JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon and his businessman challenger, Dave Spence, sought to appeal to Missouri's agricultural leaders Friday by touting their commitment to stand up to outside interests jeopardizing the rural way of life and to over-reaching regulations proposed by President Barack Obama's administration.
Nixon, a Democrat, said he already has done so — recounting at great length how he has battled to protect the flow of the Missouri River, opposed a potential federal regulation affecting child labor on farms and worked out a revision to a dog-breeding law.
Spence, a Republican, countered that Nixon has remained on the sidelines instead of taking early positions on controversial issues such as the dog-breeding initiative, and he asserted that Nixon's administration should be doing more to oppose the Environmental Protection Agency and "all the crazy regulations coming out of Washington, D.C."
The gubernatorial candidates spoke to a political action committee of the Missouri Farm Bureau, which has historically endorsed Republicans. Nixon came about as close as possible to achieving a neutral stance from the organization. The group voted by 68 percent to endorse Spence, barely exceeding the two-thirds majority necessary for endorsement under the group's policies.
Spence, who won a GOP primary Tuesday to challenge Nixon, is the former president and CEO of St. Louis-based Alpha Packaging, which makes plastic bottles for pharmaceuticals and other personal health care products. He acknowledged to the couple hundred farmers at Friday's forum that he isn't one of them.
But "I understand that your family farm — of which Missouri has the most in the country — is a business," Spence said. "I'm not sure a career politician truly, truly gets that."
Nixon is seeking a second term as governor after serving a record 16 years as attorney general and six as a state senator. He sought to persuade farmers that he has spent a career fighting for their interests. He highlighted an initiative to expand high-speed Internet to rural communities, his efforts to expand agricultural exports to foreign countries and a drought-relief program that has approved more than 4,000 applications totaling nearly $20 million to drill new wells or pump water to parched farms.
"That has been indicative, quite frankly, of the commitment we've shown to Missouri's farm families," Nixon said.
After Missouri voters approved a 2010 initiative toughening regulations on commercial dog-breeders, the Republican-led state Legislature passed a bill last year relaxing those regulations. Only then did Nixon publicly announce that he was convening various agricultural and state-based animal welfare groups to come up with a compromise. The Legislature then passed a second bill — which Nixon signed into law — that revamped the voter-approved initiative. On Friday, Nixon touted his role in striking that compromise.
"We're just not going to let out-of-state activists come in and tell us right from wrong," Nixon said.
Spence, however, criticized Nixon for waiting so long to get involved in the controversial issue. If he were governor, Spence said he would have publicly denounced the initiative before it even went to voters. He said the dog-breeding initiative was symbolic of the way Nixon makes decisions.
"We're suffering from some of the worst leadership in the history of the state right now," Spence said. "No opinion is rendered unless it's (legislation) on his desk and he takes a poll and he talks to labor unions and personal injury attorneys."
If elected governor, Spence said he would consider transferring the authority to issue regulatory permits from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Economic Development, where he said there could be a greater emphasis on helping businesses that need government approval for projects.
Nixon told reporters after speaking to the Farm Bureau that he is always open to studying government reorganization but didn't see much need for Spence's proposed change.
"I'm not sure that just moving one part of government to another part of government is a solution to anything," Nixon said.