During his successful campaign for governor, Eric Greitens never missed an opportunity to quote his former boxing coach.
“If you want different,” he repeatedly told his supporters, “do different.”
In many ways, it’s a mantra that perfectly encapsulates Greitens’ first year as governor.
Tuesday marks the anniversary of Greitens’ taking the oath of office. He’ll deliver his second State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly the following night.
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The first-term Republican governor, who had never before held elected office, had no shortage of big wins in 2017. And with GOP supermajorities still firmly in control of both legislative chambers, 2018 promises more victories.
At the same time, Greitens’ campaign-style tactics also contributed to the demise of many of his legislative priorities and created fissures between the governor and some of his fellow Republicans that have only deepened over time.
The governor’s office did not respond to an interview request. But as Greitens enters his second year in office, interviews with those both inside and outside his administration paint a picture of a governor that is a study in contrasts.
He’s pathologically disciplined and voraciously ambitious.
His promises to clean up state government by enacting tough new ethics laws are juxtaposed with the fact that he was fined last year by the state ethics commission for violating those laws.
He trumpeted transparent government yet is under investigation by the attorney general’s office over concerns that his office may be illegally destroying public records.
He regularly slams “career politicians” for being the root of the problems in state government. Yet his regular travel across the country has fueled speculation that he sees the governor’s mansion as a steppingstone to higher office.
“In terms of his agenda, he’s done a fantastic job,” said state Rep. Justin Alferman, a Gasconade County Republican. “But there were certainly some unforced errors last year that made things much more difficult than they needed to be.”
State Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican and frequent Greitens critic, was less rosy with his assessment.
“When I look back at his first year, I just feel disappointment,” Schaaf said. “He said was going to clean up the corruption in Jefferson City. He said he was an outsider. He said he would follow the constitution. He didn’t do any of that. He just joined in and validated the same old corrupt ways of politicians in Missouri.”
Greitens’ first official interaction with the legislative branch after taking office didn’t go exactly as planned.
His efforts to talk state lawmakers out of approving a pay raise for members of the General Assembly broke down almost immediately, with the governor allegedly insulting one Republican senator by telling him that he could see in his “beady little eyes that you’re afraid of me.” He ended up in a shouting match with another Republican — state Sen. Denny Hoskins of Warrensburg.
“The governor and I did start off on rocky ground a year ago,” Hoskins said, “but we’ve let bygones be bygones and have developed a unique friendship since then. He’s definitely growing into the job.”
Greitens regularly lashed out at lawmakers with whom he disagreed, and that adversarial relationship contributed to legislative gridlock that helped doom a host of bills.
“From a Democratic standpoint, the dysfunction he’s caused in the Senate has been a godsend,” said state Rep. Greg Razer, a Kansas City Democrat. “It’s slowed down the ruling party’s stranglehold on what they can get done. They can’t pass as much bad legislation.”
Amid all that fighting, however, significant bills found their way to Greitens’ desk.
In February he signed a right-to-work bill into law, a goal the GOP had pursued for decades. Unions collected enough signatures to put a repeal of right-to-work on the ballot this year, but the legislation was still a historic victory for Republicans.
Lawmakers passed several long-sought changes to the state’s legal system, most notably a bill making it more difficult for workers to sue former employers for discrimination.
Greitens called two special sessions during his first summer in office, one to approve incentives to lure a steel mill to southeast Missouri and another to enact tougher regulations on abortion providers.
After eight years of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, Republican legislative leaders were happy to have a member of their own party in the governor’s mansion.
“I have enjoyed the opportunity to have a governor that will actually sign some of our priorities,” said House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican. “It’s nice that we don’t have to override a governor’s veto to accomplish the things we want to do.”
Outside the legislature, Greitens has instructed state agencies under his control to begin rolling back as many regulations on business as possible. And he’s used his power to appoint new members to boards and commissions to enact big changes in state policy.
His appointees to the Missouri House Development Commission voted to eliminate funding for low-income housing tax credits. His appointees to the clean water commission voted to allow two new concentrated animal feeding operations to open in the state.
“The governor’s been working on making this a more pro-business, welcoming state,” said state Rep. Jack Bondon, a Belton Republican. “That’s been his driving force: To make us as competitive as possible.”
But little that the governor did last year garnered as much attention as his efforts to fire the state’s top education official, Margie Vandeven.
He faced vehement opposition from state education groups, but after months of struggling to appoint enough members to the state board of education to oust Vandeven, he finally succeeded in December.
For all his successes, the governor’s perceived missteps during his first year could have a major lingering impact.
Greitens refused to disclose how much corporations and lobbyists donated to bankroll his inaugural festivities, a break from tradition set by his predecessors. His political team set up a nonprofit called A New Missouri Inc. that does not have to abide by voter-imposed contribution limits and is not required to disclose where its money comes from.
Awash in secret money, Greitens has faced a steady stream of accusations of corruption involving legislative priorities and state contracts.
“As a candidate, Eric Greitens promised to eliminate corruption and cronyism in Missouri government,” said state Rep. Kip Kendrick, a Columbia Democrat. “As governor, he has embraced the dark side of politics that he claimed to disdain.”
The issue came to a head when a bipartisan group of state senators called for the creation of a special legislative committee to investigate whether the governor engaged in illegal activity during his 2016 campaign and during his time as governor.
“I don’t know that Gov. Greitens considers himself corrupt,” said Schaaf, the Republican state senator from St. Joseph. “But the system in which he’s operating is corrupt.”
Questions about the governor’s ethics were more than just a headache for him. They contributed to short-circuiting any momentum for one of his signature campaign promises — a ban on lobbyist gifts to elected officials.
It was considered the cornerstone of his ethics reform agenda, but it fizzled as lawmakers balked at passing it without also enacting tougher restrictions on anonymous donors.
While the governor’s efforts to oust the state education commissioner were successful, they so enraged some members of the Senate that he was forced to withdraw all of his nominees for the school board. That leaves the board without a quorum and thus unable to continue the search for a new commissioner.
His actions also hardened already stiff opposition to many of the school choice bills Greitens vowed to accomplish, such as expanded charter schools and education savings accounts.
“Communication is the key to any success,” Senate Education Committee Chairman Gary Romine, a Farmington Republican, recently told St. Louis Public Radio. “We’re going to have some struggles with this governor.”
Greitens closed out 2017 under investigation by the attorney general over his office’s use of an app that deletes text messages after they’ve been read, which could mean public documents are being illegally destroyed.
When some raised questions about Greitens’ handling of reported problems at the state-run St. Louis Veterans Home, the governor lashed out with statements first attacking U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, and then Democratic state Sen. Jill Schupp.
And the first day of the 2018 legislative session felt like a replay from 2017, with progress stalled as the governor faced accusations of impropriety by his critics in the Senate.
But observers say they’re seeing a change in how Greitens is dealing with his detractors.
Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican and frequent thorn in the governor’s side, was appointed to the state’s Public Service Commission. The $109,000-a-year job meant Silvey had to resign his seat in the Senate.
The governor’s office also approached Romine to gauge his interest in an appointment, but he declined.
“I think you’re seeing the start of better communication between the governor’s office and the legislature,” Alferman said.
“We’ll see,” he added. “We’re just barely into session.”