Gov. Mike Parson’s scolding letter over the weekend accusing House GOP leadership of scheming to embarrass him caught Missouri’s political world by surprise.
Not because the governor was attacking his fellow Republicans, but because he was doing it publicly.
Those close to both Parson and House Speaker Rob Vescovo — who was the clear target of the three-page letter despite never being named — acknowledge the tension between two of the state’s most influential Republicans bubbled under the surface for more than a year before it finally boiled over this weekend.
Some of the friction is personal, they said, while some is political and ideological. But it was so bad a year ago that the governor’s office pondered appointing Vescovo’s state senator to a job in the administration in part to try to push him to give up the final two years of his term in House leadership to run for a possible eight years in the Missouri Senate.
The planned appointment never came to fruition.
Vescovo has not publicly commented on the letter, and it was only briefly discussed during the House GOP’s weekly caucus on Monday. Other House Republicans contacted this week were not eager to weigh in publicly.
Parson, too, has not responded to requests for comment about his criticism of GOP leadership, which focused on the House’s decision against allowing a joint legislative session to convene last week amid a statehouse COVID-19 outbreak for the governor’s State of the State address.
Just how their relationship will play out moving forward, and its impact on the 2021 legislative session, remains unclear.
“There’s always going to be friction between the two branches. That’s normal,” said Jack Bondon, a former Republican state legislator from Belton. “What makes this unique is that one side decided to air the issues publicly. What would normally be handled behind closed doors is now in the public limelight.”
In the days leading up to Parson’s annual State of the State address, COVID-19 cases began popping up among lawmakers and staff.
At least two Senators were in quarantine, one announced he’d tested positive and another tested negative but was home with flu-like symptoms. It was becoming unclear if the Senate could even muster a quorum needed to call itself into session for the speech.
Discussions about how the speech could go forward began the night before Parson was scheduled to speak, with House leaders offering to let him use the chamber to record his speech for remote viewing.
According to those familiar with the discussions, the governor suggested allowing his cabinet, staff and guests to watch the speech from lawmakers’ desks on the House floor.
Vescovo apparently balked at that suggestion.
Parson eventually turned to Senate leadership, who agreed to allow the governor to deliver his speech from their chamber.
“(Vescovo’s) probably trying to establish himself early as — look, I’m the leader of the House, this is what’s supposed to happen in the House. Here are my ground rules,” former House Speaker Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican, said Monday during an interview with KMOX.
“The governor didn’t like those ground rules, he went over to the Senate instead, and here we are,” Jones said. “And if someone were to ask me, I would have said that’s where you let it go. The governor probably has the high ground on this one until he sends the letter. That’s what I don’t get.”
Every Republican lawmaker received a letter over the weekend from Parson accusing House leadership of “a purposeful and disgusting scheme to embarrass me and the Office of the Governor.”
Over the course of the three-page letter, Parson excoriated GOP leaders and their staff for what he called an “insider stunt and petty show of arrogance and political power.” He railed against the idea that he couldn’t deliver his speech because of COVID-19 concerns but a House committee met the night before in a crowded statehouse hearing room.
The governor ended the letter by reminding GOP lawmakers that “we are on the same team,” before asking them to let him know “if you are interested and willing to cooperate.”
The squabble over the State of the State is the highest profile fissure between the governor and Vescovo, but it’s hardly their only face off.
They’ve been on opposite sides of several high-profile legislative issues over the years, such as when House leaders abruptly adjourned a special legislative session Parson called last fall and killed a pair of bills considered the governor’s priorities.
Or in 2019, when Vescovo publicly criticized restrictions on gun ownership that Parson had signalled he supported.
More recently, the issue of statehouse security has divided the executive and legislative branches, with the House pushing to have more control of the Capitol Police over opposition from the Parson administration.
The governor has also bristled at a series of House investigations over the last few years, most recently a probe by the government oversight committee into accusations of impropriety in the medical marijuana program.
When the House held a series of hearings delving into tax refund issues in Parson’s department of revenue, he publicly accused lawmakers of “political grandstanding.”
But despite a few flare ups, most disagreements between Parson and legislative leaders played out behind closed doors. In public, Republicans remained largely unified.
Even after it became clear the House would not be made available for Parson’s speech, legislative leaders — including Vescovo — signed onto a joint statement declaring the address would take place in the smaller Senate chamber to “maximize safety while still honoring the tradition of an in-person address by the governor.”
Parson’s letter to GOP lawmakers made the schism public.
“If either of them called me up… I would say you gotta all figure out how to bury this hatchet quickly,” Jones said in his KMOX interview, “and get back to legislating.”