JEFFERSON CITY — Known for his straightforward style and tendency to avoid media appearances, newly sworn-in House Speaker Rob Vescovo has made few waves as an elected official — until last week.
Vescovo and other Republican House leaders were called out by Gov. Mike Parson, who blasted them for their handling of his annual State of the State address amid growing COVID-19 concerns.
The governor, also a Republican, said the move Wednesday to bar him from speaking in the House chamber unless it was empty was “a purposeful and disgusting scheme to embarrass me.” His fiery letter, dated Friday, became public on Sunday.
Parson ended up delivering his address in the smaller Senate chamber. And, in another break with tradition, the House speaker was not sitting behind the governor to listen to the remarks.
It was a remarkable development in a state government dominated by members of the same party, raising questions about the future of both leaders’ agendas as well as the tone Vescovo will set over the next two years, before term limits force him from his Jefferson County House seat.
“There’s always a lot of natural tension between the speaker of the House and the governor of the state of Missouri,” former House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said Monday on KMOX (1120 AM), adding that without COVID-19, there would be no controversy over the speech.
“He’s probably trying to establish himself early as — look, I’m the leader of the House, this is what’s supposed to happen in the House. Here are my ground rules,” Jones said.
Vescovo, 44, who lives between High Ridge and Arnold in unincorporated Jefferson County, according to his state biography, did not respond to an interview request for this article.
When he was elected speaker on Jan. 6, state Rep. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe, said those who had worked with Vescovo closely described him as honest, humble and direct.
Wednesday’s dust-up — the culmination of weeks of meetings between House and governor’s office staff — wasn’t the first time Vescovo directly countered a governor.
In November 2019, Parson said he would back a limited plan addressing gun use by minors, domestic abusers and felons. Parson’s movement on the issue came only after pressure from the mayors of the state’s largest cities, who were contending with another bloody year of gun violence.
As House majority leader, Vescovo dumped the idea. He slammed any attempts to impose tougher laws on gun owners and on gun purchases and called for tougher sentences for violations of Missouri law.
As a rank-and-file House member, Vescovo wasn’t afraid to criticize Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat in office for Vescovo’s first two years in the House.
In fact, he and a group of five other legislators sued Nixon in May 2015 to block funding for a new riverfront stadium in downtown St. Louis.
Later that year, Nixon said Missouri would continue accepting Syrian refugees following a deadly terrorist attack in France. But Vescovo pushed him to reconsider.
“I do not ask this out of hatred for the Syrian refugees but out of love more for my fellow citizens,” he wrote in a letter to Nixon.
As a member of House leadership, many of his most notable statements have been issued jointly with other high-ranking House Republicans.
Last August, another conflict emerged with Parson over a special legislative session Parson had called to address violent crime in the run-up to the November election.
In a joint statement with other members of House leadership, the then-future speaker said, “(We) think it’s important to take a step back and give additional thought and attention to each part of the plan.”
“Time is of the essence as homicides continue to increase across the state,” said Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones.
Vescovo was also in the room with then-House Speaker Todd Richardson and then-House Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr when then-Gov. Eric Greitens was defending himself against an avalanche of accounts alleging misconduct by the governor.
“Leaders at all levels of government are entrusted with an incredible responsibility to the Missourians we represent,” said a joint statement from the three Republicans. “When leaders lose the ability to effectively lead our state, the right thing to do is step aside. In our view, the time has come for the governor to resign.”
Vescovo has so far expended political capital only on pushing extended tax benefits to foster and adoptive parents, measures that earned widespread bipartisan support when the House approved them last week.
Vescovo, who was adopted out of foster care, and his wife, Amanda, have five children.
Meanwhile, more controversial parts of Parson’s agenda require cooperation from top Republicans in order to advance.
The House could put the brakes on proposals to raise the state’s gas tax — which Parson has pushed in the past — or to allow the collection of sales tax on online sales, which Parson has also lobbied for.
Before Friday’s letter, House Majority Leader Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, played down any tension between House leadership and Parson.
“You’re not always going to agree on everything, but I think the press is looking for — to create a divide within the state’s leadership,” he said. “I think we’re (GOP leaders) all looking to do the same thing.”