Unfortunately, perhaps, Missouri’s new governor doesn’t have all the answers.
Fortunately, he knows that.
“If you really want to be a public servant, which is what I believe these jobs are — I believe that as the governor of Missouri, that’s what you are — you’ve got to be willing to admit you don’t know everything,” he said Tuesday, June 5, in his first one-on-one press interview after becoming Missouri’s 57th governor. “And you’ve got to be a good listener, and then you’ve got to figure out how do you make things better.”
The interview took place in a busy governor’s office in an otherwise not so busy interior of the capitol with the legislature not in session. The outside, though, was busy with extensive restoration that Parson led the way in getting approved while he was in the Senate.
The new governor’s grammar is not as polished as that of many who came before him in the position, and he knows that, too. But he speaks as a common man with perhaps uncommon achievements who knows from where he came and how he got to where he is.
“Home is important to me,” he offered for why he invited his Sunday school class to witness his private swearing-in ceremony. “I’m not running away from it. I’m not running away from Wheatland, Missouri, or how I grew up.”
Relying on relationships
People back home in Hickory and Polk counties seem to understand what he says, grammar aside. And people in state government apparently do, too. The key word in his vocabulary to explain his rise to the top seat in Missouri government: relationships.
They helped him win election as lieutenant governor with record dominance of counties won. They put him where he could move into the top job last Friday after former Gov. Eric Greitens resigned.
“All of this, my entire career -- and being governor of the state of Missouri I doubt will be any different -- it will always be about relationships,” he said. “It will be about building them. Even with the people who don’t always agree with you. But you’ve got to have them, especially up here. You’ve got to be able to reach across the aisle from time to time to get good things done for the state. Because some of the things we’ll be talking about in this administration, whether it is workforce development, whether it’s infrastructure, those are not political issues. Really not. Those are what’s best for the state.”
He said some advisers wondered what signals he could be sending by inviting his Sunday school class from Bolivar First Baptist Church to his swearing-in. Would people of different faiths be offended?
That’s where listening to his heart kicked in, advice offered by his older brother, a minister, during the prayer service before he took the oath of office.
Parson said people are wondering who he is, what he is about, and those classmates were among the people he wanted with him that day to help identify who he is, not to signal that he will use his new authority to try to turn everyone else into Baptists.
He was back in Bolivar and in that class the Sunday morning after taking his oath.
Learning from others
It was someone else from Bolivar, Dr. Tim DeClue, head of the computer science department at Southwest Baptist University, who helped prove to him over the past year that he doesn’t know everything. DeClue visited the lieutenant governor’s office, lobbying for computer science curriculum in Missouri schools, K-12.
“He asked me questions (about texting and what happens to make it possible) ... and my first response sitting there is to think, ‘OK, I need to think of something to come up with,’ but the right response ... was to admit I didn’t know. I had no clue.”
He credited DeClue for educating him about the need for that curriculum statewide, so he could help spread that K-12 CS message as part of the workforce development mission.
Parson asserted that Missouri may be 15 to 20 years behind Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana regarding workforce development.
“They have spent a tremendous amount of resources on it,” he said, adding that he is intent on surrounding himself with the right people to start making up that ground, people who can say, ‘Here ís our mission; now, how do we get there?’”
Discovering middle ground
Asked about people who early in his life had particular lasting influence on him, Parson mentioned two teachers, two older brothers, a Sunday school teacher and multiple “characters” who loafed at the gas stations where he worked.
“I remember the people who would loaf there,” he said. “They would be successful, even for a little town like Wheatland. They had done well. If you just listened, they would be talking about buying a piece of property or talking about a business venture, or what they do with their money after they make a little money.”
And what does that mean, to be successful?
“In a small town like that, your work ethics are huge and neighbors are big. Everybody helped one another out. If you had a problem, you didn’t think about calling the government. It was normally a neighbor who helped.
Government, to him, should be closer to a last resort.
“It does have a place to play, services to provide, but at the same time I don’t think it is always a good idea to depend on government for all our answers. I think once you do everything you can do, then maybe you reach out to say, ‘OK what is it government can do?’”
But he believes government should do more to prevent problems rather than being reactive to them.
“One thing I have learned from being up here for a few years is that government is so used to reacting to something,” he said. “When a problem happens that is bad, then government tries to step in. I think you gotta really be proactive.”
He admits to having modified over time some of his views about always preferring smaller government that does less.
“There are things government can do,” he said, “especially in health care, to prevent things early on for our kids, our seniors, or for whoever is on Medicaid.”
So, as someone who has proven he can reach across the aisle, is he more in the middle than to the right?
“You know, sometimes you can get branded where you are in politics,” he said. “I believe in the Republican philosophy. I believe in being conservative. I do think there are people so far right or left that they are ineffective on both sides. I don’t know that those people are the speakers or the voices for the multitudes.
“I don’t know where the middle is. All I know is I feel like I have my conservative values that I believe in and I have stuck with them, for the most part. You know, people can brand you however they want to brand you, but at the end of the day it’s about getting things done, it’s about making accomplishments for the people.”
Weighing in on education
He provided an example of when he saw he could be in trouble back home with a vote he was preparing to make on a school voucher issue related to a metropolitan area. He said he thought it was the best move for that area and he saw no threat to his school districts back home, even though he knew school leaders there would see it differently.
“It was a line they didn’t want to see crossed for fear they would be next,” he said. “But with the facts in front of me, I thought it was the best thing to do.”
Having made the decision, he arranged for a meeting with the school administrators back home to explain how and why he was going to vote that way.
“It was a productive meeting, a successful meeting,” he said, even though he knew they still didn’t like the way he was going to vote. They at least appreciated his willingness to explain.
With education, especially the state’s board of education at top of mind for so many now, Parson said he would act quickly to make the necessary appointments to get that board back to where it can meet.
Many educators welcomed news of his rise to the top job, because their relations with his predecessor were not good. But he made clear in the interview that he won’t necessarily be in agreement with them on all issues, either.
He stressed a particular change that he, as a former law enforcement officer, wants to see that would allow schools to be able to end employment and certification for teachers who are doing things “they shouldn’t be doing.”