Governor's announcement in Cape latest example of how rush to seek publicity on economic developments can backfire from a political standpoint

Sunday, December 26, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Governors navigate dangerous territory when they travel around the state touting economic development projects.

I learned that little lesson for the first time more than two decades ago covering one of Colorado Gov. Roy Romer's "Dome on the Range" tours.

Back then, Romer was doing much what his fellow Democrat, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, is doing these days. He was traveling from big cities to little towns across the state, holding news conferences to talk about jobs the state helped create. It just so happened that the travels -- paid for by the state -- were coordinated with the beginning stages of an upcoming gubernatorial election.

Incumbency, it seems, has its advantages.

In 1989, Romer was headed to my little town in eastern Colorado to talk up a company that made conversion vans. Unbeknownst to him, another company shared warehouse space with the van folks, and that company had been unable to secure the right political connections that sometimes are needed to obtain economic development funds.

So the company's executives showed up at the press event to ask questions.

Romer got indignant as I took out my notebook and camera to record his reaction. He told the men who were threatening to take their business across state lines that he'd get to the bottom of it.

It wasn't the sort of press coverage the governor was hoping for.

No doubt, Nixon has the same feeling after being embarrassed on a similar trip to Cape Girardeau. Earlier this month, Nixon appeared with the CEO of a company that planned to use state economic development money to jump-start a medical services business. For the past couple of months, as he's been raising more than $1 million for his 2012 re-election campaign, Nixon has been flying all over, touting such partnerships with companies large and small, whether they are promising 15 new jobs or hundreds of them.

Nixon didn't give his tour a catchy name like Romer's "Dome on the Range," but he's following the same game plan. Fly to town. Appear with business owner. Credit state incentives as key to new jobs. Talk about how important jobs are and wait for free publicity to flow.

Nixon got his publicity all right. But it wasn't good.

It turns out, The Associated Press and Southeast Missourian reported, that the CEO is a felon who had been convicted of writing more than $90,000 in bad checks. He's still on probation. The governor's office didn't know this.

They said they'd look into it. Now they're disqualifying the company from getting any state funding and reminding reporters of something they already knew: The jobs aren't necessarily real.

As my colleague Virginia Young pointed out in a story last year, the oft-praised Quality Jobs program doesn't pay out incentives until the jobs are produced. And despite bragging by both of the past two governors that the program has produced more than 22,000 jobs, the real number has been a mere 11 percent of that.

So Nixon tried to remove the sting of an embarrassing mistake by pointing out what his previous news release didn't. The jobs are only promised. The money hasn't been paid. Nothing to see here. Move along.

It reminded me of Romer's angry reaction to the surprise at his jobs' news conference more than 20 years ago. As the governor and his entourage -- including this then wet-behind-the-ears reporter -- got into his van to head off to the next event, Romer turned to the mayor, pointed at him, and shouted: "Don't ever set me up again."

Some things about politics have changed since then.

Romer drove a van. Nixon prefers to fly.

But the politics of economic development remain precarious.

Tony Messenger is a political columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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