Attorney general candidates bring different backgrounds to race

Friday, October 22, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The contrasts between the major party candidates for state attorney general are easy to spot.

Incumbent Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has held the job so long he is sometimes jokingly called the "eternal general." Upstart Republican challenger Chris Byrd is just three years out of law school.

Having served six years in the state Senate before being elected attorney general, Nixon, 48, has spent most of his adult life in public office. Although a political newcomer, Byrd, 36, claims a more diverse professional and educational background plus status as a Capitol outsider.

If re-elected on Nov. 2, Nixon would become the second-longest tenured statewide elected official to serve in the same executive branch position in Missouri history. The late James Kirkpatrick holds the record with 20 years as secretary of state.

Byrd says the time is ripe for a change in the attorney general's office.

"When the state is on the verge of doing so many good things and making so many advances, we need someone in there who is going to be willing to help that along and not stand in the way," Byrd said.

While he is seeking an unprecedented fourth four-year term, Nixon says he doesn't intend on holding the office forever. But with the Missouri Legislature virtually devoid of veterans due to term limits and new faces guaranteed in most executive branch posts, including governor, next year, Nixon says having an experienced attorney general will be critical.

"My role in providing reasoned counsel and a courage infusion to these new officials can be very, very positive," Nixon said. "Having a good lawyer around inexperienced public officials is very important."

His experience is an attribute Nixon frequently hammers home. In a subtle jab at Byrd in a recent speech before the Republican-leaning Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Nixon said the post of attorney general "is not a job for amateurs."

Although Byrd only joined the Missouri Bar in 2001, he says his experiences outside of the fields of law and politics give him a greater understanding of the issues facing Missouri. Prior to finishing law school, Byrd worked as a mortgage banker. He also holds a degree in education and in college was active in agriculture.

"The various experiences I've had make me more qualified to be attorney general instead of less," Byrd said.

He currently practices law in Kansas City with a focus on medical and commercial litigation. With that legal background, Byrd strongly endorses reforming Missouri's civil litigation system, which has been a top goal of Republican lawmakers for the last two years.

Byrd pledges to assist the legislature in drafting a so-called tort reform bill that would withstand a court challenge. He claims Nixon has failed to be actively involved on that front due to his ties to the Missouri Trial Attorneys Association, which has opposed such legislation.

He also accuses Nixon of being less than zealous in defending state laws restricting abortion and barring state funding of organizations that provide abortion services.

"He has already shown in his past dealings that his personal beliefs do affect whether he will enforce the law in Missouri," Byrd said.

Nixon says his opponent has distorted his record as Missouri's top law enforcement official. While Byrd claims Nixon opposes the new state constitutional amendment ratified by voters in August banning same sex marriage, Nixon actually was one of the few top Democratic officeholders to take a public position in favor of it.

Nixon says he even provided the legislature with the background information as to why the amendment was necessary to prevent Missouri courts from ruling in the future that gay couples have a constitutional right to wed.

Among his accomplishments, Nixon touts his enforcement of the state's "no-call" law that has helped reduce unwanted solicitations from telemarketers. More than 3.3 million Missourians participate in the no-call program.

Prior to enactment of the law in 2000, Nixon says telemarketing fraud topped the list of consumer complaints to his office for a decade. Last year, complaints of telemarketing fraud accounted for only 162 of the 90,000 calls made to the state's consumer protection hotline, said Nixon.

Nixon also takes credit to putting a halt to frivolous lawsuits filed by inmates, a practice that was common when he took office. In one such suit, Nixon says an inmate claimed a constitutional right to crunchy peanut butter.

"As long as I am your attorney general, Missouri shall remain a smooth peanut butter state," Nixon joked.

Also on the ballot are Libertarian David Browning of Oak Grove and Constitution Party candidate David Fry of St. Louis.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

Comparing the candidates

Jay Nixon

Party: Democrat

Age: 48

Home: Jefferson City

Family: Wife Georganne, two children

Occupation: Attorney general

Education: Bachelor's degree in political science and law degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia

Public Offices: State senator, 1987 to 1993; attorney general, 1993 to present

Chris Byrd

Party: Republican

Age: 36

Home: Kansas City

Family: Wife Tracy, two children

Occupation: Lawyer

Education: Bachelor's degree in education from the University of Missouri-Columbia, law degree and master's degrees in business administration and urban affairs law from the University of Missouri-Kansas City

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