BELLERIVE, Mo. — When Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri stepped to the lectern at a university here on Thursday afternoon, he confronted one of the toughest challenges of his political career: the police killing of an unarmed black teenager in suburban St. Louis and the violent unrest that followed.
As he announced that he had ordered the State Highway Patrol to take over command of the police in the troubled city of Ferguson, he was by turns defensive and resolute, sentimental and personal.
He pushed away broad questions about healing by saying, “We’re a little focused right now on operational specifics.’’ At another point, when asked about his relationship with the black community, he spoke of the relationships he had with “so many of my friends over so many years’’ and went on to say, “I don’t think this is a time to divide.’’
Nixon, 58, has had a successful political career by most measures. He is finishing his second and final term as a Democrat in a solidly Republican state. But when he first ran for national office, seeking a Senate seat in 1988, he was trounced by the incumbent Republican, Sen. John C. Danforth. Nixon rebounded, serving for years in the state Senate, then as attorney general and winning the race for governor in 2008.
As governor, he has constantly sought a middle ground, sometimes vetoing tax cuts and abortion restrictions from the Republican-led legislature, sometimes allowing certain abortion restrictions to go into effect.
But there has been a history of strain between Nixon and the black community that dates to the 1990s, when he was attorney general. He fought to end a school desegregation program that bused children from St. Louis schools to surrounding communities with better districts. The program, which was the result of the settlement of a court case, continues to this day.
Even on Thursday, as he was joined by black public officials during the nearly 40-minute news conference, and even though he appeared with black clergy members earlier in the day, some black leaders in Missouri criticized him as being insensitive to their community.
“I truly believe,’’ said state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a former leader of the Legislative Black Caucus, “the governor hasn’t been in touch with the black community like he should.’’
Nixon has been criticized as being slow to respond to the shooting and unrest in Ferguson, where the police are still investigating the death of Michael Brown, 18, on Saturday. Nixon did issue a statement calling for a federal investigation into the shooting two days after it happened. And he did appear this week at a St. Louis County church. On Thursday, he took his boldest steps yet, canceling an appearance at the Missouri State Fair to come here to announce changes in the police command in Ferguson. Under St. Louis County police supervision, chaos had broken out in Ferguson over several nights, with officers firing rubber bullets and unleashing tear gas on protesters.
Still, some have seen Nixon’s actions as too little, too late.
“I think his historical lack of authentic connections and engagement with the black community is apparent in this situation by what I consider to be a tardy response to what is happening in Ferguson,’’ said Gwendolyn Grant, the president and chief executive of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.
Critics say the governor has a habit of responding to pressing issues for black residents only after he faces great public pressure.
Nixon said during the news conference that he refused to inject race into the situation.
Over the past year, members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus have openly feuded with the governor over policy proposals that they said would have deprived the needy of food stamps and taken away housing tax credits for low-income Missourians. Leaders in Kansas City were frustrated when he did not meet with them recently to discuss the city’s struggles with a school district that lost its accreditation a couple of years ago.
Nixon met with members of the Legislative Black Caucus in January, but they said it had taken a year for them to get him to come to the table.
Before that meeting, Nasheed, a Democrat, who led the caucus at the time, held a news conference with the lieutenant governor, Peter Kinder, a Republican, to denounce the governor’s threat to eliminate the low-income housing tax credit. When Nixon walked into the meeting, Nasheed recalled, “the first thing he said was, ‘I don’t like the fact that the chair of this caucus stood alongside a Republican attacking me.’’’
Nixon also has been criticized for the lack of diversity in his administration. In his sixth year in office, the governor has appointed one African-American to direct an executive department. This, in a state whose two major cities, Kansas City and St. Louis, have large black populations.
But a spokesman for the governor noted that he had received strong support from black residents for efforts like his push to expand Medicaid and a veto of legislation that would have eliminated important provisions from the Missouri Human Rights Act. The governor has also appointed blacks to state boards and commissions, as well as the state’s Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and the Board of Education.
“It appears to me that he’s working more closely with the African-American community, putting African-Americans in key positions in state government and supporting issues that are important to us,’’ said Harold Crumpton, a former president of the St. Louis NAACP, who now leads a community development organization in the city.