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Lengthy political career holds lessons for Nixon

Wednesday, October 29, 2008 | 12:37 a.m. CDT; updated 5:29 a.m. CST, Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Jay Nixon, the Democratic candidate for governor, takes a break at the end of the debate between he and Republican Kenny Hulshof on Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008 at Fox 2 studios in St. Louis. The debate was telecast on Fox in St. Louis and Kansas City.

JEFFERSON CITY - Bathed in low light at the Fraternal Order of Eagles Hall, teachers and administrators mingle as they eat dessert and wait to hear from the man who wants to be Missouri's next governor. The shuffle of chairs and the din of conversation drop to a whisper when a man calls from the side door:

"The candidate has arrived."

Jay Nixon

HOMETOWN: De Soto

PERSONAL: 52. He and his wife, Georganne Wheeler Nixon, have two sons.

PARTY: Democrat

CAMPAIGN WEB SITE: jaynixon.com

OCCUPATION: Missouri attorney general

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in political science, MU, 1978; juris doctorate, MU, 1981.

BACKGROUND: Missouri attorney general since January 1993; state senator for six years, member of First United Methodist Church in Jefferson City.

 


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Jay Nixon, the current attorney general and Democratic candidate for governor, steps into the room, the low ceiling enhancing his height. The crowd rises to its feet and applauds as Nixon makes his way through the throng, steps behind the lectern and begins to explain what he would do for K-12 education if he is elected.

This is a day in the life of candidate Nixon, who has crisscrossed the state repeatedly while campaigning for the highest office in state government. If you want to meet him, he advised, just stand still. "Eventually I'll pass you."

His speech is peppered with stories about growing up in De Soto, a rural town of 6,375 that's about 45 miles south of St. Louis. He tells of teachers who wouldn't give up on him and jokingly explains he was the first person to be inducted into his high school's Hall of Fame under new rules.

"I was kind of excited, I thought about my relatively weak basketball career, my relatively weak football career, the tennis career, ran track, shot-put, discus, and I'm thinking they finally recognized that after all these years," he said at the Eagles Hall. "And then I get the letter from the committee, and the letter reads 'Dear Jay, Congratulations. Now that we have changed the criteria such that athletic endeavors are not the sole requirement, you've been elected to the Hall of Fame."

On the campaign trail, Nixon speaks often of his small-town upbringing. His father was mayor of De Soto, his mother the president of the school board.

A campaign video includes a tour around De Soto. It states what Nixon learned there helped guide him as attorney general.

Over the course of his career, Nixon made two unsuccessful bids for higher office.

Nixon held the attorney general position for 16 years, which makes him the longest-serving attorney general in Missouri history. He was elected to represent Jefferson County in the Missouri Senate in 1986. Two years later he made an unsuccessful bid to oust incumbent U.S. Sen. John Danforth. Danforth won with 68 percent of the vote.

The Nixon campaign ignored repeated requests for an interview,  leaving any discussion about his views, aspirations and values to others.

Mary Still, who served 12 years as Nixon's policy and communications director in the Attorney General's Office, said she met Nixon during his unsuccessful bid against Danforth. Still is running for 25th District state representative.

Still said Nixon is a "practical, common sense guy" who is "reflective of small-town values."

Former Rep. Craig Hosmer, D-Greene County, said his earliest memory of Nixon is of a young senator standing up to fellow senators and lobbyists from Southwestern Bell in May 1992.

Hosmer said Southwestern Bell brought in lobbyists from around the country to get legislation passed.

"He was one of the few state senators who stood up and blocked it because it wasn't good for consumers," Hosmer said.

Hosmer said Nixon, who was in his eighth and final year in the Senate, fought against what "seemed like overwhelming odds."

Nixon was elected to the attorney general's office in 1992 with 51 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 1996 with 59.4 percent of the vote, the highest tally of any Democrat on the ballot.

In 1998, Nixon made another unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, getting 43.8 percent of the vote in a race against the Republican incumbent and former governor, Kit Bond.

Nixon was re-elected as attorney general in both 2000 and 2004 with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Still said although Nixon has spent much of the past 16 years campaigning, it didn't interfere with his responsibilities as attorney general.

"He has a good ability to separate campaigning from governing," Still said.

In mid-September a fine drizzle bathed the crowd waiting outside the first governor's debate, which took place at MU during the Missouri School of Journalism's centennial. Supporters of all ages crowded each other with their signs, jostling for a better view as Nixon strode through the arch between Neff and Walter Williams halls and managed to reach out to each person there.

After the debate, Nixon again joined his supporters, passing out hugs and high-fives along the way.

"He meets everybody, he talks to everybody," Hosmer said.

Hosmer said Nixon's two losses probably affected him more as a politician than victory might have.

"You win, and you think 'I've done everything right.' When you lose a race, I think it teaches you a lot about who you are as a politician," Hosmer said. "He's learned if you run in all areas of the state you don't write off anybody."

This time Nixon has indeed run in all areas of the state, including a lengthy rural tour covering the Bootheel and all four corners of the state.

"He meets people very well," Hosmer said. "He doesn't think he's better than anyone else and doesn't think he's worse than anyone else."

Hosmer said this has led Nixon to hire "good guys" for the attorney general's office. He said Nixon knows "he's not always the smartest guy in the room, and he's run a smart office, a good office."

While attorney general, Nixon instituted a statewide no-call program in 2001 to provide a means to let residents block telemarketing calls. According to the attorney general's Web site, the no-call list now includes 2.7 million Missouri phone numbers.

In 2000, Nixon argued a campaign contribution case before the U.S. Supreme Court. A political action committee and a candidate for state auditor sued the state, alleging Missouri's campaign contribution limits violated First and Fourth amendment rights.

Still said watching Nixon defend the statute before the Supreme Court is one of her favorite memories of him.

"He's not intimidated by big names and big people," Still said.

As attorney general, Nixon also helped create an environmental protection division to enforce state environmental laws.

At times, though, Nixon has been mired in controversy. He defended the state's involvement in ending mandatory school busing in St. Louis and Kansas City, which angered some black leaders.

After announcing his plans to run for governor, Nixon was criticized for using a state vehicle to get to fundraising events. Republicans also criticized him for accepting contributions from AmerenUE while the state had an ongoing criminal investigation of the company.

Despite 16 years in the attorney general's office, Hosmer said Nixon is still just a normal guy. He hosts one or two benefit basketball games for the Special Olympics each year. Hosmer said Nixon has raised thousands of dollars for the organization over the past 25 years.

 


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