Abuse of power tops themes in governor’s race

Sunday, October 7, 2007 | 8:59 p.m. CDT; updated 7:52 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A theme is emerging in Missouri’s already long under way gubernatorial campaign. It focuses not on who’s best using his power for the people, but rather on who is abusing his power the most.

Misuse of state property for a political campaign. Destruction of government documents. Direction of state police for political spin. Solicitation of money from legal adversaries.

All have been alleged against either Republican Gov. Matt Blunt or Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon. The two have been sniping at each other for a couple of years already in advance of their expected November 2008 gubernatorial election matchup.

The charges intensified last week, as Nixon acknowledged he uses his state vehicle for personal and political trips. His office claims it provides better security for his 24-hour-a-day duties, thus justifying an exception to a law specifically barring state vehicles from being used for private purposes.

Nixon’s campaign ultimately decided at the end of the week to reimburse the state for his political use of the car and the attorney general’s office staff who accompany him in it.

That came a few days after Blunt hauled his entire Cabinet an hour west of the Capitol to stage a public-listening session in Sedalia, which he declared the “Capitol for a day.” Democrats declared it amounted to little more than a campaign event on state time.

The Democratic Party claimed Blunt’s “Capitol for a Day” event was part of a “documented pattern of campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime.”

The Republican Party claimed Nixon’s state rides to campaign fundraisers highlighted an “abuse of the office and blatant disregard for the taxpayers who pay his salary.”

There was a bit of an echo in the accusations and also in the attempts by each camp to explain away their alleged abuses as mere political posturing put forth by an opponent who really was at fault.

The tendency for campaigns to turn negative is nothing new.

But the propensity to claim a misuse of government power seems to grow when both candidates are established insiders, said Wayne Fields, an English professor from Washington University in St. Louis whose expertise is in political rhetoric.

Both Blunt and Nixon have been around politics a while.

The son of a statewide elected official and grandson of a lawmaker, Blunt has been governor now for nearly three years. Before that he was secretary of state for four years and a House legislator for two years.

Nixon has served as attorney general since 1993, a span longer than any other attorney general in Missouri history. Before that he spent six years as a state senator, and twice has run for the U.S. Senate and lost.

“Obviously, abuse of power is an important and legitimate issue that can be raised,” Fields said.

“It’s both an offensive and a defensive strategy,” he added. “It’s pointing out what the other guy’s doing and ... making sure you’ve muted the charge that might be made against you on a similar nature.”

Unless there is a real whopper of an allegation, campaigns typically try to cite several examples of abusive power in order to show a pattern of behavior.

That’s exactly what the Democratic Party is trying to do with Blunt.

It’s news releases highlight the fact that Blunt’s staff members have destroyed e-mails that could be public records. And they cite e-mails obtained under an open-records request that show Blunt’s staff pressuring the Highway Patrol to issue a news release reflecting poorly on Nixon’s decisions in the investigation of the Taum Sauk reservoir collapse.

Republicans are not to be outdone, however, in trying to establish a pattern.

They highlight instances in which Nixon has defended the state in court against lawsuits by his former chief of staff, Chuck Hatfield, who remains Nixon’s political supporter.

But is either purported pattern of abuse of power really resonating with voters?

“Right now, it seems they’re just trying stuff out, and so far I don’t see there’s anything they’ve got that’s clearly going to work for them,” Fields said.

Campaigns that consistently tout new discoveries of misuse of power by their opponents also run a risk, he said.

“The accumulation of small things, unless you’re very effective at adding them up to something big, can kind of wear away the patience of the public,” Fields said. “So when you’ve got something significant, especially if it’s also subtle, they’re not going to pay that much attention.”

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