JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — His mother was the school board president. His father was the mayor.
Jay Nixon often recalls his family circumstances as he explains to groups how he ended up a state senator, attorney general and ultimately this year’s Democratic candidate for governor.
“So at dinner time, the phone would ring, they would look at each other and point at me, and I began my career in politics and constituent services,” Nixon said, drawing chuckles from a crowd of Democrats earlier this year.
Then Nixon turns more serious.
“It taught me a couple of things — first of all that we were a family of service,” Nixon said. “I understood when that phone rang and people needed something, you took the call and did the best you could to make a difference for them.”
Nixon’s Republican opponent in the Nov. 5 gubernatorial election, U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, frequently contrasts his 12 years in Congress by highlighting how he comes from a southeast Missouri family of farmers — not politicians.
But Nixon proudly comes from a family of politicians — or public servants, to put it another away. His gubernatorial campaign rests on the assertion that he best knows the people of Missouri that he seeks to represent — specifically their concerns about jobs, health care and education.
Although people call him Jay, he technically is Jeremiah Nixon the 11th. His family traces its American lineage to 1689. One of his ancestors was the sheriff of Philadelphia in 1776, who by some accounts was the first to read the Declaration of Independence to the public after the Continental Congress adopted it.
His maternal grandfather served as sheriff (as a Republican) in Morgan County. Besides the De Soto School Board, his mother also served on the city park board. And after serving as mayor of De Soto, Jay Nixon’s father became a municipal judge.
His family was involved in the formation of Jefferson College, Nixon recalls, and his father helped push for the creation of public water districts. When his dad traveled to Jefferson City to testify before lawmakers about water districts, a young Jay Nixon came along and served as page in the House.
So perhaps it wasn’t surprising when Nixon — a small-town attorney a few months shy of the 30-year-old minimum required to serve in the Missouri Senate — announced in January 1985 that he was running for the Senate seat once held by his father’s law partner, the former Senate President Pro Tem Earl Blackwell.
What made Nixon’s candidacy announcement somewhat unusual is how early it came — 22 months ahead of the November 1986 general election and before the incumbent, three-term Sen. Jack Gannon, had publicly announced that he was not seeking re-election. Nixon wasn’t challenging the incumbent; he had a good inkling that Gannon would be stepping down.
Still, Nixon was not the presumed favorite. He ran in a Democratic primary against longtime Jefferson County Sheriff Buck Buerger and presiding county commissioner Ralph Krodinger.
“He was considered by most established politicians here in Jefferson County kind of foolhardy because the two candidates he took on in the state Senate race were the sitting sheriff and presiding county commissioner — both kind of giants of the Democratic Party here,” said Kevin Roberts, a law school classmate of Nixon’s at the University of Missouri-Columbia who later became a law partner with Nixon in Jefferson County.
Nixon began his campaign by sitting down with virtually every elected or appointed official in the county — police chiefs, fire district officials, school superintendents — and asking them about their problems. He did polling, organized young volunteers to help get out the vote and made extensive use of direct mail.
“Really by sheer organization and running a modern campaign, he won the election,” Roberts said.
Two years later, Nixon took on an even more unlikely campaign, challenging Republican U.S. Sen. John Danforth when no other Democrat would do so. Nixon got less than 32 percent of the vote.
“We got our fannies kicked,” said Bill McKenna, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Jefferson County who helped in Nixon’s campaign. “But his attitude was real good throughout it.”
The losing effort nonetheless laid the groundwork for another statewide campaign in 1992. Nixon won a four-way Democratic primary for attorney general and then defeated Republican David Steelman in a close and contentious general election.
Nixon never faced any serious opposition and won re-election again and again and again, becoming Missouri’s longest-serving attorney general. Along the way, he made another unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate.
Nixon calls himself the “no-call guy” — a reference to perhaps his most publicly recognized program as attorney general. Implementing a 2000 state law, Nixon created a “no-call list” by which residents can make their phone numbers off limits to telemarketers. He’s sought fines from violators and aggressively promoted the list to the public — a tactic Republicans cite as an example of Nixon using his office for self-centered political promotion.
Barely into his fourth term as attorney general, Nixon formed a gubernatorial campaign committee in November 2005, a full three years ahead of the election.
It was the same sort of advanced planning Nixon used when he launched his first campaign for state senate 20 years earlier. Following that template, Nixon has spent his weekends traveling around the state, listening to and reconnecting with local officials. He keeps a daily countdown to Election Day.
“I get focused on what I think needs to be accomplished, I try to divide that by the amount of time between the beginning and end of the campaign,” Nixon said. “If you want something hard, focused work pays off, I’ve always believed that.”
Nixon began the gubernatorial campaign with a target on Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, who stunned supporters and foes alike by announcing in January that he would not seek re-election.
Although his opponent changed, Nixon stuck with the same strategy of denouncing the past four years of Republican leadership, particularly pledging to reverse the 2005 Medicaid cuts that reduced or eliminated government health care coverage for hundreds of thousands of low-income people.
As the economy has soured, Nixon has increasingly emphasized his call for change while casting Hulshof as part of the problem. Hulshof dubs Nixon as “wrong way Jay” for wanting to reverse what Hulshof describes as the improvements of the past four years.
When he speaks to groups, Nixon often reads his remarks with minimal eye contact with the crowd. He typically wears a suit or sport coat — even when most other politicians are dressed casually.
In that sense, Nixon stands out in a crowd — just as he did more than two decades ago when McKenna first met him during a local Young Democrats meeting in the basement of an old cafe. Nixon was the only one wearing a suit, McKenna recalls.
“He was a young guy that seemed like he was interested in politics — and that was something I thought we needed a lot more of,” McKenna said.
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