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Fellow Democrats laud Nixon's unusually feisty attack against 'extremists'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 18, 2011 - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon made a rare departure Friday night from his usual conciliatory, across-the-aisle public statements to lambaste "right-wing extremists'' that he asserted are creating havoc in other states -- and would like to do the same in Jefferson City.

"Attacking working families doesn't create a single job!" the governor declared. "Attacking teachers doesn't help our kids learn. And attacking public employees, that doesn't inspire anyone!"

"I've got to tell you, though. Especially in this job, I just really don't have any patience with these right-wing extremists," Nixon said.

Nixon's audience of about 500 fellow Democrats couldn't have been more surprised -- or pleased -- offering him a couple of standing ovations during the state party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner at the Renaissance Grand Hotel in downtown St. Louis.

(Click here to view the Missouri Watchdog's videoof Nixon's entire address.)

Aimed at energizing Democrats for the 2012 elections, the dinner saw a series of Democratic officials -- notably U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. -- contend that Republicans are ignoring average people and favoring only the wealthy and the well-connected.

As proof, McCaskill asserted that the GOP is taking aim at the wrong targets to blame for the nation's budget problems. "The problem is not the teachers, not the firefighters ... not government workers. And it's sure as hell not their pensions!'' she declared.

Tester, the evening's headliner, said he had a question for congressional Republicans complaining about the lack of jobs: "Where were you during the Bush administration, when we were losing 700,000 jobs a month?"

But Nixon's address appeared to generate the most J-J buzz -- because it was so out of character.

Known for avoiding potshots at Republicans, Nixon appeared to revel in attacking unnamed opponents in the Republican-controlled General Assembly who he said were out-of-step with the public. His aim was to cast himself as a man of common sense battling those without it.

"The challenges we face are too big for ideological extremism. We don't have that kind of time to waste," Nixon said.

"We have our fair share of extremists right here in the Show Me State. You can find them in Jeff City proposing laws that hurt working families or trying to keep unemployed Missourians from getting their benefits,'' Nixon said, singling out a proposal (by state Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, who was not named) to eliminate many state child-labor laws.

Although he never used the word "Republican,'' Nixon's remarks were clearly targeting potential GOP rivals who might challenge his re-election bid in 2012.

Still, the first standing ovation appeared to take the governor by surprise. It came when Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan introduced him by telling the crowd that Nixon had taken action earlier Friday that exemplified, she said, the core values of their party.

"Our governor, Jay Nixon, stood up for regular people,'' Carnahan said, by vetoing the bill that would have implemented the provisions of a proposed constitutional amendment to require all voters to show a government-issued photo ID. The proposed amendment will still go before voters in 2012, but Nixon's veto means that it can't go into effect until a new implementation plan is approved -- unless the Republican-controlled General Assembly overrides his veto.

Carnahan said that the Democrats in the room, and the public at large, should consider the consequences if Nixon had not been the governor with the power to block such legislation.

Nixon Warns Against 'Ideological Extremists'

Visibly moved by the cheering audience, Nixon then took to the stage to cite other hot-button issues on which he sided with fellow Democrats -- such as the so-called ''right to work'' bill to weaken labor unions and a proposal to curb Missouri's automatic minimum-wage increases approved in 2006.

"They wanted to turn back the clock on the minimum wage, and we said, 'No,' " the governor said. "We want a race to the top, not the bottom."

Nixon then took off again against unnamed "ideological extremists."

"Elections matter, they just do,'' the governor said. "If you elect ideological extremist candidates, you get ideological extremist government. We won't let it happen here -- not in 2012. Not ever."

Such comments, directed at loyalists in his own party, underscored Nixon's it-could-worse message to fellow Democrats who often have been among his most vocal critics.

For almost 20 years, Nixon frequently has found himself at odds with urban Democrats. The last legislative session saw some St. Louis area Democrats, publicly or privately, attacking the governor for various public stances -- or suspected private ones -- deemed anti-urban.

For example: Nixon has sought to curb the state's historic tax credits, a popular redevelopment tool in St. Louis. And he was cool -- although publicly non-committal -- to St. Louis' aggressive effort to win back control of its police department, which has been under state supervision since the Civil War.

Four Democratic legislators, all from St. Louis or Kansas City, broke ranks during the session to enable Republicans to override Nixon's veto of a bill setting up new boundaries for Missouri's remaining eight congressional districts. The new map does away with the district of U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis (and the secretary of state's brother), who is still mulling over his electoral options next year.

But Friday night, one of those defecting legislators -- state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis -- appeared to step back from her earlier public criticism of the governor, which had included a threat to oppose his re-election.

Nasheed said in an interview that she was very pleased with Friday's veto and that she got the message that Nixon had sought to convey in his speech. "He's a good guy,'' Nasheed said. "And he understands a balancing act."

When the speeches had ended, there also wasn't the standard stampede to leave.

Instead, Nixon was mobbed in the lobby by urban Democrats eager to shake his hand, bend his ear and get their picture taken with him. 

That wasn't the norm, either.

Wisconsin's Continued Battles Force No-shows

Although the dinner had been billed as featuring several Democratic legislators from Wisconsin, where partisan battles have ensued for months, only one ended up on the speaking menu: state Sen. Lena Taylor from Milwaukee.

State Democratic Party chair Susan Montee explained to the audience that most of the lawmakers had stayed home because a big budget fight underway in their state Capitol.

Taylor took note of the ideological battles underway in Wisconsin and other states with Republican governors.

"This is a wakeup call,'' she said. "This is our moment to stand, to lead, to act ... This is a fight for our nation."

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.

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