Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who once aspired for national office, has announced he will resign after months of swirling controversy surrounding an extramarital affair and subsequent investigations about his campaign finances.
Greitens said Tuesday afternoon from his office in Jefferson City that he will step down at 5 p.m. on Friday. The move will elevate Lt. Gov. Mike Parson, a former Republican state lawmaker, to the governor’s office.
"I came to office to fight for the people of Missouri, to fight for the forgotten," Greitens said. "I love Missouri. And I love our people. That love remains."
Parson said he “was actually out at the farm’’ when he learned the news that he’d soon be governor.
“Right now we’re still trying to kind of just grasp everything like everybody else is, and we’re just going to have to figure that out right now,” Parson said as he entered the state Capitol Tuesday evening. “Gov. Greitens is still the governor of the state of Missouri and I’m the lieutenant governor, and we’re gonna function that way until Friday as the time comes.”
Republican leaders pleased to see Greitens go
Within minutes of Greitens’ announcement, reactions came pouring in.
Most of those early statements came from Republicans. And none of them regretted his decision.
House Speaker Todd Richardson — who had called for Greitens to resign weeks ago — led the trio of state House GOP leaders who praised Greitens’ action: “We believe the governor has put the best interest of Missourians first today by choosing to resign. The past few months have been difficult for everyone involved, including the governor and his family. This is a serious and solemn occasion that reminds us that our state and our duty are bigger than any one person or party.”
Politically, state Republican leaders have seen Greitens’ months-long battle to keep his job as hurting the party’s chances in November — especially those of state Attorney General Josh Hawley, who is the likely Republican challenger to incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.
That helps explain why Hawley weighed in within minutes of the governor’s press conference.
“Gov. Greitens has done the right thing today,” Hawley said. “I wish incoming Gov. Mike Parson well, and stand ready to assist him in his transition. This office’s work for the people of Missouri goes forward.”
State Republican Party chairman Todd Graves made clear that he hopes the political cloud cast by Greitens’ troubles will recede in time for the fall election.
“The Missouri Republican Party looks forward to working with Mike Parson to defend our veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate," Graves said, in part. "In addition, a united Republican Party will now focus on our number one goal: retiring Claire McCaskill from the United States Senate."
Late Tuesday, McCaskill issued a statement that did not mention Greitens: "I wish Lt. Governor Parson the best. I look forward to working with him." She and her allies had been accusing Hawley for weeks of going too soft on the governor.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, a Democrat who came under fire over her office's early legal move against the governor, had a succinct reaction. "We have reached a fair and just resolution of the pending charges. We will provide more information tomorrow." Gardner had charged Greitens in April with felony computer tampering for allegedly using a list of donors to his charity, The Mission Continues, to fundraise for his campaign.
Legal battles began in February
Although his resignation takes the possibility of impeachment off the table, Greitens still faces ongoing legal concerns. He cited mounting attorneys fees in his resignation speech.
"It is clear that for the forces that oppose us, there is no end in sight," he said, his voice cracking at times. "I cannot allow those forces to continue to cause pain and difficulty to the people that I love."
A St. Louis grand jury indicted Greitens, 44, in February on a single charge of felony invasion of privacy for allegedly taking a photo of a woman with whom he was having an affair, without her consent, and then transmitting the woman’s semi-nude or nude photograph in such a way that it could be accessed by a computer.
Though prosecutors in St. Louis later dropped those charges, a judge in St. Louis appointed Jean Peters Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor, to review them. She has until June 11 to decide whether to refile.
Baker said Tuesday that her probe is still on track, regardless of Greitens' announcement. "In the interest of pursuing justice to its fullest lengths, we will continue until our work on the case is completed,'' she said.
A House committee set up to investigate the allegations had begun to dig into possible campaign finance violations, including accusations the governor had solicited foreign donors to his campaign. And the House and Senate had both called themselves into a special session to consider the possible impeachment of the governor. The committee, which would have drafted the articles of impeachment, has now canceled all of its previously scheduled meetings for this week.
“It is our government, and we are here to take it back.”
Greitens, a native of St. Louis County, had never run for political office when he announced his bid for governor in 2015. But his biography was impressive — he was a Rhodes scholar, a Navy SEAL who had served in southeast Asia, the horn of Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the founder of the Mission Continues, a veterans’ service organization.
Like then-candidate Donald Trump, Greitens presented himself as an outsider who would shake up Jefferson City, promising to challenge the political class that, in his words, had been in control for decades but produced “nothing but embarrassment and failure.
“This is not your government. It is our government, and we are here to take it back,” he told supporters who gathered at his 2016 announcement.
Greitens was not expected to win — he was going up against GOP stalwarts like Peter Kinder and Catherine Hanaway, and millionaire John Brunner who had previously run for U.S. Senate. But Trump’s coattails, pushed him to a five-point victory over Attorney General Chris Koster, the Democrat, and sealed Republican control of Missouri government.
But it didn’t take long for Greitens and legislative Republicans to butt heads. When the governor laid out his first budget proposal less than a month after taking office, he accused lawmakers of making a mess of the state’s budget for more than a decade by fighting to “protect their pet projects and their slice of the pie — without any sense of how their choices affect the people of Missouri …”
And a secretive nonprofit group created to back the governor’s priorities, led by a former member of his campaign team, began directing its firepower at Republicans who disagreed with him, going so far as to put the cell phone number of an opponent in an ad.
Those decisions would leave the governor with very few friends in Jefferson City when he needed them the most.
An affair and a photo
On Jan. 10, just after Greitens delivered his State of the State address, KMOV-TV in St. Louis produced an explosive story: the governor had had an extramarital affair before he ran for office, and had allegedly taken a photo of the woman without her consent while she was bound and semi-nude in Greitens home. The governor, the woman said in a conversation secretly recorded by her then-husband, had then threatened to make the picture public if she ever talked about it.
Greitens admitted that he had had an affair, but denied any criminal activity. Both Republicans and Democrats called on him to step down, and the governor delayed a scheduled statewide tour to launch his tax plan.
The governor survived that first wave of negative publicity. But in late February, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner announced that a grand jury had charged Greitens with a felony for taking the photo. Greitens fired back, calling the indictment a misguided, political decision by a “reckless, liberal prosecutor” using her office to score points. The Republican Governors’ Association and a few other GOP officials backed him as well.
Gardner would later be forced to drop the charges after missteps during the investigation. But the damage had already been done. On Jan. 26, state House leadership launched a committee to investigate the charges — which would have been the first step to impeachment. That committee released a bombshell report where the woman accused Greitens of coercing her into sex acts in his basement — and slapping her.
The committee also began digging into the way the governor had financed his 2016 victory.
Parson becomes governor
Greitens’ resignation marks an ascension to the governorship for Parson, who represented a portion of southwest Missouri in the Missouri Senate and the Missouri House. Before running for the Missouri General Assembly in 2004, Parson was Polk County’s sheriff.
The 62-year-old possesses starkly different views from Greitens on a number of key issues. For instance: Parson dissented from Greitens’ bid to halt state low-income housing tax credits in late 2017. Now that Parson can appoint members to the commission that authorizes those incentives, it could allow low-income housing projects to be approved.
Parson also diverged from Greitens on cuts to in-home health care made in the latest budget. He went so far as to call for a special session to restore those services in September 2017. Greitens never ended up bringing the legislature back to deal with that issue.
And unlike Greitens, who hadn’t commented on a plan to raise the state’s gas tax for transportation funding, Parson told St. Louis Public Radio in early January that statewide officials need to vocally support such a plan. A House-Senate committee proposed a 10-cent gas tax increase that would require voter approval.
Parson defeated well-funded Democratic and Republican opposition in 2016 to become lieutenant governor. He launched a program highlighting products made in Missouri, and investigated alleged abuses at the St. Louis Veterans Home. As lieutenant governor, he also presided over the Missouri Senate during some tense moments — including breaking a filibuster over legislation barring cities from raising the minimum wage within its borders.
Before he was sworn into office in January 2017, Parson underwent surgery to remove blockage in his heart. He was able to recover quickly and get sworn into office about two weeks after the procedure.
In addition to his elected service, Parson runs a cattle ranch in his native Bolivar, Missouri. He and his wife, Teresa Parson, have two children and five grandchildren.
As of now, there is no process in Missouri statutes to fill a lieutenant governor’s vacancy. Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, filed a bill earlier this year that would require a governor to hold a special election under certain circumstances if the lieutenant governor’s post is vacant, but the measure failed to pass.
In 2000, Gov. Roger Wilson appointed Joe Maxwell as lieutenant governor. That occurred after Wilson became governor in mid-October after Mel Carnahan’s death. No one challenged that move, primarily because Maxwell had won a four-year term as lieutenant governor in the 2000 election cycle, and would have taken over that office a few weeks later.
Democrats may still attack Greitens as political symbol
While Missouri Republicans seek to pivot, the state’s Democrats want to keep the public’s attention on Greitens.
State Auditor Nicole Galloway, the other statewide Democrat on the November ballot, had no pleasant parting words for Greitens.
“Corruption in state government became worse than ever under Eric Greitens. That corruption must be cleaned up, and our state's reputation must be restored,” she said. “This can only happen if leaders put the needs of Missourians ahead of themselves.”
Said Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, a Democrat from Bellefontaine Neighbors: "Innocent people don’t resign and criminals don’t get let off the hook simply because they cut and run...."
State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, credited the national momentum of women who have gotten more outspoken over the past year when it comes battling sexual harassment.
“As the #metoo movement has demonstrated across the country, men in power who use their position to harass, coerce or assault women will be held accountable,” she said.
But state Democratic Party chairman Stephen Webber tried to keep the focus on the outgoing governor’s policies. “While corruption ended Eric Greitens' career as a politician, his schemes to slash workers' pay and rip healthcare away from vulnerable seniors continue to hurt Missourians,” Webber said.
Greitens' GOP critics happy to move on
Many of Greitens’ top GOP targets said little on Tuesday. An exception was state Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican who had incurred the governor’s wrath frequently because of their policy differences.
Richard implied Tuesday that he won’t be sorry to see Greitens go: "The last five months have been trying times for our state. Relationships were strained, and bonds were tested."
State Sen. Rob Schaaf, a Republican from St. Joseph, had been attacked by ads launched by Greitens' allied groups, including those who don't have to identify their donors. Said Schaaf on Tuesday: "I just hope this is the beginning of the end for dark money in Missouri."
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies
Follow Marshall on Twitter: @marshallgreport
Ryan Delaney contributed reporting. Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney