Local Columnists

Two governors may be departing amid clouds, not sunshine

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback File photos

This is not the way these things are supposed to end.

As they head toward the exits, Govs. Jay Nixon and Sam Brownback should be hearing praise from residents for lifting their quality of life.

But that’s not happening as Nixon winds down two energetic terms in Jeff City and Brownback signals that his time in Kansas may be growing short.

These days, Nixon is enduring a hailstorm of criticism over yet another multimillion-dollar settlement in an age and gender discrimination case against his administration. This time, the litigant was none other than Gracia Backer, a one-time legislative colleague of Nixon’s and the first woman to serve as majority leader in the Missouri House.

Backer, 66, won $2 million last week for her horror show of an experience working as director of the Division of Employment Security in Missouri’s Labor Department. The $2 million comes on top of $16 million that juries have ordered the state to pay in damages since 2014 in connection with similar lawsuits against agencies in Nixon’s administration.

In her lawsuit, Backer refers to her old boss as a “monster” who apparently wanted the older women who worked for him gone. He reportedly ordered Backer to give them lousy work evals that were entirely undeserved to get them to retire or to justify their dismissals. He went on tirades. He threatened. Once, he threw a document at Backer during a meeting.

Backer knows her way around the Capitol. She went to top Nixon aides, told her story and gave them a list of 20 other employees who would confirm the tales of a boss run amok.

She even warned Nixon’s wife that her husband would be embarrassed by what was going on.

But it didn’t get her much — and then she was dismissed, apparently for pointing out all the problems. That wasn’t all: On the same day she learned she had been fired, Nixon appointed her old boss — the “monster” — to a six-figure job as an administrative law judge in Kansas City.

The boss, Larry Rebman, has said he never discriminated. A Nixon spokesman said the governor had “long been a champion for the fight against discrimination” and had vetoed bills that would’ve made it easier to discriminate.

In another development this week, House Speaker Todd Richardson said his chamber would investigate legal costs totaling $7.5 million associated with harassment and retaliation complaints in the Corrections Department. The move came in response to a story published in The Pitch. The embattled head of the department reportedly is set to resign.

All this adds more fodder to the ugly, decades-old anti-woman culture in Jeff City that this newspaper has exposed in recent years. Fortunately, the House has taken steps to upgrade that culture, and they appear to be working.

But millions of taxpayer dollars continue to flow to settle discrimination complaints. It’s a dark coda to Nixon’s legacy.

In Kansas, meantime, Brownback won’t say if he’ll be around to finish his second term, and rumors are rampant that a job in Donald Trump’s administration is near.

Many Kansans would hail the departure of the man who ranks as America’s most unpopular governor with a mere “good riddance.” But let’s be clear: Brownback would be pulling up stakes as his state seeks to dig out of yet another self-induced budget hole, this one totaling $900 million. With a stroke of his pen, Brownback shoveled the dirt that created the hole.

On the horizon: a state Supreme Court ruling on school funding that could widen that budget gap by another half-billion.

Brownback’s new job would surely be little more than a middlin’ post or an ambassadorship. Hey, “ambassador” is a cool title, and ceremonial teas at the embassy might be fun for awhile. But Kansas has mountains to move.

Sam Brownback isn’t a quitter, is he?

Steve Kraske: 816-234-4312, @stevekraske