Jay Nixon was headed into a news conference last Wednesday, ready to announce his new choice to lead the Missouri Department of Public Safety, when he spotted one of his old law school classmates in St. Louis’ Wainwright State Office Building. Stopping to speak with Mary Nelson, the governor shared a terse appraisal of his new life at the center of a national firestorm.
“It’s been a hell of a week,” Nixon told his former study group partner.
The governorship has never been a smooth ride for Nixon, a 58-year-old Democrat who took office in the midst of a national recession. Under his watch, the state has been buffeted by ice storms, tornadoes and all-out political warfare pitting Nixon against an array of stridently conservative opponents.
Still, as he approached the midpoint of his second term, Nixon looked firmly secure in his role: limited in his power to enact a legislative agenda, but plainly in command of the Missouri political world.
That world has turned upside down in the three weeks since a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man. Now, Nixon’s early-summer trip to Iowa is all but forgotten. Far from preoccupied with 2016, he is working overtime to rescue his state and administration.
The governor himself is frustrated and exhausted amid the ongoing emergency, according to Missouri political veterans and Nixon’s longtime associates, some of whom were granted anonymity in order to speak bluntly. Already, Nixon has run repeatedly into the bounds of his own political capacity: a stubbornly procedural mind set shaped by 16 years as state attorney general and a long-tense relationship with leaders of Missouri’s black community.
Amid weeks of protests, Nixon has faced a barrage of questions about his management of the volatile situation and sharp denunciations from certain African-American leaders. There is no end in sight: A grand jury has only just begun to examine evidence in the case of Brown’s killing, a process likely to last until October. Nixon faces intense pressure from black officials to remove the local prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, from the case, a demand he has so far rejected