The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

February 13, 2012

Phill Brooks, columnist: Nixon's stand-off approach to Legislature noticed

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — During the past few weeks, there have been increasing complaints from state legislators about the governor’s relationship with the Missouri General Assembly.

Even Democrats, privately and sometimes not so privately, are voicing frustrations about Gov. Jay Nixon’s stand-off approach with the Legislature and individual legislators.

It’s not unusual for governors to have problems with the Legislature, regardless whether the governor’s own party controls the Legislature or not. There is almost an institutional rivalry between the legislative and executive branches.

What is unusual about Nixon’s relationship is his near-complete visible absence from the legislative process. He rarely is seen on the Legislature’s third floor of the Capitol where the Senate and House chambers are located, just one flight of stairs up from his own office.

The past two times I caught the governor on the legislative floor during the last special session, he was barricaded behind an army of aides and security detail. Those two times involved short visits to legislative leaders’ offices.

Top legislators complain they rarely talk to or see the governor. One top legislative leader had to ask his secretary to check his appointment calendar for the last time he had met with Nixon. Another remembered briefly talking with the governor at the start of the fall’s special session.

That is quite a difference from the first governor I covered, Warren Hearnes.

He had been the House majority leader and clearly enjoyed interactions with legislators. He would spend hours in Rep. Tom Walsh’s office. It was just across the hallway from the chamber, making it easy for members to drop by to talk and negotiate. Walsh’s office sometimes seemed like a secondary office for Hearnes.

But on the Senate side of the building, Hearnes’ relations in his final years as governor were among the worst I’ve seen. I sensed that Senate Democrats never forgave Hearnes for creating a budget crisis that forced them to pass an income tax increase.

Hearnes’ successor, Republican Kit Bond, initially also had problems with Senate members of his own party.

The Senate was dominated by conservatives who resisted his progressive agenda, including the state’s first open meetings law, campaign finance disclosure requirements and a sweeping package of consumer protection measures.

The aggressiveness of his staff in pushing that agenda led Senate Republican Richard Webster to coin the term “kiddie corps” to ridicule the young age of both Bond (the state’s youngest governor) and his relatively young staff.

Bond had not served in the Legislature, and I often wondered if that was a factor.

But when the Mexico Republican returned for his second term, it was almost a complete reversal of relations with the Senate. He developed close, personal relationships with Senate members from both parties.

Weekly, Bond would visit a senator’s office for an evening session of laid-back discussion and socializing that was fueled, legislators confessed to me, by goodly quantities of drinks. A couple of the senators reported Bond was so gracious that he would remember their favorite brand of scotch or beer.

The Columbia Tribune’s Statehouse reporter remembers Bond’s successor, John Ashcroft, who was not known as a partying person, as having a playful wrestling match with the House speaker during one late-night negotiating session on a major higher education bill.

Democrat Mel Carnahan had an equally successful relationship with the legislature.

Like Hearnes, Carnahan had served as a House majority leader. Like Hearnes, he understood how to make things happen in the General Assembly.

But his approach was quite different from his predecessors. Rather than pushing a detailed agenda or extensive socializing with lawmakers, Carnahan played the role of a facilitator.

He would identify broad policy issues he wanted passed. Then, he would get personally involved in sometimes lengthy sessions with legislators to get the lawmakers themselves to work out the details.

What makes Nixon’s legislative detachment perplexing is that he shares some of the attributes of these past governors who had such successful and close legislative interactions.

Like Hearnes and Carnahan, Nixon served in the Legislature. Although he never rose to a top leadership position in the Senate, he worked on a number of legislative issues as a four-term attorney general.

He knows the process. He knows the issues. He has an ease of conversation on complicated and controversial policy issues that would fit well with lawmakers and their environment.

Yet, for whatever reason, lawmakers find almost a complete detachment from Jay Nixon, just one flight of stairs below their legislative chambers.

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri Statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the Statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes. He can be reached at column@mdn.org.

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