Seeking balance on Ferguson, governor finds it’s easy to slip

From the very first days of the protests over the police shooting of an unarmed black man here, Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri has been accused of hitting the wrong notes at the wrong times.

He was criticized for waiting too long to get involved when the protests began in August and more recently for jumping the gun with a state of emergency declaration. Protest groups were put off by his insistence on zero tolerance for illegal disruptions, which seemed to ignore the widespread criticism of heavy-handed police tactics. Still others were stunned by his recent rambling, noncommittal response to a question about where, exactly, the buck stopped in the handling of law enforcement duties.

“I have to say I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time personalizing this vis-a-vis me,” Nixon said in the midst of a long and halting answer. “So that, I mean,” he concluded, “I’d prefer not to be a commentator on it.”

Even the Justice Department expressed frustration with his recent actions, with a senior aide to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. calling Nixon’s office to criticize his decision to deploy the National Guard as more likely to rouse than to calm.

“Every time you think that they’re going to do something to bring this down, they amp it up a notch,” said Jerryl Christmas, a lawyer for the family of a man killed in a police shooting in St Louis last month.

But politicians and others in Missouri said they were not completely surprised by the governor’s handling of the situation in Ferguson. They said his regular approach to governing - a reliance on a tight circle of loyal advisers and an unwavering faith in well-established processes - had proved particularly ill-suited to the challenges of Ferguson and a protest movement that views the established processes as fundamentally exclusive and unfair.

“All of this is sort of the chickens coming home to roost,” said Steve Glorioso, a Democratic political consultant in Kansas City.

Nixon’s supporters say he has been faced with a crisis nearly impossible to handle to everyone’s satisfaction. Every day for weeks, state officials say, he has been working behind the scenes to mediate an endless series of differences, such as how late to set a curfew and how to police protests. Demonstrators are demanding that the governor address issues that have festered for decades, while others see the protests as unjustified threats to public order and demand a crackdown.

“How do you tell that narrative to two totally diametrically different points of view, two absolutely opposite polar communities?” asked Marvin Teer, a former St. Louis municipal judge and now deputy director of the Office of Community Engagement, a department Nixon created in September.

In an interview, Nixon said he was continuously trying to strike a balance, acknowledging the legitimacy of many of the protesters’ concerns while offering reassurance to the public at large.

“There are a lot of people concerned about safety,” he said. “Folks are boarding up buildings; folks are boarding up their businesses. People get concerned.”

Nixon, a Democrat, also pointed to the appointments of Teer and two other African-Americans to senior positions as examples of his efforts to bring in a more diverse array of views. He has also created the multiracial Ferguson Commission to examine the underlying issues laid bare in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death.

“I’ve broadened the circle here on this, and I’m reaping a benefit,” Nixon said. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot, and I’m getting real and significant growth from it.”

While Nixon has a loyal circle of advisers, the closest of whom have been with him for more than a decade, political leaders in both major parties described his network as neither large nor diverse. The governor has few close allies in the Republican-led Legislature, partly explaining why bipartisan majorities have overridden numerous vetoes.

“He’s sort of an insulated, isolated guy, surrounded by his people,” said Tim Jones, the Republican speaker of the State House. “Not a guy who walks the halls of the Capitol.”

Jolie Justus, the Democratic minority leader in the state Senate, said the insularity that often characterized Nixon’s previous six years in office might explain some of the problems he has had in trying to handle the protests in Ferguson.

“The world of people he reaches out to is not broad,” Justus said, adding, “Their failure to engage had to catch up with them, and this is it.”

Nixon was born and raised in largely white and rural Jefferson County, now part of exurban St Louis. He admitted in a recent news conference that racial division was the primary dynamic he knew growing up.

“I was born in a small town in Jefferson County where railroad tracks divided the town,” he said. “On one side lived folks of color, and on the other side whites.”

He rose to power as an anti-abortion, pro-death penalty Democrat, socially conservative with a center-left approach to economic issues. He has always been a staunch law-and-order man, even dispensing with the Thanksgiving Day turkey pardon when he became governor.

It was during his 16 years as attorney general, when he pushed to end a court-ordered desegregation program, that his relationship with many in the state’s black leadership soured. The bad blood infected his unsuccessful 1998 run for Senate, with some black leaders openly supporting his Republican rival.

Charles Hatfield, who was Nixon’s chief of staff when he was the attorney general, said his legal background was a key to understanding his approach to issues.

“Being a lawyer, you don’t really sit down and try to see everybody’s viewpoint much,” Hatfield said. “You, as an attorney, are assigned one viewpoint.”

Hatfield said this tendency occasionally got Nixon into trouble as attorney general, as he would overlook the cultural or political context beyond a specific legal question, his handling of the desegregation issue being a prime example.

In August, as the demands grew for him to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Ferguson shooting, Nixon insisted that the legal process in place be followed.

“In these times, everybody should do their jobs,” he said in an interview at the time.

Teer insisted that Nixon had been more willing to depart from protocol than people had given him credit for.

“For a governor to tell a local police authority you are no longer in control, you have no idea of the politics of that,” he said, referring to Nixon’s decision several days into the protests to strip the local police of authority and put the Missouri Highway Patrol in command of Ferguson. That decision led to a tense face-to-face confrontation between the governor and the county police chief, Teer said.

Still, Hatfield said this shuffling of authority was not Nixon’s natural inclination, as perhaps indicated by his complicated answer to the politically simple question of where the buck stops.

Given that authority itself is at issue on the streets of Ferguson, Nixon’s natural inclinations are being put to a very tough test.

“You’ve got a guy who is very respectful of the system, the process, and roles for everybody within the system,” Hatfield said. “And you’ve got a segment of the community that does not believe in the fairness of the system at all. You’re coming at this thing from completely different perspectives. That’s the problem.”

John Eligon reported from Ferguson, and Campbell Robertson from New Orleans.

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