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Meet the candidates for Missouri governor

Austin Huguelet
Springfield News-Leader

There's more than one important race on the statewide ballot this fall.

Offices that hold enormous sway over the state's legal system, criminal justice system and elections are just a few inches down the ballot from the governor's race.

But let's be clear: the governor's race is the big one.

The winner will set the course of a 50,000-person organization that runs and regulates the state, hold the power to cut any budget line or bill without supermajority support in the legislature and set the parameters of the fight against the pandemic.

Here are your options for where to rest those responsibilities this fall:

Mike Parson

Parson, 65, is the Republican incumbent. He was elected lieutenant governor in 2016 and took over the top job in June 2018 following the resignation of Gov. Eric Greitens.

The Wheatland native previously served as a state representative and senator and as Polk County sheriff. He also ran a gas station and auto repair shop in Bolivar, where he now owns a cattle farm, and he served in the U.S. Army.

Parson has made his case for a full, four-year term based on his “balanced approach” to the pandemic with equal consideration for public health and the economy, a promise to crack down on violent crime and support police, and his Christian, conservative values he believes match Missouri’s.

On COVID-19

Parson has stood out among most other governors with his reluctance to issue statewide mandates, leaving most decisions on shutdowns, reopenings and masks to local officials.

He was one of the last governors to issue a statewide stay-home order in the spring, and even that allowed nearly every business to stay open in some form.

Parson let that order expire in early May, allowing all businesses to reopen unless they fell under the stricter local orders in the state’s major cities, and toured the state encouraging people to go shopping.

He left baseline social distancing rules in place through mid-June but notably declined to insist they be followed after authorities around the Lake of the Ozarks refused to enforce them over Memorial Day, when crowded pool parties drew national attention.

Parson has also declined to impose a statewide mask mandate despite the urging of White House task force officials and despite indications they helped slow caseload growth in other states.

Instead, he’s touted his administration’s work at increasing the supply of testing and personal protective equipment and noted that hospitals have yet to be overwhelmed to the point where they cannot treat all patients properly.

He’s also highlighted signs of an economic recovery in the months since the shutdowns, pointing out the state has recovered roughly two-thirds of the jobs lost in the crisis — better than most states – and that consumer spending got back up to pre-pandemic levels in August.

Asked for his general opinion of the response Friday, Parson said, “In the state of Missouri, I think we've done as well as we can do.”

By raw numbers, Missouri’s per capita infection rate is the 22nd highest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, and its per capita death rate is 28th highest.

But those rates have been getting worse since mid-summer: Since July 1, Missouri’s infection rate has ranked 19th-highest. Its death rate ranked 15th highest in the same time period.

On crime

Parson has also made a point of responding to a troubling rise in violent crime in the state’s major cities, including Springfield, this year.

In July, he signed a bill ramping up punishments for violent crimes and making it easier to prosecute gangs, calling it “a large step toward safety and justice for our communities.”

Criminal justice experts offered mixed reviews. They said the increased penalties wouldn't make a dent, but also said that making crime easier to prosecute could make a difference if combined with efforts to help people get better jobs and education.

To that end, Parson has pushed to make it easier for adults without college degrees to get them and proposed increasing funding for at least one early childhood program.

He made cutbacks to those programs amid a coronavirus-fueled revenue shortage this year, though.

Parson also called a special legislative session in August and September that resulted in new laws aimed at prompting a hiring binge for St. Louis police and making a state witness protection program work where it hasn’t before.

“We did the things we needed to do to give law enforcement the tools they needed,” he said in the lone gubernatorial debate Oct. 9.

Experts said those two bills could both have a positive impact, though Parson has yet to propose any funding for the witness protection program.

Parson has also harshly criticized calls by activists to "defund the police," though it's not clear any local government in Missouri is really going to do that anyway.

On values

In speeches to supporters, Parson has also made it a point to emphasize his conservative, Christian values and morality.

He put a fine point on it earlier this year when he introduced the rest of the statewide ticket at a rally at Lincoln Days in Springfield.

"If you really want to do what we've all believed in all our lives – conservative values, Christian values, moral values, love of this state and the love of this country – this is the team,” he said.

Among those values has been a strong opposition to abortion, which he proved in signing a bill banning the procedure at eight weeks of pregnancy except in cases of medical emergency, which does not include rape or incest.

(A federal judge blocked the law from taking effect last August; the state is appealing the decision.)

He noted few abortions even take place in Missouri any more, though thousands of Missouri women seek the procedure in bordering states.

"That's what you get to do in leadership," Parson told the Lincoln Days crowd. "That's why the Republican brand is so important, because you truly save lives every day."

In the Oct. 9 debate, Parson also emphasized his upbringing in a small town and in a “strong family with Christian values and moral values” as well as his experience in the Army, business, law enforcement, and as a husband, father and grandfather.

“Those life skills are what makes you a leader in the state of Missouri, those are the qualities I will bring to Jefferson City,” he said.

Missouri Auditor and candidate for governor (D) Nicole Galloway speaks at Missouri State University on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.

Nicole Galloway

Galloway, 38, is the Democratic challenger. She is currently Missouri's state auditor; she was appointed to the position in 2015 and won election to a full term in 2018.

The Fenton native, who now lives in Columbia, previously served as Boone County’s treasurer. She is an accountant and certified fraud examiner and worked as an auditor at Shelter Insurance before entering politics.

Galloway has pitched her candidacy as an opportunity for voters to push the “reset" button on the state’s coronavirus strategy, protect their health-care coverage and bring a “new way” of doing things to a Jefferson City she casts as swamped with corruption and “dark money.”

On COVID-19

Galloway says the state needs a “complete reset” on its coronavirus strategy with caseloads and hospitalizations remaining stubbornly high in recent months.

“We have to take action and act urgently to contain the spread of this virus so we can get our economy open again (and) get our schools open again,” she said in the Oct. 9 debate.

She’s vowed to start with the statewide mask mandate Parson has rejected, pitching it as a great way to slow the rise in cases without having to keep people home.

She’s also pledged to take a more hands-on approach with school reopenings by publishing guidelines specifying when districts should host fully in-person classes based on infection rates in their communities.

Heading into last weekend, one model under consideration would recommend schools in most Missouri counties operate in some sort of hybrid fashion mixing in-person and virtual learning.

Parson, for his part, has taken pride in pointing out the majority of districts have reopened this fall after shuttering in the spring. But several larger districts started online-only, and still more have had to go online at least temporarily following outbreaks.

"We can't get every student back into school until we contain the virus," Galloway said in August.

Galloway also plans to convene an “emergency medical task force” with public health experts, hospital administrators and relevant state officials to advise her and offer daily public briefings on the virus situation.

Parson, for his part, has held regular meetings with state health officials and weekly calls with infectious disease experts across the state. He also held daily press briefings for months at the outset of the crisis, but has since dialed them back to once a week – if that – despite caseloads rising.

Galloway said she would also “stand up” for Missouri and lobby Congress for more federal aid to help with state budget woes that have led Parson to cut significant amounts of planned funding for public schools and colleges this year.

Additional federal aid for state and local governments has been stalled in Congress since May, but that could change next year if Democrats win control of the Senate.

On health care

Galloway has also pledged to take steps Parson hasn’t to protect Missourians’ health care.

One such step would be passing a state law barring insurers from refusing to cover the more than 1 million Missourians with “pre-existing conditions".

That language is already part of federal law as part of the Affordable Care Act, but a group of Republican attorneys general, including Missouri’s Eric Schmitt, who Parson appointed, are suing to invalidate the ACA as unconstitutional.

Galloway said the state law would serve as a failsafe in case the lawsuit succeeds.

Parson’s campaign says he also supports protections for people with pre-existing conditions and helped introduce two bills this year to enact them, though neither got very far despite Republican control of the legislature.

Galloway has also pledged to implement Medicaid expansion as approved by voters in August without new taxes or spending cuts.

The move is expected to offer public health insurance to hundreds of thousands more low-income adults and boost the state’s health care industry, but the effect on the state’s budget has not yet been fully determined.

Parson, who opposed expansion, has said he’ll also implement expansion as voters asked, but he’s also raised the specter of painful budget cuts to compensate for what he says will be $200 million in new costs.

Galloway, on the other hand, has said expansion will pay for itself by shifting certain Medicaid costs to the federal government.

Galloway has said she’ll also put an end to “purges” of the Medicaid system, referring to how 100,000 children were removed from the rolls in 2018 and 2019, a decline that ranked among the sharpest drops in the country.

It is not clear that the Parson intentionally “purged” anyone from the rolls – the issue mainly revolved around communication issues with a income verification program – but his administration did downplay the drop throughout 2019.

Galloway has not said how she would fix those issues, but multiple Democrats, including House Minority Leader Crystal Quade of Springfield, have proposed fixes in the legislature.

On a 'New Way'

Galloway has also promised to bring a “new way” of doing business to the governor’s office, and before the pandemic redefined American life, that was the main message of her campaign.

Talk of “cleaning up” Jefferson City and taking on “insiders” and lobbyists is not new.

Former Gov. Eric Greitens famously promised to do the same only to find himself bombarded with questions about a “dark money” nonprofit and allegations of sexual misconduct before he resigned.

But Galloway has cast her work as as auditor identifying hundreds of millions of dollars in “waste, fraud and abuse” as proof she’ll really do it.

"I have looked under the hood of state government, I have seen waste, I have seen abuse firsthand, and in my position as auditor, I pointed it out and I've gotten real results for taxpayers," she said.

She’s proposed requiring that anyone doing business with the state disclose their political giving – which could potentially include donations to entities that don’t disclose the donors – and barring state employees from using self-deleting message apps that go against the spirit of Missouri open records law.

She said she would also do a full review of the medical marijuana rollout under Parson, which has been dogged by allegations of corruption and inside dealing as well as hundreds of lawsuits the state is defending with money that would have otherwise gone to veterans’ care.

Third-party candidates

Rik Combs of Jefferson City is the Libertarian Party candidate in the race.

He told the League of Women Voters his top priorities would be to “slash taxes,” “cut spending,” and “protect personal property.”

Jerome Bauer of St. Louis is the Green Party candidate in the race. He told the League of Women Voters his top priorities would be enacting a universal health care program paid for by a “Wall Street transaction tax” and a sin tax, doing better on disability rights, and improving “transportation equity and accessibility.”

Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at ahuguelet@news-leader.com. You can also support local journalism at News-Leader.com/subscribe.