Jay Nixon: A life in public service

Sunday, September 28, 2008
FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@semissourian.com Attorney General Jay Nixon speaks during an interview with the Southest Missourian.

When Jay Nixon arrived in Jefferson City, Mo., in early January 1987 as a freshman state senator, he was in a hurry.

The 41-year-old lawyer from De Soto, Mo., was in a hurry to take on Senate protocol, speaking so often that veteran colleagues warned him he was angering the aging lions of the chamber.

Nixon was in a hurry to advance up the political ladder as well. He announced in October 1987 that he would take on Jack Danforth, the senior U.S. senator from Missouri, in the 1988 elections.

"Jay and I talked about that," recalled former governor Roger Wilson, a Senate colleague of Nixon's at the time. "And in fact he asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said hell no."

Danforth, on paper, looked vulnerable. The Republican won the Senate seat in 1976 by defeating former governor Warren Hearnes. Danforth captured the Democratic nomination following the death of popular Congressman Jerry Litton. Six years later, Harriet Woods nearly defeated Danforth at the height of a national recession.

But Nixon's campaign, which included "Nixon in '88" yard signs that evoked memories of the disgraced ex-president, never caught on with voters. He received only 32 percent of the vote, the worst defeat experienced by a Democrat in Missouri history. Today, Nixon looks back on that election and acknowledges he was trounced.

Few politicians recover from such a beating. But now, with four terms as attorney general on his resume, Nixon is poised to retrieve the governor's office for his party after four years of Republican rule.

Jay Nixon announces his bid for the U.S. Senate during a 1988 campaign stop in Cape Girardeau. Southeast Missourian file

Nixon began the year expecting his November opponent would be incumbent Gov. Matt Blunt. But Blunt's abrupt withdrawal Jan. 22 changed the political landscape, and he now faces U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof of Columbia. The criticisms of Blunt's record on Medicaid, the sale of assets of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority to fund campus projects and the economic struggles that have beset the state in the past year remain valid, Nixon said.

"We're sitting in a state with an unemployment rate at a 10-year high, 200,000 Missourians out of work," Nixon said. "More people have lost their jobs in the state of Missouri in the last year than in all of our eight border states combined. These folks have slashed health-care benefits for 400,000 people. They've sold away the student higher education loan authority."

That's vintage Nixon, taking the attack to his opponent, whether he is leading, as polls show heading to the Nov. 4 election, or behind, as he was in 1988.

"Some people might think '88 was a banzai run," Wilson said. "I don't think so. It was calculated and accomplished what he wanted to do -- Jay got around the state and met a lot of people and showed he was not afraid of a fight."

Parents' influence

Jay Nixon's upbringing was steeped in the local politics of Jefferson County. His father was mayor of De Soto, his mother the president of the school board. He remembers answering the telephone at dinner when calls from constituents took one or the other away from the family meal.

Those were important influences that helped steer him toward a political career, he said, but even more influential in his thinking were the people he met as an Eagle Scout, as a football player and as a construction laborer working his way through college.

"The lessons I learned were not from the politicians around Jefferson County as much as the people I worked with in the summers when I was a laborer, and we were building things and they were proud of the work they were doing, or the people I meet with now who are out of work," he said. "I've always seen my time in public service just like it was when I'd answer the phone at dinner with my Mom and Dad there involved locally trying to help people."

Educated at the University of Missouri, Nixon received a degree in political science, then law, and returned home to De Soto to practice law in 1981. After five years in private practice, Jefferson County's Senate seat became open through retirement, and Nixon plunged in, taking just less than 50 percent of the Democratic primary vote before cruising to victory in the general election.

"He was like a lot of people his age with a good education that came to the Senate," said former senator Jim Mathewson of Sedalia, the Senate majority leader when Nixon arrived. "He was full of energy. He thought he was going to turn the whole world around the first session and everything was going to fall in place for him. My biggest concern with Jay Nixon when he first came to the Senate was to calm him down."

But calm isn't one of the words that many people would use to describe Nixon, including himself. Older, yes. And the unruly head of brown hair is much lighter with the addition of gray. But, he said, the fire remains.

"I've been through a tremendous amount of work in my six years in the state Senate and 16 as AG that have given me, I think, a broader perspective," Nixon said. "... The bottom line is that I keep the same intensity I had on day one, which was to make things better for the state of Missouri."

As evidence of his zeal, Mathewson recalls the 1990 scandal at the State Agency for Surplus Property. The agency director, Pash Goodin, obtained enormous amounts of valuable goods through federal disposal programs, including titanium in large rolls and massive machine tools. The titanium was left over from the manufacture of fighter aircraft in St. Louis; Goodin profited by selling it as "scrap metal" at auction, loading up a pickup truck for the buyer and then selling the rest by semi truckloads after it was off the books. He hid the money by purchasing expensive Bentleys and Rolls-Royce automobiles. When the scandal broke, Nixon was in charge of the investigating committee and sought permission from then-lieutenant governor Mel Carnahan to issue subpoenas.

That broke Senate protocol, Mathewson said. "He went around me. That teed me off. I had to call him in to say you don't go around the pro tem."

Nixon won passage of legislation requiring much closer scrutiny for the agency. His handling of the agency became one of the accomplishments Nixon touted as he entered his second statewide campaign, this time for attorney general in 1992. Nixon first defeated Michael Wolff, a St. Louis University Law School professor who was the Democratic nominee in 1988, in the primary and then battled David Steelman, a former lawmaker and husband of current state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, in the general election.

Nixon won that race by a 51-45 margin, part of a Democratic sweep made possible by the scandals that plagued Bill Webster, his predecessor.

An early accomplishment of Nixon's tenure as attorney general was the settlement that ended the state's payments in the school desegregation cases in Kansas City and St. Louis. Republicans, first under John Ashcroft and later under Webster, had made defiance of the federal courts, not cooperation, the centerpiece of state policy in the cases, which in total cost the state more than $3 billion.

Nixon's role in the settlement, however, scarred his relationship with black political leaders from St. Louis and Kansas City, a key part of the traditional Democratic coalition. His 1998 campaign for the Senate brought picketing from the NAACP and it took delicate negotiations to win the endorsement of Kansas City's key African-American political group, Freedom Inc.

"You can be mad -- take your marbles and go home -- or you can look at what will help our community," state Sen. Mary Groves Bland said at the time.

Through the years, Nixon has become a natural target for GOP attacks. His entry into the massive lawsuit against tobacco companies brought the state a settlement worth $6.7 billion. His use of private attorneys to do the work in exchange for millions in fees led to charges of cronyism from then-state Sen. Peter Kinder of Cape Girardeau.

A lawsuit against not-for-profit health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield brought a settlement of more than $1 billion. Nixon sued because the insurer wanted to convert to for-profit status. The money was used to create the Missouri Foundation for Health, which now has assets of more than $1.7 billion. A similar lawsuit settled issues with the Kansas City version of Blue Cross.

The settlement has been criticized by Republicans as a "slush fund" that gives grants to Nixon allies, who in turn criticize Republican policies. Nixon dismisses complaints about the operations of the foundation.

"The two largest health-care foundations in this state were founded because of my litigation, not backing away from the big corporate interests but instead standing up for consumers, and because of that, we now have in excess of $1.7 billion in non-for-profit trusts out there that are operating independently, and I think have made a difference for Missourians' health," Nixon sad.

Voter confidence

There's something about Jay Nixon and years that end in "8." The first campaign against Danforth was an electoral disaster. He fared better 10 years later, when in 1998 he took on Kit Bond, who like Danforth before him was seeking his third term when Nixon joined the fray. With a much better funded campaign and a much stronger Democratic Party, Nixon took 44 percent of the vote to 53 percent for Bond.

Nixon doesn't put much stock in "third time's the charm" thinking. "Running for governor is much different from running for the United States Senate," Nixon said.

He said his experience with Jefferson City politics and policymaking have increased voter confidence in him over the years. His 2004 re-election, when he ran far ahead of presidential candidate John Kerry and took more votes than any statewide candidate in Missouri history, is evidence of voter approval.

"I'd like to believe that through my political career I have maintained my values, but continued to increase the trust of the people of the state of Missouri that I will do, I will do what I say and that I share their values," Nixon said. "I feel that all of these parts of my life have led me up to a point where today we feel, where I feel extremely prepared."

For the first time in a year ending in 8, Nixon isn't facing an incumbent statewide officeholder. Instead, he's facing a former employee, Kenny Hulshof, who handled tough prosecutions when local prosecutors requested help from the attorney general's office from 1989 through 1995.

Hulshof, who has held Missouri's 9th Congressional District seat since defeating Democratic incumbent Harold Volkmer in 1996, made his first run for Congress in 1994 while on Nixon's payroll. Nixon took Hulshof back after that race and Volkmer never forgave Nixon.

"Jay Nixon helped beat Harold Volkmer," the former congressman said. "He helped make Kenny Hulshof."

After that 1994 race, Volkmer said, he urged Nixon to show Hulshof the door.

Nixon was noncommittal and, in fact, Volkmer said, assigned Hulshof cases in 1995 that kept Hulshof's name in the news. "Jay leaves the impression with most people that he is above you all," Volkmer said. "He didn't treat me as an equal at all. He didn't even call me back when he decided to keep him on."

Volkmer said he's not going to vote in the race for governor when he casts his ballot.

Nixon dismisses all Volkmer's criticisms, especially when the former congressman suggests that the real reason Nixon kept Hulshof on the payroll was to shore up the office basketball team.

"My oath at that point was to the people of the state of Missouri and not to the Democratic Party, and my job was to make sure those cases that Kenny had been assigned were completed and my sense is they were," Nixon said. "When he lost that campaign he did come back and continue in his role. I think by the time the '96 campaign rolled round, and I think the records would reflect this, but I think by that time he was off into full-time politics after that."

Hulshof himself made light of the basketball connection on an early morning St. Louis television show. When the host suggested settling the race on the court, Hulshof said he would win "because Jay can't go to his right," an allusion both to basketball moves and where Nixon sits on the political spectrum.

When that comment was relayed to Nixon, he used it as a springboard to both chastise Hulshof and attack the current Republican administration.

"I don't think the people that lost their health care and lost their jobs want to have two politicians out shooting free throws to decide which policy they want," Nixon said. "I think they want a policy that moves this state forward. ... I think I've got a good sense of humor about a lot of things. But I don't joke about who should be the next governor of the state of Missouri."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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Nixon: Missouri Foundation for Health

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Nixon: Lessons from experience

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