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Parson, Missouri GOP Statewide Officials Embark On 4-Year Terms Amid Pandemic Calamity

Judge Sarah Castle (right) administers the oath of office to governor Mike Parson (left) with First Lady Teresa Parson during the Missouri Bicentennial Inauguration on Monday, January 11, 2021, at the Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City. Gov. Parson has served as Missouri's governor since June 1, 2018, when then-Gov. Eric Greitens resigned.
Daniel Shular
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Judge Sarah Castle (right) administers the oath of office to Gov. Mike Parson with first lady Teresa Parson on Monday during the Missouri Bicentennial Inauguration at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.

Updated at 5:05 p.m. Jan. 11 with post-inauguration comments from Parson

Gov. Mike Parson and four statewide officials took their oaths of offices on Monday — ushering in four more years of near total Republican rule over Missouri.

It also marks what could be the last phase of Parson’s political career, which started as an elected sheriff of a small southwest Missouri county and eventually led to one of the largest electoral mandates ever for a Republican governor.

Around noon, Parson, 65, took the oath of office in front of several thousand people gathered on the Missouri Capitol grounds. This will be Parson’s first four-year term after serving roughly half of Eric Greitens’ truncated tenure.

Without mentioning the myriad of challenges both in recent and not-so-recent days, Parson struck an optimistic posture about Missouri being able to persevere in uncertain times.

“As we closed the chapter on 2020, we all had time to reflect. There were sad times, tough times and exciting times. And through it all ... Missourians prevailed,” Parson said. “Despite the challenges, the heartbeat of our state continues to pump strong.”

Parson’s speech was light on specific policy proposals. He did express support for helping teachers, doctors, farmers and law enforcement officers.

“There’s a spark of Missouri hope and courage born in all of us ... and what we do with it is up to us,” Parson said. “The work to be done is not up to me alone. It is shared by all of us.”

Gov. Mike Parson points and waves to attendees at the Missouri Bicentennial Inauguration ceremony on Monday, January 11, 2021, on the South Lawn of the Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City. Parson serves as the state's 57th governor.
Daniel Shular
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson points and waves to attendees at the Missouri Bicentennial Inauguration ceremony on Monday on the South Lawn of the Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City. Parson serves as the state's 57th governor.

From Wheatland to Jefferson City

Parson was born in Wheatland, a Hickory County town of fewer than 375 people. He started working at gas stations when he was 15 and eventually bought two of them while working at the Polk County Sheriff’s Department and raising cattle at his farm in Bolivar.

“Never imagined I’d be in the role I was, taking the oath of office for the people of this state today,” Parson said during a press conference after he was sworn in. “But when I think about where I’ve come from in very, very humble beginnings, and what the future holds for me and my family and what it holds for all Missourians, it was just a very special occasion today.”

He was elected Polk County sheriff in 1993 and served in that position until his 2005 election to the Missouri House. He served about six years in the Missouri Senate before being elected lieutenant governor in 2016.

After he'd been lieutenant governor for roughly a year, state government plunged into crisis after Greitens became ensnared in allegations of sexual abuse and campaign finance misdeeds. Parson became governor in June 2018 after Greitens’ resignation. He spent his first year in office helping to pass a major economic development package, a transportation bonding plan and a restrictive abortion bill that’s currently being challenged in court.

During the news conference, Parson reflected on how he’s had to face a number of crises since taking office under unusual circumstances.

“We’re meeting every challenge, we’re doing everything we need to do,” Parson said. “Maybe the gray hair is paying off, the wisdom side of it. But it just seemed like it was one thing after another after another.”

The COVID-19 pandemic dominated his second year in office and also was the major issue in his campaign for a full four-year term against Democratic state Auditor Nicole Galloway. While the Parson-Galloway race was one of the few gubernatorial contests last year that drew millions of dollars' worth of national money, it wasn’t close: Parson won by the largest margin for a Republican gubernatorial hopeful since John Ashcroft’s landslide 1988 victory.

In the months ahead, Parson will be tasked with continuing to roll out COVID-19 vaccines throughout the state. He’ll also likely deal with legislation to shield businesses from COVID-19-related liability, as well as congressional and state legislative redistricting.

He also said he wants to expand early childhood education before his term as governor is up. That’s been a priority of his since he took office.

“I want the kids of this state to be better off,” Parson said. “I want them to know what the American dream is about. I want them to understand that people like me, people in these positions will fight for them day in and day out so they have the opportunity to make decisions on their own.”

He’ll also have to come up with a plan to expand Medicaid, after voters approved it last summer.

“We got to go back to the drawing board again,” Parson said. “We’ve got to make sure the people who are verified to be on there deserve to be on there. Right now, I think we’ve got close to a million people on there. The expansion’s going to add another 200,000. So the reality is, we’ve got to figure out a way to pay for that.

“We’ve been working on that, and there will be a proposal for that in the budget,” he added.

Missouri as an influencer

The inauguration of Parson, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, Attorney General Eric Schmitt, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and state Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick was decidedly scaled down compared to past swearing-in ceremonies. Because of COVID-19, the inaugural ball was moved to August — when vaccines will likely be more readily available to the public.

Monday’s ceremony took place less than a week after a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that left five people dead, including a Capitol Police officer. That has major implications for Missouri, since U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley is facing resignation calls after being the first senator to object to President-elect Joe Biden’s victories in a number of states.

“We all know what happened up there, people took action they never should have taken,” Parson said on Monday. “I’ve said all along: Whether it’s in Missouri or it’s Washington, D.C., I believe in civil protest. I believe people have the right to the First Amendment. But what I don’t believe is that anybody, for any cause, has the right to commit crimes. Period. Doesn’t matter what the occasion is or where it is.”

Parson declined to say whether he thought Hawley should stay in office, adding that he wanted to spend his time talking about his inauguration and state-based issues.

“We’ll be talking about Washington, D.C., every day from hereafter,” Parson said. “Everybody has to be responsible for the decisions they make, good or bad or indifferent. But again, today’s about the bicentennial and about being sworn in as the 57th governor.”

This year marks Missouri’s 200th anniversary of statehood. Gary Kremer, the head of the Missouri State Historical Society, noted how famous Missourians like Harry Truman and Mark Twain influenced the country and the world for generations.

“Our diversity is one of our greatest assets as a state,” Kremer said. “Our diversity should not and must not divide us. As we enter this bicentennial year, we have a great opportunity as the Show-Me State to show the rest of the country and the world how diversity can be a source of strength. Perhaps it is time for Missourians to show all Americans the way forward.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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