A retrospective on the 30-year career of the 55th Governor of the State of Missouri, Jay Nixon: Part 1
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.
The first part of our series discusses Governor Nixon’s life before entering public service including his first campaign for State Senate in Jefferson County.
Scott Faughn: Well, first of all, thank you, Governor, for agreeing to do this. I think it’s hopefully something that people will be able to look back and have had an interesting record of your time in office and get a sense of the people and government of Missouri for those eight years – and really, those thirty years of your career in public service. So thank you very much.
Governor Jay Nixon: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be with you, and I appreciate your all’s day to day work covering our state, I think it’s one of the things that when I started in office, even as governor, St. Louis Post Dispatch and the Kansas City Star still had Metro pages that would cover state news and the process around state government. I do think that your organization has taken and filled a significant void out there of what’s happening daily and stay in the mix of it, as opposed to just hunting for what could get on the front page on Sunday. So I thank you for making the investment you made and for putting together the organization you have, I think it is serving the state.
Faughn: I really appreciate that. Just to put your career into a little context, there are only three men that have completed two full terms as Governor for, geez, a hundred years or more. It’s Warren Hearnes, from down in the bootheel, John Ashcroft from southwest Missouri, and yourself. That capstone a thirty-year career and I’d like to, just start off chronologically and talk about De Soto where they’re pretty proud to claim you as it’s placed on the city limit signs.
Governor Nixon: Yeah, born and raised in DeSoto, sort of small-town, obviously. I think it tells a lot about who I am. I mean it was one of those places where if you had, if you had trouble, you were more concerned that the police would drive home and talk your mom and dad than they would that they would put you in the back seat. And you know my dad had been mayor, my mom president of the school board. My dad ultimately, later on for a number of years, decades, was a municipal judge – which doesn’t make you very popular when you’re fellow high school friends are getting tickets and have to go to court and it’s your dad that’s dealing with them but that’s, of course, a side note of little relevance here. But yeah, I think we could walk to our church is was right up the top of the hill, school, I’ve walked to school – both grade school even high school, you know.
Faughn: So, it’s 1960s DeSoto, people look at a map and you’re from Sedalia or Willard, Missouri you look and you see Jefferson County as part of St. Louis, but DeSoto is not St. Louis. It’s far more like Eminence than it is the Central West End.
Governor Nixon: Even when I ran for office in eighty-six it was beginning to be two separate counties in a lot of ways. Kind of small towns up the southern half of the district, while the northern half was basically suburban places to live. And once Bill Bradley left Crystal City, folks forgot a lot about, I mean seriously, I mean the last time I think Crystal City beat ’em in basketball was when Bradley was there.
Faughn: I think you get a pass losing to a Hall of Famer. Your father was Mayor of DeSoto. What did that teach you about politics or public service?
Governor Nixon: First of all public service is something you did. You were expected to do it, it wasn’t an option of should I be involved. I mean literally at the dinner table, I’ve told people when they ask, “how’d you get started in politics?” It’s a real, real simple story. When your Dad’s the mayor and your mom’s the president of the school board, we were one of those kinds of Cleaver families who had dinner together every night. Six o’clock, we’d have dinner – sit down at the table and the phone would ring. And the mayor would look at the president of the school board and they would look at me and say, hey you answer it. So I started in politics and constituent service, and so I go literally to the kitchen and answer the phone and sometimes it be somebody whose kid got cut from the basketball team or somebody whose sewer backed up or somebody who wanted something and I’d come back to the table and I would pitch their constituent issue to the table to my mom and dad my two sisters. My two sisters a little less interested than my mom and dad and they would discuss it.
The lesson for me was my mom and dad never asked whether the person was a supporter of theirs or a Democrat or Republican or a contributor, they asked what the problem was. So the thing I remember is taking those problems to literally our own dinner table in a small town and having my mom and dad actually seriously think about what they could do to solve them. For example, when the clean water act started, Desoto was straight piping it’s sewer into Joachim Creek and you couldn’t fish there, I like fish to obviously, he heard about this clean water stuff that you could get. De Soto got one of the first clean water grants we built those initial lagoons there also later on a sewage treatment plant, the bottom line by the time I was graduating high school you could catch and eat the fish in Joachim Creek in DeSoto so you were able to see both how they treated it and then tangibly that you could make a difference.
Faughn: I’ve observed that you have more of a nuts-and-bolts approach, you spent a lot of time being governor, more so than I think maybe even some your predecessors. It seemed like you spent a lot of time working on state government functions that come from having a family that actually was on the functional end of politics where you actually have to do the things?
Governor Nixon: It’s that plus I think that I enjoy the craft. I got in to help people and anything you can touch because I got in to help people so the first we focused on that. One of our mantras internally in the transition was we want to help people who will never know our name and never know we were there, so we were that’s what we’re
aiming at the horizon. It’s not where the sun went down each day but on out. So yeah I think the practicality of solving problems was fun was very rewarding. When you know you’re affecting lives out there and not only myself but I think together our team had the same mentality.
Faughn: So when you talk about going through and being in that local government to me it’s a really interesting concept in 1960 Desoto where you had parents who I assume would be classified as conservative Democrats as most folks I know in DeSoto were in your teenage years early when the sixty’s were in full flower what impression did that leave on you and what did your parents think about it?
Governor Nixon: I remember my dad went to St Louis when Martin King was here one time, it was kind of interesting, not many people from DeSoto went up to see that, it was kind of an interesting discussion and I’m not saying my father was a civil rights pioneer although he had a belief that everybody was born and raised equally, but he kind of had a curiosity, he curious guy like that, that was the DeSoto contingent at a Martin Luther King event in St. Louis because he was curious. I mean he was engaged and curious. Also carry it forward I mean I was really involved in the Boy Scouts when I was young and that was kind of another unifying factor. We formed our own troop because basically, each church had a troop and ours had fallen down so our troop ended up being the churches that didn’t have troops, but to tell you how tied in we were my Eagle Scout project was to go to grade schools around the area get questions for public officials and then I did a radio program on the KHAD or whatever the radio station in Desoto is and had these Saturday morning interviews with the mayor or the sheriff and all that sort of stuff with the questions that the kids at the grade schools had given. So yeah, I’ve been involved in this stuff, it’s my nerd quotient exceeding my cool quotient very quickly.
Faughn: Going back to the 60s, what impression that leave on you?
Governor Nixon: That you can make a difference – that you really can. That was one of the mantras I think about sometimes is “if you’re arguing, you’re losing” – the people that lose their cool. If you walk into a room and see one person yell and another person sitting there. Something like that, it’s like the person that is yelling is losing their power, shall we say, so we try to really, really respectfully deal with the other sides because we’re actually trying to solve the problem and if you’re actually trying to solve the problem then you’re deeply interested in why someone across the table from you is against it or has problems with it and you can only figure out what a solution is if you’re willing to listen.
Faughn: Did the 60s sometimes take it too far though?
Governor Nixon: Absolutely I mean this is a very this is a rough sport.
Faughn: I mean the 60s sometimes go too far?
Governor Nixon: In which way?
Faughn: With the protests and things like that?
Governor Nixon: Yeah, I went to the funeral of a cousin that was killed near the end of the Vietnam War. You know so this stuff got real in your town as far as the national stuff.
Faughn: I’ve heard people mention that Kent State left an impression on you?
Governor Nixon: Yeah, I mean, I’m a little young but yes it did quite frankly. It later played into other things that happened. That’s one reason I was so committed that we’re not going to on American soil have an American soldier lower a weapon at an unarmed American citizen in Missouri and pull the trigger. In fact, I did talk to Ken Dobbins former president of SEMO who was at Kent State when that happened he was getting his one of his graduate degrees. I asked him about that because later when we were dealing with some civil unrest issues I wanted to look at kind of what the lessons were I pick things up from Ken and he was very helpful to me explaining how dramatic that was and how it’s something that he has carried with him the rest of his life.
Faughn: Since you mentioned the university, you went to the University of Missouri – was that always the plan?
Governor Nixon: We joke in the Nixon family that educational options begin upon graduation from the University of Missouri Law School. I’m a lawyer, my wife’s a lawyer, my oldest son’s a lawyer, my mom and dad went there, mom’s not a lawyer but went to Mizzou. I wasn’t really a choice. I applied to one college I applied to one law school and then I went back home and practiced law. So I was one of these guys when people come to me for career counseling, perhaps I’m not as good as some, I kind of knew what I wanted to do for a long time.
Faughn: So was part of that plan going into politics?
Governor Nixon: We were involved and you would assume that. So I try to live my life in a way that people would respect. That my seriousness but it wasn’t moving back home I kept voting while I was in college in DeSoto or rather I didn’t change my voter registration to Columbia, the People’s Republic of Boone never got my registration.
Faughn: What was a favorite thing about your time there?
Governor Nixon: At Mizzou?
Governor Nixon: I came from a pretty small town, and the schools were good but not as intellectually challenging as the University of Missouri, and I just really liked college for the educational part. So I took one reason I took political science as a degree is because it had the least number of required hours so you had to take. There were only twenty-one hours required for political science so you had a hundred hours to do other stuff. I think that the people I met there. The breadth the first time I was actually intellectually challenged you know when you’re Desoto if you study you get an A.
You know you can you can get the grades you want. I was playing all sports and debate and being in plays and all that sort of stuff in high school. I liked the intellectual part of it. I think it was surprising for people to see a rural kind of kid with the long hair who kind of always came to class ready to go play basketball. Anyways jeans were an upgrade of what I looked like in class.
And so, for example, I took basically every graduate class about Shakespeare I could. I did an honors thesis on Hegel. You know that sort of stuff you’re not gonna do in DeSoto.
Faughn: Tell me about later on everybody that I’ve talked to about this knows how passionate you about the University of Missouri, obviously it fell on some rough times. Break down why and how did that as somebody that loves Mizzou affect you?
Governor Nixon: Well the first thing I want to do is set the record straight that is when some people said that students were in danger on campus, they weren’t. I was governor at the time and if people were going to be in danger during those first activities there. I mean we were well aware what was up.
Faughn: I mean those aren’t real criticisms are they?
Governor Nixon: When the president of the university says that in public, subsequently I just want to say that I think that President Middleton, the former president was very helpful in making sure they were safe. I’ll just say that.
Faughn: I mean candidly, I don’t think any serious person can say at any time people were unsafe at the University of Missouri.
Governor Nixon: I didn’t think so. If I would have thought so you would have seen a lot of action there.
Faughn: However, there are some people that would have normally went to the University of Missouri that have chosen other universities out of that. I guess it comes down to that it’s set up with the Board of Curators to be independent, but what could you have done differently to avoid some of that effect of people just not going to Mizzou?
Governor Nixon: Well, I mean, it without going into detail of what was an excruciating explanation here on there was just a lot going on in Missouri at the time. There’s a lot of attention on those issues. When I was a college there were protests every day.
Faughn: Did you have the right curators in place and the right President to handle such a stressful time though?
Governor Nixon: Certainly, I’m not going to be critical of anybody I appointed as a curator. Let’s not insert a parenthetical, really juicy quote that I’m not gonna use. I do think that the campus leadership at that time had two things going on. One, when you had a president that was not directly connected I didn’t think to the student body at a connection level. And you had a tussle with him the Chancellor that was counterproductive, to say the least and so you lost focus but I let’s not kid ourselves this became a big issue when the football team did not want to play
Governor Nixon: That’s what blew this up, otherwise this is just the normal things that happen in college. if you got in your car and went to a college campus somewhere there’s a protest going on about something there just are.
Faughn: But clearly this campus didn’t have a president up to dealing with that, and maybe my question to you, without trying to solicit you to say something about him, except that do you think the way the curator structure is set up works. No one could care more about Mizzou and be Governor than you so do you think that is the way it should be set up. If you could draw it up now from scratch how would you draw up overseeing the university?
Governor Nixon: I do think that having an empowered board institutionally separate from the day to day work in Jeff City is important. I think we’re seeing things now that show that these institutions which are going to be here a long time before the elected officials are here and be here a long time afterward need to have a continuity, and I think that the longer terms that require people from all over the state to sort out stuff. You can argue it doesn’t provide dynamic enough leadership, but you can also argue the side that it prevents big mistakes from happening.
Faughn: Isn’t it meant to put a speed bump between the heat of politics and the institutions? I mean you can leave your mark on any board if you’re Governor for 8 years, but you do it slowly and maybe that’s the Midwestern way?
Governor Nixon: You know I think that, and I think it clearly has that with MODOT, the same thing with DESE it has the same thing where you’ve kind of got these staggered longer terms. I think that’s good. I think that the downside of it is that it has not empowered board members as collectively to be as long-term forward thinking as they could be. All things being said I think it’s an important separation, it’s a vital separation and I can’t sit here and think of a better system.
Faughn: Tell me about the role basketball played in your life?
Governor Nixon: Well, I was never as good as I wanted to be. Once I got to be governor, people and even attorney general, people give my basketball abilities much more recognition than my fellow politicians who did play deserved. I played a lot it’s what we did.
Faughn: Is there a difference in boxing out a lawyer from Desoto than boxing out a State Senator than boxing out an Attorney General than boxing out a Governor?
Governor Nixon: No, once you once you put the put the once you get inside the court and if you’re like me I mean my whole basketball high school career, in essence, was a memory of the coach saying if you’re not in the paint don’t shoot.
Faughn: Well, being tall probably helped.
Governor Nixon: I was always like the second string center. I remember kind of the moment later on in life as a state senator where I quit playing serious basketball, it actually was when I was Attorney General I was guarding a guy in a game an all American guy. We were playing a game down in Springfield, and I had my arm right in his back just kind of blocking him out so he couldn’t get on the base and he was a lot stronger than me. I’m locked in, and I’m pretty strong in the lower body, I was holding him and he was like rockin’ me, rockin’ me, rockin’ me then all at once, he just jumps up and dunks it two hands over his head on me and I said ‘you know, I think the sport is passing me by.’ We played a lot. That’s what we did. We had a court at our house where everybody in the neighborhood came, but in the DeSoto, you played all the sports, man, you play football, ran track. I played tennis, I was in debate team, I was in plays, I was in choir, I sang a solo at districts…horribly, music all of the various things, when you’re in a small school you can just do everything. I remember getting to college and you show your high school yearbook to somebody that went to a big school, a roommate of mine one time went to Riverview he said, “You were the whole school. What do you mean there’s like 10 of you that are doing all that?” It’s just whatever ball they roll out that’s the season you do it. I didn’t quit growing until I got to college so actually the best was I played was there. In college, I guarded, maybe law school, I guarded Kim Anderson two days after he was cut by Portland Trail Blazers. Held him a dozen rebounds and I believe 27 blocked shots. When we won the intramural championship at Mizzou, I guarded Gene Hansbrough
Faughn: Oh wow, Gene.
Governor Nixon: Ya, Gene’s is a heck of an athlete, first person to jump seven foot, high jumper, he made the Olympic trials finals in the high jump, yeah, and I’m sure you know the family, Tyler’s dad
Faughn: I didn’t know that, wow. Yeah, we call him Doc.
Governor Nixon: We beat him for the intramural championship in a pretty tough game which he claims not to remember but I know he does, but anyway I held him to thirty-two points before I fouled out so you consider it’s the championship game so you can see my role.
Governor Nixon: When people talk about how good you were I was just kind of the guy that passed and then we live here in University City now and one of the reasons we’re we like this area is in the summers I would come up to Hemen Park up here because they have the best outdoor basketball game when I was working and I would play over there with all of the top players in St.. Louis so I’m a guy that’s been around it and played a little bit but never was a great player.
Faughn: Tell me about your wife, the First Lady.
Governor Nixon: Obviously, born and raised in Jeff City, her father was the first Commissioner of Education Hubert Wheeler (1941-1976), and did some tremendous things for education. I mean, when you look at his career, my gosh, he took us from almost 5,000 school districts to something manageable. Then, when the Constitution changed in 1945, he was the county superintendent in Marshall in Saline County and then know moved up to the back then they had counties superintendents
Faughn: People forget how influential that that school superintendent job was.
Governor Nixon: Oh my gosh, I mean he was the first in Missouri for a long time they went from five thousand school districts to five-hundred-thirty-one, you had the first foundation formula, and had all the issues with the litigation, with the parochial schools about what books can come with and what can’t with public money, involved in the Blaine Amendment, involved in all that sort of stuff.
Faughn: Governor Baker from Wayne County went from that job to governor.
Governor Nixon: Yeah, it’s like a real job. We met in law school but then they were kind of ships passing there. And then she came back, she was in New York she was director of contracts for William Morrow Publishing where she negotiated book contracts. She’s a copyright lawyer but there just weren’t enough trees in New York. She wanted to come back home and when she did she went to work as an Assistant Attorney General under Webster. She worked there a little while and then became director of services for the Missouri Bar. She edited all of their publications for them subsequent to that has been a teacher, a vice president of a bank, and a great mom.
Faughn: How did you get her to go out with you though?
Governor Nixon: Um, the uh, persistence. No I mean we were both a little older. We joke about our thirty thirty thirty plan which is thirty years before we got married, thirty years of public service, thirty years of something else. We were at a time in which you know if we’re going to get going, we needed to get going as far as having kids and all that stuff so it happened pretty fast.
But she is incredibly well read, and I thought quite frankly that she did an incredible job as First Lady of the state. I mean part of her responsibility was to make sure that people respected the state and she didn’t get in other people’s business, especially the legislature and folks like that. She’s a great outdoors person too she and I that’s one of our favorite pictures quite frankly. One of us in a canoe that’s down, where was taken – we were trying to bump canoe season. That’s on the Current River down by Van Buren and that’s a picture taken by the Poplar Bluff paper because it was on the front page of the Poplar Bluff so we got it from them.
Governor Nixon: We were trying to do it and it was like an October float. We were trying to say how do we get tourism season going longer so we try to find a really nice day in October and get a float to get a picture where we actually floated. It’s the only time the dog would stand still. There were deer out there you know he was going nuts.
Faughn: You’re well known at The Landing.
Governor Nixon: So Georganne is a really good. We like to hike we like to get out. She won’t shoot things but…
Faughn: So you run for State Senate you are thirty, what makes you run?
Governor Nixon: I announced really early. I announced two years before when I was only twenty-eight, for an office where you have got to be 30.
Faughn: It’s ambitious.
Governor Nixon: I still wasn’t a twenty-two-year-old mayor or anything like that, I waited around I took another six years, but, no, I just felt that the current incumbent at the time came really close that losing the race before to someone who ended up being the Associate Circuit Judge, and I didn’t know whether the incumbent was going to run. I assumed he would when I started and I just felt like Jefferson County was changing and we needed more respect in the region that we weren’t getting our fair share. In fact, my campaign slogan was our fair share.
Faughn: And that seems to be a theme that Jefferson County feels and also Missourians at-large feel.
Governor Nixon: Oh yeah the Show Me state runs deep, it’s a multifaceted emotional feeling to it. And so I felt like if I got in early I figured I’d run against him, but he got out of the race and we ended up catching the Sheriff and the Presiding Commissioner running. Between the two of them had what 46 years of undefeated political experience and I’m just a guy from DeSoto.
Faughn: In a county like Jefferson County, the sheriff can walk on water I assume?
Governor Nixon: Yeah, and he was very popular politically. I remember.
Faughn: Did you think about getting out?
Governor Nixon: No.
Faughn: Why did you think you could win? I know why you thought that you could beat the incumbent, but when the race changed why did you think you could beat those two guys?
Governor Nixon: I felt like I understood the area and the longer the race went I went the more like I felt like I understood the district. One of the things I did Scott at the very beginning of the race was that I had a pretty detailed plan for myself personally. I was practicing law, but I met with, I’ll say everybody, but you might find one I didn’t, but, basically, every person that was head of an elected board. So basically I met with the head of every fire district, the head of every water district, the head of every school board, met with all the school superintendents, met with the mayors, met with the police chiefs. I set a schedule up for a whole year and I listened to them.
Faughn: Well geographically though, were these guys from a different part of the county?
Governor Nixon: Yeah you go all the way up to Barnhart, I remember sitting across from Jules Zimmerman who was then president of the Rock Township Fire Protection District at his house off 141 in Arnold, and was a supporter from then on forever because I just asked him how does the fire district work, what do I need to know about it, what are issues that are important, tell me why you got involved.
I just had this feeling that these folks who are running nonpartisan in these elections were really a target to how you how connect to a community as opposed to thinking about it as democrat/republican. When you try to be binary it shuts out a whole lot of creativity in a lot of things, and these folks have been elected on nonpartisan ballots were interesting people to me so meeting those school boards and you get to know Jefferson County. Water districts were invented in the county, Public Water District Number 1 is in Arnold, Missouri.
Faughn: I didn’t know that.
Governor Nixon: My dad’s law partner Earl Blackwell former Pro Tem of the Senate moved that bill, and my dad represented Public Water Number 1 since it was founded.
Faughn: Jeff County folks have always been colorful, you have the McKennas, a guy that left the Pro Tem job. How did you win that race out talk them, out-fundraise them?
Governor Nixon: You know yeah I raised some money but I wasn’t the guy I think I ended up spending more than them sure though.
Faughn: Did you out doorknock them?
Governor Nixon: Yeah, by a lot.
Faughn: Were you from a better part of the county?
Governor Nixon: I mean we were the first ones to kind of take a little bit modern politics, you know
the real race was the Democratic primary.
Governor Nixon: So what we did we took folks we went through the voting record of every single person in the state and we set up a matrix system by hand, back then they didn’t have computers to do that sort of stuff so we had to spend like three months in the office of the County Clerk and we put together a grid of people that we called frequent voters.
So who’s going to vote in a Democratic primary in August, and we had this metric if they had voted in a municipal election it also counted. So then we merged all that back then without computers to the families, so the bottom line is my mailing list wasn’t one hundred ninety thousand registered voters our mailing list was like twenty-three thousand. We put together a newspaper that went out basically once a week that we published that went out to folks. We built that list so it’s interesting you’d to see people who would ask, “Are you running”, and I’d say you must not be a frequent voter!
Faughn: So you incorporated science to it?
Governor Nixon: Yeah, the first poll we did, you know I think it was between the other guys I was down like 84 to 4 or something like that. There was my committee and they were like, four?
Faughn: Did you think about saving your powder and running for a House seat?
Governor Nixon: No, it’s the Senate that interested me. I was never really interested in the House or even Congress for that matter. For me, it was whether to run for prosecutor or to run for state senate. Those were countywide offices, they gave you a big enough base because at that time you could have ultimately been redistricted into the third, and if you wanna run for Congress and you got thirty-five percent vote in Jefferson County you could go that way at some point.
Tomorrow will be the 2nd of our series on Governor Nixon’s time in the State Senate and as Attorney General.