Before August 9, 2014, Jay Nixon was an unfamiliar name. The Democratic governor of Missouri for five years, before that its attorney general for 16 years, had managed to govern far from the scorching rays of the national media limelight, and in doing so he accrued a not-unimpressive résumé in the Show Me State.
Then 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo., and Governor Nixon found himself in the national spotlight — to which he has responded with something less than aplomb. Two days after the shooting, Nixon asked the Department of Justice independently to investigate Brown’s death, and the next day he spoke on the subject at a meeting of civic and faith leaders in North St. Louis County. But not until August 14 did Nixon arrive in Ferguson — prompted, critics contend, only by the national media attention that was by then focused on the St. Louis suburb. Nights of riots, the appearance of Al Sharpton, and questions about the military-style law enforcement finally occasioned this remark: “If people got things to say, they’ll say them, and if people from the news media want to cover stuff and take pictures of things, they ought to do it. We live in a free country.” Not exactly “I Have a Dream.”
To compensate for his initial hesitance, Nixon leapt to voice his sympathy with Ferguson’s angry masses — thus enraging observers who contend that the investigation into the events surrounding Brown’s death has already been prejudiced. In a statement issued by his office on August 19, Nixon said: “From the outset, I have been clear about the need to have a vigorous prosecution of this case, and that includes minimizing any potential legal uncertainty.” He added that he would not ask the St. Louis County prosecutor handling the investigation, Bob McCulloch, to recuse himself, because it could “potentially jeopardize the prosecution.” Given that the facts of the case remain unclear, calling for a “vigorous prosecution” was obviously premature.
In the two weeks since Brown’s death, Nixon has managed to win friends and influence people on neither his left nor his right. Political insiders, who had considered Nixon a potential contender for the No. 2 slot on the 2016 Democratic ticket, are now wondering if, after Ferguson, he has any political future at all.
In 1987, Jeremiah Wilson Nixon arrived in Jefferson City for his first term in the Missouri Senate, where he made no secret of his aspirations for higher office. The next year, he ran for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Jack Danforth. The prospect of “Nixon in ’88” did not thrill Missouri voters; Nixon lost 68 percent to 32 percent, the worst loss for a Democrat in state history.
Some called the race a kamikaze effort, but others suggest that it was canny — an opportunity for Nixon to meet voters across the state and boost his name recognition. Four years later, he was elected attorney general, and then he won reelection three times. In 2008, he defeated Republican representative Kenny Hulshof by 19 points to become Missouri’s governor. He is now in his second term.
As both attorney general and governor, Nixon has been considered a moderate — particularly as his party tacks left under governors such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley. As attorney general, Nixon worked to make good on campaign promises: In Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC (2000), for example, the Supreme Court ruled for the attorney general, deciding that the federal limits to campaign contributions established in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) also applied to contributions to state political candidates. Nixon also expanded the role of Missouri’s Attorney General’s Office in prosecuting environmental offenses.
For the most part, his accomplishments have not been the type to make banner headlines. But Nixon has occasionally made news, such as when, a year after taking over as attorney general, he filed a motion in U.S. district court to end St. Louis’s school-desegregation program, which had been in operation since 1981. “The state has met its obligation,” Nixon said at the time, arguing that the program was never intended to continue indefinitely. In 1997, Bill Clay, a black congressman who represented much of St. Louis in the House from 1969 to 2001, called on Bill Clinton to cancel a trip to Missouri to fund-raise for Nixon’s failed 1998 Senate run against Kit Bond, citing Nixon’s desegregation efforts. The State Democratic Party offered to broker a truce.
Although Nixon won 92 percent of the black vote in his 2012 reelection bid, the tensions provoked by that effort linger. His tardiness traveling to Ferguson and, more recently, his refusal to appoint a special prosecutor to take over the Brown investigation have raised suspicions among Ferguson’s predominantly black population.
As governor, Nixon has been checked by a staunchly Republican legislature. (Missouri has stayed true to its history as a political bellwether — the epitome of purple states — voting for Mitt Romney by nine points but reelecting a Democratic governor by 12 points.) Nonetheless, Nixon has managed several political victories. Last year he vetoed a GOP-backed budget bill that would have reduced the state’s personal income tax and cut its corporate tax; then he persuaded 15 Republicans in the House to vote against overriding the veto.
Shortly after his reelection in 2012, Nixon announced that Missouri would be expanding its Medicare rolls, and in 2014 he vetoed outright a bill that would have required a 72-hour waiting period between an initial consultation and an abortion. Political observers suggest that these second-term decisions have been calculated to move the governor leftward — particularly when Democrats have criticized him for opposing a death-penalty moratorium and same-sex marriage (though in 2013 his opinion on the latter “evolved”). Additionally, in 2012, Nixon cut the ribbon at the 141st Convention of the National Rifle Association in St. Louis. Don’t expect Deval Patrick to do that.
That Nixon’s mishandling of the situation in Ferguson has occasioned scorn all across the political spectrum is not surprising — Nixon is a Democrat, to be sure, but centrist enough to offend his political confreres. In a party increasingly defined by the progressivism of Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat with a touch of mid-1990s Bill Clinton is increasingly unwelcome.
In this way, Nixon is a bit like the president whose name he bears. And his political future may be equally bleak.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.