Several years ago your observer was strolling through the Capital Mall when he spied Lt. Governor Bill Phelps and his wife, Joanne, having a casual lunch in the food court. They probably had driven to the mall and had done their shopping with few if any distractions from fellow shoppers. I remarked to him as they sat surrounded by other folks who were paying them no mind, “You know, if you win the election this year, you won’t be able to do this.” Phelps was running in the primary against Christopher Bond who wanted to get his old job back from Joe Teasdale. It was 1980.
Phelps lost the primary and probably has been eating his meals out for these last thirty-six years without any hassles from the voting public.
But had he won and then defeated Teasdale, his life would have changed. The Phelpses probably wouldn’t have driven their own car to the mall. They likely would have been chauffeured by a Highway Patrolman. And they wouldn’t be shopping anonymously because people would recognize that The Governor(!) was in their midst. They’d be living in a great big house that would not contain much of their own furniture. Somebody with a badge and a gun—sometimes more than one somebody—would be with them wherever they went.
We recall that John Ashcroft had a Mustang he liked to drive. He didn’t get the chance to do that much after he became governor.
Ashcroft, Bond, and Phelps had some understanding of the transition to the governorship because they had been in public life at increasingly higher circles. They knew that the private life would diminish markedly when they became the state’s highest-ranking public official.
Transitions for incoming governors involve far more, however, than coming to grips with the fact that your life is not yours any more. The responsibilities of being a public servant, the state’s highest public official, can be beyond the expectations of the candidates who seek that job.
So while an incoming governor who has no previous public office experience has to spend the two months between election and inauguration preparing to meet the challenges of governing, he and his family also have to come to grips with any number of personal issues. What do we do with our house? What about our furniture? What things are so meaningful to us personally that we want to take them to the Executive Mansion so it feels like home? What about schools? How will we adjust to having a security officer with us? How will we deal with a loss of our personal freedom? How will the family deal with the things that are likely to be said about the husband and father who happens to be the Governor of Missouri?
Here we offer a slight diversion because the spotlight might be on the new governor but it also shines, at least in its dimmer edges, on his family, particularly on the person who is to become the state’s First Lady. What are her obligations?
Most First Ladies have adopted a public role in one form or another. But one First Lady was different and because she was, future First Ladies might owe her a debt. Theresa Teasdale wanted nothing to do with the spotlight. She was not Mrs. Governor. She was Mrs. Teasdale, wife and mother. She didn’t advocate for a particular cause (as we recall). She and Joe did not make the mansion a great social event location. It was their home. It was where the Teasdale family lived. It was a house where there was a family that was apart from the intense world of governing. This reporter tried to interview her once and came away almost embarrassed that he had intruded. Theresa Teasdale was a First Lady who made it alright for future First Ladies to remain private citizens.
The new governor thus has two transitions to deal with—the personal and the public. He has just two months to assemble a team of people in his office as well as those who will lead state agencies. He realizes he will inherit a state budget sixty percent of the way through a fiscal year and will have to immediately deal with possible income shortfalls; Governor Nixon already has withheld tens of millions of dollars to keep the budget balanced. He will have to prepare his first major address to a joint session of the legislature outlining budget recommendations for a fiscal year that will start July 1 and outline issues he hopes the legislature will pass laws about.
And that’s just the surface. He also is responsible for finding and appointing about 1,700 people to state boards and commissions. About 1,300 of those nominations will have to be pleasing enough to the Senate to be confirmed.
We checked with Scott Holste, who has been on Governor Nixon’s staff as governor and attorney general for more than twenty years, and Scott reminded us that the governor also has to make appointments to fill vacancies caused by death or resignation or conviction of judge in circuits that aren’t part of the Non-partisan Court Plan. He also appoints prosecutors and county officials as needed in non-charter counties. And he has to make appointments of judges from lists submitted to him under that same court plan.
There’s another important component that has to be decided. How public will the administration of the state’s top public official be? What will be his relations with the press? It’s not a parochial question. How open will he allow his administration to be in providing expertise to those with questions about public policy issues? Will he allow department staffs with expertise to provide information to the public or will he limit the flow of information by limiting access to them—as, to be frank, the current administration has done in many agencies? The operative word in the phrase “public official” should be public.
We have scratched the surface of what a governor-elect has to go through to be ready to govern as soon as he takes the oath of office. It’s a steep, steep learning curve even for those who have been in and around state elective office. To go from private citizen to public leader relatively overnight is a major test.
All of this is why a two-month well-organized transition effort is essential but why it also is highly stressful, not just on the governor-elect but on his family—because life on January 8th will likely be worlds different by the end of January 9th.