Government & Politics

Who has the ear of Gov. Mike Parson? Meet his inner circle

Gov. Mike Parson has spent every day since he took the oath of office distancing himself from his scandal-plagued predecessor.

His rhetoric, style and focus are a stark contrast to former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned June 1 after months of criminal charges and threats of impeachment.

The differences also extend to the company that Parson keeps.

Greitens touted himself as an outsider, and he surrounded himself largely with government novices and out-of-state political consultants.

Parson has roamed the halls of the Missouri Statehouse for more than a decade, and his inner circle of advisers reflects the relationships he’s built during that time.

It includes longtime friends and veterans of Missouri government.

It also includes people tied to the low-income housing tax credit industry, a group Greitens believed conspired to publicize allegations of misconduct that ultimately upended his political career.

Here’s a glance at some of the men with the governor’s ear who are in a position to help shape Missouri politics.

Steve Tilley is a former speaker of the Missouri House turned lobbyist and political consultant. His relationship with Parson goes back years.

When Tilley was majority floor leader in the House, Parson was appointed chairman of the powerful House rules committee. After Tilley resigned from office in 2012, Parson was one of his first consulting clients.

Over the years, Tilley and Parson’s relationship has come under scrutiny, particularly for a pattern early on in which Tilley would use leftover funds from his campaign account to donate to Parson, who in turn paid Tilley fees for consulting work.

Parson’s campaign continues to pay consulting fees to a firm owned by Tilley’s sister.

More recently, the fact that Tilley lobbies for several businesses involved in low-income housing tax credits has drawn new attention.

Greitens maneuvered to slash the program in 2017. As impeachment loomed, Greitens became convinced that figures in the low-income house tax credit industry were behind payments to a St. Louis attorney who helped publicize accusations that Greitens had photographed a bound and partially nude woman without her consent to blackmail her into silence about their 2015 affair.

The accusations were the first in a series of scandals that led to Greitens’ resignation and Parson's becoming Missouri’s 57th governor.

Aaron Willard will serve as the governor's chief of staff after years of working in and around Missouri government.

Willard previously served as Tilley’s chief of staff in the Missouri House. The two remain close, with Tilley pushing behind the scenes for Willard to get the top spot in Parson's office.

Willard also served in a similar role for former House Speaker Rod Jetton.

He went on to work as campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, executive director with the Missouri House Republican Campaign Committee and chief of staff for Republican Sen. Ryan Silvey of Kansas City, among other jobs.

In 2016, he was named state director in Missouri for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. After Trump was elected, Willard served on Trump’s transition team and eventually was named director of intergovernmental affairs for the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Robert Knodell, a veteran political consultant, is Parson's deputy chief of staff.

He previously worked as chief of staff to former Republican Missouri House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden and as policy adviser to former House Budget Chairman Allen Icet. He later was executive director of the Missouri House Republican Campaign Committee.

In 2010, while Knodell was leading that committee, Republicans gained 17 seats in the Missouri House.

He also served as political director of the Missouri Republican Party, and following that, he co-founded Barklage & Knodell, a political consulting firm based in the St. Louis suburbs.

Knodell returned as executive director of the House Republican Campaign Committee in 2015, stepping down this month to take the job in the Parson administration.

David Barklage is a political consultant who has been a fixture in Missouri politics for nearly four decades and is a longtime business partner of Robert Knodell's.

In the 1990s, Barklage led campaign committees in both the Missouri House and Senate that eventually helped engineer the Republican takeover of the legislature for the first time in 50 years.

He was long seen as the right hand of Peter Kinder, a former Senate leader who served three terms as lieutenant governor. The two split in 2016 when Kinder ran for governor and Barklage backed another candidate.

That year, Barklage’s firm also worked for Parson’s campaign for lieutenant governor.

His consulting firm also works for a group of political action committees associated with Tilley and largely funded by the low-income housing industry.

Barklage also has no love lost for Parson's predecessor. After working for a rival candidate in the 2016 GOP gubernatorial primary, Barklage was essentially booted from his Jefferson City office when one of Greitens’ donors bought the building and turned it into the headquarters for Greitens' dark-money nonprofit, A New Missouri Inc.

James Harris, another longtime political adviser to Parson, is a veteran Jefferson City operative.

Harris worked as political director for Republican Matt Blunt’s successful 2004 gubernatorial campaign, eventually winning the coveted appointment of director of boards and commissions — a job that allowed him to oversee appointments for the new administration.

He resigned from the Blunt administration in 2006 and founded his own political consulting firm, where he's worked with political and corporate clients across the country.

Harris was one of the consultants on Parson’s successful 2016 lieutenant governor campaign, and his firm continues to be paid a $2,250 monthly retainer from Parson’s campaign committee.

Kenny Ross serves as chief of staff to House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.

He previously spent four years working for Parson, first while Parson was a member of the House and then during his time in the Senate.

Before becoming Richardson’s chief of staff, Ross served as the House’s legislative director.

He’s widely expected to continue to serve as chief of staff for the incoming House speaker, Rep. Elijah Haahr of Springfield.

Jorgen Schlemeier, a longtime Jefferson City lobbyist with a vast list of clients, has been around the Missouri Statehouse for almost three decades.

He began his career in Jefferson City as an administrative aide to then-Senate Minority Floor Leader Tom McCarthy. He became a lobbyist in 1992, eventually forming the firm Gamble & Schlemeier.

Schlemeier’s firm has a long list of lobbying clients in a range of industries, from pharmacies to stem cell research to government entities such as Kansas City.

He also represents the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, an organization that advocates for the low-income housing tax credit program.

Shannon Cooper is a longtime friend of Parson's, going back to when the two served in the House together.

He was in the Missouri House for eight years representing a rural western Missouri district. That included a stint as chairman of the House rules committee, with Parson serving as his vice chairman.

Term limits forced Cooper from office in 2009. He then joined the lobbying firm The Giddens Group.

The firm's Kansas City corporate clients include Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, Sprint and Hallmark.

Cooper also represents the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, a labor union.