UM presidential speculation a matter of political dominoes

Sunday, September 15, 2002

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The mention of Attorney General Jay Nixon as a prospective president for the University of Missouri has set off a speculative game of teetering political dominoes.

Gov. Bob Holden could be the kingmaker. That's because the governor is empowered to name an attorney general if his fellow Democrat Nixon steps down before his four-year term ends in January 2005.

Nixon, rarely publicity-shy, has declined to speak publicly about his clear interest in the university presidency.

Sources familiar with the selection process have said the three-term attorney general wants the job and that lobbying is under way to boost Nixon as successor to the retiring president, Manuel Pacheco.

Holden's influence would greatly expand by naming an attorney general and clearing Nixon from the playing field as a possible political challenger. The university's Board of Curators would like to sign the next president to at least a five-year contract, with a stipulation barring partisan politicking.

Either one 'outstanding'

So not surprisingly, Holden said last week that he was "delighted" the curators are considering presidential prospects beyond those with traditional academic backgrounds.

Also mentioned as a possible presidential candidate is former Gov. Roger Wilson, who said he isn't campaigning for the job and doesn't want to put any pressure on the curators.

Holden told The Associated Press that either Wilson or Nixon "would be outstanding" as university president.

But because of the unusual opportunity to appoint an attorney general, Holden's clout would increase more with the naming of Nixon than with the selection of former rival Wilson, now in political retirement and working for an investment company.

A third possibility

The political dominoes are teetering because Holden could turn to another statewide officeholder, State Auditor Claire McCaskill, for appointment as attorney general -- a scenario that is being discussed inside and outside the statehouse.

McCaskill spent four years as an assistant prosecutor and six years as elected prosecutor of Jackson County, credentials that could give her credibility as attorney general. She also wants to run for governor someday; an attorney general appointment could discourage a challenge to Holden.

A McCaskill appointment would further expand Holden's influence because he could then name a state auditor, installing his personal choices into half of the statewide offices in the Capitol.

McCaskill stands for re-election in November for a second term as auditor. She appears to have an easy ride, since Republican leaders have disavowed their upset auditor nominee Al Hanson, a convicted felon who served prison time for swindling.

McCaskill told the AP she loves her job. But when asked whether she would want to be considered for appointment as attorney general she said:

"I'd have to think about it. It would be a tough decision. I honestly don't know at this point. I've done an awful lot of work in criminal justice and spent most of my adult life in law enforcement."

The curators hope to name a university president by year's end.

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