By DAVID A. LIEB
SEDALIA, Mo. (AP) - The Missouri State Fair got a strong show of political support Thursday from many of the state's top elected officials who flocked to a big-top-tent ham breakfast despite criticism of a weekend rodeo clown act that mocked President Barack Obama.
Scores of politicians and hundreds of fairgoers attended the annual ham breakfast at the Sedalia fairgrounds in what amounted to a symbolic reaffirmation of the state's support for the fair.
The breakfast was held five days after the bull riding contest in which one rodeo clown wore an Obama mask while another riled up spectators while asking if they wanted to see Obama run down by a bull.
Missouri's elected officials quickly denounced the stunt as disrespectful, and the State Fair imposed a lifetime ban on the rodeo clown who made the disparaging statements about Obama. Some Democratic Missouri House members had suggested further repercussions, including cancelling the governor's annual ham breakfast and possibly cutting state funding for the fair.
But Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon pressed forward with the breakfast, which has been a traditional gathering spot at which politicians of all parties can shake hands with Missouri residents in an informal atmosphere.
Nixon, who on Thursday wore cowboy boots with his blue blazer and tie, said the rodeo clown act was "inappropriate and offensive" but wasn't a reason to cancel the breakfast or cut fair funding.
"One action like this is not going to in anyway slow down the strong progress and the vital importance that this showcase is for agriculture," Nixon said.
Rather than curtailing funding, Nixon said he supports efforts to improve the century-old fairgrounds.
"We're looking at ways to both refresh these facilities and to make them ... a destination not just for ten days in the summer but also to get the maximum impact out of these facilities year-round," Nixon said.
Republican House and Senate leaders also pledged their support for the fair.
The rodeo clown's stunt "was out of line - it was disrespectful - but it shouldn't be seen as an indictment of the entire fair," Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said. "I hope this doesn't keep us from looking at some of the investments that need to be made to keep the fair vibrant."
House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream, who toured the fairground facilities Wednesday with several other lawmakers, said he supports spending more money on capital improvements that could allow the fairgrounds to be rented out for more events. Stream, R-Kirkwood, said that could bring in more revenues, which could further reduce the state subsidy for the fair's operations.
Most of the Missouri State Fair's roughly $4.5 million operating budget comes from fees charged to attendees and vendors, but it receives about $558,000 from the state, according to the state budget office.
Despite wanting to eliminate state funding for the fair, Rep. John Mayfield, D-Independence, attended the ham breakfast. He suggested Thursday that Missouri could sell the naming rights to the fair, which could allow it to be entirely self-financed.
Although a few Democratic lawmakers cited the rodeo clown act as a reason for skipping the fair, nearly all of Missouri's statewide elected officials were present. Spokespeople for U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and Attorney General Chris Koster said their absences were unrelated to the rodeo clown stunt; McCaskill was at a family wedding-related event and Koster was participating in jury selection for a murder trial.
Ham breakfast attendee Robert Wood, who wore a sticker with the words "RIGHT WING EXTREMIST," said that while the rodeo clown's statements were unnecessary, the hubbub over the Obama mask had been blown out of proportion.
"It's a sad state of affairs when people get uptight over the fact that this guy just had a clown mask," said Wood, 75, of Glasgow.
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