After 15 months on the job, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe announces he will seek full 4-year term

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, left, appointed Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe to the office of lieutenant governor, despite some legal uncertainty about whether he has the authority to fill the position.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, left, appointed Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe to the office of lieutenant governor, despite some legal uncertainty about whether he has the authority to fill the position. The Associated Press

After serving as Missouri’s lieutenant governor for 15 months, Mike Kehoe officially announced Monday that he will seek a full four-year term come 2020.

The run would be his first for statewide elected office. The 57-year-old previously served two terms as the state senator for the district that includes Missouri’s capital city.

Last year, Kehoe was one of three statewide elected officials appointed by Gov. Mike Parson. Parson tapped the then-Senate majority floor leader to serve as lieutenant governor after Parson vacated the job to become governor.

Kehoe kicked off his campaign bid through an evening rally at Jefferson City’s Memorial Park, which was named to honor those who served in World War II.

The choice was a nod to his focus on supporting Missouri veterans, which is one of the key jobs of the lieutenant governor through his seat on the Missouri Veterans Commission.

The lieutenant governor sits on several state commissions, including those that focus on seniors, tourism and low-income housing. In a recent reorganization of state government, the Missouri Arts Council is now under the lieutenant governor’s purview.

“The most important thing for me is to continue to support Gov. Parson and his priorities,” Kehoe said prior to the rally. “Workforce development and infrastructure are two things that are near and dear to my heart and something I’ve worked on the private sector and my political life.”

Kehoe worked for decades in the automobile dealers industry, eventually purchasing a Jefferson City Ford dealership in 1992 that he ran for 20 years.

“I don’t consider myself one of the insiders because I was a small businessman that was an aggravated taxpayer and ran for state senate seat,” Kehoe said.

He is sticking with his slogan he adopted in 2010 for his first run for office: “Leadership. Values. Common Sense.”

“Everybody knows you are not going to make decisions that make 100 percent of people happy,” Kehoe said. “But that’s what leadership is about — you got to make the tough decisions and you go to make the people around you better so that they are ready to lead as well.”

Kehoe pointed to his support of recent legislation that rolls back school start dates as one example of leadership. In a bid to promote Missouri tourism, the bill wrested control away from local school boards to set a school start date to having a statewide date that falls in September.

The legislation did not sit well with educators, school administration officials and school boards.

But the lack of consistency across Missouri’s hundreds of school districts inhibited statewide efforts to promote tourism, Kehoe said. Start dates not only affected families who want to go on vacation, but also tourism-related businesses that hired high-schoolers for summer help, he said.

“I know that decision didn’t make everyone happy,” Kehoe said. “... you have to stay true to who you are, though.”

Kehoe has also been a supporter of bringing back state tax credits for production companies choose to film in Missouri. The tax breaks were cut following the 2008 recession, he said.

“Now that we have a robust economy and we are seeing that without those tax credits the various production of films we’ve lost, it’s time for us to look for the business case for those tax credits,” Kehoe said.

As lieutenant governor, Kehoe sits on the Missouri Housing Development Commission, which administers tax credits for low-income housing projects. The commission has not issued state tax credits ever since then-Gov. Eric Greitens turned off the program, saying it needed to be reformed.

With the legislature at an impasse, the program has remained frozen for two years.

“If the governor or some magic wand came and turned the tax credits back on again, the conversation will still be going on,” Kehoe said.

However, Kehoe said the “long-term path” for low-income housing tax credits is to have a legislation that both the Missouri House and Senate, governor and low-income housing industry can all agree to.

Though the day-to-day job can focus on niche issues, one of the most important functions of the lieutenant governor is “to be ready to serve” should the sitting governor resign or die.

Kehoe has already had a taste in the executive’s seat. In June, Parson gave Kehoe the ability to act as governor — “three days after the Blues won the Stanley Cup,” Kehoe recalled — during Parson’s two-week vacation after an overseas trade mission.

“I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work, what style Missourians like and what they don’t like, and what it takes to be chief executive,” Kehoe said. “So at some point in time, I think that will be something I will be very much ready for.”

No other contenders have so far publicly announced they would challenge Kehoe for the seat.

An independent political action committee formed to support Kehoe, the American Dream PAC, reported having about $86,000 cash on hand, while Kehoe’s candidate committee has about $220,000.

Kehoe didn’t always have political aspirations.

Though based in Jefferson City for more than three decades, Kehoe was raised in St. Louis by a single mother as youngest of six.

“My dad left when I was a year old,” he said. “My mom taught us how to work.”

Kehoe said he wanted to make sure the path — starting out from “very humble roots” to being successful economically — stays open behind him.

“If you could see where I grew up in North City St. Louis and then think I’m the lieutenant governor of the state of Missouri — that’s a surreal, humbling fact I think about every day,” Kehoe said.

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Crystal Thomas covers Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star. An Illinois native and a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has experience covering state and local government.