Missouri Democrat's Senate Drive Is Clouded By Desegregation Case
By Erika Niedowski, CQ Staff Writer
ST. LOUIS -- Inside a dimly lit ballroom at the Airport Hilton, state Attorney General Jeremiah "Jay" Nixon takes his place behind the podium, and hundreds of Missouri Democrats who have convened here for the 17th annual Thomas Jefferson Days dinner abandon their roast beef and take to their feet.
Nixon, the likely challenger to two-term Republican Sen. Christopher S. Bond, tells the Democratic faithful that, unlike the GOP, which he says thrives on racial, religious and ethnic divisions, the Democratic Party is a party that unites.
"When we meet our Maker," Nixon declares, "we will proudly stand and talk about what we -- together -- did."
Outside the hotel, however, more than 15 African-Americans from the local chapter of the NAACP, most of whom are lifelong Democrats, are marching up and down Natural Bridge Road carrying picket signs decrying the very man who says he will bring them together. "NO WAY JAY"; "Deseg Yes, Segregation No"; "WHATEVER HAPPENED TO INTEGRITY?" the signs read.
Widely considered one of the Democratic Party's best Senate recruits of 1998, Nixon has found himself in the middle of a racial maelstrom, having alienated a crucial segment of his voting base. By moving to end a court- ordered school desegregation program that affects about 13,000 black children in this city, Nixon has angered a number of prominent African-Americans to the point where they are not just declining to endorse him, but actively working to end his political career.
"As of now, I'm going to vote for the Republican," says Norman R. Seay, a former St. Louis Democratic committeeman and one-time president of the Montgomery County (Md.) NAACP.
The fight over busing black students out of "neighborhood" schools, normally associated with the decades-old civil rights era, has re-emerged as a campaign issue in several states, including Maryland and Massachusetts. But in Missouri, where more than 20 percent of those who identify themselves as Democrats are black, and where Democratic candidates can usually count on winning at least 80 percent of the black vote, it has become not just a prominent issue, but a potentially decisive one.
James A. DeClue, a local NAACP official, contends that Nixon is a "reincarnation" of former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace and former Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, both defenders of segregation in the 1960s.
This night, at the Jefferson Days dinner, the attorney general ignores DeClue and the other picketers on his way into the Hilton. But Nixon will not be able to ignore them, his supporters and critics agree, during the next five months of the campaign.
"I am backing Bond," says Charles Mischeaux, president of the local NAACP and a protest organizer. "And I'm a Democrat."
Later, Nixon is sipping black coffee at U City Donut, answering questions about the controversial case that has landed him in the midst of such an imbroglio and is threatening to derail his Senate campaign.
"I have a job as attorney general," he says. "I'm going to do my job."
What Nixon means is that, as the state's top law enforcement official, he is responsible for handling Craton Liddell et al v. the Board of Education of the City of St. Louis, one of the most complex and emotional desegregation cases in the country.
A U.S. District judge ruled in favor of the school board in 1979, but that ruling was overturned by an appeals court the following year, when the judge ordered the establishment of a citywide busing program.
When Nixon, who is white, offered $304 million to build new schools and renovate existing ones as a means of settling the case last fall, some African-Americans said he was pushing the plan to win points in the white community in the rest of the state. In fact, Nixon largely had public opinion on his side: Many "outstate" residents resent the money being spent on the busing program in St. Louis, more than $1 billion to date, and would rather see their tax dollars used on their own schools.
But Missouri Rep. William L. Clay, a black Democrat and onetime civil rights activist who represents a majority-black district that includes North St. Louis, wrote to President Clinton in November asking him to cancel an upcoming appearance at a Nixon fundraiser. "I'll do what I have to do" to defeat Nixon, Clay declared. Clinton attended anyway.
The Nixon camp knows it will have to win the black vote here and in Kansas City, where the attorney general recently settled another desegregation case by ensuring $320 million over three years for the school system. Bond won with only 52 percent of the vote six years ago, but has nearly $2.7 million in the bank as of March 31, compared with Nixon's $948,191.
Nixon lost badly in his 1988 Senate bid against GOP incumbent John C. Danforth, 68 percent to 32 percent. Although Missouri has a Democratic governor and a Democratic-controlled legislature, the state has not sent a member of Nixon's party to the Senate for nearly 20 years.
Nixon points out that the same desegregation case was an issue during his 1996 attorney general re-election campaign, and he won that race handily, receiving 83 percent of the tally in St. Louis and more votes statewide than either Gov. Mel Carnahan or Clinton.
"I think that we are doing fine in the African-American community," he insists.
Indeed, some prominent blacks, including St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon, are publicly supporting him. Harmon says the backlash in the black community should dissipate once Nixon lays his record on the line.
"Campaigns of this kind are emotional," Harmon says. "They don't necessarily border on anything rational."
Despite the mayor's endorsement, Nixon's split with the black community has grown increasingly visible, especially with the formation of the "African-Americans for Bond" committee, which has chapters in St. Louis and Kansas City.
According to DeClue, the St. Louis group, of which he is a founding member, attracted 20 to 25 supporters and brought in $50,000 in contributions and pledges at its inaugural fundraiser, attended by Bond, last month.
The goal of the committee, which is bipartisan, is to raise twice that much, to be spent by Bond on a media campaign targeting blacks. Its members hope to persuade 5 percent of the African-American electorate to vote for Bond, and another 5 or 10 percent not to vote in the Senate race at all.
"We aren't really voting for Kit Bond as much as we are voting against Jay Nixon, and [Bond] understands that," DeClue says. "But a vote is a vote, and a dollar is a dollar."
Not surprisingly, Bond has been trying to exploit the racial rift.
Sitting recently in the studios of KTRS radio station in St. Louis after taping the Republican response to Clinton's weekly address, the senator is happy to relate the following: He appointed the state's first black Cabinet member during his second term as Missouri governor (1981-85). Bond has worked as chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing veterans and housing to restore cuts in funding for public housing programs.
In an effort to institutionalize its majorities in Washington and state legislatures across the country, the GOP has increasingly tried to make inroads with black voters, who traditionally support Democrats.
This year, a number of black Republicans are running credible House campaigns, and there is a burgeoning sentiment that African-Americans may start re-evaluating their allegiance to the Democratic Party.
Black Democrats in Florida, including Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, were furious earlier this year when Democratic state Rep. Willie F. Logan, in line to become the first black House Speaker in state history if Democrats recaptured the majority, was ousted as Speaker-designate without explanation and replaced by a white woman.
In a special state Senate election there the following month, both Logan and Hastings worked to defeat the Democratic nominee, who had been involved in the coup.
In Missouri, Nixon has taken steps to insulate himself against charges that he is "anti-black" or "racist." Last month, he hired Reuben Shelton, the first black president of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, making him the highest-ranking black to work in the attorney general's office.
Afterward, Public Service Commissioner Harold Crumpton, one of Nixon's black supporters, sent a letter to more than 400 prominent African- Americans urging them to back the Democrat in his Senate campaign.
Moreover, strategists at the Senate Democrats' campaign committee have tried to draw attention to Bond's media consultant, Alex Castellanos, who is widely known for the infamous "hands" ad he produced for Republican Sen. Jesse Helms' 1990 campaign against black Democrat Harvey Gantt.
That spot attacked racial hiring quotas by showing a pair of white hands crumpling a rejection letter, while an announcer intoned that the man had lost the job to a minority who was less qualified. Castellanos, the committee charged, is a "race-baiter."
Working the Room
On a hazy Saturday, Nixon arrives right on time at the University Forest Nursing Care Center with two white campaign aides and two African-American pastors for a tour of the 120-bed facility.
As the director of the center guides Nixon through the corridors, relaying information about the predominantly black residents and answering questions about health-care costs, the Rev. B.T. Rice starts playing the politician.
"How you doing?" Rice asks one wheelchair-bound, 93-year-old woman, whom he recognizes as a former parishioner in his church. "I was wondering what happened to you."
Nixon shakes some hands himself before meeting with the staff in the conference room. At first, he seems uncomfortable, but he gradually loosens up. Between sips of lemonade, the attorney general complains that the country's health care providers are more focused on profits than on services, similar to a fast-food chain. Health care is one of the issues the 42-year-old candidate intends to play up in his Senate bid, along with crime, education and campaign finance reform.
After the session breaks up, and Nixon heads to his next event, Rice and associate pastor Clay King stay behind. Rice explains that Nixon can ease the tension over the desegregation case if he maintains an "open, honest, fair dialogue" with blacks.
Rice notes that Bond voted against the 1990 civil rights act, against affirmative action and against a minimum wage increase. (1990 Almanac, p. 462)
"It is disturbing to me that we would have individuals in the African-American community that would support that," he says.
But even Rice, who is president of the St. Louis Clergy Coalition, leaves some doubt as to his enthusiasm for Nixon's candidacy.
Asked whether he has made a personal commitment to Nixon, Rice answers, "I think I have." King, however, says he has not. Pressed on whether he agrees with the attorney general's attempt to end the busing program, he says only that he is committed to "quality education for the people."
Just before the local NAACP was scheduled to picket a Nixon fundraiser at St. Louis' Fox Theatre last November, the attorney general met with officials from that group and, according to Mischeaux, the NAACP's president, cut a deal.
If Nixon withdrew his plan to end the state's payments for the desegregation program, the picket would be called off.
Before the $1,000-a-head event began, Clinton made a personal appeal to about a dozen prominent African-Americans, who had gathered in a private room. One participant, Donald M. Suggs, publisher of the black-oriented St. Louis American, recalls Clinton saying that as Arkansas' former attorney general, he himself had dealt with the contentious issue of desegregation.
But, continued Clinton, he needed their help if he is to accomplish his agenda. Doing so was hard enough already with a GOP-controlled Senate; it would be even harder if Republicans picked up the five seats they needed for a filibuster-proof majority.
But Suggs left the fundraiser without going inside. Eight days later, when Nixon filed another appeal in the case with the U.S. Supreme Court, the NAACP was shocked.
Since then, the settlement negotiations have advanced. The Missouri legislature recently passed a compromise desegregation bill that could end the 26-year-old case. It would require St. Louis voters to approve a tax increase to offset the cost of the court-ordered desegregation. No matter the outcome of the case, though, Nixon expects that most black Democrats will stick with him on Election Day simply because he is a Democrat. He may be right.
Back at the protest outside the Jefferson Days dinner, the picketers are getting ready to head home. The youngest, 14-year-old Joshua Morgan, will need his rest. Although he cannot vote, Morgan will be back at the center of the desegregation debate on Monday morning, as he is every weekday, when he gets up at 5 o'clock to catch the 6:56 bus for the hourlong drive to a school in St. Louis County.
Jeremiah "Jay" Nixon
Family: Wife, Georganne; two sons
Home: Jefferson City
Education: University of Missouri-Columbia, B.A., 1978; LL.B., 1981
Political experience: state attorney general, 1992-present; state senator, 1986-92
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.