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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the Trail: After 8 years, Nixon's governorship leaves important lessons

This collage includes pictures of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon from every year of his tenure.
Provided by Gov. Nixon's office and Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Pictures of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon from every year of his tenure.

As Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s tenure in the executive branch ends, he's leaving something of a paradoxical legacy.

The Democratic statewide official achieved nearly unprecedented political success for himself, even as his party lost huge areas of support in rural Missouri. After his promises to expand the state’s Medicaid program ran into intractable opposition, Nixon spent a sizable part of his tenure paring back state governmental agencies.

And while he won praise for how his administration responded to natural disasters, Nixon elicited extensive criticism for how he handled the crisis that followed Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson in 2014.

These aforementioned observations have been talked about extensively over the past few weeks, especially during the governor’s appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast. But eight years is an eternity in Missouri politics, which makes it somewhat difficult to ascertain the total Nixon legacy. Like other chief executives, Nixon’s impact on Missouri policy and politics won’t become clear until he’s out of office for a few years.

But with those important caveats in mind, I can safely say that I’ve learned a lot about Nixon and Missouri's governorship from attending countless news conferences and asking him untold numbers of questions. This is more than just admitting that he was sort of right that smartphones would turn us all into mindless, information consuming zombies.

So with a little bit of nostalgia and a lot of reflection, here are some key lessons from Nixon’s governorship for posterity:

A campaign for governor may not foretell what you'll deal with as governor

In Nixon’s first gubernatorial campaign, he laid out somewhat broad priorities. That included things such as cutting property taxes for seniors and reinvigorating the economies of small towns.

Gov. Jay Nixon speaks before the Washington University presidential debate in October.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Jay Nixon speaks before the Washington University presidential debate in October.

While I’m sure Nixon can point to individual things that furthered these campaign promises, it would be hard to argue that they were primary focuses of his governorship. In fact, Nixon’s most high profile economic development efforts were urban-centric. He signed into law incentive programs aimed at bolstering automobile and aerospace production, both of which had varying degrees of success. And he got behind unsuccessful efforts to cultivate an international shipping hub at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and to build a St. Louis football stadium.

Arguably the most impactful legislative initiative Nixon approved was an overhaul of state pensions,a public policy initiative that some Illinois politicians would sacrifice a yak to achieve. It’s not the type of thing Nixon was talking about extensively during the run-up to his governorship.

Here's a lesson for Gov.-elect Eric Greitens: The governorship involves a lot more than what was put into television ads or campaign discourse. Every day is a new adventure — or steep challenge.

Successful governorships depend on unlikely political relationships

As a Democratic governor in an increasingly Republican state, Nixon often needed help from GOP officials to enact sweeping legislative initiatives — or to fix problems outside the General Assembly’s purview.

Senator Pro Tem Ron Richard answers questions from reporters.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Nixon maintained a good relationship with Senate Pro Tem Ron Richard through most of his term. Richard was speaker of the Missouri House during Nixon's first two years in office.

For instance, Nixon probably had more legislative success in the first two years of his administration. That’s not a coincidence: Not only were Republican legislative majorities slimmer then, he also maintained solid relationships with then-House Speaker Ron Richard and Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields.

He was also able to find Republicans willing to help on important boards and commissions. The most notable example of this was his selection of his former adversary David Steelman to serve during particularly turbulent times on the UM System Board of Curators and the MOSERS(Missouri State Employees Retirement System) board.

After the 2010 election cycle greatly increased GOP majorities in the Missouri House and Senate, there was a noticeable shift. This red wave sparked two trends: More contentious and high profile veto sessions and less helpful GOP leaders. And that meant Nixon had to play defense, with varying degrees of success.

For instance, Nixon’s veto wasn’t enough to stop abortion restrictions, a photo identification requirement, an income tax cut or a congressional redistricting map. The legislature overrode those vetoes. But thanks to GOP lawmakers who diverged from party leadership and perhaps the gubernatorial bully pulpit, Nixon’s veto pen was able to stop “right to work” and an overhaul of the state’s school transfer law.

With Greitens expected to sign previously stifled GOP priorities into law, Nixon’s reputation as a temporary gatekeeper may solidify.

Being governor isn't just about signing bills into law

During his appearance on Politically Speaking, Nixon made an important point before talking about his up and down relationship with the General Assembly. 

Gov. Jay Nixon holds a news conference in his office following the end of the legislative session last week.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Jay Nixon holds a news conference in his office after the end of the legislative session.

Being governor, Nixon contended, was about more than just signing or vetoing things. While not discounting that aspect, Nixon said, “in our system of government, the governor is much more governmentally powerful.”

“The economic development tools are yours. The appointment tools are yours, many of which don’t require advise and consent,” Nixon said. “It’s kind of like when you study civics and you see some of these [governments] have strong mayor systems. … Especially on the fiscal end, the constitution properly gives the governor a significant role.

“The bottom line is, I think there’s an overestimation in the public eyes about the legislature,” he added.

Nixon backed up the above statements on several fronts: He often cut or withheld significant amounts of money from the state’s budget. He was able to appoint dozens of judges to the bench, many of whom will serve long after he leaves office. And he picked Democrat Nicole Galloway to take over as state auditor after Tom Schweich’s death.

But with great power, comes great responsibility and scrutiny: Nixon oversaw some constriction of executive power, especially after voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed the legislature to override money a governor had withheld. And some of the biggest controversies of Nixon’s governorship occurred within executive departments, most recently within the Department of Corrections.

Unlike other Democrats, Nixon found ways to connect to rural Missouri

In doing a bit of research for this article, I stumbled upon an advertisement from Nixon’s 2008 campaign called “DeSoto.”It features Nixon driving along the streets of his Jefferson County hometown in a pickup truck, talking about how growing up in a rural-ish town affected his worldview on politics and policy. 

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon takes questions from reporters in 2015.
Credit File photo by Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Jay Nixon takes questions from reporters in 2015.

What struck me about the ad was even though Nixon, at that point, had lived in Jefferson City for 16 years, he still exuded an authentic connection to outstate Missouri — right down to saying “Missouriah.” It was the type of legitimacy that allowed him to win counties all across the state, including traditionally Republican ones.

“I committed to campaign and to govern in all parts of our state,” Nixon said. “I didn’t try to approach this as ‘I’m just going to go to Democrat areas or Republican areas.’ So in campaigns and in service, I go everywhere. I don’t try to stay in the office and make people come to me.”

Still, Nixon’s personal popularity in 2008 and 2012 could not stop a full Democratic legislative collapse in rural Missouri. At the beginning of his term, numerous Democratic lawmakers came from places like northeast Missouri, southeast Missouri, central Missouri and Jefferson County. Starting in January, you could count the number of Democratic legislators from those parts of the state on one hand.

Much of this legislative malaise could be attributed to how Democrats nationally struggled in rural parts of the country. Others contended Nixon could have been collaborative in helping his fellow Democrats. Nixon attributes his party’s misfortunes, at least partly, to GOP strategizing.

“They’ve been pretty effective at the use of wedge issues,” Nixon said. “Dividing people is a very good political strategy. And that’s what they’ve done. And it’s played out. And with no [campaign] limits, they’ve parliamentarized elections too in those areas.”

While it would be foolhardy to declare that Missouri Democrats are forever doomed, there's little question that Nixon's party is in a much worse position than when he entered office.

For better or for worse, Nixon was the crisis governor

Any discussion of Nixon’s overall conduct in office would be woefully incomplete without looking at how he responded to crisis. 

Gov. Jay Nixon speaks at a press conference after a grand jury decided against indicting Darren Wilson.
Credit Bill Greenblatt I UPI
Gov. Jay Nixon speaks at a press conference after a grand jury decided against indicting Darren Wilson.

Nixon dealt with pretty much every natural disaster imaginable, from the horrific tornado in Joplin to late December floods that swamped parts of the St. Louis area. These acts of God required rapid mobilizations of government, as well as executive leadership to bring solace to people who lost their homes or loved ones.

The governor generally received high marks for handling these events. But Nixon’s relationship with crisis management will be inextricably linked to Ferguson, both in immediate aftermath of Brown’s death and how he prepared the St. Louis area for the grand jury decision. All of the major candidates for governor, including Democrat Chris Koster, contended they could have performed better than Nixon — especially in the hours after Darren Wilson wasn’t charged with a crime.

Nixon disagrees.

“We were in a powder keg there in a lot of ways, and we were trying to stay calm and not show as much strength,” said Nixon, in response to a question about how his potential successors viewed his actions in Ferguson. “You don’t want to have an army overtake things. So the bottom line is, none of those folks had the information that I had. They didn’t have the intelligence that I had. They weren’t where we were. And they’re entitled in a campaign to say whatever they want. I disagree with what was said by them, because they were uninformed.”

Beyond the retrospective analysis of how he handled protests and rioting, the bigger question going forward is if Nixon did enough to bring about the public policy change demanded after Brown’s death. He points to overhauls of municipal courts and police training as major successes.

Other suggestions in the much-touted Ferguson Commission report have iffy pathways to implementation. And voters in Missouri clearly were drawn to “law and order” messaging that both Greitens and President-elect Donald Trump used, which doesn’t exactly bode well for parts of a post-Ferguson agenda.

Still, Nixon said that it was important for himself and other policymakers to take the aftermath of Brown's death as a time for introspection. Whether it amounts to substantial policy change remains to be seen.

"It would have been a lot easier for a lot of folks to back off," Nixon said. "And I'm really proud that the region has said 'we're going to try and be an example for this,' understanding that it's a long, hard trail to get down to make real progress."

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.