Thrust into the national spotlight brightly focused on Ferguson, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has not provided rapid, effective or fully engaged leadership in a time of crisis for the state.
Nixon has acted far too timidly at times but, fortunately, a bit more boldly in others during an extraordinarily complex situation.
Nixon waited too long to go to Ferguson and coherently explain what he expected from local and state officials in response to the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer on Aug. 9. Some critics used Nixon’s tardiness to promote their complaints about the lack of attention the longtime Democrat has paid to the needs of black communities in Ferguson and throughout the state.
After several days of protest didn’t bring the governor to Ferguson, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a black Democrat who represents that part of the St. Louis area, tweeted profanities toward Nixon. She said he “proved today how disconnected he is to the black community. He’s never been to Ground Zero. This is his Katrina!”
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Nixon also has provided fumbled explanations and answers during some news conferences and interviews, appearing to be a person who does not understand the emotionally charged situation he and others are in.
The governor’s lack of engagement led Politifact.com to state that Nixon’s defensive statement last Sunday — “I’ve been (in Ferguson) almost every day” — was “mostly false.” A timeline showed that Nixon didn’t visit Ferguson until Aug. 14.
Nixon has had more successful moments.
Last week, after days of nationally televised looting and arrests and tear-gassing of protesters, Nixon pushed aside local law enforcement leaders to put the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of overall security in Ferguson. Like many others, Nixon saw that local police were not up to the task of proactively trying to keep the peace there.
Nixon’s decision angered St. Louis County police officers, in particular. However, as we noted last week, Nixon should have acted at least a day earlier, given the out-of-control images being beamed around the world from the streets of Ferguson — too often caused by local police badly treating protesters.
The governor also was a bit late to correctly call in the National Guard earlier this week. The troops freed up local officers to spend more time trying to keep the peace on the streets of Ferguson. On Thursday Nixon ordered a gradual pullout from a calmer city.
Going forward, Nixon needs to assert his authority and replace St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch with a special prosecutor to lead the investigation into Michael Brown’s death.
Nixon has been playing word games on this issue. He backed McCulloch as a “democratically elected prosecutor,” but also slyly said he understood why a lot of people don’t think McCulloch could overlook his strong law enforcement ties in overseeing this high-profile case.
As he has too often during his years as governor, Nixon is playing it coy when he needs to be a firm, decisive leader.
His actions since Aug. 9 have badly damaged any ambitions that Nixon might have had for other offices, such as U.S. senator, when his term ends in early 2017. Nixon has been verbally slammed by top Republicans, as well. While expected, these attacks weaken Nixon’s ability to rouse public support for crucial vetoes he wants sustained by the General Assembly in September.
Last weekend Nixon said at a press conference about events in Ferguson, “The eyes of the world are watching.” So far, however, those eyes are not seeing a governor competently handling what’s going on there.