Jay Nixon, Former Missouri Governor, visited the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School)

Moving Past Partisanship to Make Lasting Change: A Conversation with Jay Nixon, Former Missouri Governor

By Shela Sridhar

English poet Alexander Pope once stated that party spirit “is but the madness of many for the gain of a few.” This weariness of unwavering party identification resonated with many founders of the United States; U.S. President George Washington drew from Pope’s statement in his farewell speech in 1796 to warn against hyper-partisanship. However, 223 years later, the United States has found itself in exactly that climate of partisanship and gridlock which its founders fought to avoid. As one of the earliest leaders of the U.S., Washington was able to predict the long-term consequences of unwillingness to compromise and loyalty to party over progress for the country — a lesson future leaders may do well to heed.

One leader who has effectively navigated this partisan divide is Jay Nixon, the former Governor of Missouri from 2009–2017. He was elected twice as a Democrat in a traditionally red state, and during his eight years as governor, two-thirds of the Missouri State Senate was Republican. Governor Nixon visited The Leadership Studio on Friday, April 12, 2019 to discuss some of the practical tools he used to confront hyper-partisanship in health and policy-making during his tenure.

Prior to earning his reputation as a consensus builder in the political arena, Governor Nixon began his career as a lawyer. He went on to join the Missouri Senate in 1986, working to pass legislation to expand prenatal care for expectant parents. After four years in the legislature, he was elected as Missouri’s Attorney General, eventually arguing before the Supreme Court (Nixon v. Shrink) and winning his case to reinstate campaign contribution limits in Missouri. In his conversation with Dr. Kimberlyn Leary, Associate Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and Associate Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Governor Nixon described his views on leadership and coalition-building.

Have a vision and direction for what you want

Governor Nixon stated that one of the most important keys to success is “knowing where you’re going.” He highlighted the importance of having a vision for the long term; to have an idea of what you want to get done and then be able to take the necessary steps to make it happen. This can be a slow process where concessions, even if undesirable, are necessary. Nixon also noted an emphasis in political discourse on short-term solutions and discussions around “tactical” issues, such as “how to win a vote” or “defeat the other side.” However, to move policy in the direction you want, Nixon asserted that you might need to accept less than what you initially expected. Nevertheless, as long as you move in the direction you set forth, compromise can be invaluable for progress.

However crucial making concessions can be, doing so can also result in slow, incremental advances. This incrementalism often frustrates academics, as many desire quicker and more comprehensive progress based on the data they know to be true. However, Governor Nixon encouraged academics to be patient and continue advocating for change through their research. Additionally, an important aspect of having a vision is understanding the facts and having accurate data and information. Nixon opined that universities can use their role to contribute to shaping the direction of policies:

“I think universities provide an incredible service that they don’t really see. Sometimes they’ll do a report or testify or do something, and nothing happens immediately, and they’ll think they’ve failed. So I would ask folks to just keep diving for the right answers. Make sure you got the proof of it. Use the rigor of academia to show that [it] is correct and that it can withstand the cross-examination. And think longer term about how to move things forward.”

This dedication to direction that is necessary in academia is also necessary in a crisis. In 2011, a devastating tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, killing over 150 people and destroying a hospital where 100 hospital staff were actively caring for 200 patients. In the short-term, the state needed to focus on the immediate recovery plan, so Governor Nixon’s office assisted residents to obtain new car titles or identification cards that had been lost in the storm. However, Governor Nixon maintained a focus on the longer-term recovery goals, which were to keep people safe and ensure they had a home to return to in Joplin. He felt that the government was helpful but could not deal with the challenges alone. Thus, he engaged local organizations, the Environmental Protection Agency, and volunteers from all 50 states to assist with cleanup. One year later, 98% of students from the Joplin school district returned at the start of the school year. By maintaining focus on his longer-term vision, Governor Nixon was able to ensure a safe return for many of his residents.

Jay Nixon, Former Missouri Governor (Right), was interviewed by Dr. Kimberlyn Leary, Associate Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Associate Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School (Left), at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School)

Relationship-building and resistance

Though having a vision is important to compromising and overcoming the partisan divide, the hard-fought tasks of relationship-building and getting to know the stories within your communities are crucial. Raised by a mother who completed a PhD in learning disabilities, Governor Nixon has a passion for bringing comprehensive care to children with autism. He fought to pass an autism mandate, requiring insurance coverage for children who required applied behavior analysis (ABA) treatment, the most widely accepted management for autism. As this was one of the first bills he submitted to the legislature, Governor Nixon quickly discovered he would encounter resistance, particularly from the insurance lobby, given the cost associated with time-intensive therapy and chronic treatment over several years. The bill was initially blocked in the House, but his staff learned that the Speaker of the House had a nephew on the autism spectrum. Governor Nixon took the trip to meet the Speaker in his hometown at the Autism Center, which ultimately inspired the Speaker to support the cause and pass the autism mandate. Reflecting on this, Governor Nixon asserted:

You got to get back in there with their constituents and talk about those issues in a real way so that then when they get in their car, their pick-up truck and head to the capitol, they’re thinking about what the constituents they serve are thinking about it as opposed to what the political ideals are in Jeff City.”

Governor Nixon also stressed the importance of knowing the other side, emphasizing that it helps to make issues personal in order to negotiate more effectively. However, he affirmed that, ultimately, if you disagree with someone, you need to make sure they understand that you disagree and that you cannot say yes to everyone. Honesty is crucial to developing trust in relationships. He underscored his thoughts on credibility:

“I think personal credibility is exceptionally important. Duplicity is rampant in politics and the edges of it… People know, if I promised to them or others that I would do something, I would do it. It took a while for people to understand I really meant what I said.”

This mantra of civility and honesty was present in his own office as well. He outlined three rules he had for conduct in his office: 1) do not yell and scream, 2) be honest with each other, and 3) agree on the points before sharing information with the press. Governor Nixon indicated that, over time, these rules are how he gained his personal credibility as a leader.

Keep the courage of your convictions

Governor Nixon may prefer to accomplish his goals positively through relationship-building, but he recognized that this is not always the most effective strategy. In academic public health, researchers often strive for cooperation and persuasion using hard data. However, there are times that a more forceful approach is necessary. Nixon shared:

“I think it’s a competitive world out there. And I think people understood that there were teeth behind my smile. Well there’s times you have to have friends, and not everybody’s a friend.”

Governor Nixon has had his share of hard choices and needing to defend them. When he first came into office, in order to balance the budget, he had to fire 800 employees. He realized that with a limited budget, he would have to use the “extraordinary power of the Missouri governors” to restrict funds, as the legislature had appropriated almost US$2.5 billion dollars more than was available. This remained a yearly battle. However, Governor Nixon continued to fight for a balanced budget, withholding funds and making cuts where he felt it was necessary.

Student Moderator Amina Zainab Goheer (Left) leading an off-the-record Q&A session with Jay Nixon (Right) after his talk. (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School)

Thoughts for the future and public service

Despite his efforts, he was unable to make inroads to accomplish all of his goals, regardless of whether he was showing his teeth or providing a listening ear. Governor Nixon expressed disappointment in his state’s inability to pass Medicaid expansion. Additionally, wedge issues around sexual orientation non-discrimination policies and guns continued to fail passage in the Missouri legislature. Racial tensions also created challenges during Governor Nixon’s tenure. Nixon was heavily criticized for his handling of the police shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014. The shooting of a Black man by a White policeman, which sparked intense protests and demonstrations for several weeks, received national spotlight and raised questions about racial bias and race relations, both within Missouri and in the larger national context.

However, in spite of his legislative failures, Governor Nixon continues to have hope in the future and believes in the importance of public service. When asked what advice he had for young people interested in public service, he responded that they should have a desire to make a change and have specific goals to accomplish. He expressed:

“Care, figure out, and then know your district. Really spend the time to understand what’s out there.”

Vision, strong relationships and courage have been the key components to having a successful life in public service and combating the hyper-partisanship for Governor Nixon. As the conversation came to a close, he encouraged students and future leaders to embrace the information age and to use the vast reservoir of facts and data to create a truthful vision and work towards it.

Story by Shela Sridhar, a Master of Public Health candidate in Clinical Effectiveness at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Originally from Rockford, Illinois, Shela received her Bachelor’s degree from Tulane University after Hurricane Katrina, where she was able to work with the community on rebuilding the city after the disaster. She then obtained her medical degree at the University of South Florida, completing a residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. Shela currently works as a global health fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, spending half her year in Rwanda working on health system strengthening with Partners in Health and the other half working as a pediatric hospitalist.

Story edited by Sherine Andreine Powerful, a first-year Doctor of Public Health student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A Diasporic Jamaican, she received her Bachelor’s degree in Latin American and International Studies from Yale University and holds a Master of Public Health degree in Population and Family Health, with a concentration in Global Health, from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. She is interested in gender and sexual justice in the English-speaking Caribbean, as well as resilience and anticolonial sustainable development in the context of climate change.

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