‘Off the bench’: Jay Nixon says No Labels post is reaction to initiative limits

A national effort to make it harder to pass citizen initiatives, along with process manipulation by Missouri officials, brought former governor back to politics, he says

By: - August 1, 2023 7:48 pm

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, speaks in 2014 after announcing a 16-member Ferguson Commission in St. Louis to investigate the response to the shooting of Michael Brown. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Republican efforts to change the rules for initiatives and administrative delays that force petitioners to go to court spurred former Gov. Jay Nixon to return to political action, he said Tuesday.

During an online town hall for the No Labels organization, Nixon referred repeatedly to legislation that would make it more difficult to gather signatures and pass voter initiatives as well as recent Missouri court cases.

Nixon, a Democrat who was governor from 2009 to 2017, last week was named ballot integrity director for the No Labels organization, which intends to have ballot access in every state for a possible independent presidential candidate.

“What brought me off the bench and got me out is these folks raising these resources to go after citizens all across our country to make it more difficult to get the signatures, more difficult to get on the ballot, and then loading up for litigation to try to win by delay and win by obfuscation,” Nixon said.

Voters in Ohio will decide in a Tuesday special election whether the threshold for passing constitutional amendments in that state should be raised to 60%. In Missouri this year, a measure to increase the majority for constitutional amendments passed both chambers but the differences between House and Senate versions could not be reconciled.

And two recent actions by elected officials delayed signature gathering for petitions. Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft killed an effort to hold a referendum on a restrictive abortion law in 2019, a move later deemed illegal by the Missouri Supreme Court.  

And last month, the court again ruled in favor of petitioners when it ordered Attorney General Andrew Bailey to certify a fiscal note on an abortion rights petition. His job was not to question the accuracy of the fiscal note, the court stated, just whether it met the required legal form. 

In the majority opinion, Judge Paul Wilson noted that Bailey’s refusal had delayed a process that should have been completed “nearly 100 days ago.”

“This is very much a moral high ground for us,” Nixon said during the town hall. “We’re talking about giving citizens what they already have, which is the right to petition their government, the right to get people put on the ballot and the right to vote for folks.”

Nixon said his job will be to monitor efforts to block No Labels from organizing ballot access state-by-state.

The No Labels organization was founded in 2009 by former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, a one-time Democrat from Connecticut who ended his political career as an independent. The group has advocated for bipartisan solutions and prior to the current effort has not tried to nominate candidates for any office.

National co-chairs include former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, and Benjamin Chavis, president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade association for Black-owned community newspapers.

The town hall was hosted by Hogan. Like Nixon, he was in office with a legislature with large majorities from the opposite party, he noted. 

Both he and Nixon understand how to forge compromises and make government work, Hogan said. The partisan fighting doesn’t accomplish anything, he added.

“Almost 70% of the people in America are completely frustrated about the toxic politics about how everything’s broken in Washington, the divisiveness, and dysfunction,” Hogan said. “And we’ve all heard the loudest and angriest voices that seem to get all the attention.”

The No Labels organization is not calling itself a political party but it is working to put a line for a possible presidential candidate on the 2024 ballot. In Missouri, that means turning in 10,000 signatures from registered voters by late July. In other states, it means getting people to change voter registration.

The No Labels organization says it has obtained ballot status in five states – Arizona, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Utah – and gathered 700,000 signatures. Nixon and Hogan did not take questions during the online event and the moderator did not answer questions posed through the chat function.

Nixon could not be reached for comment after the event.

The organization intends to hold a convention in Dallas next year to nominate a candidate.

The reason the movement is gaining momentum, Nixon said, is the unpalatable choices voters are likely to have next year. A rematch of the 2020 election is the most likely outcome currently, with former President Donald Trump holding a commanding lead among Republicans and President Joe Biden facing no big-name opposition among Democrats for a second term.

“When you look at a situation in which you have the same folks running again, neither one of them very popular – and quite frankly very unpopular,” Nixon said. “You have these criminal indictments, you have other issues going on. And the public is just not engaged.”

No third-party presidential candidate has won electoral votes since 1968. Missouri political consultant John Hancock, a former state GOP chairman, said he thinks the No Labels organization is attractive to Nixon because he didn’t make party building a priority while governor.

As he sought a second term in 2012, Nixon did not use any of his campaign surplus to help Democratic legislative candidates and found himself with a Republican supermajority in the legislature.  

“Jay has never been a movement Democrat,” Hancock said. “You know, he’s always kind of kept the Democrats at arm’s length.”

The No Labels organization has indicated it won’t offer its ballot lines to a candidate if the GOP does not nominate Trump. Hancock said that if the organization does offer a candidate, it will push the election to Trump.

Hancock said few Republicans would desert the party and the No Labels candidate would split the independent vote.

Most states are so polarized that taking a portion of the winners’ vote won’t change the outcome, Hancock said.

“The only place that they are going to matter, I think, is in the six or seven battleground states, where they would ostensibly take the vote away from Biden,” Hancock said.

Polling shows that is not true, Hogan said. 

“There are an awful lot of people that have already said in polling that they’d be open to this idea,” Hogan said. “ We’ve got to at least give people that option. And this is what this is all about.”

This story has been updated since it was initially published.


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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.