(JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.) — Gov. Mike Parson and four other elected state officials were sworn in on Monday, but the ceremonies this year were more subdued than in years past.
The inaugural ceremony was held on Monday in front of the Capitol building in Jefferson City with Missouri performers and politicians speaking.
The Republican Governor took his oath in front of a small crowd and it was streamed online. Guests were encouraged to RSVP in advance so seating arrangements could accommodate the public and ensure social distancing. Masks were encouraged and available but not required for the outdoor event.
Most of the ceremony was live including performances by the Missouri State University Chorale, the 135th Missouri National Guard Band, the National Anthem sung by Parson’s granddaughter and son-in-law, and remarks by a member of the State Historical Society of Missouri on the state’s bicentennial.
Parson, a Republican, defeated Democrat Auditor Nicole Galloway in the November election. This will be his first full term in office. He was serving as Lieutenant Governor when Republican Eric Greitens resigned from the Governor’s office in 2018 for campaign finance violations.
In Parson’s inaugural address he touched on his conservative Christian and midwest values, Missouri’s Bicentennial, and the state’s future. Noticeably absent from the Governor’s speech were specific statements about racial injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic, or the recent riots at the U.S. Capitol. Following his address, however, Parson returned to the capitol steps to field questions on the pressing issues of the day.
Before the news briefing, Parson’s ceremony speech did say that 2020 was a tough year but there were no specific tough events referenced.
“As we closed the chapter on 2020, we all had time to reflect,” he said. “There were sad times, tough times, and exciting times. And through it, all Missourians prevailed. Despite the challenges, the heartbeat of our state continues to pump strong. We have been faced with sacrifices, uncertainty, and tragedy but with each moment of darkness, there seems to return a tenfold of hope.”
2020 has indeed been a difficult year for everyone. On the day of his address, the pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 370,000 Americans and sickened more than 22 million, according to the CDC. The state hit nearly 425,000 coronavirus cases and more than 5,950 COVID-19 deaths. Missouri is currently ranked 25th in the nation for the number of new deaths per capita and 32nd in cases per capita, according to the state COVID-19 dashboard.
What could be construed as a commitment to Missourians hit hardest by the pandemic, the Governor said, “I will serve all Missourians, and do everything I can to make your lives better. I will continue working hard to give doctors and nurses the tools they need to care for Missourians. I will continue working hard to give law enforcement officers the tools they need to keep Missourians safe. I will continue working hard to give farmers the tools they need to succeed from sun up to sundown. I will continue working hard to give teachers the tools they need to educate our children.”
During the news conference that followed, one of the first news items the Governor provided an update for was the number of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in the state.
“I think we are over the 150,000 mark at this point not counting the federals, which would be thousands upon that. We just haven't got that number from them yet so things are going well on that.” Parson told reporters Monday. "We'll start probably next week starting to define Phase 1B."
A reporter also asked how he planned to balance the budget given how much the state has spent on fighting COVID-19. The Governor said it is something that his administration will continue to wrestle in the years ahead.
"The economy is doing better in our state by far than most but I really think you will have to look at two, three years down the road to really know what the effect of COVID-19 is going to be," he said.
2020 was also a year of racial reckoning for Americans, with protesters in cities across the country springing into action after Minneapolis police officers killed a 46-year-old black man by kneeling on his neck for nearly eight minutes as he pleaded for air. George Floyd’s final moments were capture on video and his death led to widespread protests against police brutality and racism. Some protests spiraled into violence, looting, and fires. It wasn’t the first or last black person to be killed by police in 2020. Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, Breonna Taylor, and Atatiana Jefferson are just a handful of others.
Parson’s inaugural address Monday didn’t mention these killings or racial inequality specifically. Following the inauguration ceremony, reporters asked whether the Governor planned to push for policing reforms during the next legislative session. He said, “I think as we move forward when it comes to law enforcement issues, what we've learned from this summer, there needs to be a discussion about that and I think there will be, I hope a lot of discussion about that and figure out where we are going in the future.”
The topic of racial inequalities in policing was raised again after people of color witnessed the handling of predominately white protestors that spiraled into a riot at the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday. The Governor previously remarked on the Capitol riots saying he didn’t think President Trump’s actions encouraged the lawless behavior. He tweeted later, “The lawlessness and rioting witnessed today in our nation’s Capitol are unacceptable.”
But for his inaugural address, the speech includes no specific remarks on the topic. Again, the speech generically references a difficult 2020 but the statements could apply to any number of events.
“We have seen some challenging days together but when it is hard to find the light, sometimes all you need is a spark to get the fire going again,” he said. “Even in the darkest times – Missouri shines on.”
While not in the speech, the Governor did address the riots in response to multiple questions from reporters during the briefing. He told reporters he does not support any type of lawlessness but he did not want to continue to talk about this issue on such a special day for Missouri and his family.
“People took action they never should have taken,” he said. “I’ve said all along, whether it’s in Missouri or Washington, D.C., I believe, I believe, in civil protests. I believe people have the right to the First Amendment but what I don’t believe is I don’t believe anybody, for any cause, has the right to commit crimes.”
Parson adding his position was informed by a lifetime in law enforcement. Prior to running for state office, he spent six years in the U.S. Army and more than 22 years in law enforcement; 12 of those as Polk County Sheriff.
“People who violate the law should be held responsible,” Parson said.
The Governor was asked a follow-up question from another reporter about his thoughts on the calls for U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, to resign given his role in inciting the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol.
“Everyone has to be held responsible for their own actions. That’s what I’ll say about that,” he said.
The issues this year made the country’s divide more prominent than in year’s past. A reporter asked the Governor how he planned to bring everyone together in 2021. He said the political issues that divide us get attention but a vast majority of issues unite us.
“Let me just, for instance, go back to workforce development, infrastructure, healthcare, education. All of those things are not political issues. Those are things that how you make your state better,” he said.
As a parting gift, the Governor also provided some advice to reporters about their role in this challenging time shaded with criticism.
“I do encourage you to take your part in the role of what it is you do to set the example for a lot of people. You all know right from wrong. You know when you write a story whether it's right or it's not. You know whether it's propaganda or it's not," he said. "But I'm going to continue to work with you as I move through this. We will still do press briefings. I'll try to make sure to be as open as I can. I've tried to do that from day one. I've tried to be transparent for every one of you. I told you that and we'll continue to do that."