JEFFERSON CITY • When lawmakers in May threw papers into the air to mark the end of their annual legislative session, first-year Gov. Eric Greitens walked up to a lectern and declared the previous four months “the most successful start of a conservative administration in a generation.”
“People sent us to Jefferson City to fight for them, and that is exactly what we’ve done,” Greitens told reporters. “We’ve finished the first round of a 10-round fight, and we hit ’em hard.”
Greitens, a Republican, rolled into Jefferson City in January with little firsthand knowledge of the capital city — its bureaucracies, its idiosyncrasies, its personalities. He proved adept at making headlines, conveying a hard-charging persona in which results are top priority. But there is marketing. And then there is reality.
Greitens’ initiatives have not always met the high bar set by his salesmanship. Some were in the works for years before he came on the scene. Other initiatives, such as an ethics package that did not clear the Legislature this year, have yet to materialize.
Greitens has stacked state boards with loyalists. He has issued surprise statements, and in the process frozen out Republicans and Democrats alike.
For better or worse, he has disrupted Jefferson City’s status quo.
“He has shown that he can articulate a vision, then he’s going to pursue that vision, and he’s going to be unrelenting in the pursuit,” said former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, who ran against Greitens in the GOP primary for governor last year. “I think that’s exactly what voters were looking for — somebody who’s going to say something, and then do it.”
Others believe Greitens’ disruption largely has failed to produce results.
“I don’t really have a comment on the governor,” state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said. “I just don’t have comments on what the governor’s doing, which is nothing.”
Has Greitens lived up to his hype?
Or has he just said he has?
Greitens said in 2016 that he would have fostered “peace by the second night” of protests in Ferguson two years earlier, unlike his predecessor, Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat.
With the benefit of hindsight, and with the knowledge that a not-guilty verdict in the Jason Stockley case would spark protests, Greitens in September pre-emptively urged calm and mobilized the National Guard before the verdict was announced.
But peace did not prevail by the second night. Protests over that verdict, which have eased in recent months, are ongoing.
There are other instances when Greitens’ salesmanship doesn’t match reality:
• Greitens said that to reduce recidivism, he would focus on inmate education. This year’s state budget slashed inmate rehabilitation, including education, by $1.4 million.
• Greitens banned his staffers from becoming lobbyists after they leave his administration. Though no former staffers have registered as lobbyists, one of them, Caleb Jones, left the administration to take a job with the Association of Missouri Electrical Cooperatives, which has a robust lobbying presence in the Capitol. Jones is a former lawmaker.
• Greitens signed a right-to-work bill in February, making good on a campaign promise. But by passing the bill so quickly, the Legislature and Greitens allowed unions several months to gather enough signatures to block the bill from taking effect, forcing a public vote.
• Greitens announced a prescription drug monitoring program in July, saying the state “won’t wait for this problem to get worse.” A state official had said the program could be running within weeks. But the program ran into resistance from lawmakers concerned about cost. A state spokeswoman said Friday that the prescription monitoring program began operation in November.
Greitens said during his 2016 campaign that he would fight for more jobs, higher pay, safer streets and better schools.
As evidence of the first two points — higher pay and more jobs — Parker Briden, the governor’s spokesman, touted Missouri’s 3.5 percent unemployment rate in October, the lowest in 17 years, according to the state’s Department of Economic Development. Briden cited department statistics showing the state had gained 30,000 jobs in the last year, including 7,000 manufacturing jobs.
“The governor is proud that he’s led the fight to create more jobs and higher pay,” Briden said in an email.
Briden also pointed to the governor’s signing of the yet-to-take-effect right-to-work bill, a regulatory review process he initiated, a new law allowing ride-share companies in the state and an effort to bring 800 National Guard jobs to Missouri. He also said a new steel mill in Sedalia was made possible by legislation approved during a summer special session.
David Mitchell, director of Missouri State University’s Bureau of Economic Research, said it was too early to tell what impact, if any, Greitens was having on Missouri’s economy. Mitchell said wages were trending up and unemployment was trending down before Greitens took office.
Mitchell added that Missouri’s growth lagged in some areas compared to the nation.
“Wages here have not been growing as fast as they have been nationwide,” Mitchell said. “Our output has not grown as fast as it has nationwide. Our population is not growing as fast as it had been nationwide. We’re growing a whole lot slower than the rest of the country.”
Mitchell cautioned against giving Greitens credit for Missouri’s successes — or blaming him for slow growth.
Greitens also said he would work for “better schools.” Briden said the governor fully funded the state’s education formula this year, an anomaly in Missouri.
Though this is true, lawmakers in 2016 lowered the bar for education funding, making it easier to fully fund education. Greitens also withheld $15 million from school transportation costs and cut more spending to public universities than the Legislature recommended.
The governor signed a bill establishing a statewide adult high school program, launched a “Skilled Workforce Missouri” initiative to focus on worker training and is pushing to expand broadband internet access to schools across the state.
To promote “safer streets,” Briden pointed to the Highway Patrol’s pilot program to patrol stretches of interstate in St. Louis. The move was designed to free up city police resources. Greitens also signed a “Blue Alert” bill, which allows police to alert the public when a law enforcement officer is assaulted.
While it is impossible to say whether the Highway Patrol program reduced crime, during the pilot period, from July through September, overall crime in the city was down 5 percent compared with last year. Homicides were down about 9 percent during the pilot period over last year. But assaults by gun were up.
Troopers made about 500 arrests on misdemeanor charges and close to 200 on felonies. They made 93 arrests for driving while intoxicated.
“We certainly saw a lot of arrests and contraband and weapons seized, which is more than when they weren’t patrolling,” said Koran Addo, spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson, a Democrat.
Eye to eye
Greitens has frozen some people out and taken up digital arms against opponents. He has blocked some Missourians critical of him from viewing his Facebook page, but won’t say how many he has blocked. He has largely dodged the Capitol press corps. (Greitens, through Briden, ignored two interview requests for this story.)
State Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, knows what it’s like to be on the governor’s bad side.
Senators debated in January whether to shoot down a 2.5 percent pay increase for themselves. Greitens raised alarm on social media and set up camp in Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard’s office, summoning one by one senators who had signaled their approval of the raise.
“Our meeting did not go very well,” Wieland said. “I don’t want to get into the details of it. But I would say we didn’t see eye to eye at that meeting.”
Greitens eventually won the fight over raises, and Wieland said the two had repaired their relationship.
A New Missouri, a nonprofit run by ex-Greitens campaign staffers, attacked in April a fellow Republican, Sen. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph, publishing his cellphone number.
The Rev. Clinton Stancil, of Wayman AME Church in St. Louis, said Greitens sought his support during the 2016 election. “He seemed to be very receptive,” Stancil said.
But after Greitens took office, “We found out it was not receptive,” Stancil said. “It was deceptive. Because he didn’t do anything that he promised he would do, as far as engaging with the African-American community.”
“If you’re not going to play by their rules, they kick you off the team,” said Tim Sumners, of Joplin, whom Greitens briefly appointed to the state school board before booting him.
Greitens’ methods have led to change, and some fallout, too.
He spent months stacking the Board of Education with loyalists to oust state Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven — dismissing two board members who refused to follow his orders. Greitens hasn’t said publicly what Vandeven’s firing offense was, but has said lagging teacher pay and accelerated administrative pay — two things Vandeven did not control — were problems.
He was ultimately successful in removing her. But lawmakers have said Greitens’ appointees to the board will face a rocky confirmation process.
Greitens, at least publicly, offers no apologies.
“We know insiders and bureaucrats will lie,” he said in a statement after a first attempt to oust Vandeven.
In at least two cases, Greitens’ surprise announcements drew the ire of Republican lawmakers, who write the state’s budget: the prescription drug database, and an effort to give paid parental leave to executive branch employees. In both cases, lawmakers said Greitens did not have the authority to appropriate money.
In another controversial move, Greitens, his loyalists and others on the Missouri Housing Development Commission opted in a preliminary vote to end the state’s low-income housing tax credits.
This put Greitens at odds with tax credit boosters, including Nasheed, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican. Parson urged commissioners to let lawmakers have the final say, calling the move “totally wrong.”
Still, Greitens trumpeted the disruption, saying: “We zeroed out this failing program, and saved tens of millions of dollars. No. More. Giveaways.”
During the May news conference, Greitens compared lawmakers to third-graders.
“Sometimes, when you don’t complete all your work, you need to go to summer school,” Greitens said.
He then called two special sessions, another out-of-the ordinary move. Lawmakers passed a bill the governor supported allowing large utility customers to negotiate lower electric rates, in hopes of luring a smelter back to the Bootheel region. (Months later, a Department of Economic Development spokeswoman described talks as “ongoing.”) Greitens called lawmakers back a second time to pass a package of anti-abortion legislation that was hailed by social conservatives and denounced by Democrats and supporters of abortion rights.
Critics say the special sessions were unnecessary, ways for the governor to generate publicity.
State Rep. Doug Beck, D-St. Louis County, said this year’s announcements — and for-the-cameras feats in which he scaled a rock wall, rappelled from a stadium roof and trained with the St. Louis Fire Department — were designed to boost Greitens’ brand and not necessarily the state’s well-being.
“I think they play in the interest of Eric Greitens,” Beck said. “They don’t play to the interest of what’s best for people.”
Gov. Greitens’ record: hits and misses
Right to work: Because Greitens signed the landmark legislation so early, unions had time to gather enough signatures to block its implementation and force a public vote.
Education: Greitens tried to stack the state Board of Education for months to remove Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven for still-unknown reasons. He succeeded recently, but jeopardized his appointees’ Senate confirmations.
Abortion: Greitens successfully pushed a package of anti-abortion legislation through the Legislature during a summer special session. It has so far withstood court challenges.
PDMP: Greitens announced a prescription drug monitoring program in July, but was met by pushback from lawmakers who said he didn’t have the spending authority. The PDMP started operation in November.
Jobs: Despite regulatory reform pushes, publicized job announcements and other actions, it’s difficult to say what impact Greitens has had on the state’s economy.
Foster Care: One focus has been on the state’s foster children. Greitens signed the Foster Care Bill of Rights earlier this year.