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Nixon defends renewed call for campaign donation limits

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 8, 2013 - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon says he remains serious about his threat – laid out in his State of the State address -- to go directly to the voters if the General Assembly doesn’t reinstate campaign donation limits.

Nixon, a Democrat, also brushes off the GOP criticisms he hasn’t been practicing what he’s been preaching. Nixon has collected millions of dollars in large donations of $10,000 or more – some more than $100,000 – since Republicans tossed out the limits in 2008, under then-Gov. Matt Blunt.

“When you talk about change, the first thing somebody wants to do is attack you,” the governor said during an interview Wednesday, while in Jefferson County for an unrelated event.

His comments appeared to his most detailed about donation limits since resurrecting the issue during his speech.

Nixon reached for his favorite source of comparisons – sports – to counter his critics.

“I don’t like the ‘designated hitter rule’ either, but if I was managing an American League team, I wouldn’t be batting my pitcher,” Nixon said.

His point, Nixon continued, was that he has followed the state’s campaign-donation restrictions – or the lack of – but that he has never made a secret of his strong preference for contribution restrictions, and his belief that a lack of limits has been “corrosive” on Missouri politics.

And the governor believes that a majority of Missourians agree with him.

Nixon recalled that, during his 16 years as attorney general, he had conducted campaigns when the state’s limits were as low as $300 or up to $1,200. (For several years in the 1990s, the state had dueling limits – competing in court -- because the General Assembly approved one set of limits, and Missouri voters approved lower ones.)

And Nixon also noted that he had defended Missouri’s limits before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999, when conservatives sought to loss them all out. The high court ruled in favor of Missouri’s higher set of limits in January 2000.

“I think I have a unique perspective here, not only because I support campaign donation limits,” the governor said. “I’ve seen what’s happened and the corrosive effect” of no donation limits.

When asked, Nixon declined to commit whether he would seek to put a ballot measure reinstating limits before Missouri voters in 2014 or 2016. He also refused to offer his opinion of what the limits should be.

He said he wanted to be flexible, and was simply out to persuade Republican legislative leaders to take action this year to put a new set of limits in place.

“My point is that, if they don’t, I’ll move forward with the groups that I’m sure will” assist him in circulating an initiative petition and getting the signatures necessary to put a proposal before voters.

“I will want to get on the ballot relatively soon," Nixon added.  

Nixon indicated that he’s disappointed, but not surprised, by the criticisms from legislators who oppose limits.

“Their strategy is not to join the discussion about how we ought to get more confidence in the campaign system,” the governor said, “but to attack the messenger.”

"They're certainly entitled to do that. The 1st Amendment allows folks to say what they want," Nixon went on.

But he asserted that it was "ironic'' that "when I lay out a campaign contribution idea and call on them to assist me in that, they think the public will respond by them 'barking' at me. I won't respond to that, nor will the public. We need to get campaign contribution limits back in the state of Missouri."

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.