Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, with his hulking frame and upswept gray hair, has long been regarded in Jefferson City as a vigorous political talent who used his outgoing personality and love of retail politics to defy the odds and succeed in a state that often can be hostile to Democrats.
His two terms as governor have led to whispers that he might one day be a helpful addition to a national Democratic ticket.
But as rioting enters a second week in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Nixon finds his leadership skills called into question, his uneasy relationship with black voters — a key Democratic constituency — more tenuous than ever and his political future very much in doubt.
Despite a record and a reputation that some regard as too moderate for the Democratic Party’s base, Nixon has occasionally been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. Several Democratic operatives have described him as an appealing if staid Midwestern figure in a party full of telegenic upstarts from the coasts.
The sudden attention brought on by Ferguson comes just weeks after Nixon, 58, stoked rumors that he was interested in a place on the 2016 national ticket with a visit to Iowa and a trip to Colorado to huddle with major Democratic donors. But instead of ending the summer with more meetings and out-of-state travel, Nixon is hunkered down in Missouri and struggling to avert disaster for his constituents and his political career.
“I don’t think anyone involved gets a passing grade,” said longtime Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. “As it relates to the governor, I think it’s too early to say what will have a lasting impact. He has had to make some tough calls.”
Critics have cited Nixon’s delayed response to the Ferguson crisis as evidence of a lack of leadership and urgency on his part.
He made a stop in St. Louis County on Tuesday of last week, and the protests grew more violent the next day. Nixon then canceled plans to attend the State Fair on Wednesday night and arrived in Ferguson on Thursday to conduct his first news conference, almost five full days after the shooting.
Before his arrival, Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal (D) sharply criticized the governor, accusing him of being out of touch with black voters. “He’s never been to Ground Zero,” she wrote in a sometimes profane Twitter outburst.
While serving as state attorney general, Nixon sought to end St. Louis’s school desegregation program, a move that riled many black leaders and voters.
Over the weekend, Nixon issued an executive order to establish a five-hour curfew beginning at midnight for an undetermined number of nights. On Sunday night, as protesters were pushed out by police tear gas, Nixon ordered the Missouri National Guard onto the streets of Ferguson.
Nixon’s defenders, a small but loyal band that has supported him for decades, say he is making the best of a bad situation, coordinating with officials on what needs to be done. Critics in the governor’s party are “crying now, and they were crying before it happened,” state Rep. Tommie Pierson (D), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said Monday. “There is a lot of politics going on, a lot of people trying to take advantage. But I don’t think his career is damaged, at least not right now. He has handled this as well as he could.”
Oren Shur, who managed Nixon’s 2012 reelection campaign, said the governor wasn’t motivated by political considerations. “It’s premature, and frankly inappropriate, to speculate about politics right now,” Shur said. “Those types of conversations are simply not happening. The governor and everyone around him are squarely focused on addressing the security situation in Ferguson.”
Whether natural disaster or man-made calamity, crisis has often served as a backdrop for career-defining moments in political life, particularly for governors and mayors. Rudolph W. Giuliani’s response as mayor to the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York was the foundation of a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Long before New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) was praised for his response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, his image was seriously damaged in late December 2010 by his decision to remain at Disney World as a blizzard blanketed his state.
This is not Nixon’s first major crisis. That came in May 2011, just 21 / 2 years into his first term, when a tornado ripped through the small town of Joplin in southwest Missouri, killing 161 and leaving more than 1,000 injured. Nixon won praise for his handling of the cleanup and rehabilitation of the town, including its schools and other infrastructure.
But managing the cleanup of a natural disaster that came and went in a matter of minutes is far different from trying to calm an angry, economically troubled, predominantly black city with a historic grudge against its mostly white police force. With the Ferguson standoff entering its 11th day, Nixon found himself criticizing the local police force and its militarized appearance in the streets while he was bringing in the National Guard for reinforcements.
“All of us were thunderstruck by the pictures we saw, I mean, the over-militarization, the [military vehicles] rolling in, the guns pointed at kids in the street,” Nixon said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “All of that, I think, instead of ratcheting down, brought emotion up.”
Nixon has been predictably circumspect about his national ambitions, but at a recent Democratic Governors Association gathering in Nashville he said that what the party needed was a “voice from the heartland,” and then he included himself as one of those voices.
“We feed, fuel and clothe the world. We’re the center of the rebirth of the auto industry,” Nixon said in an interview with Politico. “That heartland voice of people that get up early, work hard, have solid values needs to be heard in Washington, D.C.”
In July, he traveled to Iowa, home to the first presidential caucuses, and toured an ethanol plant. This month, he attended a retreat for powerful Democratic financiers in Aspen, Colo. He also said recently that the 2016 field could use a candidate from the heartland who can speak to the concerns of blue-collar voters.
In his 2008 gubernatorial campaign, Nixon played up his middle-of-the-road values and roots more than any other part of his political persona. His mother was a schoolteacher; his father was a mayor.
“My parents taught me that you’ve got to fight for people that needed your help,” Nixon said in one ad, in which he drove around his home town of DeSoto, Mo. “I want to make it so our kids and grandkids can come home, back here to small towns in Missouri, and have the same kind of life that we did.”
His reelection victory in 2012 is often presented as evidence that he can perform well among white working-class voters who have been abandoning the party in large numbers. In 2012, Nixon ran up large margins in the suburbs of Kansas City and St. Louis and in Springfield, winning a second term in a rout even as the Democrat at the top of ticket, President Obama, could barely compete in the increasingly conservative state.
Nixon has said he would back a run for president by former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, and he has been described as a potential vice-presidential contender who could balance the ticket should she win the Democratic nomination. Some think he would enjoy being a Cabinet secretary, possibly leading the Agriculture Department.
Nixon’s inner circle hints at his national ambitions. His media strategist, Doc Sweitzer, is a longtime consultant who has worked for Democrats such as former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson. Shur manages independent expenditures for the Democratic Governors Association.
Pierson said Nixon has stayed in close touch with him in recent days and visited the church where Pierson serves as pastor, Greater St. Mark Family Church in Ferguson.
Another key backer is Rep. William “Lacy” Clay (D-Mo.), whose district includes Ferguson; the two have been allies since serving in the state Senate together in the 1980s.
When Nixon arrived in Ferguson, Clay was at his side during the governor’s first extended news conference, later using Twitter to push the message that Nixon was trying “to protect civil rights, public safety in Ferguson.”