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Incoming governor Eric Greitens needs to take aim at Missouri’s toxic political culture

Missouri Gov.-elect Eric Greitens
Missouri Gov.-elect Eric Greitens

While all eyes are focused on Donald Trump’s transition escapades — who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out — a quieter transfer of power is underway in Jefferson City, where Gov.-elect Eric Greitens will take the oath of office in about three weeks.

Greitens is off to a pretty good start. He’s meeting with citizens groups, reaching out to the urban poor, saluting the state’s law enforcement personnel. He showed strength and grace after his wife was robbed in St. Louis in early December.

This week Greitens criticized state subsidies for a St. Louis soccer stadium. That posture will help with lawmakers once he starts hacking at spending programs to balance the state’s budget.

But there’s unease in Jefferson City too, involving Greitens, campaign donations and the state’s toxic political culture.

There are still questions surrounding a group called SEALs for Truth, which gave Greitens’ campaign nearly $2 million last summer. Greitens said the bulk of the donations came from former military personnel, but subsequent disclosures obscured the real source of the funds. It was classic dark money.

Then, just hours before tough new campaign contribution limits kicked in, donors gave the Greitens campaign more than $2.3 million. Buying influence isn’t cheap.

So a money cloud hangs over the governor-elect, even before he takes the oath of office.

Worry not. There’s still time for Greitens to part those clouds, and here’s how: He can insist on, and sign, significant ethics reform within his first 100 days in office.

Lobbyist gifts and meals for legislators need to go. Make ex-legislators wait longer to lobby. Give the Missouri Ethics Commission some teeth.

And — while we’re at it — let’s require nonprofits who seek to influence state affairs to reveal their donors. Money in politics is bad; secret dark money is worse.

Greitens should pursue ethics reform because it’s the right thing to do, in a state where political scandal is routine. But in this case, it would also be smart politics.

The governor-elect, a political novice, will want and need a signature issue to send a clear message to the legislature that he’s in charge. Ethics reform would do the trick.

This is more important than it looks. Conservative Republican lawmakers are already chatting about first-month legislation they’ll send to the governor: a right-to-work law, tougher abortion regulations, new gun laws. Legislative veterans now assume they have a friend in the executive branch, and will act swiftly.

But that attitude can get out of hand, particularly with lawmakers who have been waiting for eight years for a friendly governor. They could send increasingly aggressive legislation to his desk, demanding that he sign on the dotted line. That could render Greitens powerless.

The governor-elect will want to cooperate with GOP legislators, of course, but he doesn’t want to become an unimportant rubber stamp, either. What better way to show some, um, firepower, than to insist on ethics reform, which Republicans and Democrats detest in equal measure?

And by the way: could a Republican legislator actually turn down a direct request from a Republican governor, in the governor’s first year, on ethics reform? Maybe not.

So let’s keep a close eye on the groups that gave all that cash to Greitens, but let’s keep the other eye on the bigger picture, too. The incoming governor has a unique chance to change the culture in Jefferson City, and quickly. Let’s see if he takes it.

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc

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