The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has been at the center of racial tension before Ferguson

On Wednesday night, as rifle-armed police officers in heavy gear used tear gas to disburse a crowd gathered to protest the killing of an unarmed teen by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., Gov. Jay Nixon (D) was quiet. It didn't take long for him to face a backlash on social media, with repeated calls for the governor to step in. It's easy in the short term to assume that this slip will cause lasting damage to Nixon's career. But he's faced heavier opposition in the past and rebounded -- including on racially divisive issues.

The first time then-state Sen. Jay Nixon (D) ran for statewide office in Missouri, he got demolished, losing by more than 30 percentage points to incumbent Sen. John Danforth (R) in 1988. Four years later he ran -- and won -- a bid to be Missouri's Attorney General.

A year later, Nixon filed a motion in district court seeking to end St. Louis' school desegregation program. At that point, black students from the city were being bused to white districts elsewhere in St. Louis County, part of a 12-year-old effort to decrease the racial homogenization of the state's education system. Nixon argued that the expense of the program wasn't worth it. (The program was revised in the late 1990s.)

Nixon's position infuriated the local NAACP, anger that was resurrected shortly before he decided to again seek a Senate seat again in 1998. While he was speaking at a Democratic dinner that June in St. Louis, 15 protestors marched outside the hotel, as CQ reported at the time. Among the signs they carried were ones reading "Deseg Yes, Segregation No," and "WHATEVER HAPPENED TO INTEGRITY?" One leader said flatly, "As of now, I'm going to vote for the Republican." Another compared him to Alabama's George Wallace. For the second time, Nixon lost.

Nixon won election as governor in 2008, and reelection to the position -- by a wide margin -- in 2012. He's occasionally popped up on the national radar since, but, as the Post noted last year, has stayed largely focused on Missouri.

That changed this week, with the racially charged unrest in Ferguson, which brought him into the spotlight with as much elegance as a prisoner spotted trying to escape. But after his stumbling start, Nixon has been very active, telling an audience on Thursday that they would "see a different tone" in the city moving forward.

Later in the day, Nixon held a press conference in which he announced his planned course of action. "What's gone on in the last few days is not what Missouri is about," he said. "It's not what Ferguson is about. This is a place where people work, go to school, raise their families and go to church. ... Lately it's looked like a war zone and it's unacceptable." He announced that the state police would be taking charge of maintaining safety in Ferguson and pledged to work with the community. When asked why the police had been so heavy-handed, he demurred, offering a telling response: "I'm not looking backward. I'm looking forward."

A recovery would not be a surprise, given his political adeptness. Part of the reason that the Post spoke with Nixon last year is that it seemed possible, if unlikely, that he might throw his hat into the ring in 2016. At the time, he'd had a string of wins, including pushing back against a Republican tax cut proposal that, Nixon argued, would gut the state's social services.

Since that interview, Nixon has been at the perimeter of two volatile issues. Earlier this month, he vetoed a tough restriction on abortions, after having previously allowed other restrictions to go into effect. The differentiation on this bill, the governor argued, was the lack of exemptions in cases of incest and rape.

Nixon has also presided over a number of executions in the state, including the seventh of the year just last week. When he was attorney general, Nixon was a strong proponent of the death penalty, saying, at one point, that appeals were "total hokum." As governor, he's been more measured, including a surprise commutation of a convict's sentence in 2011.

Those measured shifts are another reason that it seemed very possible Nixon might be looking for other, higher career opportunities. So far, though, his in-state colleagues don't appear to be in any rush to support him. One state senator, with whom he has feuded in the past, called him a "coward." Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, former mayor of Kansas City and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, tweeted this about Ferguson Thursday morning.

In 1998, Cleaver's opinion of Nixon was even more unfavorable. Thanks to the racial controversy at the time, Cleaver donated $200 to Nixon's Republican opponent, Christopher Bond. Bond won handily.

This post was updated with Nixon's more extensive comments.