If you spent enough time around Eric Greitens during his successful bid for governor, you probably heard the former Navy SEAL say, “If you want different, do different.”
That was one of the many slogans that echoed throughout Missouri over the last few months. And it’s fair to say that the Republican chief executive is going to bring some stylistic and policy changes to Missouri’s highest office. His first variation may have been at his own inauguration, when he scrapped the traditional parade to turn the spotlight instead on the state’s veterans, teachers and first responders.
But beyond symbolism, pomp and circumstance, this reporter already observed some major differences between Greitens and former Gov. Jay Nixon. And it’s more than a partisan change. These modifications may determine the success or failure of his administration.
One of the major criticisms of Nixon was that he was not collaborative enough with the GOP-controlled Missouri General Assembly. And it wasn’t just Republicans taking this view. Former state Rep. Chris Kelly (a Democrat from Columbia who, in the 1980s, served in the House while Nixon served in the Senate) said in 2014 that Nixon was “at the very bottom of the collaborative scale.”
At least on the surface, Greitens appears to be sliding up that scale – which isn’t surprising since his party is in control. With former state Rep. Caleb Jones as his chief of staff, Greitens will have a knowledgeable legislative veteran with deep ties to House leadership. And legislative director Jeannae Neustadt is a former chief of staff for state Sen. Bob Onder and former state Sen. John Lamping – two lawmakers with credibility among social and fiscal conservatives. He's also brought in Todd Scott, a well-liked Senate staffer, into his administration.
These hires will be able to give Greitens a sense of how legislative leaders and contrarians are reacting to his proposals. And that's in addition to the personal contact he's made to lawmakers.
"It's my understanding that he's called at least every single senator already -- Republicans and Democrats," said Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters. "I think he's in at least weekly communication with House and Senate leadership. Already you can see a vast difference in communication between Gov. Nixon" and Greitens.
That doesn’t mean that all of Greitens’ priorities are going to make it out unscathed, including a total ban on lobbyist gifts and more robust curbs on the “revolving door” between legislating and lobbying. But if he can get in sync with Republicans on other issues, Greitens could far outpace Nixon in enacting legislation.
Nixon will always have the title of being the first sitting Missouri governor to have a Twitter account.(Former Gov. Matt Blunt may be the first former governor to start using the service on a regular basis.) But Greitens and his staff appear to be taking things to an entirely new level.
Greitens often swore off traditional press releases during his transition period – and instead used lengthy Facebook posts to announce key appointments. His communications staff has also used Facebook Live extensively, a technology that Nixon’s communications team didn’t embrace.
But it’s not just Greitens’ main account that’s caught some attention. Many of Greitens’ key staffers are active on Twitter – and even used the medium to hit back against news coverage. Social media were generally not the Nixon’s administration’s conduit to push back against the press.
"We are committed and the governor is committed to taking his message directly to the people," said Greitens' senior advisor Austin Chambers. "That means using every means possible. That means coming out and talking to the media. That means doing interviews. That also means using social media. That means going and giving speeches and that means talking directly to the people.
"Just like the campaign, we're going to keep taking our message directly to the people," he added. "That's what got us here and that's what will make us successful."
Clearly Missouri politics passed the social media Rubicon a long time ago. But it will be worth watching if the Greitens’ administration approach to the digital art form effectively articulates the governor’s message – or if it stokes reaction amongst the Fourth Estate and everyday Missourians.
With a few key exceptions, Missouri Republicans don’t disagree much on policy issues. Most are staunchly opposed to abortion rights and gun control and generally support public policy that’s friendly to the business community. But that hasn’t stopped the party from developing political factions, especially as Republican fortunes blossomed throughout the 2000s and 2010s.
In many respects, Greitens wasn’t really a creature of a particular political consultant or ideological movement. But he does seem to be reaching out to elements of the party that don’t always see eye-to-eye with each other: He's developed strong ties with social conservatives like Onder, who sponsored the controversial SJR 39 that Greitens opposed. He’s promised to sign “right to work” and curbs on lawsuits, which will please business groups and Senate leadership. He backed Todd Graves, a longtime ally of political consultant extraordinaire Jeff Roe, to be the Missouri Republican Party's chairman. And he’s come out against publicly financing stadiums and for shrinking tax credits, which drew plaudits from lawmakers who often go against the party’s grain.
Balancing these varying political and ideological interests may one of the most challenging elements of Greitens’ governorship. Blunt’s administration ran into problems when he clashed with social conservatives over stem cell research – and legislative leaders over a plan to sell assets from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority. Greitens’ response to the inevitable intra-party grumbling could play a big role in how successful he is in pushing his agenda.
Greitens’ willingness to sign bills that could weaken labor unions is not just a break from Nixon – it’s a change from most Missouri governors.
Republican chief executives like Kit Bond, John Ashcroft and Matt Blunt generally declined to pursue efforts to enact “right to work,” which bars labor unions and employers from requiring workers to pay dues. The reason was relatively simple: Bond, Ashcroft and Blunt didn’t have nearly enough Republican support in the legislature to get it done. (Bond and Ashcroft served while Democrats dominated the General Assembly. Blunt decided early on in his administration not to pick fights with organized labor.)
That’s not the case with Greitens. With GOP supermajorities in both legislative chambers, “right to work” is effectively a fait accompli. And lawmakers appear ready to pass bills taking aim at the prevailing wage and automatic deduction of union dues. For organized labor stalwarts like former state Treasurer Clint Zwiefel, the challenge ahead for unions isn’t necessarily to find a way to successfully block that legislation – but rather how to stay relevant in a right-to-work state.
“Organizations are going to constantly have to remake themselves,” Zweifel said. “If right to work passes, for instance, you would assume that unions are going to have to remake their own organizations internally, too, in terms of how they serve members and how they conduct business. And obviously, it puts more pressure on them. I think it’s bad policy overall in the state to move that forward.
“But at the same time … the best emphasis at this point is going to be on how do you become relevant to create an economy long term that’s good for all families in the state,” he added.
Republicans could often use Nixon or Senate Democrats as rhetorical punching bags for why big-ticket agenda items failed to pass. With Greitens taking over as governor and Republicans assuming most of Missouri’s statewide offices, blaming inaction on Democrats effectively comes to an end as well.
That means if the state’s economy, budgetary health and business climate are solid, then Republicans will reap the benefits. But if GOP policies turn out to be unpopular, then Missouri Republicans will be fully culpable.
“The pressure’s on, because we’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves,” said state Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville. “And so, we will either do really great things – or, if we don’t perform and do what we say we’re going to do, then we’re going to be the ones that people will blame because there’s no one else to blame.”
Republicans were able to pass lots and lots of major bills in the first year or so of Blunt’s administration. But that didn’t necessarily translate into widespread political popularity – especially when the national climate got worse and worse for the GOP.
So it’s not out of the question that a similar dynamic could be at play with Greitens. If Americans become disillusioned with President-elect Donald Trump’s administration, then that dissatisfaction could trickle down to the state level. In that scenario, it will be up to Greitens and his legislative allies to insulate (and, possibly, differentiate) Missouri Republicans as much as possible.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum