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Steve Kraske: Gov. Jay Nixon gets low marks for his slow response to Ferguson

It took Gov. Jay Nixon five days to arrive in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown was shot by a police officer. His delay provoked some sharp rebukes. On Friday, he again spoke in Ferguson at a news conference.
It took Gov. Jay Nixon five days to arrive in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown was shot by a police officer. His delay provoked some sharp rebukes. On Friday, he again spoke in Ferguson at a news conference. The Associated Press

The most prominent victim of “Shark Week” almost turned out to be Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.

Nixon survived what he called “a tough week,” and he had bite marks all over his backside to prove it.

Yes, it was a tough week, and it was one that saw the governor bring peace to north St. Louis and endure savage criticism for a slow, impersonal response that threatened to make Nixon — not just Michael Brown — the story.

With calm returning and Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson becoming a media darling and Nixon defender, the scrutiny of the governor’s handling of Ferguson should fade. But a consensus has formed: Nixon gets low marks for Ferguson after sterling scores for his immediate, boots-on-the-ground response to tornado-ravaged Joplin in 2011.

For all his experience in public office dating to the 1980s, the governor appeared to forget a political maxim: In a time of crisis, you’ve got to be on the scene and visible.

As President George W. Bush found out with Hurricane Katrina, flying over a disaster doesn’t qualify as “being present.” In Nixon’s case, neither does issuing statements from the Capitol.

The Democrat waited five days after Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer before he visited the scene in Ferguson, although he spoke nearby Tuesday night. By Thursday he was trying to stamp out a wildfire pushed by the 24/7 news cycle that made the delay seem like years.

Nixon “is not really at ground zero, and for that I call him a coward,” Missouri Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, an African-American Democrat from the St. Louis area, told MSNBC on Thursday morning.

Said Chris King, managing editor of The St. Louis American, an influential African-American newspaper: “It was almost incredible how politically tone deaf he was. He came late. And he had to be pushed, really pushed.”

Nixon has been here before. His shaky history with African-Americans dates to 1993. As attorney general, Nixon quickly signaled that he was eager to end long-running school desegregation cases in Kansas City and St. Louis.

In a complaint that’s become a recurring theme for Nixon, black leaders hammered him for failing to consult them. Their anger lingered. In 1997, President Bill Clinton was asked to broker a truce.

By 2012, when Nixon ran for re-election as governor, he was in a better place, scoring 92 percent of the black vote.

It’s no coincidence that the governor was back in Ferguson on Friday. He knows how to rally.

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to skraske@kcstar.com.

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