Nearly three years before he was sworn in as Missouri’s governor, Mike Parson’s friends and family spent a frenzied day figuring out how to add the letters “LT” to hundreds of signs, T-shirts and banners he had ordered for his campaign.
Parson, 63, had initially sought the state’s highest office, but when then-Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder entered the race for governor, the Bolivar Republican abruptly decided to switch his campaign to one for the No. 2 job.
His campaign manager, Linda Bunch, recalled how the campaign had less than 24 hours to change the signs, shirts and banners. His friends and neighbors rushed to help.
“We finagled around to where we could figure out how to add an ‘LT’ up above governor. We got vinyl cut, and we all kind of rolled out the banners right on the floor,” Bunch said. “And I think that was kind of a moment where you knew a lot of people were behind him. ... All I had to do was call and say, ‘Hey, can you help us?’ ”
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Bunch said she recently showed up late for an event with Parson and his wife, Teresa.
“I ran up and I just said, ‘Oh, man, I’m sorry. Sorry, guys, that I’m late. I’ve got a bunch of signs and banners, and I’m trying to figure out how to pull a couple letters back off them,’ ” she said.
Parson took office as the state’s 57th governor Friday evening after former Gov. Eric Greitens, a fellow Republican, resigned amid a flood of scandals.
Unlike Kansas, where governor and lieutenant governor run as a ticket, Missouri elects the two offices independently. Parson’s ascension into the top office marks both a massive change in the state’s administration and a new peak in a three-decade career in public service, including six years in the U.S. Army’s Military Police and 12 years as Polk County sheriff.
Bolivar’s Chamber of Commerce immediately updated its website to say “Proud home of Missouri Governor Mike Parson” upon his swearing-in.
Bunch, who runs the chamber, has managed Parson’s campaigns for state senator, state representative and sheriff. But that’s not how they met.
She remembers when Parson was the man who pumped gas in her car, just as he did for a lot of people in Bolivar. Many people in the southwest Missouri town of 10,000 knew Parson long before his political career began.
Linda Howe, who attends First Baptist Church in Bolivar with Parson, recalled that “when he had the gas station … people that were taking their children to St. Louis for cancer treatments, Mike would fill their car up with gas and never charge them a penny.”
Jannis Keeling, another member of the church, said “he showed his character when he was in the gas station.”
In a town where seemingly everybody knows Parson, the Sunday school group at his church appears particularly close to his heart.
The group has visited him in Jefferson City in the past, and all 50 members — including Howe and Keeling — were invited to join the new first couple at the governor’s mansion Friday evening for a reception after Parson was sworn in.
More than a dozen members of the class turned out Thursday to speak about their longtime friends Teresa and Mike. In Mike Parson, they saw a faithful, kind friend and a leader who loves Missouri.
“We’re his support group. We ground him in his community and his faith,” said classmate Carol Brown. “We’re part of that.”
Holly Stanford, another member of the group, said the Sunday before Greitens announced his resignation, the group put the Parsons in the center of a circle to pray for them with the expectation that Parson could soon become governor.
“We’re his prayer team,” she said.
Stanford, who sometimes teaches the class, said Parson nicknamed her “Teach.” She plans to start calling him “Gov.”
Parson’s elevation to the governor’s office comes only a year and a half after he underwent open-heart surgery. He had a quadruple bypass around Christmas 2016, shortly after his election as lieutenant governor.
“They got him down to the hospital in Springfield and they said, 'You’ve got to have this and you’ve got to have it now,' ” said Rep. Mike Stephens, R-Bolivar, whose wife is Teresa Parson’s great-aunt.
“He did it really quietly,” Stephens said. “He went all through that grueling campaign with this going on without his even being aware of it … and by the time the inauguration came around, he was well enough to go through that.”
Stephens said that Parson has told him after the surgery that he hasn’t felt this well in years.
Trent Drake, the chair of the Polk County Republican Central Committee, said he was shocked when he found out about Parson’s surgery.
“He jumped right back in and he didn’t miss a beat,” Drake said.
Stephens applauded the way Parson handled the months of speculation about whether Greitens would resign in the face of multiple scandals.
“Throughout this ordeal … his successor could have misstepped, misspoken, appeared untoward at any point, and Mike never, ever did.”
The right guy?
Not everyone sees Parson as a good fit for governor.
Stephen Webber, the chair of the Missouri Democratic Party, said Parson’s relative silence in recent months should cause Missourians to question whether he is the man who can heal the state.
“He can’t talk about bringing people together when he refused to stand up for the victims. He was silent when it was difficult," said Webber, who served in the legislature with Parson.
"He didn’t stand up against dark money. He didn’t stand up for a woman who the Republican legislature believes was sexually assaulted. … You can’t not be a voice for victims and then pretend you’re going to bring everybody together.”
Webber also pointed to a controversy from January when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Parson wanted an increase to the budget for the lieutenant governor’s office to hire a driver.
“He’s got a whole track record of trying to use taxpayers to pay for perks,” Webber said.
Parson's office did not return a phone call Friday in the hours leading up to his swearing-in ceremony.
Parson’s former chief of staff, Bubs Hohulin, who worked for the governor during his time in the state Senate, took to Facebook ahead of the 2016 primary to warn against his candidacy for lieutenant governor.
"His understanding of issues is startlingly weak,” Hohulin said. “I witnessed him agreeing to propose legislation on behalf of lobbyists who had contributed to his campaign without having any idea what the legislation actually did.”
Hohulin did not echo the notions shared by residents of Bolivar that Parson is open and friendly, saying he had a habit of going on “tirades” against members of his staff.
“What was really upsetting was how he would brutally unload on someone behind closed doors who was actually doing their best to make him look good to the voting public,” Hohulin said.
Hohulin could not be reached for comment Friday.
New atmosphere in Jefferson City
Lawmakers in both parties have predicted that Parson, a former legislator, will have a much smoother relationship with the legislature than Greitens, who Stephens said “poisoned the atmosphere” when he took office with constant attacks on lawmakers.
Rep. DaRon McGee, D-Kansas City, praised Parson’s long history of service in contrast to Greitens, who campaigned as an outsider and excoriated members of the General Assembly for corruption.
“In a time when experience in government is really vilified, I think that will be really refreshing,” McGee said.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, called Parson “high-energy and driven.” Once he sets his sights on a task, Parson is focused and brings as many stakeholders to the table as possible, Kehoe said.
“I don’t hear Mike Parson use the letter ‘I’ too many times. I hear him use 'we,' ” said Kehoe, who served with Parson in the Senate.
Democratic lawmakers also spoke to Parson’s willingness to work with others.
Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty, said he expected Parson would be able to “restore some semblance of professionalism to the office.”
Ellebracht said he expected he would disagree with Parson on some legislation, such as labor issues and tort reform, but he celebrated the transition.
“I can’t tell you how happy it feels to be rid of Eric Greitens and that whole mess that he created,” Ellebracht said.
'Old country boy'
Parson still runs his Bolivar farm and was moving cattle Tuesday when he found out Greitens was resigning.
“He has that two sides, you know, the ‘aw shucks, I’m just an old country boy,’ but when you work with Mike, he is very driven,” Stephens said.
Bunch said they were filming a commercial on the farm during the campaign and something went wrong with the tractor, and “he and another guy are right underneath trying to work on it.”
“This is not somebody that has other people do a lot of work for him,” Bunch said.
In Bolivar, Parson’s claim to fame was his support of agriculture-friendly policies, including his sponsorship of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to farm. Agriculture groups say “right to farm,” which passed both chambers by wide margins, protects farmers from burdensome regulation and litigation.
Drake, who is president of the Polk County Farm Bureau and leads the county Republican Party, said “right to farm” allows farmers to do their jobs “without the threat of lawsuits.”
“There’s people in other states that were getting sued because they were producing dust when they were working their fields,” he said.
Drake said the amendment also keeps groups like the Humane Society of the United States out of farmers’ hair.
“It lets us do what we need to do to raise food in the state,” he said. “Agriculture is our number one industry.”
Opponents argue that the amendment makes it easier to undermine environmental and animal welfare interests.
“I think, overall, the purpose was to try to prevent any future regulation,” said Amanda Good, Missouri state director for the Humane Society, which opposed the right-to-farm amendment.
Good said nobody was trying to deny a right to farm before the amendment passed.
“We felt like this was like signing a blank check to industrialized agriculture across the state,” she said.
The Sierra Club, an environmental organization, also opposed the bill.
Good said the bill had potential to undermine environmental regulations and “could eliminate ordinances on fertilizers and chemical use and pesticides.”
Praise for Parson as sheriff
Amid the Parson buzz last week at lunch places in Bolivar, Polk County residents fondly remembered his time as sheriff, from 1993 to 2005.
“As the sheriff, he was an active investigator. He didn’t just palm it off on his subordinates,” said Ron McIntire, the retired superintendent of the Morrisville school district, as he grabbed lunch at the Springfield Avenue Cafe in Bolivar.
“He was able to solve a lot of the things that others couldn’t solve because he somehow related to people in such a way that a lot of them would let him know information,” McIntire said.
Kermit Argus, who worked as a dispatcher when Parson was sheriff, praised his dedication to the job.
“And he looked after his people as well,” Argus said as he was leaving Brenda’s Cafe, a diner where Parson likes to eat beans and cornbread.
Parson’s pastor, Billy Russell, said he was struck by Parson’s concern for his deputies' emotional and mental well-being.
“He was looking at how he could help them handle stress and how he could help them handle the traumas of what they would see,” Russell said.
Bunch recalled that when one of Parson’s deputies died in a car wreck, Teresa Parson joined him when he went to the man’s house to inform his wife.
People who know the couple well expect her to play an active role in helping the governor advance his agenda.
“They are truly a team,” Stephens said. “When you talk to Teresa or talk to them together, she is fully engaged in the politics of it and knows the personalities and has just been not only a partner but a real help to Mike, because she’s been so engaged in the process.”
The governor grew up on a farm in Wheatland, about 30 miles north of Bolivar. His wife grew up in Bolivar, and her former high school classmates were particularly excited about her becoming the state’s first lady.
“His wife, Teresa, and I were classmates. … I think it’s great. I’ll get to know a first lady for the first time,” Joe Neill, a 65-year-old retiree, said with a smile as he paid for his lunch.
The Parsons have two children and five grandchildren. Their son, Kelly, still lives in Bolivar, where he runs the OakStar Bank branch. He's the president.
Danny Steinshouer, one of the diners at Brenda’s Cafe, pointed out that president outranks governor.
“Mike’s just going to be governor, so what?”