Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon leaves office Jan. 9 after spending half his life in the public eye — as a state senator, attorney general and for the last eight years as the state’s chief executive.
He will join the Dowd Bennett law firm in suburban St. Louis after leaving the governor’s mansion.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Star in his Jefferson City office, the Democrat professed pride in several accomplishments: better parks, improved education and mental health services, tax breaks to save the state’s auto industry.
Nixon, 60, rejected claims that he let his party down in the recent election or that he mishandled the events in Ferguson, Mo.
Here’s a transcript of parts of the interview, edited for clarity and length.
Question: You’ve been doing this for 30 years. You seem pretty relaxed. Am I missing something?
Answer: I was aware of term limits when I ran for re-election, OK? This is not a surprising time.
Q: Do you want to get out of government?
A: I don’t have any desire to run for the Senate, and I’m certainly not going to become a lobbyist. I’ve had 30 years in the arena, 30 years where I’ve gotten to have an effect over what’s going on. Now it’s time for somebody else.
Q: What has 30 years taught you?
A: That you remember the stuff that you get done, not the stuff that you stop. … I’ve had a tremendous effect, and got to touch directly millions of lives, and it’s been a wonderful opportunity.
Q: Why is money such a mess in Missouri politics?
A: There are always challenges with money in politics. I’ve supported limits. We haven’t got that done. The public passed some this year, but much more can be done in this area. I believe in enforceable limits … but I do think money’s been involved in politics since the very beginning, and it’s going to continue.
Q: Wouldn’t you say the atmosphere in Jefferson City has been a problem? The culture here seems less than it should be.
A: There’s got to be some things in the system that need to be changed. I don’t think young men and women say “I want to be a state representative so I can come down here and get free steak dinners.”
Q: But you don’t have to take the free steak dinner. Wouldn’t you say, at the end of 30 years, that more people are distrustful of government than they once were?
A: People in Missouri have always had a healthy mistrust of government. You add on to that a cynicism over whether government can solve problems, and you find yourself in a place where for a significant number of people it’s worse than it was.
Q: You get some praise for what you did on the auto plants in Kansas City and St. Louis. The budget seems in better shape than say, Kansas. And you’ve had good press for your work in Joplin, after the tornado.
A: I took the budget very serious when I first came in. I’ve had to trim the budget, basically $300 million plus a year, just to make it balance. It’s a smaller government than when we came in.
Our team gave Joplin the full effort that it required. That was a high moment in my years in public service.
And auto has been something that my fingerprint has been directly on. Claycomo was on the chopping block. I’ve worked really hard on this job.
Q: Do you think race relations are better or worse than when you took office? Not just Ferguson, but at the University of Missouri and other places?
A: Racial issues have always been a challenge in a state like Missouri. The challenges in the criminal justice system, the distrust in many communities between law enforcement and members of the community play out in difficult ways. Educationally, now that we’ve got the (desegregation) cases in Kansas City and St. Louis closed, those were difficult cases.
Q: But there are still some bad feelings in those communities about you, which contributed to the problems in the aftermath of Ferguson.
A: I really don’t think Ferguson was about me. I think Ferguson was about relations between law enforcement and young folks. Perhaps I wasn’t the savior, the savant or whatever there. But those problems were much deeper than one individual.
Q: The argument is you have fewer resources to fall back on because of mistrust in the African-American community, which is of long standing.
A: I think I have great friends in those areas. There are dust-ups at times, but I think if you look at the numbers I’ve always performed well there. History puts you in places sometimes in elective office. I was placed in two: the desegregation cases, and because of the unrest in Ferguson.
Q: But the main criticism I’ve ever heard of you is the suggestion that you don’t have as many friends as you need to have in this state. You’re a loner, and when things get bad there’s no one there to help you out.
A: I don’t consider myself a loner in any way, shape or form. I consider myself as having 6.2 million people that I work for. You guys write that stuff …
Q: But we’re not making it up, governor. People tell us these things.
A: I’m a hard guy to push around. If I feel strongly about something because the people of the state feel strongly about something, I’m not going to compromise the public’s best interests.
Q: But to be frank, you’ll hear that what’s in the state’s interest is in Jay Nixon’s interest. That Jay Nixon is always about Jay Nixon. I’m not trying to be disrespectful.
A: I spend a great of time trying to channel what’s in the best interest of the public. This is a very diverse and difficult state, and that means you spend a lot of time trying to figure out what that is, and then aggressively push it.
In this job, whenever someone comes up to you and says I’m a Republican or I’m a Democrat, they’re getting ready to tell you what they can’t do, not what they can.
I do not approach this job in a partisan nature. People don’t vote for a governor to be a partisan in chief. They vote for them to be the chief executive of the state. I think one of the reasons I’ve succeeded dramatically, electorally, and continued to lead in a myriad of ways, is that the people of this state, more so than the politicians of this state, respect where my heart is and my mind is.
Q: Why did so many Republicans win statewide this time?
A: Trump’s at 59 percent. I worked with our candidates, but my primary responsibility is to the people of the state of Missouri. I’ve said that all along.
Q: Any frustration?
A: I didn’t vote for the people that won. It was kind of a lonely look down the ballot.
Q: It sounds like you don’t have many regrets.
A: I don’t spend a lot of time anguishing — when you get this much opportunity you tend to focus on what you could get done. I do think, as a country, there are a number of criminal justice issues we’re still grappling with. I think some of this ethics stuff is really unfinished. Transportation’s an unfinished deal. There’s plenty of work to do.
And I really thought we’d have a chance to have the Cardinals and the Royals in the World Series.
Q: The Cardinals are going to have to play a little better baseball. Didn’t the Kansas City team get there twice during your time in office?
A: Yes they did. (The Cardinals were in the Series in 2011 and 2013, an aide points out.) I had two All-Star Games and two World Series with each of the teams, but I couldn’t get them together.
Q: The Rams left. That has to be a disappointment.
A: No. I don’t have to watch bad football.