Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) finds himself at the center of a storm of unrest in the St. Louis suburb suburban town of Ferguson. He has the near-impossible task of balancing the interests of local protesters outraged over the shooting of an unarmed teenager against the effort to maintain order.
Late Monday, as protesters were gathered once again on the streets of Ferguson before a midnight curfew kicked in, he tweeted hopefully: “Let’s show the world that we can protest peacefully passionately. Let’s keep #Ferguson safe tonight.” Two minutes later violence erupted.
The new attention comes just weeks after Nixon, 58, stoked rumors that he wants to be considered for 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 both his constituents and his own 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.”
Over the weekend, Nixon used an executive order that created a five-hour curfew beginning at midnight for an undetermined amount of nights. On Sunday night, as protestors were pushed out by police tear gas, Nixon ordered the Missouri National Guard to join the combination of state and local police that have been trying to maintain peace in the tense environment.
His defenders, a small but loyal band who’ve largely known him for decades, say that he is making the best of a bad situation, coordinating with officials on what needs to be done. The governor’s critics in his own 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.”
Others have cited Nixon’s delayed response to the Ferguson crisis as evidence of a lack of leadership and urgency by the governor.
After a stop in St. Louis County last Tuesday, protests turned more violent the next day. Nixon canceled plans to attend the state fair Wednesday night and arrived in Ferguson Thursday to conduct his first full news conference on the escalating issue, almost five full days after the shooting. By last Wednesday, as protests turned more violent, he had to cancel his plans to attend the state fair that night and finally arrived in Ferguson the next day.
Before that, Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal (D) accused Nixon of being out of touch with black voters: “He’s never been to Ground Zero,” she wrote in a sometimes profane Twitter outburst.
Crisis, from natural disasters to man-made calamities, has often served as the backdrop for career-defining moments for political figures, particularly governors and mayors. Rudolph W. Giuliani’s mayoral response to the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City served as the foundation of his unsuccessful presidential bid in 2008. Long before his praised response to Hurricane Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s image was almost ruined 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 2011, when a violent set of tornadoes ripped through the small town of Joplin in southwest Missouri, killing 161 and leaving more than 1,000 injured. Just two-and-a-half years into his first term, Nixon won praise for his handling of the cleanup and rehabilitation of the town, 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 than 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 has found himself trying to both criticize the local police and its militarized appearance in the streets, while also 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.”
Despite a record and a reputation some regard as too moderate for the base of the Democratic Party, Nixon has occasionally been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, with several Democratic operatives describing him as an appealing if staid Midwestern figure in a party full of telegenic upstarts from the coasts.
Nixon, who has a hulking frame and upswept gray hair, has long been seen by Jefferson City insiders as a vigorous political talent who has ably used his outgoing personality and love of retail politics to ascend in a state that can be hostile to Democrats.
In 2012, he ran up large margins in the suburbs of Kansas City and St. Louis and in Springfield, winning a second term in a rout as President Obama barely even competed in the increasingly conservative state.
In July he traveled to Iowa, home to the first presidential caucuses, and toured an ethanol plant. Earlier this month, he attended a retreat for powerful Democratic financiers in Aspen, Colo. He also recently said 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 school teacher; 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 as 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.”
But more often Nixon, who has said he would back former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been cited as a potential vice-presidential contender who could balance the ticket for her should she win the Democratic presidential nomination. Some think he would enjoy being a Cabinet secretary, possibly leading the Agriculture Department.
Nixon’s inner circle hints at his national ambitions. Doc Sweitzer, a longtime consultant who has worked for Democrats such as former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, is his media strategist. Oren Shur, who manages independent expenditures for the Democratic Governors Association, is another confidant.
“It’s premature, and frankly inappropriate, to speculate about politics right now,” said Shur, who managed the governor’s 2012 campaign. “Those types of conversations are simply not happening — the governor and everyone around him are squarely focused on addressing the security situation in Ferguson.”
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 his first extended news conference on the issue, later using Twitter to push the message that Nixon was trying “to protect civil rights, public safety in Ferguson.”
Some veterans of Missouri politics question whether Nixon has truly deep ties to black leaders in St. Louis County and say his effort to quell the violence is complicated by the alleged presence of outside activists arriving each night who have tenuous ties to the local leaders: While serving as state attorney general, he sought to end St. Louis’s school desegregation program, a move that riled them.
Nixon’s effort to quell the violence in Ferguson is also complicated by the alleged presence of outside activists arriving each night who have tenuous ties to the local community.
Nixon has run so many races in nearly three decades of politics that he’s made more than his share of enemies. He lost handily in Senate races in 1988 and 1998, to Republican incumbents John Danforth and Christopher “Kit” Bond, before finally winning the governor’s race in 2008.
He has a strained relationship with both of his state’s current U.S. senators, Claire McCaskill (D), who some wanted to run for governor instead of Nixon, and Roy Blunt (R), whose son, Matt, preceded Nixon as governor.
Nixon’s management style during the crisis contrasts with McCaskill’s. Images of her embracing young black protesters and making calls to federal officials have flooded social media, and her opposition to the militarization of police forces has garnered national attention.
Now, however, even his rivals are hoping that Nixon can pull off the most challenging political act of his career.
“The Governor has a very difficult job right now,” McCaskill said in a brief statement, “and we all want him to succeed.”