Gov. Mike Parson pledges "to bring honor, integrity, transparency"

JEFFERSON CITY— In a quiet, homestyle ceremony that began in a sanctuary and ended within the muraled walls of the Capitol, Missouri’s 57th governor was sworn in Friday evening not with fanfare, but with a blessing his pastor bestowed upon him: that Mike Parson would become, for all Missourians, a “liberator.”

And at 5:33 p.m., led by Missouri Supreme Court Judge Mary Rhodes Russell, Parson took the oath of office and received that opportunity.

In his first official address as governor, the farmer from Bolivar, a town christened in honor of the Venezuelan who helped free Latin America from Spanish rule, vowed to do his own liberating — of an embattled office whose former occupant announced his resignation Tuesday amid a special session called to consider his impeachment.

“My pledge to all Missourians is to work hard each and every day, to bring honor, integrity, transparency to the governor’s office,” Parson said in a message that took less than a minute to deliver.

Although the ceremony wasn’t open to the public, nearly 150 people, including members of the media, Parson’s family, friends and myriad senators and representatives, crowded the pews of the blue-carpeted sanctuary at First Baptist Church in Jefferson City for a prayer service honoring the new governor. In an address to the congregation, the Rev. Billy Russell called upon Parson to mirror Jesus, “the greatest liberator of all.”

Russell, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Bolivar, said he’s known Parson for more than 18 years — as sheriff, representative, senator and now governor. In turn, Russell became Parson’s pastor in 2006. He said that Parson has long been in the liberation business.

“Mike’s been a part of assuring the freedom of the community in many different ways,” Russell said.

Parson, a third-generation farmer raised in Hickory County, has championed agriculture, tax cuts and Second Amendment rights during his tenure in state government.

While in the Missouri House of Representatives, he co-sponsored a bill expanding the state’s Castle Doctrine, which allows Missouri residents to use deadly force in an intrusion on their property. Seven years later, as a senator, he managed the Missouri Farming Rights Amendment, which grants all Missourians the right to farm.

He originally considered the governor’s office in 2015, but ultimately decided to run for lieutenant governor.

Parson’s political run for lieutenant governor was historic in Missouri, amassing the most votes of any lieutenant governor in state history, according to his website. He won 110 of Missouri’s 114 counties, defeating Democratic candidate Russ Carnahan, and was sworn in alongside Greitens in 2017.

“He’s a bridge-builder,” Russell said after the ceremony. “He’s a good listener, he’s a bridge-builder, and he’ll take restorative action in our state.”

Parson’s brother, the Rev. Kent Parson, also spoke, quoting the Bible, Tim McGraw and former President Harry Truman — a fellow Missourian.

The 62-year-old governor’s ceremony offered a contrast to the scandals surrounding his predecessor, former Gov. Eric Greitens, whose tenure included allegations of campaign finance violations and sexual misconduct, as well as division within the Missouri legislature.

“I think that anything anytime you’re in a leadership position, it’s about relationships. That’s what makes true leaders,” Mike Parson said in a brief news conference after the ceremony. “My purpose of being governor will be to try to bring people together and to try and move the state of Missouri forward.”

Parson’s ascension to governorship comes without a replacement for the lieutenant governor position. Parson has said he would look into the issue.

“I think that it is important for the state of Missouri to have a lieutenant governor, especially in a time like this,” Parson said.

The most recent lieutenant governor to take the governor’s office midterm was Roger Wilson in October 2000. Wilson’s predecessor, former Gov. Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash.

One man in the new governor’s audience sought not festivities, but to prevent another death. Marcellus Williams II sat quietly by the office wall after the new governor was sworn in, waiting for a chance to ask whether or not his father would still have to die.

In 2001, Williams’ father was convicted in the 1998 murder of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter. Since then, the death-row inmate has been waiting at the Potosi Correctional Center for his execution date.

According to his son, after new DNA evidence suggested that the elder Williams may not have committed the crime, Greitens stayed the execution in August 2017, just hours before Williams was set to be put to death. Greitens commissioned a panel to review Williams’ case. The panel was scheduled to meet June 5, but when the former governor resigned, the meeting was canceled.

Williams said he came to the swearing-in ceremony to see if Parson would grant his father pardon, as well as to ask about his agenda for mass incarceration and prison reform. He said that, although Greitens “went out with scandalous behavior,” he hoped he’d at least grant his father clemency.

The hope was not out of the question. On Greitens’ final day in office, he issued five pardons — but none of them for Williams’ father.

“I’m hoping Parson picks up where he left off,” Williams said.