A Conversation With Jay Nixon on Ferguson, Trump and His Future

Missouri's soon-to-be former governor talks about his accomplishments and disappointments, party politics and what's next.
by | August 11, 2016
Gov. Nixon surveying flood-affected areas in his state. (FlickrCC/Missouri National Guard)

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is nearing the end of his two terms in office. As a Democrat, he's had to work with a Republican-led legislature that holds a veto-proof majority. This has resulted in legislative sessions filled with a record number of vetoes and overrides of those vetoes. For example, the governor recently rejected a bill that would make Missouri a voter ID state, but lawmakers are vowing to override it in September.

Governing’s Louis Jacobson caught up with him at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last month to ask about what he’s learned as governor and what he thinks about the health of the Democratic Party.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You are nearing the end of your tenure. What surprised you the most about your time in office?

After I was re-elected, I spent some time reading the biographies of the 54 [Missouri] governors who preceded me. From reading those, it really struck me that sometimes you make history, and sometimes history makes you. Who would have thought in 2011 that I’d have spent 350 of the 365 days in a year running the state emergency management operations for tornadoes, floods and snowstorms? The lesson is that you can control some things, and other things come at you. So having a team around you that’s agile, that continues to move forward even when a lot of the energy in a room is being taken up by external things, is really important.

How would you describe the relationship you’ve had with the Republican-controlled state House and Senate?

Well, the legislative leadership changes a lot. We’ve had four House speakers, three Senate presidents pro tem, three House minority leaders and two minority leaders in the Senate. I will say as I go out after eight years that I could invite any of them to my house, and I think what they’d say behind my back is the same as what they’d say to my face.

We’ve gotten a lot done. We’ve fixed our pension system. On the mental health side, we’ve taken some dramatic steps forward, working together to rebuild a state mental hospital, creating a mental health liaison and getting treatment to thousands of people who didn’t have it. We’ve gotten our budget done on time and maintained the highest credit rating of any state in the country.

You see Illinois, which doesn’t have a budget for two years, and you see Kansas, which can’t even fund its budget, then you see us passing our budget early and getting it done. It’s not easy, and it requires a tremendous amount of time, energy and effort, but we worked it out.

What have some of your disappointments been in office?

Ethics and campaign finance. We’re still a state with no limits on gifts and contributions. It skews the system when you can write million-dollar checks or you can take a $1,000 trip from somebody without any controls. I think it leads to cynicism for the public. So that’s frustrating to me.

We are also a state that wasn’t able to get Medicaid expansion passed. But that didn’t stop us from getting 100,000 more people signed up for Medicaid, especially kids.

I would think one of your disappointments would be what happened in Ferguson.

Absolutely. It’s been difficult for the country. It was the first of what became kind of a cavalcade of issues rising up. I will tell you that in Missouri we’ve listened, learned and I think we’re doing better. These are not easy issues to work with, but we passed municipal court reform, we’ve changed how we train police officers, we’ve helped our police officers by giving them some additional tools, we’ve worked hard to put kids to work in those communities – our summer jobs league has been highly successful. So these are difficult, long-term issues. But instead of sticking our heads in the sand, Missourians are working to come closer and try to understand these difficult, vexing issues.

Do you get the sense that tensions are lower now?

I think people are listening to each other more. But we should not kid ourselves. These are deep, long-term issues that will take a while to get through.

Shifting gears to politics: To what extent do you think your state is competitive for Democrats?

President Obama lost Missouri by 4,000 votes in 2008. Frankly, I think if all the provisional ballots had been counted, he would have won. Bill Clinton carried Missouri twice. I have carried it with very large numbers. And last cycle, we elected a Democratic secretary of state. I think there’s clearly still a path forward.

Do you expect that Hillary Clinton will contest the state this year?

I’m not sure if they think they can win. I do think that Donald Trump has reached his high-water mark. I think once the conventions are over and people realize this is real -- that we just cannot have someone saying and doing the things he’s saying and doing and be the president of the United States -- they’ll vote differently. I have a deep respect for voters, and as they approach the fall, and when they understand the seriousness of what’s going on, they’re going to continue to move toward Secretary Clinton and Sen. Tim Kaine. I think that will happen in other states, and I hope the same thing will happen in Missouri.

It does seem striking that state Democrats in Missouri seem to be doing better than the federal-level Democrats.

I think we spend a lot of time working the nuances of Missouri politics. It takes time to understand that Joplin isn’t Springfield, even though they’re 60 miles apart. And that if you go to the Kansas City area, you have to get up to St. Joseph, too. Democratic candidates are adopting the model I’ve followed since 1992: competing in every county, going to every county and not approaching issues in a partisan way.

Nationally, the numbers of Democratic governors are historically small. How big a problem is that for the party?

When I was elected governor, we had Democratic governors in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois. It’s a little lonelier now, but the winds blow both ways. What concerns me most is that we’re missing a voice from the Heartland. That’s so necessary at the state level to balance the scales and to make sure working people are supported, that public education is fought for as a value and not as a political decision, that agriculture is an important part of the U.S. economy and the international economy. Those are issues that I think, as a Democrat, I and others are uniquely capable of articulating. The voice is more important than the politics. Illinois is eventually going to get a Democratic governor, and so will Iowa. But that Midwestern voice on the Democratic side is really important to balance the national discussion.

It sounds like you’re saying that the national Democrats are losing out by not having Midwesterners at the table.

I don’t spend a lot of time being overly analytical on the political side, but you don’t have to look at the map very long to see that at the national level, there’s a path to the White House through the coasts. That’s the pattern that’s developed, and it has been successful. But I don’t know that it’s the best long-term way to bring people together in America.

What have been some of the bigger sticking points for you when campaigning in the state -- things where you’ve had to separate yourself from the national Democratic Party?

Issues like guns. I hunt. I shoot. I have guns. My sons shoot and hunt. On the other hand, I think we ought to have safety. I think we ought to have background checks. I think we ought to continue having sheriffs issuing concealed-carry permits. If people have concealed-carry permits, they ought to get training for them. So I’ve been one of those moderate voices. But at the national level, it just seems that it gets simplistic on that issue.

Taxes, too. I think I’ve been very conservative by cutting taxes and making the necessary cuts in government to balance it. I don’t think people elect you to office to take money out of their pocket. But again, at the national level, it sometimes feels like there’s a caricature of the Democratic side.

What’s next for you?

I have an opportunity to graduate from 30 years of public service. There’s great business opportunities, law opportunities, continued public service. If asked, there are certainly things I could do.

Look, only three other people have had two consecutive terms in Missouri history since 1821. I'm going to finish. I'm going to work as hard in the last 100 days as I did in the first 100 days.

But you don’t think electoral politics would be a next step?

I don’t have a great deal of interest in running for a U.S. Senate seat. I don’t think it’s an office that’s highly functional right now, especially after having been governor. I had my time in the state Senate, I served in all three branches of government, and when I’m done, I’ll have appointed 150 judges.

I’m looking forward to getting my First Amendment rights back. These days in public office, you’re so limited in the words you can use. Politicians catch themselves all the time when they’re getting ready to say something that’s really quotable or interesting. You have strong opinions you’ve earned over 30 years, and mine will be heard.