A retrospective on the 30-year career of the 55th Governor of the State of Missouri, Jay Nixon: Part 2
Over the past two 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.
In part 2 Governor Nixon discussed his time in the State Senate and Attorney General.
Faughn: So you’re thirty when you win the senate race and you walk into what I think is probably the most beautiful building in the entire country, into that Senate chamber… you look around the room and you see Harold Caskey and different ones… what do you think? I mean when you walk into there, are you just trying to figure out where the bathroom is or what’s your what’s your attitude walking into that old Senate before the PQs eroded it?
Governor Nixon: Well, two things I think are important, first of all, it’s before term limits and I was the only freshman.
Faughn: The only freshman? So, the freshman tour was just you driving around?
Governor Nixon: I got hazing from 33, you know. Plus, being kind of a sharp-tongued lawyer and beat the guy that they were all for. They were all for Berger, they were all for the Sheriff, he was supposed to win.
Faughn: Well these weren’t scientific campaigners right. I mean Harold Caskey didn’t use a frequent voter list, he didn’t have races. He had always just won, right?
Governor Nixon: And so I had a little chip on my shoulder because the Senate folks had supported him, and the leadership in the way that they do it, and all the lobbyists had supported Berger as well.
Faughn: Was that liberating in hindsight?
Governor Nixon: Yeah, oh yeah. Plus, I felt like, there were only 34 of you. I promised the people of my district, my county that had given me the highest honor they could, that elected me to office for the first time, that I was going to represent them. While I was respectful of my fellow senators, I wasn’t scared of them. It wasn’t my job to be scared of them.
Faughn: A logical person would be intimidated by that room. I mean, you could see how a person could’ve come to that conclusion.
Governor Nixon: I worked really hard. I mean, Emory Melton and I would sit there until 11 or 12 at night reading every bill. He was a lot of help. He and I were a couple of guys who’d read the bills. In the State Senate, I’ve read every bill I saw.
Faughn: I saw Jason Crowell do that when he was in the Senate.
Governor Nixon: Information is very powerful and I was always very respectful of the fellow members, but there were some tough guys in that place. John Dennis wasn’t scared of anybody.
Faughn: Give me a Jim Mathewson story. One that I could include and my mom could still listen to this.
Governor Nixon: Similar to whats going on with the tax bill now, except flipped. There was about 400 million dollars coming to the state. He was the Pro Tem and the bill was in my committee and he asked me to get the bill out of committee. We were on different sides, he wanted to spend the money and I wanted to give it back to the public. So when the votes come up in my committee, I see it has the votes to come out and so I vote no, but it gets out. Mathewson comes up to me and says what the heck are you doing here?
Faughn: He said heck?
Governor Nixon: It went way beyond what that word is for… I said “you asked me to get the bill out of committee, and its out of committee,” and he said you lawyers! He said “That’s not the way the world works here. When I said I want it out of committee that means you have to vote for it. Don’t you understand the language?” I asked here’s what I thought you said and he said don’t do it again, and I replied that we would be clear next time. It wasn’t a practical word for word line as a lawyer of what you said. When someone said I need your help on this, they were meaning vote for it.
Faughn: But you can look someone in the eye and say you kept your word on it?
Governor Nixon: Yeah but that’s not the standard. The standard was different among senators.
Faughn: I read a report where you were called a pariah because there was a big county pay raise bill for the county elected officials and you voted no. You beat two county elected officials, you didn’t owe anything to the lobbyists or the leadership. Was it still tough to do that?
Governor Nixon: I thought that the employee should see the benefit too. I just felt like if you were going to give a pension to the elected, that you should get the benefits to the people who work there too. There were a lot of people on the other side of that, Norman Merrell was on the other side of that, aggressively. Very aggressively. I didn’t think that treating the elected different from the people who work for them on a pension was a right thing to do. It didn’t help me, obviously running for office. I had 140 places where I had to make that same explanation and it didn’t go over well. It wasn’t about what happened in Jefferson County, I just felt strongly about it.
Faughn: Give me a Bill McKenna story from Jefferson County. I’ve heard him talk about the times you have run for office and how you would come visit with him each time asking for his support.
Governor Nixon: I’m old school in that regard. Bill was a friend and I remember standing outside the courthouse where they announced the election results. It was the primary and in Jefferson County, the primaries were the election back then. He was downstairs when I went to see him and Bill and I always got along, we had good mojo. I thought he would want to run for the Senate. He was ahead of me in the line but ultimately came in after me. We were very open and transparent. Super guy, great gut for politics, his handshake means something.
Faughn: You were a senator, but give me a Bob Griffin story, almost a mythological character in Missouri legislative history.
Governor Nixon: They were trying to get Prop B passed, which was Mathewson’s idea to help colleges. It comes down near the end of the session and they were trying to get it passed. Mathewson was Pro Tem at the time and I walked into his office for a meeting with Mathewson, John Ashcroft, and Bob Griffin. So they were in there for two hours with smoke rolling out from under the door, from blowing some in Ashcroft’s face and Griffin knocking back drinks right in front of Ashcroft. I remember saying that Griffin’s gonna get a bill passed here – something is going to pass. Sure enough, two and half hours later, I’m waiting outside to talk to them and I remember seeing Ashcroft for the only time I had ever seen him with his tie loose – basically to his belly button. The guys just smoked and drank him into submission. I mean it was like an emersion of sin that was difficult to tolerate at that level. Griffin was tough, he was nice enough to me because I was a lawyer, but he was tough. The thing about guys like him and Mathewson is that they liked to get stuff done. If you look at the Missouri Employers Mutual thing… Griffin was a good legislator. Being in power for so long, I think he got a little greedy and we had to cross swords obviously when I was AG, but he was a real legislator who respected the House and back before term limits, he got stuff done.
Faughn: Surplus property. You got put over fixing the scandal and butted heads a little bit. What’s that story?
Governor Nixon: I wanted to subpoena some things. I was reading the paper one day and I see that he was pleading guilty to federal tax problems. Well, I’m a curious guy so I start to ask some questions. I started looking at it and realize our surplus property in Missouri was like the biggest in the country. We’re not the biggest state and then I noticed that among the things that were sold in surplus property from Missouri was a propeller from an aircraft carrier as well as a bunch of military-grade titanium. Then I noticed that he was driving a Bentley. It kind of perks your interest and I started digging and found that a lot of deals and money were moving through there. He was a guy who liked to dirty people around him. I’m just really proud I was able to find the problems there and carry that long enough that we were able to then get change and turn it over to Webster in the AGs office. The Police Chief of Rolla took it over and we weren’t using it as a place to move precious metals.
Faughn: So you asked for some subpoenas?
Governor Nixon: Mathewson didn’t want to do that. Thought it was a little strong. So I stepped back and realized that the statues actually read that the President of the Senate signed those which is the Lt. Governor.
Faughn: So you lawyered him again?
Governor Nixon: I wandered down to Governor Carnahan’s office and he indicated that he was inclined to do that. So I went back to Mathewson and said I’m a senator and I don’t want the Lt. Governor running things I want to control it here. After telling him about Carnahan’s willingness to utilize other routes. I told him that perhaps Carnahan would be willing, but I didn’t want that to happen. It was a time where Mathewson and I got together. He said I appreciate you coming back, I may disagree with you, but let’s go get the records.
Faughn: Tell me the difference between the State Senate you worked with as Governor post-term limits and the State Senate you served in.
Governor Nixon: We were really interested in deeper, longer issues and willing to tackle complicated problems and we had things like called interim committees that were serious. If we had an interim committee, it meant that bill was going to pass. We only had, in my six years in the Missouri Senate, three caucuses, three. One at the beginning of each term to choose who the leaders were. That tells you as much as anything.
Faughn: Did you ever even vote on a PQ motion?
Governor Nixon: No. It didn’t matter if we had enough Democrats, we never even considered it. A PQ motion is an attack against an individual senator, not an attack on an issue, but the institution of the Senate.
Faughn: Now they are becoming run of the mill.
Governor Nixon: We didn’t even think about it. That wasn’t even considered.
Faughn: What would have happened if you had stood up in that first caucus and suggested that the Senate PQs a bill. What would happen if you started circulating a PQ petition?
Governor Nixon: It wouldn’t have been very long before a committee I was chairing wasn’t very busy.
Faughn: Do you think that’s big, I mean, look, if you look back at that, there’s no logical reason that now Congressman Lacy Clay should be in a political party with Senator Danny Staples. Is it because you didn’t have 18 members of a party strong behind one thing, or is it just because they respected the institution and you didn’t do it.
Gov. Nixon: It wasn’t as partisan. I spent a lot of time with Fred Dryer. He was a little hard-headed at the time, I’m sure he would have said the same about me. Ed Quick from Clay County was similar to Jefferson County. You were working with people based on issues or interests of your district, not their politics.
Faughn: Some people say that old Senate made for a better state government. How do you go back? Can you go back?
Governor Nixon: I think term limits hurt the Senate more than it does the House. Killing bills is what you did to get the House’s attention. The way they use filibusters now. A filibuster is when you win. A filibuster is not a fake filibuster where you get up and talk for an hour. A filibuster is where you win. Once on the last day of session I filibustered a bill on allowing the rates of phone companies to go up with inflation. It’s just more partisan. I’ll tell you a story one time Dick Webster asked if I had ever been on a conference committee and I said no, so he said follow me and I’ll show you how to handle one just follow my lead. So first he said we are going to let the House host it because we don’t want them over here anyway. So we walk into a House member’s office to have the meeting and a House guy says something. Webster says you guys are just, put a cuss word in, wrong. You’re going to have to change your position on this bill we don’t have enough time to work on things that are just wrong so if you’re not going to change your position, then Jay lets go. He said that’s the way you open it up and then you get tough because there is always next year. A substantial part of what you do in a legislative body is to stop stuff.
Faughn: You early on decided to leave that body and take on Jack Danforth. Tell me why? Did you really think you could win that race?
Governor Nixon: It was relatively close in 1982. You don’t know which way those trends are going and early on you’ve got to kind of figure that stuff out. I did see it as a good way to get out to all the counties. I saw it as a good way to learn federal issues. Any politician that tells you that he is running because people have come up to him saying “everywhere I go, people are telling me I should run”, doubt that person. It’s got to be inside. You’ve got to want to do it and that’s why when people come to me and ask me if they should run I say, ‘Do you really want it?’ I don’t want to have a candidate that halfway through doesn’t really want it. The great thing about democracy is if you lose, they don’t take you out behind the barn and put a bullet in your head. You keep going. I will tell you that both he and Kit are both guys I respected more after the race.
Faughn: In hindsight with the climate and Dukakis could you have won that race?
Governor Nixon: I don’t think if he would have just left the helmet off, I would’ve won. I thought there wasn’t a lot of other people wanting to take on a sitting United States Senator who’s you know a real guy. Jack is a substantial human being. I think it’s important for everyone to know that I respected him more when the race was over and he and I are friends now. Looking back on it, you convince yourself there’s a path. But I never had any really good polling data to give me any path to win.
Faughn: Everything I’ve heard seems to come back to the fact that you weren’t the establishment choice. You had to take on the establishment right off, and it looks like that same vein went through the State Senate. Am I wrong to think that you didn’t know any lobbyist, you didn’t know leadership, you didn’t know of a party apparatus and that may have continued on through your career?
Governor Nixon: These days large campaigns are kind of their own their own little small business. And the same diminution of value of parties that you continue to see was beginning back then. But I always felt I owed my obligation to the people I served, not to the party I belonged to. I believe that very deeply. I answered to the constituents, not the party bosses.
Faughn: Then you run for Attorney General. Was that planned?
Governor Nixon: I did an honorable thing, and you know, I ran a race full energy and lost, but I don’t think people looked down on me for losing to Danforth.
Faughn: Was it a good thing for your career to take on that race?
Governor Nixon: Absolutely. It put me head and shoulders above anybody else in the Democratic primary in ’92 for A.G. I started out ahead in that race, even though some folks tried to get started early.
Faughn: Why did you pick A.G. over Lieutenant Governor?
Governor Nixon: At the time, I felt the Lieutenant Governor was not a position that was going to take you forward. Politically, people think you should run for it because you’re always a step away and your name’s got Governor in it. A.G. seemed by far a more interesting job to me. More challenging, I’m a lawyer. It’s a great job. You look at the history of that office — Danforth, Eagleton, Ashcroft — it was instant credibility and so it was really not a hard call for me.
Faughn: Tell me about taking on David Steelman?
Governor Nixon: He had to get through a primary first. People forget about that really tough primary.
Faughn: Do you see a lot of today’s Republican Party a microcosm there of that primary? Old school Tory grandees against the Reaganite folks.
Governor Nixon: I think the Republican Party’s always had three branches in Missouri more than that now. You’ve got kind of the country club Republicans, you’ve got the religious-conservative Republicans and then you have the redneck Republicans. Steelman was clearly in the red-neck column. Dohrman was and they were all fighting for Reagan in that Reagan-Ford stuff. So I saw it as a three-headed piece.
Faughn: Did you pick up support from the other, maybe especially, the country club folks? I mean that was a tough primary there were a lot of those feelings hurt. Did you get support from that or did he get weakened by it?
Governor Nixon: I think I got a little support but I’ve always run well across party lines. I was always good there and could get through. My primary pretty easily was good and I was able to heal our wounds really quickly. I think one of the advantages we had in that race. After having that tough primary, David took about 10 days to catch his breath. We banked about $150,000 in those ten days and that was basically the money advantage in the race. I will say that David Steelman was the toughest person I’ve ever been in a debate with.
Faughn: Do you think you win that race without the Webster scandal?
Governor Nixon: We caught some breaks; the 2nd injury fund helped. We ran a good race. We did not ignore the direct ties between those two in that race and it certainly benefited us. How you measure it, I don’t know, Scott, but the mistake people make analyzing that race was that we won on Clinton’s coattails. Clinton got 43% in that race. There weren’t any coattails. I was in a different zone. He won it twice but never got 50% I always surpassed him.
Faughn: Do you win without the 2nd injury fund scandal?
Governor Nixon: Certainly it was a political wind blowing my way.
Faughn: How important was that ’92 wipeout to the last 20 years in Missouri political history?
Governor Nixon: I used to joke by saying I was on the weakest political ticket in Missouri history and the strongest. That ’88 ticket, if you go back and look at us, some of them were not killers. We didn’t get much going in ’88 but ’92 was a great feeling. To turn it around, I think it stood the test of time of some pretty substantial people. I think the Republicans all decided they wanted to be Governor. They had their fight there. That was their internal fight that took their bench.
Faughn: From the other side of the table, do you think there are folks looking at that primary after it was all said and done saying I told you so? I told you so don’t elect Steelman. I told you so Webster was going to go down. Do you think those divisions heaped on top of each other?
Governor Nixon: They didn’t invite me to those meetings, but I assume so. It felt like that from the outside.
Faughn: It took them years for them to recover them from that, right?
Governor Nixon: Yes, and I think we may be on the cusp of that with both sides. With the Bernie side and Trump and the Tea Party and stuff. I think a good argument can be made 100 years from now that we may turn into a country that has more than two parties. Because it’s just really hard, especially in Missouri, to put a binary system. We agree and disagree on so much.
Faughn: So you come into office and your predecessor is in legal trouble, literally going to jail. What’s that like?
Governor Nixon: When you’re the chief law enforcement officer of the state and the head of that office is going to jail for criminal charges, you have to do a lot to build the esteem of the office up, and the confidence of the office up.
Faughn: How do you do that?
Governor Nixon: I had a very aggressive transition. We got people in that I thought had high ethics and very, very quickly. Before the end of February, we had already passed two significant measures to give the secondary fund back to the state so that we were running ourselves, not hiring outside lawyers and the to the prison litigation. It was really a significant management challenge, especially as criminal cases were still going on.
Faughn: You talk about outside lawyers, what about the tobacco settlement, That’s something you’re critics jumped on. Would you handle that the same way, especially when you just talked about how outside lawyers can lead to problems?
Governor Nixon: With the level of litigation that was, we didn’t have any state lawyers who could’ve played at that level as far as the expertise in mind. In that case, you had to have around $10 to $15 million for experts and what not to get going. It may be the mistake I made not preparing a budget line item for the outside attorneys, but I thought it felt like a trick. I made what I thought was the best decision for the state, which was getting Missouri lawyers, not trying to national guys. We were Missouri lawyers preparing a lawsuit for our state. They came up with the costs, millions of dollars to try the case. We took that very seriously.
Faughn: It seemed to work out well for the state, though, the results of that settlement. Are you happy with what’s been done with that money?
Governor Nixon: At the time I was concerned they would just dump it into general revenue money, and so you didn’t really get a specific impact from that litigation. It helped the budget but I was always disappointed that we didn’t take some of the money and do some good things with it. But once again, that was not my place. I was the guy bringing the money in. It was the legislature’s and Governor’s decision how to spend it. My disagreements, while I had those disagreements, were not ones that I sharpened or barked at them. That was their call.
Faughn: Explain what the desegregation case was that you were over.
Governor Nixon: First of all, when you look at lawsuits and cases, that’s the one that people focused on. When I became Attorney General we already had both St. Louis and Kansas City under federal court orders in the deseg, and 11 days after I was sworn in was when the court declared our foundation formula was unconstitutional. So within the first two weeks of being Attorney General of the state of Missouri, every single school district in the state was in litigation against the position I was representing. That’s an interesting way to go meet folks. If you look back we didn’t want court control of our schools and so my mantra was how do you get the court out of control of your education system? We did this we won the best brief award for providing the opportunity or equality. Do test scores have to go up or do we have to offer the opportunity. We can’t guarantee outcomes we are not parents.
Faughn: Looking back would you do it again?
Governor Nixon: Absolutely.
Faughn: What about your political career? There are ramifications to that.
Governor Nixon: It taught me a lot. It taught me how you could really make mistakes with language and you can’t say some things. When you say that we need to end a desegregation case, that sounds like a legal good thing to say but that’s very insensitive to when you come to say that we should end desegregation. That’s just the wrong words to use.
Faughn: I assume different ears hear that differently.
Governor Nixon: It taught me a lot about how the words that you use meant a lot more. That’s one of the reasons why when we got the final case done in St. Louis, if you look at the court record there I went in and before we presented the final settlement, on the record I apologized to the minority families of our state for the constitutional revision that said separate but equal and the way that they have been treated.
I thought it was really important to do that. It didn’t get a whole lot of attention but I want to have that in the record that the State of Missouri, through its Attorney General, was admitting that we had been racially insensitive and had separate but equal and had it in our constitution.
Another thing that it kind of taught me, as we were negotiating for St. Louis one of the other issues that came up was building a high school for Vashon. I decided to say as one of our offers that we would agree as part of the settlement to build a new Vashon High School. We went to Vashon and I was going to do a press conference and it was not well received. By the time you get to the end of negotiations getting a new Vashon High School was one of the key things that we did that settled the case.
The point I make is that I was not viewed at that time as a good spokesman for civil rights and I learned that about myself. I think it made me a better public servant, a more sensitive public servant, a more understanding public servant and understood better the diversity of our state.
Faughn: Where there some negative ramifications with relationships that would be a problem later?
Governor Nixon: I thought Bond was able to get a tremendous amount of attention in the ’98 senate race on it. Although not as many votes as people thought. It was really misanalyzed. Even in those wards, I did fine. They framed this up that way the ’98 race is where that kind of hit on me.
Faughn: There has been some time during your time as Attorney General there have been a handful of convictions overturned for not turning over evidence. Do you see that as a problem and what could your successor Josh Hawley do to make sure that doesn’t happen?
Governor Nixon: You as Attorney General you handle every appeal. I’m not dodging your question but often times the evidentiary matters where handle at the local prosecutor level before they get to you.
Faughn: Is that where some of these come from?
Governor Nixon: Sure, once again just because it’s not my fault doesn’t mean it’s not my responsibility. I’m not hiding from it. We try to seek justice wherever we could, we didn’t want to have anybody in jail that was innocent. We try to respect people’s rights and I spent a lot of time making sure that we did it right. You get in those big cases, prosecutors get very aggressive, things happen. We just miss cases, I did it all. You try to do it right as best that you can, if you can’t do it right you try to admit you’re wrong.
Faughn: Do you sleep comfortably with how you handled those cases?
Governor Nixon: Yes.
Faughn: Tell me about the death penalty, you’ve been pro-death penalty?
Governor Nixon: I think I may have presided over more death penalties than all other public officials in Missouri history combined between being the Attorney General and Governor. I’ve been on the phone at 12 o’clock at night over 100 times. I don’t think that the death penalty is a deterrent. I support the jury’s options for the death penalty. If the jury doesn’t give you the death penalty then there shouldn’t be a death penalty, the judge shouldn’t come in over the top of that.
I looked at the entire criminal dossier of every one of those people, and I will tell you unequivocally that we didn’t execute anyone who is innocent.
Faughn: What is it like that night? Knowing that you could stop that?
Governor Nixon: There is more weight on you as governor than there is as attorney general. Because as attorney general you’re an advocate for the case.
Faughn: You were really young when you’re doing that first one where are you 36? You were as old as I am now making life and death decisions.
Governor Nixon: It’s very real. It’s very serious, it’s a hard moral decision for folks. I don’t think it’s punishment but I’m convinced that are some people who don’t value life as much as one should be walking around and that they’re incredibly dangerous to both themselves and others. I got into it with Carnahan on Shaw.
Faughn: What was your relationship with Gov. Carnahan?
Governor Nixon: We had some Sunday evening discussions that were pointed.
Faughn: Was Gov. Carnahan more liberal than you were?
Governor Nixon: Oh absolutely.
Faughn: For all the one-room schoolhouse stuff, I don’t think people remember him for being as liberal as he was.
Governor Nixon: I guess the key here is if you’re going to lean to the left, keep your haircut short. Plus, he was very personally disciplined. He didn’t drink, didn’t cuss. He had a great mix of all of that sort of stuff. If he was in fact over the left-end of the spectrum, he wasn’t not very entertaining at the wine and cheese receptions, he wasn’t drinking and he wasn’t telling dirty jokes and all that sort of stuff. He was personally disciplined. I learned a lot about how your personal way you and act and live your life can give you more avenue to get things done and can knock down barriers. That’s why I talk a lot about being from DeSoto. In this state being from a small town is a whole different set of values than being from a city. Especially living there all your life everybody knows me in DeSoto. He was also a lawyer, he was the 2nd best lawyer in state government when I was Attorney General. I had a lot of respect for Mel. We had to kind of play out what the roles were a little bit. Sometimes Governor’s don’t know what the roles are that the Attorney General is a constitutionally separate office.
Faughn: Sometimes Attorney General’s don’t. What was your relationship like with your Attorney General Chris Koster?
Governor Nixon: I tried to remember that I tried to be helpful.
Faughn: You took on Kit Bond. I look at two people if you did a Mount Rushmore of Missouri politics, you two might be on it. Why did you take on Kit Bond?
Governor Nixon: I thought there was a shot to get it done. I thought if you were going to get to the Senate the time to get there is young. After that race, I had really no desire to run for the Senate, not because I didn’t have a desire to be a senator. I think if you’re going to be a senator, you got to get there relatively young. It’s a seniority system you’ve got to do a good job and learn the system. I got several bills passed the first year in the State Senate, you could never do that in the US Senate, you would have to be there for years.
Faughn: Kit Bond had been there a long time.
Governor Nixon: He was at a time in his life where he had a lot of things going on in the middle of some life changes, and kind of lost focus for a few years. He came back and became a great senator. I have to tell you when I was Governor he was by far the most helpful.
Faughn: There is a way that you talk about the state of Missouri and the way Kit Bond talks about the state of Missouri that some of our current state leaders don’t talk about the state of Missouri. Why do you think that is?
Governor Nixon: I took very seriously the responsibility to understand the state. This is a complicated and difficult state to understand and the only way to understand it was to get out in it in a raw way, to talk to real people, in their hometowns, in their offices. I think Kit felt that same way, you got to get out there. You’ve gotta see them. Once you get out there a few years. Once you get out there you feel stronger about the issues, and because of that, we developed similar looks on the state.