Ask an Expert: Political scientist Terry Jones discusses the changes afoot in Jefferson City

by | Jun 18, 2018

The professor emeritus offered insight on such questions as whether the lieutenant governor's seat should be filled after Mike Parson replaced Eric Greitens in the governor's office.
Terry Jones

Terry Jones, professor emeritus and internship coordinator in the Department of Political Science, first joined the UMSL faculty in 1969 and has been an astute observer of Missouri state politics for nearly 50 years. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Terry Jones, a professor emeritus and internship coordinator in the Department of Political Science at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, has been an astute observer of the Missouri state capitol for decades.

But he’d never seen anything to compare with the events of the past five months in Jefferson City, culminating in Gov. Eric Greitens’ resignation on June 1.

It marked the first time since 2000, when Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash while campaigning for the U.S. Senate, that a Missouri governor did not complete his term.

Lt. Gov. Mike Parson has ascended to the governorship, becoming the 57th man to hold that office in the state’s history and already embarked on a listening tour around the state as he looks to strike a less divisive tone than Greitens did during his 17 months in office. Meanwhile, Parson’s former post remains vacant with no clear established procedure for filling it.

For the latest installment of the “Ask an Expert” series, UMSL Daily spoke to Jones about the historic midterm change, Parson’s transition to the governor’s office and what can or should be done to replace the lieutenant governor.

Other than Carnahan’s death in 2000, is there any other precedent in Missouri history for what has happened in the last two weeks?

My knowledge of Missouri history is quite good from World War II forward. I could not say definitively whether this ever happened in the 19th century. Missouri’s undergone two major revisions in its constitution – the first in 1875 and the second in 1945 – so certainly since 1945, no. Under the latest version of the Missouri Constitution, this is the first instance of this.

How rare has this been nationally?

It’s very unusual – not unprecedented but unusual – for governors not to fulfill their term. So that’s why, when it happens here, we have to treat it like very new news and we have to go back a ways to figure out whether it’s happened before.

What has Mike Parson had to do to transition to this new role?

First, former Lt. Gov. Parson, now Gov. Parson had some time to think about this. Since January, he knew – he had to know – that the odds that he was going to become governor were fairly high, so he had the opportunity to think about, “Well, if it happens, how would I proceed?” His persona throughout his career – and I’ve only known him since he was a state legislator – has been one of calm and friendliness. He’s serious about what he does but not serious about himself. He has a smile on his face. He believes he can get along with anybody. So he did not have to change to continue to project that. That was a stark contrast with then-Gov. Greitens, who clearly dealt with the world in terms of there being people that he admired and people whom he was very critical of. In the latter category was basically everybody in Jefferson City but him and his immediate staff. He didn’t differentiate. The members of the legislature – both Republican and Democrat – were very put off by that, as anybody would be.

What were your impressions of Parson’s first address to the General Assembly?

I wasn’t surprised at all. He had, in one sense, four months to write it. He was reassuring. The message was short and sweet: “The policy positions remain largely the same. I’m a Republican. I’m a conservative Republican. But I’m not going to make this set of remarks a set of specific agenda items.” But the tone was much different, and he went out of his way to describe the legislators in positive terms – as people who serve the state, not get rich off the state, who work hard, who are not lazy, who are dedicated, not third-graders.

The fact that Parson is more of an insider – that he has been in the General Assembly, that he was a senator before becoming lieutenant governor – how does that actually impact his ability to govern?

I think the word “insider” is a little unfair because it’s pejorative. He’s a veteran of the process. That gives him experience and credibility in working with others who are within the process. We live in a checks-and-balances, separation-of-powers system. The legislature has to pass legislation before it can become law. Of course, the governor has to sign it. Certainly, during Greitens’ first year, nothing passed the legislature that had Greitens’ stamp on it. Things he campaigned on, such as campaign reform – ironically enough – and rejection of gifts and so forth, none of that happened. Right-to-work was going to happen. As long as a Republican was elected governor, that was going to happen, and it did. So he had no impact on the policy outputs and changes in policy in the state of Missouri during his year-plus in office, because he never shifted into governing mode and never sat down with the legislature to talk about that.

So there’s the question of lieutenant governor. Parson has said that he would like to appoint a lieutenant governor. What does the law say? Can he?

First of all, I’m not a lawyer. My friends who are lawyers, which includes Mike Wolff, the former dean at Saint Louis U. law school, say it’s unclear. It’s ambiguous. When things are ambiguous, the best advice that I have and others have is that if it doesn’t say you can’t do it, then do it. He’s in a honeymoon period. Both a honeymoon born out of relief – “Boy, Greitens is gone” – and “You’re a nice guy, it’d be nice to have you as governor.” So if you’re going to do it, do it relatively soon. Don’t rush it, but don’t wait forever. It makes some sense to do that in terms of having a partner.

That will be different in Missouri. There are some states where the governor and the lieutenant governor run as a single ticket, and of course, that’s the way we do it at the federal level. In Missouri, the people make that decision, and people can and have had split tickets. I think the most notable example was when John Ashcroft was governor and Harriett Woods was lieutenant governor – a big distance on the political spectrum. More recently we had Peter Kinder and Jay Nixon – not as much of a policy difference as Ashcroft and Woods, but certainly a personality difference.

To date, the governor could not count on having the lieutenant governor as a complete and full partner on the team, unlike the United States, where a Mike Pence or Joe Biden filled that role for Donald Trump or Barack Obama. So this will be a rare opportunity for a governor to have that – somebody who the governor wants and it’s going to be clear the governor chose. There’ll be a closer link to the governor in terms of being able to utilize that individual for various policy and political initiatives.

What are the main responsibilities of that office of lieutenant governor in Missouri?

The overwhelming responsibility of the lieutenant governor is to be there if the governor cannot serve for reasons of health or other reasons, or is out of the state. As an aside, when we were in a situation of very sharp partisan differences – Republican John Ashcroft, Democrat Harriett Woods – Ashcroft was very reluctant to ever leave the state. During those eight years where it was Gov. Jay Nixon and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, Gov. Nixon interpreted it not as physically leaving the state but as being out of touch with the state. Given electronic connections now – he always had his cell phone – no matter where he was in the world, he was still within the state. So Peter Kinder never became governor, even for a second, even though Nixon was overseas on state trips and so forth. That aspect of it – the person filling in while the governor’s in Europe or something – that’s gone by the wayside because of modern communication, technology.

The people occupying the lieutenant governorship used to only work part-time at lieutenant governor, which is to say they kept their full-time job. The pay was relatively low, and even in current terms it’s still relatively low. So if you wanted to continue to practice law or sell real estate or farm, you could do so, and most did. In the ’70s, a Republican named Bill Phelps ran for lieutenant governor, and his principal campaign message was “I’ll serve full-time.” He won, and indeed, his nickname became “Full-time Phelps.” Since that established a precedent, lieutenant governor candidates have said, “I’ll serve full-time. I won’t try to carry on another career during that period.”

Well, then the legislature started to think – and the lieutenant governor welcomed this, whoever it happened to be – “Well, as long as you have all this time on your hands, maybe we could put you on this commission and put you on this commission and put you on this commission.” So now, the lieutenant governor is an ex-officio member of a lot of fairly important commissions – tax credit commissions and so forth – and has also become the chief advocate for the elderly and the point person also for tourism.

Lastly, Greitens ran as an outsider. Trump obviously ran as an outsider. Worldwide, people are running as outsiders and having success. Is this going to continue in perpetuity or do you think there’s a point where that message doesn’t work as well?

Let’s separate two questions. One is a professional judgment about whether occupying office without considerable experience at the governmental level is a good idea. History suggests – and we’ve had now at least in Greitens a very good example – it’s a very bad idea. Missourians, up until now, have wanted a resume. For the last 50 years, every governor had at least some experience. Probably the least experienced was Joe Teasdale, but he had been prosecuting attorney of Jackson County. Most of the governors had considerable experience: John Ashcroft, Warren Hearnes, Mel Carnahan. Jay Nixon was 16 years as attorney general and six years as state senator. It’s going to be a test for the next elections statewide where we have an outside candidate bragging about being the outside candidate running against an experienced candidate who emphasizes his or her experience. The jury’s still out. Whether or not enough voters will regard the Greitens phenomenon as a lesson about the importance of experience has yet to be tested, but it will be tested.

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik