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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

If Parson wants Gardner replacement to stick around, he may need to cross party lines

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson listens in as he is introduced on Monday, April 24, 2023, before he gives remarks to kick off St. Louis' inaugural Tech Week at World Wide Technology's world headquarters in Maryland Heights.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson listens as he is introduced on April 24 before he gives remarks to kick off St. Louis' inaugural Tech Week at World Wide Technology in Maryland Heights.

Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson may need to choose a Democrat when picking St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s replacement.

Parson’s decision on who will succeed Gardner is complex. Depending on what his goals are, his selection could either be effectively a placeholder or someone who can stay for the long haul.

Gardner is resigning on June 1. And while Parson makes the final call on who will serve the remainder of her term, a Republican circuit attorney would face a huge uphill battle for reelection in 2024 in heavily Democratic St. Louis.

After Gardner announced her resignation on Thursday, Parson released a statement saying that he’s “committed to finding a candidate who represents the community, values public safety, and can help restore faith in the city's criminal justice system."

He’s said in the past that he plans to consult with Democratic leaders like St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones on who would be a suitable replacement for Gardner. While Jones and Parson don’t see eye to eye much on policy matters, they did serve in the Missouri General Assembly together, which could mean they may be able to work cohesively.

“I've already talked to the mayor. I would talk to her again,” Parson said earlier this year. “I would talk to other people that are in elected positions.”

Parson could go in several ideological directions with his choice.

Gov. Mike Parson is welcomed by legislators on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, during the State of the State address at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson is welcomed by legislators on Jan. 18 during the State of the State address at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.

While he’s filled scores of vacancies over his time as governor, he has rarely had an opportunity to appoint someone who is not a judge in a heavily Democratic jurisdiction like St. Louis. So Gardner’s resignation could give Parson a chance to pick a conservative who aligns with the GOP on criminal justice issues.

“There's probably a desire from the governor and from other Republicans in the state … to have a conservative law and order prosecutor in St. Louis,” said University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Anita Manion. “But as to whether that would have a lingering impact? I think that's unlikely, because that person would most likely only be in office for a year and would be voted out.”

For example, Republican Daniel Zdrodowski got less than 26% of the vote against Gardner in 2020.

And while it’s possible for Parson to choose someone who doesn’t live in the city of St. Louis (as has happened when there are prosecutor vacancies in smaller counties), attorney Dave Roland noted on Twitter that the statute “only allows appointment of a non-resident ‘if there is no qualified person in the county who can or will accept such appointment.’”

The State of Missouri flag waves outside the Mel Carnahan Courthouse on Thursday, May 4, 2023, in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri flag waves outside the Mel Carnahan Courthouse on Thursday in downtown St. Louis.

Another possibility is that Parson could appoint a current or former judge, or someone in private practice, who would agree not to run for a full term in 2024.

In that scenario, Parson could appoint someone with conservative viewpoints — and who would be focused on fixing a lot of the systemic problems in the circuit attorney’s office. There are plenty of judges who could fill this role, especially since Republican governors have been filling judicial vacancies in the city since 2017.

“And I think that in a lot of ways that is appealing, because it seems like somewhere where Mayor Jones and Governor Parson could possibly come together and agree upon someone, maybe someone who is less controversial,” Manion said. “And someone who could get the circuit attorney's office over this dire situation that they're in.”

Manion said that one problem with that approach is continuity. There’s no guarantee that whoever wins the Democratic primary for a full four-year term in 2024 will preserve the placeholder’s changes.

“Do we want to have to come in with a brand-new person in another year and a half, and start all over again, and have the uncertainty that we've had under this administration?” Manion said. “I think there are pitfalls to that as well.”

Mayor Tishaura O. Jones speaks about modernizing city services and functions during her 2023 State of the City address on Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at the campus of St. Louis University in Midtown.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Mayor Tishaura Jones speaks during her 2023 State of the City address on April 25 at the campus of St. Louis University.

Parson could select a Democrat to succeed Gardner.

Jones said in a statement that her administration is “hopeful that the governor will work with local leaders to appoint a successor who reflects the values of communities across St. Louis."

Of course, there’s no guarantee that a Democratic appointee will survive in next year’s primary — a contest that already has several announced participants. Parson’s selection may even be pilloried for being an appointee of a Republican governor, a message that may resonate in a Democratic city.

“And I think another consideration, no matter which sort of archetype they go with, is representation,” Manion said. “We’re in a situation in Missouri where all the statewide office holders are men, and all but one are white. And we're replacing a historic elected official. So I think that representation also has to be a thought in this appointment.”

A Black Democratic appointee who has the political backing of people like Jones may have a better chance of prevailing in an election, especially if that person can forge a coalition of African American and white progressive voters.

And while civil rights advocate Daryl Gray doubts that Parson will select a Democrat, he hopes the governor listens to leaders in the city.

“Will he appoint a Democrat? Probably not,” Gray said. “But will he appoint a moderate? Hopefully. And so we'll be working on that.”

Reporter Rachel Lippmann contributed information for this story.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.