Over the past couple weeks, our publisher Scott Faughn spent nearly 8 hours with Governor Nixon discussing every aspect of his career from growing up in DeSoto, to the State Senate, as Attorney General, and his time in the Governor’s Mansion. More Missourians cast their votes to elect Jay Nixon as Governor of Missouri than anyone in state history. In the final part of our series, Governor Nixon shared his views on the events of the last year of not only national politics, but the changes in the tone of Missouri politics as well.
Missouri Times Publisher Scott Faughn: Governor, this has been such an interesting conversation, I’ve learned a lot about Missouri history and Missouri politics, so thank you again for sitting down and discussing your second term with us.
Governor Jay Nixon: Absolutely. It’s my job to know a little bit.
Faughn: Let’s get into some of the stuff that happened in your second term. Before you even took the oath the second time, you decided to come out in favor of Obamacare. Give me what brought that on right after the election.
Governor Nixon: Well, I came out in favor of Medicaid expansion. We were looking at, the Supreme Court had obviously cleared that deck. Before that, you had all of this litigation, people didn’t know what was going on. Once the Supreme Court said that it’s up to the state’s on the Medicaid side, we had a job to get done and ended up not getting it over the finish line, but that’s ultimately what’s focused my intentions.
Faughn: OK, your critics openly say that, once you had an election behind you, with a very unpopular President Obama and unpopular Obamacare, that’s when decided to come out for it. The timing is awfully convenient for your critics to put that timeline together.
Governor Nixon: My critics are entitled to say whatever they want. If they think that there’s some vast political scheme behind me doing unpopular things and that’s the way that I got elected, they’re entitled to think that, but the bottom line is that once the Supreme Court cleared the deck and the money was available, I felt like leaning forward in there pretty hard, which we did that year.
Faughn: Let’s talk about some of the people that you had to cut. I mean, very few governors have had to deal with the financial problem that you got dealt right out of the gate. When you’re cutting so many FTE’s, did you find… I’m sure some of that hurt, but do you find some innovative things that you could do?
Governor Nixon: Absolutely. I think that, as you said before, MoDOT is a good example. We had to close two of those regional offices, but it ended up being a great benefit because that money was better spent on roads and bridges. I think the computerization stuff we did, finally a generation of labors a good department, it may sound boring to the public, but man, when you’ve got the unemployment stuff, you got all the employment security issues… getting all of those computers re-done with new language, I thought a lot of people did a good job, especially Director McKenna got that to the finish line. So things like that did make it more efficient.
Faughn: You vetoed several bills and had several overrides of those vetoes. What went into the process of how you would go about vetoing a bill?
Governor Nixon: Just to put history aside, 275 vetoes sustained. So I won 275 times, and that’s right up there at the top of the list. And I just felt like I shouldn’t sign something that I didn’t think was good for the state or was written incorrectly. So I vetoed a fair number of bills.
Faughn: Did you do a few too many? Some of them, if you had to do it over again, would you sign? Maybe they weren’t that big of a deal?
Governor Nixon: I mean… the mistakes that are made are more about the ones you sign than ones you veto. Because you sign stuff that’s close call, all this rigmarole with the IDs, and can you get on planes and all that sort of stuff, I mean maybe we shouldn’t have signed a bill that kind of thumbed our nose at the federal government seven years ago. It’d be a lot easier for everybody. So there’s stuff like that which you worry about.
Faughn: But in your office, what was the process?
Governor Nixon: We were very serious about it. Very, very serious.
Faughn: Who was in charge of that?
Governor Nixon: The policy director was generally in charge, so Harris, through his shop, although at various other times, we’d put people in charge of it, because you wanted people to learn.
Faughn: Mr. Ardini have a large role in it?
Governor Nixon: He was the counsel, so the counsel was always the last guy to speak. It was always “can we do this?”, so yeah Ted was very involved. But so were the counselors for each department. So the session would end and we would begin the process. We did some stuff that no one had ever done before. We called everyone that had voted against the bill and asked them why. “Tell me why I shouldn’t sign it, tell me why you voted no.” Nobody ever did that before, and I think some of the members appreciated that. A lot of them didn’t return the calls because they didn’t have to have a reason.
Faughn: Who would’ve been making that call?
Governor Nixon: Somebody in the leg shop. Somebody under Daniel Hall or Zamkus, Chuck Ensley would check those out. Usually, we would have liaisons from various departments when the session was over to do that. We would then kind of try to decide the order we were going to deal with the bills because the first year we ended up doing them in the order they got passed, and boy, that’s just not the way to do it. Some of them are harder and more difficult than others, plus the legislature passes the same bill in a lot of forms, and it gets kind of complicated in that sense. So what I would do…
Faughn: But those are tricks you were familiar with, though. Being a hustler yourself, right?
Governor Nixon: Yeah, yeah, I plead guilty to that. We did that… But I didn’t want to sign the same bill twice, and I did veto some of them where guys were just passing it because it was a popular bill, and guys from the other body were just getting their name on it. And my staff just hated me when I did that, even when I agreed with it. But I’d sign one and not the other one, so it went down to whose should we sign. But we took it very seriously, some people say it was almost kind of like a law review in that sense, but by the end when we went over the bills, you’d get a briefing from the department on it, you’d have a separate policy briefing and a separate legal briefing, everybody would get that, and we’d set an agenda for meeting usually one or two or three hours we’d have for those, and we’d have that whole packet for everybody, and we’d go through the bills and represent it there at the meetings when the ones who were making decisions where me, the chief of staff, the counsel, the policy director, the press secretary or the communications always had a representative, the department, if it was an important bill, would have a representative, the legislative shop would have somebody there, and we’d just grind through them, and if I need someone else’s opinion, we’d include them on it and we would do it line by line.
Faughn: Talk to me about working with Steve Tilley.
Governor Nixon: I like Steve, I consider him a friend. I think he’s a good politician, a little like a poker player.
Faughn: There’s probably a reason for that.
Governor Nixon: Well, it’s interesting though. You say that policy, not that many people… I mean… he would bluff sometimes, and he had a few tells.
Faughn: Had a backbone though, right?
Governor Nixon: If he said where he was going to be where he was, he stayed where he was. He was a guy who was good about not committing – straight up not committing, say “I cannot commit on that yet.” And I think he respected me and the position of governor, too. And Steve and I got along well.
Faughn: Tell me about working with Tom Dempsey.
Governor Nixon: I think Tom really – Tom’s a good human being, first of all. He and Molly are great people, traveled with them and got to know them really well. And I think he got stronger – the longer he was the Pro Tem, the better he got, in my opinion. I thought about that this morning when I was thinking about what I would say to you. I think that the Senate took a long time to recover from a coin flip choosing who the Pro Tem was. That’s just not the way –
Faughn: Where were you at when that was going on?
Governor Nixon: I was just stunned. I was over in the mansion, talking to legislative guys that night i was just stunned that the senate guys couldn’t like leave the room and come back. That was… I think that made it tough on Rob, because one person switches, and you’re not Pro Tem anymore. And the Senate couldn’t work together, and I think Dempsey still remembered that when he was first Pro Tem, but the longer he was Pro Tem, the stronger he got, and I enjoyed working with him.
Faughn: Tell me a story of a guy who was from that time – Victor Callahan.
Governor Nixon: I don’t know when he found time to see all the movies that he would use – every story from him was some scene from a movie or something. He must just sit at home and watch a lot of movies because he’s as good with movies as my wife is with books. Victor – I got along with Victor well – he was tough, smart, cagey, and Jolie Justus’ roommate.
Faughn: Talk about a reality show… we’ve talked a lot about Ron Richard, but what about Mike Kehoe?
Governor Nixon: You know, Mike, it’s interesting. I like Mike, I knew him before. I mean my kids were around Jeff City in sports and he was around, he’s one of the guys you know, was a buddy and a friend of mine, so I kinda knew Mike before he ran. Saw him around at a lot of stuff, he was obviously there. I’d always say to Mike, if I couldn’t get him to do some deal and we would get close, I’d say ‘if I gave you a free bed liner, would it work?’ Well, he’d come across there- he’s an auto guy, they’ll make deals with you, but I think that at first, he was in a little hurry and could lose his patience. It’s the only time that Mike has trouble is when he loses patience and as a successful business guy, guys like him, Libla and Wayne Goode on the Democrat side, they would get really frustrated on how long it would take to get some stuff done. But I think that once he realized that the process of government would take a little longer sometimes, he became a heck of a senator.
Faughn: As far as I know, for the Republicans, this is kind of a unique time in the state’s history, you’ve got a lot of the Washingtonization of Missouri politics. Do you think it’s almost good for the state to have two guys like Mike Kehoe and Ron Richard in the spots they are today? They can tell you ‘no’, right?
Governor Nixon: Yeah, they can tell you no. But Kehoe will leave it open for continued negotiation, unlike Ron.
Faughn: What about Todd Richardson? You haven’t worked with him as much as some of these other guys, but he’s the Speaker now.
Governor Nixon: I like Todd a lot, and the family, obviously. I have a lot of respect for them. But he came with the most historical maturity of any of the Speakers. He had a sense of where he was, and I think the way that he came here was a really stark lesson how you gotta yourself lead a life in front of closed doors and behind closed doors and one of respect. And I found him to be a young man who was very self-disciplined about how he dealt with people, and I’ve got a lot of good things to say about Todd.
Faughn: One of the last ones I wanted to ask you about is John Watson, a person that a lot of people have very high regard for throughout the state government. People thought that when he spoke, he could speak for the Governor’s Office.
Governor Nixon: John and I are very close. Longest-serving chief of staff in the AG’s Office in the history of the state, longest-serving chief of staff in the Governor’s Office… served in the economic development served under Governor Ashcroft. Very capable human being, a great father. His faith is important to him, very important to his family, and I remember the first time I heard of John, I was AG. My chief deputy, Don Downing was also from Kennett. We had revamped how we hired people. We had the interviews set up separate, wanted to make sure we get the best and brightest before walking into my office, and he said: “We’re gonna hire a boy from Kennett John Watson.” And I said well who’s John Watson? He said, “Oh, we’re gonna hire him.” “And I said, “Aren’t we gonna put him through the interview process?” He said, “He’ll do fine, OK?” And that was the only time Don Downing ever said to me that we were going to hire a guy that was applying. Then John was on a couple of projects for us. The other thing is when he was Assistant Attorney General, we had guys that would come in during the legislative session, tracking bills and stuff, but we weren’t lobbying too much. We were just following to see what was going on in case things needed to get done. And so I always had to ask the Assistant Attorney Generals to go to the night sessions, because we would filter people through, so John got into the rotation. And he had the most insightful reports of anybody I’ve ever received them from.
Faughn: So they were right.
Governor Nixon: Yeah, they were, but more than just right – they wouldn’t be like “the committee voted 4-3, the bill is out”, he’d be like “the committee voted 4-3, the bill is out, but one of the guys that voted for it… he wants something else. There’s going to be an amendment for something else on the floor to pay him off for that vote coming out, cuz he’s cut a deal to do that. I don’t know what it is, but if you want me to try and find out, I’ll try and find out.” You know, stuff like that, where the yes votes would look around and say “I’m yes now, but you want this bill to get to the Governor’s desk, you’re going to have to get that other thing handled”. John was really good at picking that stuff up. Honest as the day is long, and a fine human being.
Faughn: Did you talk to the members of the legislature enough when you were governor?
Governor Nixon: Yeah. Yeah. I mean…
Faughn: If you had to do it over again, would you talk to them more?
Governor Nixon: We took seriously, invited them all to dinner. I took them all to dinner each year. I took it very seriously, I went to each of their districts and invited them to come to all of the events, and I never excluded them from either. If I came to their district, then I would invite that legislator in to spend a few private minutes with me if they wanted. I found much more success dealing with them outside of the Capitol. You guys come to the legislature and it’s interesting, people yell and scream at each other and do other things, but as Governor, they’re important, but they’re far less than half of what you’re doing. It’s 15 or 20 percent.
Faughn: You fought with them over the tax cut.
Governor Nixon: Yeah.
Faughn: Explain your opposition to the tax cut.
Governor Nixon: I mean, I like schools. I like colleges. I think education is the best tool there is. And if you look back, in fact I did this morning, I got up since I knew you might ask something about that, and you see on 253, which was the big one, the first one, that I flipped 18 votes on that summer. That held the veto. They were arguing that we need to be more like Kansas.
Faughn: Is an income tax the right way to raise money for the State of Missouri?
Governor Nixon: I think we’ve got a decent mix, a little income, a little sales, a little property. You want to keep it broad-based and low. You don’t want to have a single source of revenue, you want to have it broader based. I don’t think this singularly consumption tax is good, you’ve gotta have some income tax in there. I think the mix is about right.
Faughn: Ah, the China hub. That got into a mess. When it started, you were in a fly-around – did someone in the Senate tell you the Senate was good? What happened?
Governor Nixon: Legislators felt like they wanted to run it up the flagpole. We were in a time crunch if we were going to do it, we had to do it.
Faughn: Did the debacle of the China hub make you a little skittish about calling special sessions in the future?
Governor Nixon: I was always skittish about calling special sessions. Happiness is Jeff City is in the rearview mirror. Any governor will tell you that once everybody comes back, ask a follow-up question. No, you wanted to be focused on them —
Faughn: Did the state miss an opportunity with China hub?
Governor Nixon: I really don’t think so. The forces… I really don’t think so. The forces of China were far bigger than one airport, and we’re still having fallout. Still having trade cases filed against them. Would’ve been nice if the previous administration had done that years ago.
Faughn: If the previous administration would have done their job a thousand people would still have jobs in the bootheel.
Governor Nixon: We would’ve have… that’s what that should’ve happened. That’s why that factory closed, they just couldn’t sustain with the price being controlled by China. They couldn’t sustain that.
Faughn: You’ve always had what seems like a special affinity for the Bootheel, and those folks for you.
Governor Nixon: I’ve spent a lot of time down there – one of the last places I stopped was down there in New Madrid, when we did that child care center down there – a preschool, two preschools, down there, and a guy came up from the paper and said you said “you’d come down here, and you did. Thanks.” I like it. You can see a long way. Plenty of fresh air.
Faughn: Let’s talk about Ferguson. When we mention Ferguson, there’s been tons of stuff said. You really didn’t go around and say a lot of stuff afterward or comment on it or give speeches on it in an attempt to defend yourself. And I’ve always wondered, even before you agreed to sit down and have these conversations: what is something that people don’t know about Ferguson that you know, that you could share with the people of Missouri.
Governor Nixon: That we were committed to keeping people safe and we were very concerned about something happening like at Kent State. That we were deeply committed to having this, as far as direct interactions with folks on the street and the neighborhoods, we wanted the cops doing that who were from those neighborhoods. That’s why a lot of the things we did with the Guard was to free up experienced police officers to be on the front. Quite frankly, I think they did a heck of a job. In fact, we had no other shootings, deaths, or significant injuries on either side of that through all of that heat and all of those problems. We also felt that the power grid might have been a risk on Halloween night, we went out in Ferguson, and there was some indication that they were going to try and do that throughout the region, so we had to guard that stuff. So things like that, this brought a lot of attention, a lot of bad folks around doing things other than civil rights, I’ll tell you that. We had it hard in a lot of other places
Faughn: So there’s been tons of bandwidth from CNN or the Post-Dispatch criticizing you for using too much law and order. But there might places like in Jefferson County that question why you didn’t do more. There’s an incident that came up in a lot of conversations I had that you remember Kent State and that you were not going to see a loss of life and that was a real concern. And maybe people today think that’s extreme, but in that moment, it may not have been an extreme thought.
Governor Nixon: Oh, especially. Our military, especially our Guard, have changed. They’ve changed in a lot of ways for the better. we had over 20,000 deployments since 9/11. So you went from weekend warriors to fighting soldiers. And when you train people to literally kill, and you take them out in the streets trying to calm people down, the training isn’t matched as well. So we were deeply concerned about folks pulling the trigger. It’d be a horror story to have an American soldier with American weapons shooting an unarmed American citizen on American soil. So we were watching that very carefully. On the other hand, there were some very aggressive people. On one of the nights, they overran the Guard and tried to come in on the patrol and the rest of the folks, it was a very very kinetic night.
Faughn: There’s a question that’s lingered out there, which you may have answered, I didn’t find it in my research. You took some phone calls from the White House, one from Valerie Jarrett, was in published reports. Did she ask you to not use the National Guard?
Governor Nixon: First of all, I never took orders, in my role as Governor, from staffers for the President or the President himself. It’s my job in these situations.
Faughn: That’s pretty clear, but did she ask you?
Governor Nixon: She knew not to, that… I indicated to them that I would keep in contact as things moved forward. Before I would call up the Guard, I would let them know.
Faughn: Which would be customary in these situations.
Governor Nixon: Well, you wanted to… If you look back at the Detroit riots – I told you I was an expert on this stuff, I studied it – In Detroit… you can federalize the troops, too, you can call an insurrection and the federal government has control over what’s going on, so we were wanting to communicate to make sure we had control on whatever we did, and I was very formal and very disciplined with any conversations I had with any of those folks to say here’s what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, I wanted you to know as I sign the orders. So it was, there wasn’t any lobbying going on, simply notifying them –
Faughn: You were never lobbied by them to keep a loose grip on law and order?
Governor Nixon: No. They didn’t come around here very much during that time.
Faughn: So I gotta theory, given to me by two people that were very intimately involved with the events in Ferguson. I remember when you first came in, you were around, but to the public perception, it seems that when you really took over was around probably Wednesday-ish, Thursday with person that became a household name in Capt. Johnson, it went from a chaotic situation to a remarkably peaceful situation. Not everyone in the area probably was thrilled about that. Then Friday afternoon, a police chief comes out and releases a video that Michael Brown had robbed a convenience store prior to the incident and after that, the situation really never got under control. It became the national scene that it was. Do you feel in hindsight that maybe there were people at work behind the scenes encouraging him to release that tape at the inopportune time that he did…
Governor Nixon: I’m not sure, it was controversial. When I saw some of the aggressive tactics with guns pointed at kids and all that stuff with cops, I mean I knew we had to do something. I met with a lot of folks who talked about how to do it and set it up, and I do think the locals obviously with us coming in and taking charge were not really thrilled with that.
Faughn: You feel a little bit of tension from them?
Governor Nixon: Yeah. Clearly. I mean –
Faughn: Is it conceivable that they chose to put that out when they did knowing that it would have negative impacts and maybe not care?
Governor Nixon: No, I think all of those folks wanted to set the record straight. They were concerned about how the arc of things was going. I really don’t think they wanted to see additional insurrection rise.
Faughn: So, when things calmed down, you put together a Ferguson commission. What was your thought there, and did it have value?
Governor Nixon: Yeah, I think it did have value. I think it provided a context for people to have – you know the first two or three months were hard for the commissioners. That was hard work. But I ultimately thought that the report has gotten a lot of good things in it. I know I was asked to speak at a convention meeting with a lot of large nonprofits, where they were talking about how much money they should spend helping deal with some of these issues, they were really interested in asking what we did. So I think the Ferguson commission did some good work, laid out some things to move forward on, and allowed the context of beginning what I said was a “listen and learn” and things will get better, and I think it also sensitized a whole bunch of folks about how these issues of race and police are real and deep, and the disagreements that are out there are real and deep on both sides.
Faughn: Is it a little pie in the sky though? There hasn’t been a lot of it actually done.
Governor Nixon: Well, we got the use of force done, we got the municipal court stuff done.
Faughn: Is that something you’re proud of? When you look back?
Governor Nixon: Oh yeah, the municipal courts? Yeah. Courts should not be used as places to generate revenue, they should be used as places to provide justice. And when they get off their mission, then bad things happen. And I think that was one of the causes of a lot of bad things happening.
Faughn: When you look back on the situation now, and you see your successor made a lot of politics out of what happened in Ferguson, and then said this would never happen, and then you see him standing in front of broken glass in University City, is it one of those moments when you realize he didn’t know what he was talking about? That you can’t know unless you’re in that situation?
Governor Nixon: I just find it – to me, this is something talk about in a political context that I can just tell you, one hundred percent, Scott, nothing around any of the actions in Ferguson from me had anything to do with politics at all. You’ve got people extremely upset, you’ve got a very dangerous situation, you had a young man shot in the streets and lay there for four-and-a-half hours, you have national attention because it’s August and all this sort of stuff, you’ve got heat… people can analyze the politics of it all they want but from the chair I was in, our two pillars were speech and safety. I think nobody can argue that they didn’t get enough free speech. And I’m proud of the fact that no one was seriously injured.
Faughn: Let me ask you about something that you were able to come together with the legislature on and that’s the Fulton Hospital. That was an embarrassment for the entire state, regardless of if you’ve seen the photographs, they were terrible. Tell me about remedying that situation.
Governor Nixon: Well, in 1851, it needed to be worked on. I don’t want to sound petty here, but I do think some of the folks who were against that, folks like Chris Kelly and others were fighting us early on, and I wanted to sequence that first. I was committed to graduating as governor with fewer bonds and indebtedness than we had when I started. No raising taxes, right size government, no more debt when I graduate. I was serious about those, so when you’re putting $211 million on bond, you’ve gotta retire a lot of debt before that. So we had to build our way to the point where I could still say to the people of the state who elected me governor “I told you I’d watch your money, and I did. We owe less money than we did before.” But I was still in a cap space in there and it was important that Fulton be first in order to set up then for higher education and the parks and some other state facilities that needed to be done. So we had to sequence it first. I’m very proud of the work that we did, be proud when it’s open and vitally important, and maybe another 150 years before the forces come together to say “let’s build a forensic mental health hospital for the most dangerous people that have committed violent offenses and let’s put it in a nice quiet town that wants to have it there and is not going to fight on the site at all. The people of Fulton were great. I mean if we sent the people to DeSoto or Poplar Bluff, then what we’re gonna do is build a mental health hospital and everybody that is shot anybody, knifed them or might shoot themselves or knife themselves and is in the middle of trials and everything else, they’re all going to come there and get evaluated. Everybody is going to go what’s going on. The people of Fulton and Callaway County understood their mission and were incredibly supportive of that.
Faughn: Let’s talk about an issue, another one that everybody sees is transportation. The legislature passed a bill to put on the ballot, interesting decision, you put it on August, which I think most folks thought killed it. I don’t know if it would have passed in November, probably not, but it seemed like you were on board, but that move would seem to be that you weren’t on board.
Governor Nixon: I did not support the sales tax to pay for our roads at that time. I didn’t think that we should give the truckers a pass. I think that if you’re gonna have a road system, it should be supported by Missouri’s traditional user fee for roads in one form or another and I think that the ones who use it the most are the trucks.
Faughn: Did you tell that to the legislature when they passed the bill? I think they thought you were in support of what they did. They certainly were publicly surprised when you put it on August.
Governor Nixon: Yeah. They were surprised, I didn’t ask their advice on that one. But I just thought the sales tax, we needed to spend more money on roads, and I had a different idea all eight years, I laid something out all eight years for roads. I thought a toll road for trucks on I-70 would’ve been a good idea, and continue to believe that could be something. The gas tax, while it’s gonna run out in time, I’d hate to spend all this political energy on something that’s not even going to be used to fuel in a few years, especially with the mileage going up the way it is right now, you’re betting on a losing revenue stream. And I continue to be annoyed by people who think you can solve a $3 billion problem by laying off a couple of people at the Dept. of Health because it’s an expensive project, with $605 million or $603 million spent there by the money saved during the downsizes. Not completed, certainly not accomplished on it.
Faughn: The public defender system, they did a little grandstanding during your last year in office and assigned you to a case. It’s always been an odd thing to me where Republicans talk about “don’t trust the government, resist the government”, and the one office that actually defenders you from the government is terribly underfunded every year. Obviously, it was a cheap shot. What did you think when you saw it?
Governor Nixon: We cut the budget. All of the state had to cut. The public defenders got 14.7 percent increase in my time as governor. If that’s a cut, that ain’t cut the way I look at it.
Faughn: So they say you were a prosecutor, you were the chief prosecutor, you didn’t have as open a heart for them.
Governor Nixon: I’m saying we cut K-12, we cut transportation, Ok, we cut parents as teachers. We gave more money in that kind of budget to public defenders. And the question is not, it never is in Missouri, how much money do you need, it’s how much money do we have and what part of that money can you allocate for this or that. And the other thing, their political stunts demean themselves, demean their mission, they were bad lawyers, and that silly lawsuit that they filed said the governor didn’t have the authority to restrict was a legal embarrassment. I thought that they did not do a good job for themselves, for their clients, or the state and thought it was all just an amateurish publicity stunt that got them nothing.
Faughn: Do you find it weird that Republicans are conservatives and anti-government unless you have a badge? If you have a DNR badge, you’re government, if you have a prosecutor badge you’re not. It seems like a very inconsistent argument. Should public defenders be paid the same as prosecutors?
Governor Nixon: I think everyone deserves a lawyer. When I was in the State Senate, it was me and Emory Melton, and Henry Panethere that supported the district public defender system. We had 98 lawyers at that time because we had these huge gaps. In one year, 98 lawyers put the district’s public defender system together, so I was involved in building what’s out there right now. Once again, I think the ones that were pushing me on that were ones in the public defender’s office, and they are underfunded. I mean a lot of stuff in Missouri is underfunded. That’s not the question, the question is how you manage with what you’ve got and sending lawyers down to the Cole County Courthouse to sue a governor on a case that was clearly wrong and wasting time by issuing press releases about it all day long instead of going out and taking their time to defend people that have been charged with crimes was a long way from their responsibility.
Faughn: Tell me about the NFL stadium.
Governor Nixon: Two things really quickly: First, if someone wants to take a business from your state, you fight. You just do. Whether it’s an auto plant or football team. And the time frames they forced us under were extreme.
Faughn: Was it a show? Was the NFL being disingenuous with the city and the people of Missouri?
Governor Nixon: I want to be careful because there’s litigation involved and that question may get asked. I’m just gonna demur. A lot of people ask me a lot of questions about that, and I think the two things I would say is number one, I thought we presented an offer that the NFL should’ve supported and it’s extremely disappointing that a Missourian would take a football team and move them to L.A. It was clearly attainable. The committee voted 5-1 to in favor of St. Louis, that’s pretty good.
Faughn: Are folks wrong to smell a rat? I don’t know if that’s too legalese to ask you or not, but it sure looks like some not-so-straight dealing with people in Missouri.
Governor Nixon: Like I said, there’s litigation around that, and I assume everyone’s gonna be asking questions.
Faughn: A couple more topics: when you’re looking at how you left the state, you made an endorsement in the primary to endorse Rep. Rizzo. I’d say his first year in the Senate has made you look pretty smart for doing that, but what went into that decision?
Governor Nixon: I leaned in a little politically for both he and Jake (Hummel) with some things that I did. I thought they really grew up when they were in leadership in the House, I thought they listened to a lot of people and had a lot of good intel, and I thought they talked across the aisle. Those are two guys that I think the Republicans will talk to. I think that Rizzo’s dad obviously had some trouble when he was in office, and I think that some folks electorally had drug his numbers a little bit, and I didn’t think that was fair at all, and so I’ve always tried to lean in a bit more for J.J. because I think he’s a fine young man, a decent basketball player, too. I’ve always been someone that believes in fairness. I felt that some folks, the Star and some other folks out there were being unfair in that instance. I also felt the timing of my endorsement didn’t hurt.
Faughn: Do you find it ironic that some of the people you’ve worked with, you have positive things to say about, but your successor calls them corrupt and attacks them far more viciously than you ever did?
Governor Nixon: I just felt like I wanted to find the good people. It’s not like I’m Pollyanna, ok? I don’t need people to say I wander around and am always at the end of the rainbow. But the older I get, the longer I live, positive people get stuff done.
Faughn: Is Mizzou on the right track today?
Governor Nixon: I wish they would be a little – yeah they’re making progress, but I think they need to continue to focus on some of the pillars, some of the excellence. I’m a big guy on making it cost-effective and all that sort of stuff, my record is clear in that regard, but I think the real distinction for the University of Missouri, especially the Columbia campus, the flagship, is the excellence of the academics there, and I would hope they continue to spend some time there. I also think that they had to make some cuts, but when you take away your press people when you’re an institution that big, that’s a problem. I think you gotta communicate with the public in a professional way. But I just hope that the next steps they take are to not just talk about numbers but the quality of the programs.
Faughn: The last thing is you talked about ethics. In the race to succeed, you saw dark money actually make the most wildly prominent statement it’s ever made in Missouri politics. What is your thought on a candidate having a committee he controls where the donors aren’t known to the public?
Governor Nixon: I don’t like it. I think above the board dollars, disclosable dollars are important.
Faughn: Can you ban that type of money in Missouri that’s not disclosed? Is it legal to do?
Governor Nixon: If it touches in any way shape or form, it can be yeah. Yeah, you can control what a candidate gets and what a candidate does. I believe in First Amendment rights. If people across the street from me want to put a neon sign up that says “Nixon’s an idiot” they’re free to do that. Independent expenditures are fine. People should be able to spend money and say things. But when you’re touching a candidate with those resources, or they’re involved in it, that’s a serious, serious problem and one that we need to stop as soon as we can and make sure that the money surrounding the candidates is open and people see what it is.
Faughn: How would you like for people to remember Governor Nixon?
Governor Nixon: First of all, I love the state, and I understand it. I understand it really really well. I was able to weave together a very disparate state. There’s no street in this state that I’m afraid to walk down, and nobody in this place, in our great state that I’ll do anything except walk up to them and talk to them and listen to them. So I think people will really appreciate that I really understood the state. They’ll appreciate that I worked hard, I took the money very seriously with the public, and I like to be outdoors, I think we’ve got a great outdoors, and I think that we sometimes miss that. I’ m especially intense about that because public property to the east of us is being given up, those states are charging to get into parks, and to the west of us, they don’t like public land because the federal government owns all the states. So we’re kind of in the sweet spot here, and so I think that being an outdoors guy is important to me. This week, there’s been two little things that have happened – this is a short-term thing – number one is this whole “Me, too” campaign, and it’s nice not to see anybody that was in my administration or involved with me anybody me tooing them. Our people, we had a diverse workforce, men and women working together, doing hard work together, and I think we comported ourselves in a very respectful way, and not bad. In essence, I was very proud of that. And then the Post ran a story the other day about the tenth biggest corruption things that had happened in Missouri politics of recent ilk, and we weren’t on that list, either. So I think that people know that when they dealt with me, my word meant something and that I got up every day saying “What can I do better to make this state better?”. And the other thing is, that if you read in that report to the legislature, you read that first letter – I’ll edit it this way. “I could not be more thankful to the people of the State of Missouri, who have given me the highest honor they possibly could; to get a chance to be governor, not once, but twice, two in a row, to be the person that speaks for your state, the person who represents your state around the world, the person that can get anywhere in the state and listen to people, is the highest honor you could possibly have. I’m just really, really thankful for the opportunity.
Faughn: Governor, thank you so much for providing this look into our state’s history, we’ll be back with part four. We’ll talk about some of your thoughts on the current political landscape.
Benjamin Peters was a reporter for The Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine and also produced the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined The Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield.