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Jay Nixon speaks out, faces crucial test in Michael Brown case

Jay Nixon could be vice president, but first he has to solve a race riot — and it's not going very well so far.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon in his office in Jefferson City, Mo., May 5, 2014.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon in his office in Jefferson City, Mo., May 5, 2014.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon spoke out late Wednesday evening, tweeting that he is canceling his planned appearances at the state fair to visit Ferguson on Thursday, a city reeling in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown. 

"The worsening situation in Ferguson is deeply troubling, and does not represent who we are as Missourians or as Americans. While we all respect the solemn responsibility of our law enforcement officers to protect the public, we must also safeguard the rights of Missourians to peaceably assemble and the rights of the press to report on matters of public concern," Nixon said in a statement released early Thursday morning.

The comments from Nixon come amid reports that President Barack Obama has also been briefed on the developments out of Ferguson.

Nixon may not be a household name in much of the country, but in Missouri, he’s a popular two-term Democratic governor who won his reelection by double-digits even as Barack Obama lost the state by 10 points. In another year, he’d be prime 2016 presidential material in the mold of Third Way Democrat Bill Clinton -- if there weren’t already another Clinton likely in the race.

But as Nixon contemplates what comes next for him two years from now when his final term ends, he’ll first have to wrestle control of a disintegrating situation as racial unrest grows in the St. Louis suburbs after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager this weekend.

Nixon, who drew national plaudits for his hands-on response to tornadoes that wrought havoc in Joplin in 2011, has been widely seen as absent from the volatile protests that reached new heights Wednesday night when police arrested two national reporters.

The governor’s first public remarks on the fatal shooting of Michael Brown came during a meeting Tuesday night with local religious leaders -- after President Obama weighed in from a time zone away. And while he’s called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the shooting and spoken movingly about Brown’s death, he’s stayed in the background of the day-to-day melee.

"I think that was inexcusable … For him to have not been there really says what his priorities are."'

Complicating the situation and heightening the demand for his leadership is the fact that there is no clear elected official in charge of the unincorporated areas of St. Louis County that have become a battleground. He so far has not responded to the arrests of the reporters, from The Washington Post and Huffington Post.

With national attention on his state like almost never before, the conflict could prove to be a difficult test for Nixon.

On social media, it was easy to find people wondering where their governor is.

“Since Monday morning, the Governor has been communicating with many community, faith and civic leaders, in addition to requesting the DOJ investigation,” Nixon’s spokesperson, Scott Holste, told msnbc Wednesday afternoon before the reporters were arrested. Nixon’s office seemed reluctant to respond and three aides pointed msnbc to a speech he had given Tuesday without elaborating on the record.

But activists on the ground are not impressed.

John Gaskin III, a member of the local NAACP chapter who also sits on the groups’ national board, said he personally invited Nixon to attend a rally Monday night with the national NAACP president, and was disappointed when the governor did not attend.

“I think that was inexcusable,” Gaskin told msnbc. “I know the governor has a lot of business to handle. I understand that Mike Brown's murder is not the only business of the state ... but you have people who have been hurt ... For him to have not been there really says what his priorities are.”

Gaskin acknowledged that there’s not much Nixon can do while law enforcement investigations run their course. But he said he hopes the governor will use the attention around the killing to push for new legislation to curb police brutality and gun availability when the legislature returns. 

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, an African-American Democrat whose district includes Ferguson, has a longstanding feud with the governor and has been even harsher in her criticism. Joining protesters in the streets, Chappelle-Nadal can be seen wielding an oversized picture of Nixon’s head with the words “M.I.A. [Missing in Action] Again” scrawled across his forehead.

Chappelle-Nadal, who was tear-gassed by state highway patrol officers, blamed Nixon for the heavy-handed police crack down. “It's the governor who is allowing these kids to be further victimized and harassed for expressing their First Amendment rights,” she told msnbc. “The governor doesn't care about black people or the black community unless it's politically expedient.”

Nixon earned 92% of the black vote in 2012.

Tony Messenger, the editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, warned to take Chappelle-Nadal’s criticism of the governor with a grain of salt, given their past political grudge matches. But Messenger agreed that Nixon should be taking charge of the crisis.

An Eagle Scout by the age of 13, Nixon is ambitious but extremely cautious. In an editorial Tuesday, the state’s leading newspaper wrote that Nixon’s “every instinct is to dodge bad news whenever possible,” but that that won’t work this time. “Sorry, governor. But you asked for the job.”

The paper is calling on Nixon to convene an independent investigative commission to tackle race and criminal justice issues, modeled on one in Los Angeles after the Rodney King beatings, since he's only official who has the authority to do so under state law.

The area's unusual jurisdictional boundaries mean there is a patchwork of law enforcement agencies on the scene, with no clear leader. Nixon is the only one can assert authority over the chaotic scene.

Nixon, who has acknowledged an interest in the White House, has professed complete support for Clinton, should she run, and his allies say he hopes to be heavily involved in her likely campaign. With a proven ability to attract white, working-class and rural voters -- the kind of people among whom Democrats struggle most -- the governor would be an ideal surrogate for Clinton in places like Missouri, and is already being talked about as an appealing vice presidential option.

But the image Wednesday night was very different from the one he presented just a few years ago during Joplin disaster. “He was decisive and active and putting himself front and center, and he's the exact opposite here. And that's because it's complicated. There's no obvious political win here,” said Messenger. “He has been very careful, with, we believe, not making mistakes related to his political future.”

His future likely remains bright, but it could dim unless he’s seen as taking charge of the situation on the ground this week.