Greitens’ relationship with the legislature could use some repair

May 18, 2017

Eric Greitens’ successful campaign to become Missouri’s governor was based on the premise that politicians were ruining the state and that an outsider’s help was needed.

But with the 2017 legislative session in the books, some of the elected officials Greitens decried believe he got in their way and took an unwarranted, heavy-handed approach — despite the fact that the Republican stands to implement policies his party waited generations to complete.

Greitens is unapologetic about how he interacted with representatives and senators, turning the spotlight on lawmakers he felt wasted time with pointless infighting instead of grading himself as asked at a news conference.

“And if you say ‘What’s the grade I’d give the legislature,’ sometimes it feels like third grade,” he said. “We’ve done some really, really good work our administration has — but the legislature’s work is incomplete. And you know sometimes, when you don’t complete all your work you have to go to summer school.”

Republicans who control the destiny of Greitens’ legislative agenda say they appreciate his hands-on approach compared with some of his predecessors, and expect him to improve his relationship-building efforts.

“I was back here during the times when Kit Bond was first here. And he had a lot of good, smart, young people around him — and it took them a year or two to figure out some of the ways to take place,” said Rep. Nate Walker, a Kirksville Republican who served in the House in the 1980s. “But there’s lots of big egos in the General Assembly. And sometimes, trying to persuade them in tactics that might be used in warfare are not necessarily successful.”

Sharp elbows

Members of the Missouri House work during the final day of the 2017 legislative session.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo / St. Louis Public Radio

Despite the comparatively few bills sent to Greitens this year, lawmakers did pass some major pieces, including “right to work,” which bars unions and employers from requiring workers to pay dues, and numerous bills aimed at restricting lawsuits.

Yet, as Greitens alluded to, lawmakers didn’t end up passing the vast majority of his agenda. There’s no prescription drug monitoring database or education savings accounts that can be used for private schools on the horizon.

Democrats and Republicans say Greitens is to blame, at least in part. Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, pointed to Greitens using social media to call out Sens. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, and Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, when they refused to kill a legislative pay increase.

“I think from that point forward, there have been a lot of what I would call rookie missteps along the way. And some of them, I don’t know if they’re repairable,” Schupp said. “I think that he’s created some bad feelings among people — and I think part of what you see play out on the Senate floor is that there are people who are not interested necessarily in putting forward the governor’s priorities.”

Sen. Ryan Silvey said Greitens’ tactics were often counterproductive, especially since he needs the backing of his party.

“If I were to offer my opinion, I think this is a relationship-driven business,” said Silvey, R-Kansas City. “The better relationships you have with individual legislator, the more they’re willing to work with and talk with you and vice versa — and the more you’re going to be able to push your agenda.

“I was frequently very critical of Gov. (Jay) Nixon about this: You can’t govern by sound bite. Governing is much harder than a bumper sticker,” he said.

Others, like Hoskins, were complimentary of Greitens’ working relationship, going so far as to tweet a picture of him working out with the governor.

“You know being an outsider and coming in, it’s taken him a little bit to learn the process and procedures. But that’s only natural,” Hoskins said. “And I think once he caught on to the process and procedures and how things work, then he’s definitely done a great job since then.”

Ethics push hits a snag

Lawmakers from both parties were sharply critical of Greitens after a nonprofit set up by his campaign staffers attacked Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo / St. Louis Public Radio

Some lawmakers from both parties also contend Greitens’ much publicized push to “clean up Jefferson City” featured rather trivial ethical changes, especially when a politically active nonprofit set up by his supporters injected itself into the legislative process.

His call for a ban on lobbyist-paid meals, entertainment and travel died in the Senate, as it did in previous years. And his push to install term limits for statewide officials and expand restrictions on when lawmakers can lobby went nowhere.

“It’s absolutely window dressing,” Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, said. “Look, if somebody buys me a chicken sandwich and thinks that’s going to buy my vote, then we’ve got much bigger problems than ethics reform. What I’ve always been worried (about) is unlimited gifts during campaigns.”

Razer hits on arguably the biggest source of contention among legislators: A New Missouri, the 504(c)(4) that doesn’t have to reveal its donors and is run by Greitens’ former campaign managers. GOP Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard says he wasn’t pleased with how the nonprofit released online attack ads targeting fellow legislators.

“You can’t let personalities in the middle of policy. You just don’t take it personally,” said Richard, R-Joplin. “I give the governor a chance because he’s new. But I would encourage him not to do it anymore.”

Learning curve

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard speaks to reporters. The Joplin Republican says legislators often complain about how governors interact with the legislature.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo / St. Louis Public Radio

For his part, Greitens made no apologies for how he dealt with lawmakers this session — even when asked whether his tactics caused some of the dysfunction.

“Career politicians are going to make lots of excuses — they’ll find lots of ways to cast blame,” Greitens said. “What we do is take responsibility for things that we’ve done.”

And the fact that Greitens is a newcomer wasn’t lost on some legislative veterans, like Rep. Kathie Conway. The St. Charles Republican says being part of state government often comes with a steep learning curve.

“It’s like a new marriage,” Conway said. “You love each other, but it’s going to take time to know your quirks and your habits. And i think we can look for a lot better things as we know each other better.”

Added Richard: “If you’re for something, he’s not heavy-handed or I’m not heavy-handed enough,” he said. “If you’re against it, you’re too heavy-handed and you’re breaching the sanctity of the legislative branch and the executive branch.”

“And that changes every day,” he said.

Whether Greitens’ self-proclaimed fast start speeds up or sputters out could depend on whether he can make nice with the same career politicians he criticized. That effort could come sooner than later, especially if the governor calls lawmakers back for a special session.