Once full of promise, Greitens becomes tarnished footnote of scandal and missed opportunity | St. Louis Public Radio

Once full of promise, Greitens becomes tarnished footnote of scandal and missed opportunity

May 30, 2018

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens entered office in 2017 with the opportunity to become the most impactful Republican governor in Missouri history. Never before had a GOP chief executive had so many Republicans in the General Assembly, giving the former Navy SEAL the opportunity to make a policy mark.

By Friday afternoon, Greitens will become a cautionary tale for Missouri politicians. He’ll exit office after five months of scandal and disgrace — leaving his successor, Lt. Gov. Mike Parson, with the opportunity to enact policy change that’s eluded his party for decades.

For some people who disliked Greitens from the beginning, the governor’s fall was predictable. With no experience in electoral politics or government, Greitens never seemed to grasp the learning curve needed to succeed — especially because relationships are so key. Others pointed to Greitens’ rhetoric and temperament during the campaign, where he literally created an explosion with a gun to symbolize blowing up Missouri government.

“Here is a central character who is very ambitious, very intelligent, and walked into office extremely inexperienced,” said David Robertson, a University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor. “And he was not very well skilled or not very willing to engage in compromise, to engage in building a coalition that would support his governorship and his later ambitions, and I think that helped bring him down.”

Stellar resume
Sheena and Eric Greitens hold their sons, Jacob and Joshua, while speaking to reporters after voting in 2016 at the St. Louis Public Library's Central West End branch.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

One of the biggest reasons that Greitens appealed to voters was his experience outside of politics. Few people who’ve run for office here have had Greitens’ educational, military or philanthropic credentials, which might by why national Democrats courted him to run for Congress back in the early 2010s.

Ultimately, Greitens chose to run as a Republican. As was revealed in testimony to a House committee mulling over the governor’s impeachment, Greitens had to essentially be taught how to talk and act like a GOP candidate. His answers to questions were often so polished and scripted, that they lacked believability.

It wasn’t just his positions on issues that raised eyebrows. After he admitted to an extra-marital affair in January, many took note of how Greitens often chastised others for their moral failures — even though those admonishments came months after he was unfaithful to his wife. And that revulsion only intensified after the woman with whom he had an affair accused him of sexual and physical abuse — charges Greitens denied but lawmakers found credible.

“To me it’s really about looking at patterns,” said state Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin. “Seeing Eric Greitens’ treatment of the senators, knowing that he could be such a bully and such a jerk to the senators, I figured it wasn’t much of a stretch to believe that he would do that to a powerless woman tied up in a basement.”

Toxic relationship with lawmakers
Gov. Eric Greitens speaks during a news conference after the end of the 2017 legislative session. Greitens used this opportunity to compare lawmakers to third graders for not passing enough bills.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Dogan was alluding to how Greitens never seemed to get along with GOP lawmakers crucial to fulfilling his agenda.

It’s not that surprising. A big rhetorical hook for Greitens’ 2016 campaign was his verbiage against “career politicians” that he contended corroded Missouri state government. He benefited from the Donald Trump wave where people appeared to prefer life experience to experience in government.

Many lawmakers expected him to ditch the antagonism toward elected politicians after he was sworn in, but it continued throughout 2017. Greitens called out Republican legislators by name for not opposing a pay increase. He compared lawmakers to petulant third graders after not enough bills were passed. And a politically-active nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donors attacked sitting GOP senators — a move that upset leaders like Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard.

This posture confounded Republicans, even those who supported Greitens during the primary season, like state Rep. Nate Walker of Kirksville.

“Sometimes in campaigns, we get a little excited and we say things — and that’s part of it,” said Walker, who previously served as a state House member in the 1980s. “But everyone that’s in this General Assembly that I’ve served with are good, hardworking, decent people. They’re not corrupt.”

Greitens promised transparency
Gov. Eric Greitens speaks to the crowd after taking the oath of office outside the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City on Jan. 9, 2017. Greitens never revealed who helped pay for his inauguration festivities.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

During his 2016 appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast, he spent part of the show criticizing his opponents for operating “secret super PACs” — and emphasized how he was disclosing all the money flowing into his campaign. He went on to declare: “The most important thing is that there is transparency around the money.”

But when Greitens made that statement, he was apparently planning on shielding big donors to his campaign. And as the months unfolded, Greitens’ words rang more and more hollow — especially after he benefited from millions of dollars of secret money that he once decried.

After he was elected, Greitens and his team steadfastly refused to reveal the sources who paid for his inauguration — or a politically-active nonprofit that advanced his agenda and attacked his opponents. Even before his troubles began, Greitens routinely declined to make himself available to reporters after public events. And he stopped answering questions from the media after his February indictment — an unprecedented bout of silence from a sitting Missouri governor.

Some, including GOP consultant Michael Hafner who worked for Greitens, believe the opaqueness of Greitens’ political and governmental tenure should be concerning for Missouri voters.

“Voters didn’t take into consideration the dark money that came into the race,” he said, referring to Greitens’ 2016 bid. “That’s something people should be concerned about, going forward. People should know who’s funding these campaigns.”

Crossing ideological lines
Union members gathered at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Hall on Aug. 8, 2017, to notarize and turn in petitions to force a statewide vote over Missouri’s right-to-work law.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

It would be unfair to say that Greitens’ short tenure in office was all rhetoric and no action. Some of Greitens’ actions were quite impactful — and often engendered bipartisan scorn.

Take the passage of “right to work,” which bars unions and employers from requiring workers to pay dues as a condition of employment. Passage of that GOP priority became inevitable after Greitens came to office. But Greitens’ often bellicose rhetoric against organized labor helped mobilize members of labor unions, culminating in an unprecedented effort to repeal right to work later this year.

Greitens upset some lawmakers for how he instituted paid parental leave and a prescription drug monitoring system outside the legislative process. He alienated some of his rural base with how he engineered the ouster of Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven. And his freeze of the state low-income housing tax credit stoked bipartisan outrage.

Some believe that the low-income housing tax credit decision ended up playing a role in Greitens’ demise, as his attorneys thought that the $120,000 that went to an attorney who exposed the affair came from a disgruntled developer. Many lawmakers, though, hope Parson takes a less adversarial posture toward governing — and focuses on finding bipartisan solutions.

“He’s a man of integrity,” Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis said, referring to Parson. “And he’s a man if you were in a foxhole, you’d want to be in there with him.”

National ambitions
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens introduces Vice President Mike Pence at Fabick Cat in February 2017. Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayes, was a major consultant for Greitens' 2016 campaign.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Greitens wasn’t exactly subtle about his desire to run for national office.

In addition to registering a presidential domain name before he was elected, Greitens made some powerful political connections. His main consultant in 2016 was Nick Ayers, who later went onto become Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff. He spent time in Washington, D.C. and Iowa, furthering the narrative that Greitens was using the governorship as a springboard to a White House run.

Some believe those aspirations got in the way of governing, to the detriment of lawmakers and Missouri residents.

“I think that Eric Greitens will look back at this and remember that he got to be the governor of his home state in his 40s in his first election,” said state Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis. “And he had so much power and so much ability in front of him. And yet he squandered it on the possibility to be president, which will never occur now.”

Butler noted that Greitens had a chance to “appoint judges, to reduce crime, to change programs for the better in bipartisan way.”

“He came in under a wave of cleaning up government in the way that Republicans and Democrats alike wanted to work with him,” he added. “Yet he decided not to, all because he wanted to work in D.C.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum