Missouri’s Combative Governor, Deep in Scandal, Puts on the Charm
Posted January 14, 2018 6:00 p.m. EST
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — As Paul DeGregorio, a prominent Missouri Republican and former political operative, pondered whom to support for governor of Missouri in 2015, he thought he had found just the right candidate after spending about an hour with Eric Greitens.
Greitens seemed to check every box: He was a political newcomer and family man whose résumé included stints as a Rhodes scholar and Navy SEAL. “I was hopeful that he would bring the change that was necessary in Missouri, and be this breath of fresh air,” DeGregorio said.
But not long after Greitens won the election and took office last January, DeGregorio began to have second thoughts.
The governor started to engage in the opaque insider politics that he had campaigned against. His allies set up a political nonprofit that attacked his rivals, including fellow Republicans, and Greitens openly taunted members of his own party. Then came the news Wednesday that Greitens, 43, who is married with two children, had had an affair around the time he was assuring DeGregorio that his background was clean.
“He held so much promise because of his background,” DeGregorio said. “It just comes down to: It was all about his ego and his ambition.”
Now this onetime rising star of the Republican Party, whose White House ambitions were something of an open secret, is mired in a political crisis that has left him alienated among many of his former champions.
He is in survival mode, telephoning scores of legislators and donors in a furious scramble to contain the damage and hold on to the governorship.
The maverick, confrontational style that helped Greitens win office, achieve some legislative victories and attract national attention is now hampering his efforts to weather a fierce political storm. He is on an emergency charm offensive.
“This kind of an approach works very well until it doesn’t,” said John Hancock, a political strategist and former chairman of the Missouri Republican Party. “When you don’t foster relationships with the legislators that you’re serving with and when you don’t foster relationships with the press who cover the state capital on a daily basis, that all can be just fine. But when you then face a crisis, there’s no cavalry running to your defense.”
Lawmakers have said Greitens came off as smug at times and was quick to tout successes as his own. In a recent video “success story” on his Facebook page, he pours out a tin of car keys and says he will save taxpayers $500,000 by getting rid of 30 state-owned cars.
Most Republicans in the state Legislature have not pulled their support for the governor over the affair, but they have not loudly defended him, either, and some have suggested he must resign — or, one said, be impeached — if all the allegations leveled against him prove true.
Greitens’ lawyer, James Bennett, said the governor was not resigning. He added that Greitens was paying him personally and that “his goal is to begin the process of making amends with people who may feel impacted by the lapse in his conduct that he has acknowledged.”
While Greitens has admitted to the affair, he denied that he had threatened to release a compromising photo of the woman if she told anyone, an allegation made by the woman’s former husband in a report that aired on KMOV, a St. Louis television station. The ex-husband leaked a recording of the woman in which she brought up the photo.
The woman, who has not been publicly identified and did not respond to requests for comment, requested privacy in a statement by her lawyer Friday.
“It is very disappointing that her ex-husband betrayed her confidence by secretly, and without her knowledge, recording a private and deeply personal conversation and then subsequently released the recording to the media without her consent,” said the statement from her law firm, Knight & Simpson.
Some Democrats have called on Greitens to resign. Several Republican lawmakers signed a letter asking the state attorney general, Josh Hawley, to investigate the blackmail claims. Hawley’s office said the issue was outside his jurisdiction but St. Louis’ prosecutor, Kimberly Gardner, said she was investigating.
A spokesman for the governor did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.
Greitens, who has asked the people of the state for forgiveness, has made a series of calls to legislators showing contrition, reiterating his denial of any blackmail effort and assuring them there is nothing more to come. But many lawmakers in both parties are withholding judgment, allowing the investigation to take its course.
“He’s going to have to figure out what’s best for him and what’s best for the state of Missouri,” said Nate Walker, a Republican state representative. Asked if Greitens should consider stepping down, Walker said, “I think that has to be an option.”
Walker, one of the governor’s earliest campaign supporters from the Legislature, recalled asking Greitens when he was a candidate if there was anything in his past that might come out. Greitens assured him there was not, Walker recalled.
The governor’s allies have aired ads against Republican legislators, exposing one’s cellphone number. Not surprisingly, some of those who were targeted appear to be relishing the governor’s moment of crisis, such as Sen. Rob Schaaf, who tweeted Wednesday, “Stick a fork in him.” Greitens has derided his fellow lawmakers as “career politicians,” and has used harsh personal language against his ostensible political allies.
“I can see by your pupils in your beady little eyes that you’re afraid of me,” he said to Paul Wieland, a Republican state senator, in a dispute last year over a legislative pay raise.
Jean Evans, a Republican state representative in her first term, said it was disappointing “to have a teammate, particularly a leader of the team, speak negatively of other members of the team.”
Evans was among those who received a call from Greitens — whose wife, Sheena, was on the line as well, seeking to make amends.
“I was certainly surprised and pleased that he made that effort,” she said. Todd Graves, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, said the governor’s style had hurt him with his political relationships but had resulted in some legislative victories, too.
Greitens achieved the passage of right-to-work legislation, long a goal among the state’s Republicans. He has signed into law bills that make it more difficult to sue an employer for discrimination and restrict how much plaintiffs can receive in injury lawsuits. And he has gotten the state to withhold $140 million that was slated to be spent on low-income housing tax credits.
He has not fared as well on other issues. An ethics reform bill to ban lobbyist gifts to legislators failed after questions arose about the governor’s own ethics.