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A new Jay Nixon is flexing his muscles

Updated: 2013-07-06T16:32:26Z

By DAVE HELLING

The Kansas City Star

Behold: Jay Nixon, unbound.

Here’s the Missouri governor flying across the state, flashing a veto pen aimed at a $25 billion budget — and something called Agenda 21. There, he wrestles with Republican legislative leaders over investigative subpoenas issued for some of his staff.

One day, a push to expand Medicaid. The next day, a threat to slash state spending if massive GOP tax cuts become law. After that — a rejection of Republican attempts to bar the federal government from enforcing gun regulations in Missouri.

Still to come? A possible fight over abortion and maybe more.

Republicans and Democrats agree: Since his re-election last November, Jay Nixon has changed. A cautious, go-along-to-get-along chief executive, they say, has morphed into a governor who now flexes his muscles, seeking confrontation with his opponents as often as compromise.

They don’t agree on why he’s changed it could be policy, it could be ambition. But the trend is unmistakable.

“The first-term Jay Nixon is greatly different from the second-term Jay Nixon,” said GOP House Speaker Tim Jones. “It’s a lot less policy and a lot more politics.”

Democrats see the phenomenon and applaud. Finally, they say, Nixon is acting like a member of their party, not a GOP acolyte.

“Maybe it’s just the real him coming out,” said Rep. Judy Morgan, a Kansas City Democrat.

What Nixon thinks about his perceived transformation isn’t clear. Through a spokesman, he denied several requests for an interview this week.

The first week of July alone, Nixon vetoed 17 bills — almost three times as many as he vetoed in all of 2010, according to figures on the governor’s Web page.

He’s already officially objected to 23 bills this year, as many as he vetoed in 2009, his previous record. He also partially vetoed 11 bills that year.

But the 2009 legislature passed far more bills. To date, Nixon is on course to veto a greater percentage of legislation before this year’s July 14 deadline than in any other year so far.

And he may just be warming up.

“When you’ve got a second term, you’ve got two choices,” said longtime Democratic strategist Richard Martin. “You can either coast, and blame it on being a lame duck, or you can roll up your sleeves and fight. … This four years, it’s like ‘Hey, let’s go for it.’”

Despite his enthusiasm for the veto stamp, Nixon appears unlikely to overcome the modern veto records of two other Missouri Democrats — Gov. John Dalton, who axed 35 measures in 1961, or Gov. Bob Holden, who vetoed 33 bills in 2003.

But Nixon’s supporters and opponents say the raw veto numbers tell only part of the story.

It’s one thing, they say, for Nixon to veto a massive tax cut package. It’s quite another for him to fly across the state touting the veto, then publicly cut $400 million from state spending, to be restored only if the veto is overturned in September.

That highly visible piece of political theater is meant to send a message, many believe.

“He’s a boxer that doesn’t want to be caught in the corner,” said Rep. Chris Molendorp, a Lee’s Summit Republican. “He wants to get out in the center of the ring now. … He’s going to tell the legislature when he thinks we’ve gone too far.”

Democrats say the legislature goes too far all the time, further explaining Nixon’s newfound aggression.

Nixon vetoed a bill aimed at preventing the use of Islamic Sharia law in Missouri. He nixed a bill making local communities responsible for opposing Agenda 21, a decades-old, U.N.-sanctioned land-use guideline. He vetoed a bill aimed at stopping a feared “war on Christmas.”

In those cases and others, liberals and Democrats say, vetoes of high-profile, conservative-message bills with little practical impact were inevitable.

“It’s hard to know if (Nixon’s) calculations have changed, or if things have just gotten crazier in Jefferson City,” said Sean Soendeker Nicholson, executive director of Progress Missouri, a liberal public interest group.

Nixon’s desire to fully engage the General Assembly on cultural issues became clearer on Friday, when he signed one bill on guns and vetoed another.

The governor rejected a so-called nullification bill that would limit federal jurisdiction on gun issues in the state and criminalize the enforcement of those laws. Jones immediately promised an effort to override the veto.

Meanwhile, Nixon signed into law a bill that allows state employees to keep firearms in their cars while parked on state property and lets fire chiefs carry concealed firearms.

Still, measures imposing new abortion restrictions, and giving Nixon another chance to challenge the Republican majority on a hot-button social issue, await his decision.

He could let a bill further restricting abortion become law without his signature. He took that step on a tough abortion bill in 2010, much to the chagrin of many Democratic supporters in the state.

If he vetoes the abortion bill, on the other hand, it could signal something more than just genuine opposition to the new restrictions.

Many Democrats and Republicans are convinced Nixon is also focusing on a political career beyond the governor’s mansion. The Democrat’s stroll to the left, they say, may reflect ambition for a Cabinet post in the next administration, or — in some wilder dreams — a place on a national ticket.

“It’s positioning in some way,” said George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University. “I’m not sure positioning for what ... is he going to run for the Senate? A vice presidential candidacy? Cabinet position? Attorney general?”

Republican political consultant Jeff Roe sees Nixon aiming at something higher, too.

“This is a guy,” he said, “who puts out a press release when he shoots a deer.”

And that public posture, Roe said, will only make Republicans angry.

“There’s nothing that unifies Republicans more than a Democrat being a Democrat, and being feisty about it,” he said.

Missouri Republicans have already issued a fundraising appeal based on Nixon’s record this year.

Jones, the House speaker, expressed concerns about a long-lasting battle with the governor.

“I think the brinksmanship, this new bravado, and the big speeches when the veto pen is running with ink … could negatively affect public policy,” he said. “And that’s where the governor really has to be careful.”

Jones and Nixon are now engaged in a high-profile battle over subpoenas issued to executive branch workers as part of an investigation into document-scanning in the state that led some gun owners to worry they’d been targeted for government monitoring.

At the same time, the Eureka Republican said relations with the governor’s office have remained cordial for much of the year. And several other Republicans applauded Nixon this week for signing a bill protecting some personal documents from scanning by the state.

But Martin, the Democratic consultant, predicted the new Nixon is likely to stick around.

“He wants to be remembered as a governor who fought for the right things, who stood for Democratic values,” he said.

“And who wants some of that national attention that other governors get.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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