JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon touts over $1.5 billion in spending cuts, the elimination of 4,300 government jobs and four years of balancing a budget without tax increases during the nation's worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Perhaps that explains why Nixon, a Democrat, has been ahead in the polls in a tax-averse state that typically tilts toward Republicans.
Nixon, who already holds the record for longevity as attorney general, now is seeking to become the first governor to win re-election in Missouri in 16 years. He's opposed Nov. 6 by Republican businessman Dave Spence, a political newcomer who claims Nixon has been riding on the success of others while Missouri's economy has been slipping behind.
Their campaign has turned testy. Nixon has run TV ads suggesting Spence bought a vacation home with federal bailout money given to a bank for which he sat on the board of directors. Spence has sued Nixon for defamation and asserted Nixon "sold his soul to the devil" to try to win re-election. Spence contends Nixon is trying to fool Missouri voters with a campaign that highlights his independence and bipartisan cooperation.
"I just think he's a phony baloney, and people need to wake up to the fact that he truly is a Democrat," said Spence, who asserted Saturday that he was closing the gap on Nixon in public opinion polls.
Nixon counters that Spence has been "lashing out in emotional, undisciplined ways."
"I feel confident that when judged on a matrix of calm leadership and a solid track record that the difference here is very clear," Nixon said.
Nixon, 56, previously served 16 years as attorney general and six as a state senator from his home town of De Soto after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a law degree. In addition to his fiscal management as governor, he cites the fact that Missouri's unemployment rate is now at its lowest mark in nearly four years and remains below the national average.
During the past two-and-a-half years, Nixon has attended about 80 ground breakings, ribbon cuttings and expansion announcements for businesses that he has said could create up to 13,700 total jobs, according to records kept by The Associated Press. Those projects could receive $390 million of state incentives, if they meet job targets and other criteria. But some won't.
In a particularly high-profile flop, Mamtek U.S. failed to follow through on a plan to build an artificial sweetener factory in Moberly that Nixon had said could eventually employ more than 600 people. Instead, the city of Moberly ended up defaulting on $39 million of bonds it issued for the facility, and the CEO faces charges of theft and securities fraud. The state never shelled out its $17.6 million of incentives, because the project fell apart before it could fulfill the criteria.
Republican State Auditor Tom Schweich concluded that the state Department of Economic Development, the city and private entities were not diligent enough in screening the project.
"Somebody ought to go to jail over that in the Nixon administration," Spence said.
Nixon instead points to successes — most notably, a 2010 special legislation session he called that resulted in new incentives for the automotive industry. Since then, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. have announced plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into plants in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas, retaining and adding thousands of jobs.
"I'm very engaged in job creation," Nixon said. "I spend a great deal of my time, both in the office and around the state, not only working to recruit companies to invest and expand but also to make sure we have workers trained to do it."
Spence contends Nixon's job announcements are little more than photo opportunities in which he takes credit for work achieved by others.
"Jay Nixon does economic development about as well as I would do playing center in the NBA," quips Spence, who stands 5-foot-7-inches and has never played competitive basketball. (Nixon, at 6-foot-3-inches, is a former power forward who has competed in the basketball skills contest of the Show-Me State Games while governor.)
Spence, 54, of Ladue, bases his ability to serve as Missouri's chief executive on his private-sector experience. Not long after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a home economics degree, Spence borrowed money to buy the plastic bottle manufacturer Alpha Packaging. Over the next couple decades, Spence said he built the business from 15 employees and annual sales of $350,000 to a firm with 800 employees and nearly $200 million in annual sales. The business he paid $400,000 for sold in 2010 for $260 million, though Spence netted only a portion of that because Alpha also had other investors. Spence said he remains the majority owner and chairman of Legacy Pharmaceutical Packaging.
If elected governor, Spence vows to take a personal role in Missouri's economic development efforts. He contends the state could improve its economy by limiting lawsuits against businesses, eliminating burdensome regulations and prohibiting union fees from being a condition of employment — a "right to work" policy that has so far been unable to pass the Republican-led Legislature.
Spence also wants to bring a private-sector style of budgeting to state government, rewarding entire divisions of employees with bonuses equal to 10 percent of every dollar they shave off their budget.
"That's how the real world works. You turn people from clock punchers to entrepreneurs overnight," Spence said.
Nixon has focused on a different aspect of Spence's business career — his time on the board of directors of St. Louis-based Reliance Bancshares. Spence joined the board in May 2009, after the bank already had received $40 million from the U.S. Treasury under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as TARP.
The next year, Spence took out a more than $1.1 million mortgage on a vacation home at the Lake of the Ozarks. He left the board in March 2011, shortly after he and fellow board members decided the bank was unable to make payments to the federal government. Nixon has suggested in a TV ad that Spence "used the bailout money to help himself, instead of repaying taxpayers."
Nixon defended the assertion in an interview, adding that the bank's failure to make federal payments should raise concern about Spence's ability to govern.
"These are tax dollars, and voters look very carefully at what folks that are running for office do with taxpayer dollars," Nixon said.
Spence has sued Nixon for defamation. He said the federal bailout money was not used for his home, and the loan actually helped the bank by providing it with a steady, reliable stream of mortgage payments. Spence also invested $1.5 million in the bank when it needed cash, though it amounted to a personal financial loss.
Spence has loaned and given his gubernatorial campaign about $4.5 million, helping him to remain competitive with Nixon's fundraising prowess.
Less well known are Spence's philanthropic contributions. His wife, Suzie, supplies cake for every student every month at Roosevelt High School in St. Louis, though none of their own children attend there. Spence said he also bought uniforms for the football team, outfitted a weight room and paid for a bar-code security system at the schools. The Spences are helping pay the college tuition for several of the school's graduates, and an Alpha scholarship fund has helped about 50 children of Spence's employees.
Spence has highlighted none of that in his ads, though he mentioned it in an interview.
"We are literally some of the most generous people with our time and resources that are humanly possible," Spence said.