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POLITICS: PennAve

Long-held tensions with black voters come to a boil for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon

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Politics,Missouri,Campaigns,PennAve,Rebecca Berg,Race and Diversity,Jay Nixon,Ferguson

As protesters clashed with police for the fifth night in Ferguson, Mo., on Wednesday, Missouri elected officials and opinion makers began to wonder, loudly and publicly: Where was Gov. Jay Nixon?

The answer: Nearly 200 miles away in Sedalia, Mo., enjoying a show at the state fair by the country music duo Florida Georgia Line.

The Democratic governor planned to attend a ham breakfast at the fair Thursday morning, too. But, late Wednesday, Nixon tweeted that he was canceling those plans to head to Ferguson and overnight released a statement calling the developments in the city “deeply troubling."

For state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, it was too little, too late. Nixon “is not really at ground zero, and for that I call him a coward,” Missouri State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, an African-American Democrat from the St. Louis area, told MSNBC on Thursday morning.

The brutal criticism directed at Nixon by Chappelle-Nadal and other lawmakers isn’t just about Ferguson, however. It illustrates deeper challenges Nixon has faced throughout his political career in his relationship with the African-American community, which has ranged from strained to fraught to acrimonious.

Although Nixon, a Democrat, has long counted on the community’s support to win elections, negative feelings persist.

As one former state lawmaker, who is white, put it to the Washington Examiner, “Nixon doesn't give a s--- about minorities.”

Nixon grew up in De Soto, Mo., in Jefferson County, one of the collar counties that has ballooned as whites have moved out of the city of St. Louis. Nixon’s father served as the city’s mayor and as a police judge, but also made money on land speculation during the initial period of white migration from the city to its environs.

“As is the case with any politician, those early, formative experiences helped formed the governor's political worldview,” said Jeff Smith, a former Democratic state senator from St. Louis.

When Nixon narrowly won his first term as attorney general in 1992, his opposition to court-ordered busing programs to promote school desegregation was central to his platform. On the campaign trail, Nixon called the programs “a failed social experiment” that drained the state budget.

That stance did not ingratiate him to African-American communities, but Nixon moved to end the program as attorney general anyway.

The ill will continued to fester even in 1998, when Nixon challenged Republican Sen. Kit Bond. The NAACP picketed some of Nixon’s campaign events, and Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay, Sr., whose son now holds his seat in Congress, urged President Bill Clinton not to show up to a fundraiser with Nixon.

"I'll do what I have to do" to defeat Nixon, Clay said, according to a Congressional Quarterly report at the time. Nixon lost to Bond, who took a larger-than-normal share of the African-American vote for a Republican candidate.

Nevertheless, Nixon won the race for governor in 2008 with wide support from African-American voters, who turned out in historic numbers to support Barack Obama.

“He has been openly hostile to the black community on a lot of things for a long time, but he's done just enough that they can't destroy them,” said a former state Democratic lawmaker.

But Nixon has clashed with the community as governor, too, most recently over a school transfer bill that was approved this year by the Republican legislature, with some support from Democrats. The measure would have allowed students in unaccredited school districts to transfer to accredited schools. Parts of Ferguson are in an unaccredited school district.

“If the governor vetoes this bill, it will be the second time he has turned his back on poor black children,” Chappelle-Nadal said on the Missouri Senate floor in May. “The last time he did that is when he was the attorney general and he decided to end desegregation.”

Nixon vetoed the bill.

Still, Nixon showcased himself as anq effective crisis manager in the aftermath of the 2011 tornado that razed the city of Joplin, Mo.

“He won a lot of support in southwest Missouri because he took charge of the situation in the only way a governor can, by declaring disaster areas and asking for help,” said one Republican state senator.

Having witnessed Nixon’s quick response to the devastation in Joplin, many state and national elected officials have been doubly floored by his slow, uncertain reaction to the events in Ferguson. When Nixon did acknowledge the growing unrest in Ferguson, it appeared half-hearted.

After he delivered a speech at a community meeting in the area Tuesday, he darted out immediately afterward.

By midday Thursday, Nixon had not called up the national guard to intervene in Ferguson, and Rep. John Lewis, appearing on MSNBC, called for Obama to deploy the national guard himself — action that was taken a few times by presidents during the civil rights era, such as when Lewis was one of the Montgomery Freedom Riders marching from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

Later, Nixon promised an “operational shift” in the forces patrolling Ferguson, but ultimately called upon the Missouri Highway Patrol, not the National Guard, to take the lead.

And after five days, Nixon is now actively on the ground in Ferguson. He has met with religious leaders, and he has spoken to reporters and the public.

"It has been a deeply challenging week,” Nixon said when he made a televised statement Thursday.

He wasn’t wrong. But, if history is a guide, the political challenges for Nixon and Missouri will stretch far beyond this week.

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Rebecca Berg

Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

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