After 16 years in Jefferson City, Missouri Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, was finishing up the final days of his last legislative session last Tuesday with a bang rather than a whimper as the Republican-held House and Senate prepared to go into a first-ever special session at the end of the week to consider the pros and cons of impeaching Gov. Eric Greitens.
Holding court in his third-floor Capitol office, the always quotable state representative spoke about his time spent serving in state government, why he decided against running for governor, his opinion of Gov. Greitens, and why he's chosen to make his latest run for public office.
Engler represents District 116, composed of part of St. Francois, Ste. Genevieve and Perry counties. After serving a year on the Farmington City Council and six years as the town’s mayor, he was elected to his first two-year House term in 2002. Engler was then elected to the Senate in 2004 and re-elected in 2008, serving as the Majority Floor Leader from 2009 to 2010. He was then re-elected to the House in 2012, 2014 and 2016.
When his term ends in December he will not only be leaving state politics but also retiring from his lucrative job as a financial representative for Edward Jones. He’s already set his sights on a new political career, having thrown his hat into the ring for the position of St. Francois County Clerk, a post long-held by Mark Hedrick of Bismarck, who is also retiring.
Engler jumped in with both feet to discuss Gov. Greitens, a former Navy SEAL once considered a rising star in the Republican Party who has faced widespread calls in recent months from both sides of the aisle to step down amid criminal charges.
“I’m definitely ending my time in Jeff City with a bang ... but it’s an embarrassing one,” Engler said. “Legislatively we’re doing great. We’ve passed more bills this year than I’ve seen in years, but this thing with the governor is a screwed-up mess. I just had an argument with one of our reps because they’re determined the governor didn’t do it. How do you know? You haven’t even seen the freaking report but ‘By God, I’m not gonna’ vote against him!”
“I’ve said from the beginning that this deal with this beautician doesn’t show that he should be impeached, but it shows that he’s immoral. His wife’s pregnant and he’s having a long-term affair with a beautician. That’s why I said to keep us from having to do trials and everything else it would be best for the state and his family to resign. He didn’t take my advice."
Engler has read the 1,500 page report from the House committee investigating the allegations against Greitens and found many of the governor’s explanations for his actions to be lacking.
“Of course, it’s not our role to decide that,” he said. “We’re kind of like a grand jury. They just gather evidence and say, ‘Here’s what we’ve got.’ Like a grand jury they ask if we think there’s enough evidence to send it to a seven-judge panel. That’s our role. It’s not to make a final decision. It’s not to decide if he’s immoral — he’s already admitted he’s immoral.”
According to Engler, many of the representatives defending the governor are from overwhelmingly Republican districts where Greitens is spending large sums of money on advertising that declares the House investigation is nothing more than a “witch hunt.”
“He’s using dark money that nobody knows who gave it to him,” he said. “Their people are 70 percent against prosecuting the governor, but that’s not my job. My job, by the Constitution, is to look at this evidence that they present to me and see if there is enough evidence.”
Engler described many of Greitens’ actions since becoming governor as “sleazy.”
“Like how he did this deal with the Department of Education,” he said. “Appoint all your people while we’re out of session and get rid of them before we go back into session and none of your appointments get appointed. Another example is the Missouri Housing Development Commission.
"You’ve got a 10-member board that includes the Lt. Governor and Secretary of State and five others appointed by the governor. He only appoints one from Cape — Jason Crowell — who hates tax credits, so he had to have six votes and wouldn’t appoint the other four. Therefore, Jason Crowell controls the committee. If he votes for something it goes and if he votes against it, it doesn’t.”
What gives Engler pause is his belief that the governor has refused to provide any exculpatory information or collaborating witnesses in his defense while steadfastly refusing to testify on his own behalf.
“He says he’s completely innocent ... OK,” he said. “But he doesn’t want to testify or produce the evidence. He says in the newspaper that all of this is available, yet he refuses subpoenas. He’s winning the [public relations] battle because he says, ‘I’m willing to give up everything — all the information I have,’ but we subpoena him and can’t get [that evidence].”
Engler no longer uses the elevator near his office because he doesn’t want to run into Greitens.
“He’s completely ineffective,” he said. “It’s terrible.”
Effectiveness in Office
Having served in both the state House and Senate, Engler has a unique view of the role played by both sides of the Missouri Legislature and admitted he felt that he was effective in both.
“It’s been fun both places,” he said. “We’ve been able to do some great things in both places. Doing constituent service is always good whether you’re in the Senate or the House. If somebody’s got a problem and you can help get it taken care of, that’s a good thing.
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"In the Senate you have more power because you can stop bills. If anybody says ‘This is really bad,’ you can say, ‘OK, I’ll get it stopped.’ You can get a couple of people with you and stop it.
“The Senate now is more dissentious. It’s not like the old days when people had some integrity with each other. If you did something for them they’d reciprocate. They would not try to stand in your way. They might vote no.
"Now it’s ‘If we don’t like it we’re going to filibuster until we kill it.’ That’s on everything. It’s really tough to get decent stuff out of there because most things are somewhat controversial. They don’t work it out anymore. They just kill it."
Engler expressed pride in many of the things he's been able to accomplish while serving in state office.
"We’ve probably accomplished as much or more legislation than anybody else up here," he said. "I’m not all for just passing bills, but some things need to be done and some things you can do quickly have lasting impact. I did the bill to allow the governor to fly the flag at half-staff when someone from Missouri dies. Even now when I see a flag at half-staff I think ‘I helped get that done.’
“Some things like raising the spend-down limits on somebody that’s indigent, who’s in a nursing home, or a spouse, that we haven’t raised since the ’70s took me four years to finally get it done. That took a lot, but it affects tens of thousands of people. There are a lot of ‘un-sexy’ bills — the petroleum storage tanks bill, the blasting bill that I’ve done over the years — that don’t get the notoriety, but we had to do them.”
Asked what he’s going to miss most about serving in state office, Engler said, “I’ll miss the ‘strategery.’ The other day I was sitting on the House Floor and I had three different people asking me questions. ‘How do you do this? How do you do that?’ That’s the reason I came back from the Senate because there’s so little knowledge.
“They ask me, ‘If I put this in will it have to go to conference? If it goes to conference, do we have to vote on it? Does the Senate have to take it up?’ Fortunately, I know the answer to most of those questions because I’ve had bills in all those positions. I’m also going to miss cutting deals to get things done. It is more of an art.”
Whether one agrees with Rep. Engler or not, he’s well known in Jefferson City for speaking his mind on most any topic — including a few he brings up himself.
“I don’t think you could find anybody on either side of the legislature that would say I would lie to them,” he said. “Do I tell you to your face that I’m going to stab you? Yes! There’s things I’ve done that I know have pissed people off. My wife thinks I’ve pissed everybody off — I hope that’s not the case.
“It’s kind of like being a preacher. There are certain things that you just keep building up enemies. I never miss a day here. I try to show up every day and I try to be knowledgeable. Then once I make the decision for what I think is the best for the people of my district, then I go forward and I advocate. There’s a lot of people who don’t speak — I speak.”
Running for Governor
While Engler hasn’t yet made a run for governor, it isn’t because the thought has never entered his mind before, or that he didn’t feel up for the job.
“I’ve got a big enough ego that I think I could have made a heck of a governor,” he said. “I like management. I like managing people. I’ve got some ideas. I am a more moderate Republican. I’m not a right-wing nut and right now in order to get through our primary, you have to be a right-wing nut statewide.
"The right-wing nuts get right-wing people like Rex Sinquefield and like the guy from Joplin who owns the roofing company [David Humphreys] to give them hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s what they all have in common — they’re right-wingers.
"I have the ability to raise half-a-million to a million for that. To raise the two or three million you need to run, you have to be able to steal your list of major [charity] donors from around the country and get most of your money from outside the state. Therefore, I didn’t run.”
County Clerk Race
In response to those who question why Engler would want to run for St. Francois County Clerk, the veteran legislator said, “I like public service. People say, ‘Why would you give up a job where you make many times more than you can at full-time with the county?’ It’s because I like public service. I could stay on with Edward Jones. They’re a great company. I’m doing well. I’m at the peak of my career, but I have health concerns.
“I’ve done two jobs for 25 years. I’ve got high blood pressure. I’ve got diabetes. If you’re playing golf, I may be on around the 16th hole and I’d like to make it to the 19th hole and enjoy it for a little bit. If I can do public service and keep the integrity of county elections while pushing the county forward, I want to do that.”