maintained was “not a tax increase,” but simply a provision in tax policy that imposed a fee on out-of-state purchases of vehicles, or those between individuals, in order to prevent a financial incentive to avoid buying a vehicle from a dealer in Missouri.

The state Supreme Court said that the state constitution requires a public vote before such a tax, or fee, can be imposed. The jurisdictions affected include St. Louis County.  Nixon, the state’s former attorney general, said the legislature’s proposed fix might not comply with the court’s ruling, and said that local jurisdictions who needed to retain the tax should put it before their voters.

Still, the language used by Shur to dismiss the chamber’s endorsement – such as “this particular organization” -- indicated that there may be some anger in the governor’s camp over the endorsement, since Nixon – who has touted himself as pro-business – has worked closely with the chamber on various initiatives during Nixon’s three-plus years in office.

It's no secret that the Missouri Chamber generally supports Republicans, and has never endorsed a Democrat for governor.

Still, there were some who thought this election might be different. “This is the most business-friendly Democratic governor in the country,” said Democratic consultant Mike Kelley, adding that he was outraged, and somewhat shocked, by the chamber’s decision to endorse Spence – especially since most polls indicate that Nixon is likely to win re-election Nov. 6.

“This is one of the most bone-headed political endorsements,’’ Kelley said, asserting that the Chamber will have put itself in a difficult position should Nixon win.

Mehan doesn’t see it that way, although he acknowledges that their relationship may be strained if Nixon is re-elected.  

But Mehan added that he and the Chamber’s board also don’t see Nixon’s re-election as a slam dunk. The political landscape, nationally and in Missouri, is “very fluid” and moving in the GOP’s favor, Mehan asserted.

Spence, by the way, was delighted by the Chamber’s support. "My number one priority as governor will be creating an environment where job creators can thrive and getting Missourians back to work,” he said in a statement.

“The Chamber endorsement recognizes that a governor beholden to personal injury attorneys and labor bosses is a toxic formula for economic growth. I look forward to working with the Chamber to pass a pro-jobs agenda that makes Missouri the best state in the nation to do business, raise a family and live. Missouri can’t afford four more years of the status quo under Jay Nixon.”

Mehan cites 'Successes and some disappointments'

Mehan said that the chamber’s chief message was that “we can do better’’ with Spence as governor.

However, Mehan acknowledged that he and Nixon have had “a productive working relationship” since the governor took office in January 2009.

“It was a good relationship, with some successes and some disappointments,” he added. Among other things, Nixon and the chamber have worked on several jobs bills, and on the ill-fated effort to persuade the Chinese to consider Lambert-St. Louis International Airport for a proposed cargo hub.

But the disappointments – “tort reform and workers’ compensation reform” – may have been at the heart of the decision to go with Spence, a successful Kirkwood businessman who is making his first bid for public office, and financing a significant chunk of his campaign.

Nixon has twice vetoed bills, sought by the chamber, that would revamp existing laws to make it more difficult for a worker to sue an employer for discrimination, and to restrict lawsuits regarding occupational diseases, while also barring workers who get injured on the job from suing co-workers except in unusual cases.

Mehan noted that in the chamber’s endorsement statement, he had called the measures “bottom-line issues for Missouri business owners.”

“Dave Spence is a business owner himself and understands what this legislation means for Missouri’s economy,” Mehan said.

Nixon has said that he saw both measures as too unfair to workers, a stance that has won him support from unions and fellow Democrats who often have privately decried the governor’s political penchant as a loner who prefers to avoid divisive, partisan rhetoric.

Nixon highlighted those vetoes in an address to Democratic delegates at last week’s Democratic convention last week in Charlotte. But at the same time, the governor highlighted his efforts to reach out to Republicans, especially on economic issues, and avoided lobbing at any political shots at Spence or the GOP.

Nixon campaign manager Shur reaffirmed the governor’s pro-business approach as he  downplayed the significance of the Chamber’s decision. ““Governor Nixon has helped make Missouri’s business climate one of the strongest in the nation by working with business leaders to eliminate the franchise tax, to maintain the state’s perfect AAA credit rating, to recruit major companies to our state, and to bring the state’s unemployment rate well below the national average…”

Meanwhile, Mehan said the Chamber stands by its decision and is prepared to live with any consequences, should Nixon be re-elected. If that turns out to be the case, he said, “we’ll walk in with our eyes wide open.”

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.