With dozens of supporters in tow, Gov. Eric Greitens marched through the Missouri Capitol last month to confront two Republican senators.
For days he’d been ridiculing them in the press and on social media. They were career politicians. They were behaving like third-graders. They were more interested in their summer vacations than doing their jobs. They were roadblocks for his push to bring jobs to rural southeast Missouri.
Now he was standing outside the Capitol offices of Republican Sens. Doug Libla of Poplar Bluff and Gary Romine of Farmington, instructing his supporters to wallpaper their doors with identical signs demanding they end their opposition to the governor’s proposed legislation aimed at attracting a steel mill to the Bootheel.
A few days later the Senate approved the steel mill bill and Greitens declared victory. But the bill that ended up on his desk was what Libla and Romine had been calling for all along. Controversial provisions Greitens had pushed for were removed, and Libla ended up sponsoring the pared-down bill in the Senate.
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He won the public relations victory, but did he win on the policy?
The entire episode offers a window into Greitens’ governing style.
When faced with criticism, the first-term governor goes on the attack. That often means deploying aggressive campaign-style tactics in the hope of bending lawmakers to his will — such as personally berating senators in private meetings, or standing by while his nonprofit runs ads publicizing the private cell phone number of a Republican lawmaker.
His critics say these tactics can lead to short-term victories but just as often do more harm to his agenda than good. They point to the failure of ethics reform as a prime example of the governor’s strategy backfiring and helping to sabotage one of his top legislative priorities.
In the long term, many worry the governor runs the risk of poisoning his relationship with the legislative branch.
“I’m pretty sure we’re in an abusive relationship with (Eric Greitens),” state Rep. Nick Marshall, a Parkville Republican, tweeted during the recent special session. “It’s not healthy, and we need the courage to leave it.”
Some hypothesize that Greitens’ top-down leadership style is a byproduct of his military background.
But others say the governor isn’t concerned with building a long-term relationship with the legislature because he doesn’t plan to stick around. Short-term wins can pad his resume, critics argue, and help him use the governor’s mansion as a steppingstone to run for president one day or for the U.S. Senate next year.
“I’ve only been in politics nine years, but I don’t recall someone having won an election and then immediately start running for his next job,” said state Sen. Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat. “He’s been running for higher office from the moment he was sworn in as governor.”
A spokesman for Greitens batted down the idea that he’s already eyeing another office, telling The Star in an email that Greitens is “100 percent focused on serving the people of Missouri as governor.”
He didn’t respond to The Star’s questions about his interactions with lawmakers. But in an interview with a St. Louis television station, Greitens defended his tactics.
“Have we angered some of them? Absolutely. Have we upset some? Absolutely,” he said. “I didn't come to join them, I came to beat them.”
‘Liars, cowards, sociopaths’
Greitens’ regular attacks on lawmakers are in many ways a continuation of his campaign for governor.
He ran last year on the premise that state government was teeming with “corrupt career politicians,” “well-paid lobbyists” and “special interest insiders.”
“I’ve never been in politics before, but even in the brief time that I’ve been running for governor, I’ve been exposed to some of the worst people I’ve ever known. Liars, cowards, sociopaths,” Greitens wrote early in the campaign.
The idea that “career politicians” were subverting his push for jobs was a major highlight of his campaign for the steel mill legislation. For example, he used the phrase eight times in a 16-minute interview with Missourinet shortly before lawmakers returned to the Capitol to consider the proposal.
The “career politician” moniker doesn’t sit well with some members of the part-time General Assembly.
“Calling me a career politician, I would think that would be rather absurd,” Libla said, “considering this is my 46th year of being in business, and I’m now only four and a half years in my Senate position.”
Fueling discontent with the governor’s tactics is his political nonprofit, A New Missouri Inc. The group has regularly attacked state senators who criticized Greitens, most notably when it publicized the private cell phone number of Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican.
Schaaf had been highly critical of Greitens’ use of a nonprofit to raise so-called “dark money” — campaign contributions routed through nonprofits to hide the original source of the donation. Schaaf said attacking the ethics of legislators while subverting campaign disclosure laws and contribution limits with a nonprofit was the height of hypocrisy.
“This governor ran on a platform of ethics and of not allowing those who would be self-serving to come to the people’s house for their own self-serving interests,” Schaaf said.
But not all lawmakers have a problem with the governor’s approach.
Greitens has enjoyed a good relationship all year with the Missouri House. When the steel mill bill was finally approved late last month, he sang the praises of House Speaker Todd Richardson and GOP Rep. Don Rone, the bill’s main sponsor.
He made no mention of the Senate in his celebratory statement. Yet he has appeared to have a decent working relationship with that chamber’s leadership as well.
“The governor is very passionate about the agenda he wants to get done,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican, said shortly after the legislature adjourned for the year. “He’s new, and we’re both learning together.”
Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, said that if the governor wants a partner to move a policy agenda forward, “then work with us on doing that and stop campaigning.”
“You want to score political points in a never-ending campaign,” Holsman added, “and I think it’s time for it to stop.”