Ferguson Hampers Gov. Jay Nixon's National Chances

Image: Ferguson Hampers Gov. Jay Nixon's National Chances (Lucas Jackson/Reuters/Landov)

Sunday, 24 Aug 2014 08:09 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was in an enviable position politically just over two weeks ago, but the Ferguson riots in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting have dimmed his rising star, with critics on both sides saying that the governor's performance was flawed.

"He is getting criticized from all sides," Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Washington, D.C. Rothenberg Political Report, told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  "A Democrat from Missouri isn’t a bad position if you are coming out (onto the national scene) with great strength, but the attention he has received over the past week has been consistently between critical and bad."

Until Aug. 9, Nixon was in the national spotlight just once, reports the Post-Dispatch, when his reaction to the Joplin tornado in 2011 showed a strong leader.

He has two years left as governor, and was looking at potential future options including a Cabinet position, a run for the Senate, and had even been listed as a possible Democratic vice presidential nominee.

"When these events occur, it is a test you can either pass or fail," Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who worked with the Al Gore and John Kerry presidential campaigns told The Wall Street Journal. "The way you deal with it has long-term repercussions for political leaders."

On one side, protesters and black leaders complain the governor reacted to the crisis in the St. Louis suburb too slowly and did not visit the region for days after the violence started. And police supporters said he's biased against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot the teenager, calling for his "vigorous prosecution."

In addition, Nixon's strategy was flawed, when the police presence was ordered demilitarized before Nixon ordered in the National Guard.

In addition, he refused demands to replace St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch with a special prosecutor, but he did not support McCulloch against accusations of bias.

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who was in charge of Al Gore's presidential campaign, said there is still time for Nixon to reshape his future if he plans to enter the national arena.
But still, he waited too long to show up in Ferguson, and didn't have the answers the community needed.

Mitt Romney's top adviser agreed that Americans got a "negative" introduction to Nixon, whose "disengagement and indecision has been commented on by many people."

A New York Times poll on Thursday showed just 32 percent of Americans were satisfied with how Nixon handled the Ferguson crisis, with 34 percent saying they were not satisfied. And African-Americans were even less satisfied, spelling potential problems in a Democratic vote for him should he seek higher office.

Nixon already had issues among the African-American community even before he ran for governor, the Post-Dispatch reports, because of controversial rulings while he was the state's attorney general, and to this day, he has no black Cabinet-level appointees in his administration.

“The governor doesn’t care about black people or the black community unless it’s politically expedient,” Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, complained in a recent interview with MSNBC.

But Nixon has been trying to mend the fences, including appointing the Missouri Highway Patrol to lead security efforts in Ferguson and putting Capt. Ronald Johnson, a Ferguson native who is African-American in charge.

The Ferguson riots also put Nixon before a spotlight he's been avoiding for some time, said Republican consultant John Hancock.

"[Nixon] has managed to get by relatively unscathed over many years by frankly not being that accessible," said Hancock. "The minute he has to take center stage in a drama, his weaknesses as a politician are exposed.”

And Republican Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones said Nixon's Ferguson strategy was "all over the map."

But when compared to the Joplin emergency, Nixon appeared much different. State Rep. Jeremy LaFavor, a Kansas City Democrat, said Nixon could handle "structural problems," but when it comes to race and poverty, he did not have that level of "diplomacy and leadership."

Some defend Nixon, however.

"I think he has an impossible task in front of him," said Democratic state Sen. Gina Walsh. "This isn’t about something that happened two weeks ago. This is all about racism, education, socioeconomics."

For Nixon's part, he said in a statement that he is concentrating on Ferguson's issues, not politics.

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