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Spence and Nixon paint different portraits of Missouri during first forum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2012 - COLUMBIA, Mo. -- In their first-ever appearance on the same stage, Republican candidate for governor Dave Spence repeatedly went on the attack against Democratic incumbent Jay Nixon – who opted to ignore most of the jabs.

Nixon, at times appearing restrained, chose nonetheless not to engage as Spence accused him repeatedly of being in the pocket of labor unions and major law firms.

“He is beholden to special interests. Look at the monetary trail,” said Spence, a wealthy businessman who has self-funded much of his campaign. “In the real world, this CEO would be fired.”

Nixon, given extra time to rebuttal, said simply, “People know how independent I am. I’ve been at this awhile.”

The two, plus Libertarian Jim Higgins, fielded questions for about an hour Friday morning before members of the Missouri Press Association.

For the entire forum, the governor ignored Spence's comments -- and didn't appear to look at him, either.

Instead, Nixon stuck with his chief message that, during his first term, Missouri has added jobs and lowered its unemployment rate, expanded access to student loans and maintained one the few AAA bond ratings among the 50 states. His administration, he added, also has exercised "solid, solid fiscal discipline."

"I focus on what matters, getting people to work together,'' the governor said. The state's acquisition of 17,900 new jobs in August was "the third most of any state in the country,'' he said.

Missouri, said Nixon, was "headed in the right direction. We need to keep moving that way."

But Spence painted a much gloomier picture of the state, comparing Missouri's fiscal condition to the Titanic and "running into an iceberg."

"We're 48th out of 50 in economic growth in the last 10 years,'' he said (a period that also includes two other governors, one Republican and one Democrat).

Noting that one of every six Missourians on food stamps, Spence asked, "Is this truly our heritage?"

If elected governor, Spence said he would right the state's ship by passing "true tort reform,'' which would limit lawsuits, and passing "right to work,'' which bars businesses and unions from requiring all workers at a firm to join a union if a majority vote for representation.

Such changes, said Spence, would encourage additional job growth.

Among the news-making responses:

  • Tobacco tax: All three came out against the proposed increase in Missouri’s tobacco tax, at 17-cents a pack now the lowest in the country. A measure to increase it to 90 cents a pack is on the Nov. 6 ballot. But Nixon added, “The people have a right to vote on it.”
  • Affordable Care Act: Spence and Higgins indicated they oppose at least some aspects of the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Spence cited talk of "rampant fraud'' in the Medicaid program, when asked whether he supported expanding Medicaid, as called for under the act. But then he added, "And if I could be assured that we were running it as well as we possibly could and there weren't any abuses, I'm very open to helping our fellow citizens." Spence also called for curbs on lawsuits, saying Missouri had become "the Sue Me State."

Nixon noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld most of the act, including some provisions he opposed. Now, he said, he sought “the best fit for Missouri” and pledged to work with the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

  • Public education: Nixon repeatedly praised public education and explicitly made clear his opposition to school vouchers. "We shall not take public dollars and send it to private schools,'' he said. "It's a values issue."

"This year, we will have record funding for our classrooms,'' Nixon added. The governor also highlighted new measures "to get more accountability in charter schools
Spence said he also opposed school vouchers, said such a program "would be mass chaos, to tell you the truth." But while observing that "97 percent of the schools in the state are working well,'' Spence said he might be open to "school choice'' in the poorly performing districts.

Higgins said he supports school vouchers.

  • Transportation: Spence said he believed most Missouri highways "are in decent shape'' and that he would want to examine the more than $2 billion spent annually by the state's Highways and Transportation.

He also questioned the affordability of any high-speed rail projects, such as the faster rail line now planned between Chicago to St. Louis. "It sounds good in concept, but who's going to pay for it?" Spence asked.
Nixon, meanwhile, said rail improvements in Missouri were important to economic growth, and cited the efforts to maintain the often financially troubled line between St. Louis and Kansas City. He said he was proud of the cooperative effort with Illinois, which involved federal money. "We're working hard to keep rail in our state,'' the governor said.

Higgins said he opposes light rail.

  • Second Amendment: All three emphasized their support for the right to carry guns. Spence brought up a statement that Nixon had made almost 10 years ago, while attorney general, in which he had expressed concern about the legislative effort -- which succeeded in 2003 -- to allow most Missourians over 21 the right to carry concealed weapons. Voters had rejected the idea in 1999, in a regionally polarized statewide vote.

Nixon ignored Spence's jab, instead noting the state's "long tradition of using guns in a sportsman-like way'' and his frequent hunting and fishing expeditions. He noted that, earlier this month, he had hit the limit on the number of doves shot during the first day of dove-hunting season.

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.