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Nixon orders review of contracts related to rodeo event featuring 'Obama' chased by a bull

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2013 - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said Monday that he has ordered the state's Office of Administration to review all contracts in connection with a rodeo event at the Missouri State Fair where a clown wearing a mask of President Barack Obama was chased by a bull.

The governor, who appoints the fair board, emphasized that he was committed "to determine what actions can be taken to hold those people accountable."

Meanwhile, fair officials announced that the clown -- who they declined to identify -- has been banned from any future appearances at the fair. And the chairman of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association -- Mark Ficken, who served as the emcee -- has stepped down, officials reported.

Ficken is superintendent of the Boone County school district. His lawyer said Ficken didn't make the controversial comments during the rodeo.

The association, which oversaw the rodeo, has apologized, along with fair officials, in the wake of continued condemnation by statewide officials in both parties.

"The performance was inappropriate and offensive, and does not reflect the values of Missourians or the state fair," Nixon said during a question-answer session following an unrelated appearance in Kirkwood.

"The state fair should be showcasing the best of Missouri in a fun, family-friendly and positive atmosphere."

The Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association said in its apology that it was "dealing with the situation firmly and quickly as this type of behavior will not be tolerated. The sport of rodeo is not meant to be a political platform."

But the apologies haven’t quelled the controversy, which has generated calls for state investigations, particularly because the fair is taxpayer funded.

The incident occurred during Saturday night’s rodeo at the fair, held annually in Sedalia, Mo. The two-week fair receives an annual tax subsidy from state.

According to eyewitness accounts, the crowd was cheering wildly as an announcer repeatedly asked whether they wanted to see Obama "run down by a bull,’" as one audience member put it. 

There continues to be confusion over who made the most incendiary comments to the crowd, with Ficken -- identified in some early news accounts -- emphasizing that it wasn't him.

It's also unclear if the clown wearing the Obama mask was a person, or a dummy propped up by a stick in the middle of the area. Other clowns apparently teased the "Obama" clown, "playing with his lips," as one witness described the action. The Kansas City Star has posted a two-part video (hereand here) of the incident. CNN has an edited version.

The clown making many of the comments over the mike has not been officially identified, but the Rodeo Association said the participants were part of a contract act.

By Sunday afternoon, social media — especially Twitter and Facebook — were abuzz with debate over the incident, which has attracted national and international news coverage. 

The pro-Democratic local blog site ShowMeProgress.comwas among the first to highlight the incident, linking to a Facebook post by an angry attendee at the rodeo.

State budget official clarifies public money spent on the fair

According to state budget figures available Monday, and released by House Democrats, the state fair is slated to receive $5.17 million for fiscal year 2014. The bulk of it is federal money, the budget implies, with at least $400,000 from state coffers.

The two different sources explain why officials were circulating wildly different funding estimates, ranging from $400,000 to $5 million a year, on Sunday.

(Update) However, state Budget Director Linda Luebbering said some were misinterpreting the budget line item for the state fair referring to "federal and other money" -- $4.42 million, a figure highlighted by House Democrats.

Luebbering said there is no federal money spent on the fair, and that the bulk of the $4.42 million is generated by the fair's fees.  The state does, however, give $558,302 to the fair, which is generated by a special tax on wine and grapes.

The current fiscal year's budget (FY2014) also contains another $500,000 in state money for a one-time expense to upgrade water and sewer lines on the fair grounds.

The upshot: the state's current one-year allocation for the fair is just over $1 million, Luebbering said. The word "federal'' long has been included in the budget line in case any federal money was obtained for the fair, she said. (End of update)

Several Democrats in the state House have called for the fair to be stripped from the budget, and at least one has asked that Gov. Jay Nixon cancel the governor's annual "ham breakfast'' -- a bipartisan political event slated for Thursday at the fairgrounds.

Nixon said Monday that cancelling such an event would unfairly harm the entire fair and the thousands of people, young and old, who participate. He highlighted efforts to improve the attendance at the fair, "which has been a long tradition'' for the state.

As for the rodeo incident, the governor said, "I don't think it's going to be that complicated to figure out what happened."

Bipartisan criticisms of rodeo 'stunt'

State fair officials issued a statement Sunday night on Facebook. "The performance by one of the rodeo clowns at Saturday’s event was inappropriate and disrespectful and does not reflect the opinions or standards of the Missouri State Fair," spokeswoman Kari Mergen said. "We strive to be a family friendly event and regret that Saturday’s rodeo badly missed that mark."

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was among the first officials to issue a condemnation, calling it "a stunt."

"If what’s being reported is true, then it’s shameful and it’s unacceptable," she said. "The state fair is funded by taxpayer dollars and is supposed to be a place where we can all bring our families and celebrate the state that we love. But the young Missourians who witnessed this stunt learned exactly the wrong lesson about political discourse — that somehow it’s ever acceptable to, in a public event, disrespect, taunt, and joke about harming the president of our great nation. Missouri is better than this, and I expect someone to be held accountable."

(Update) On Monday, other officials joined in the condemnations. State Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, called the rodeo incident "inappropriate. I think we ought to ask some questions about the contracting process."

State Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood and chairman of the House Budget Committee, added, "The whole fair should not be demonized because of one act."

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, highlighted the national and international attention. "I am amazed that in 2013, such hatred, intolerance and disrespect towards the President of the United States could take place at the Missouri State Fair," he said. "Our fair is supposed to showcase the best of Missouri, instead, it showed an ugly face of intolerance and ignorance to the world." (end update)

Bipartisan calls for investigations

The Missouri House’s Democratic leadership, who are in the minority, was calling for Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, to set up a committee to investigate.

"Poking fun at our president is a time-honored tradition in this country, but the incident Saturday night at the Missouri State Fair rodeo went well beyond the line," said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis. "The concept of an angry bull attempting to trample a black man for the amusement of a crowd is neither entertaining nor funny and is not the type of behavior that our taxpayer-subsidized state fair should promote."

State Rep. John Mayfield, D-Independence, announced that he plans to bring up the matter at the scheduled Aug. 26 meeting of the Interim Committee on Government Responsiveness and Accountability; he is among its members.

Lt. Gov Peter Kinder, a Republican, tweeted that it was up to the governor "to hold the people accountable."

Kinder appeared to be the only major state Republican to weigh in Sunday. On Twitter, he posted two tweets. In one, he said, "The @MoStateFair celebrates Missouri and our people. I condemn the actions disrespectful to POTUS the other night. We are better than this."

Kinder then added, "I love the @MoStateFair and will attend this week. I implore @GovJayNixon to hold the people responsible for the other night accountable."

Jason Rosenbaum of the Beacon staff contributed to this article.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.