A Former Democrat Rises in Trump Country

Interview with Eric Greitens 

by Mathew Hennessy

Missouri’s governor talks about his journey to the right, his fights with the unions, and his experience as a Navy SEAL.

Jefferson City, M0 — A few years ago, Eric Greitens was a Democrat—not that you’d know it from his first eight months as the hard-charging Republican governor of Missouri. A Rhodes scholar and former Navy SEAL, Mr. Greitens has pursued an unexpectedly muscular conservative agenda, enacting free-market reforms and gleefully going toe-to-toe with unions. While the GOP in Washington seems bent on squandering its legislative and executive power, Mr. Greitens, 43, illustrates how Republicans in many states are intent on making the most of theirs.

A day after taking office in January, Mr. Greitens signed an executive order to freeze pending state regulations. It also required agencies to review rules already on the books to ensure not only that they are “essential to the health, safety, or welfare of Missouri residents” but that they pass a cost-benefit test. In July he assented to a law overriding St. Louis’s $10-an-hour minimum wage. “This increase in the minimum wage might read pretty on paper, but it doesn’t work in practice,” he said at the time. “Government imposes an arbitrary wage, and small businesses either have to cut people’s hours or let them go.”

Mr. Greitens’s most contentious actions have challenged union power. His Democratic predecessor, Gov. Jay Nixon, repeatedly vetoed right-to-work legislation, under which workers can’t be forced to join a union as a condition of employment. Mr. Greitens signed a right-to-work bill within a month of his inauguration.

During a 75-minute interview at the governor’s mansion, Mr. Greitens explains that his inspiration came from another Midwestern state. “I read Mitch Daniels’s book, ‘Keeping the Republic,’ several times” before running for office, he says. The former Indiana governor’s 2011 paean to fiscal discipline and personal responsibility provided an example, as did the right-to-work law Mr. Daniels signed in 2012. “Look at the data,” Mr. Greitens says. “Indiana became a right-to-work state, and today Indiana has more private-sector union members than before . . . because it was good for the economy.”

Not surprisingly, the unions don’t share that view. They formed a group called We Are Missouri, which last month turned in more than 300,000 signatures—only about 100,000 were required—to force a referendum on right to work. If Missouri’s secretary of state certifies the names, right to work will go before voters in 2018—and the law will remain on hold until then. The tactic has succeeded before: In 2011 a referendum campaign styled We Are Ohio defeated Gov. John Kasich’s collective-bargaining reforms for public employees.

Mr. Greitens launched another salvo at the unions in May. He signed a law banning so-called project labor agreements, which require that all workers hired under a given government contract be paid union wages. In a move calculated for confrontation, Mr. Greitens invited Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker —whose 2011 collective-bargaining reforms stuck, unlike Mr. Kasich’s—to attend a bill-signing ceremony in a St. Louis suburb. The unions and their Democratic allies got the message. “Eric Greitens is rubbing salt in the wounds of working families by celebrating another attack on their paychecks,” said Missouri’s Democratic chairman, Stephen Webber.

Mr. Greitens is unruffled by the criticism. “I think that you’ve got to take action that actually helps people,” he says. “We know that we’re always going to get criticized and we recognize that there are certain liberal media institutions in the state of Missouri that will always see whatever we do in the worst possible light.” But the economic data, he insists, tell a different story: “Since I’ve been in office, Missouri has been outpacing the nation in job growth. Missouri has moved up nine places in the ranking of best states to do business. We’ve got more jobs in Missouri than ever before.”

What explains his appetite for bare-knuckle fights with the unions? More to the point, how did a lifelong Democrat announce he was switching parties the year before the 2016 election, run as a gun-toting conservative, win a Republican primary against three veteran officeholders, and—in his first try for public office—defeat a sitting state attorney general on the November ballot?

Mr. Greitens’s critics—Republican and Democratic alike—have implied it was mere opportunism. During last year’s campaign a Kansas City Star reporter suggested Mr. Greitens was “an ideological weather vane” whose “conservative bona fides” were in question. His evolution has matched the state’s. Missouri was a longtime presidential bellwether—carried by the winner of every election between 1960 and 2004—but has shifted Republican in the past decade. Donald Trump won here by 18.5 points.

Mr. Greitens’s explanation? “My parents were both Democrats and I grew up as a Democrat,” he says. “Basically I was told that the Democrats were the party that cared about people. I liked people and I cared about them, so I was a Democrat.”

His politics began shifting rightward while he was in college, he says, after an encounter with a Bosnian refugee during a trip to the Balkans in 1994: “This guy says to me, ‘Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you’re here. I appreciate that there’s a roof over my head and that there’s food for my kids and that there’s a kindergarten for them . . . but if people really cared about us, they’d also be willing to help to protect us.’ ”

That, he says, led to the realization, that “if you care about people, then you’re willing to act not just with compassion, but you’re also willing to act with courage.” In January 2001, ink not yet dry on his Oxford doctorate, he enrolled in the Navy’s Officer Candidate School. By 9/11 he was training to become a SEAL. Then he served four overseas deployments—in Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa, and Iraq. In the Philippines he commanded a detachment of 20 men on two 82-foot Mark V special operations craft patrolling the waters of the Sulu Archipelago in support of Filipino marines battling the Islamic terrorists of Abu Sayyaf. In Iraq, he was in charge of an “al-Qaeda-targeting cell.”

After returning stateside in the mid-2000s, Mr. Greitens started a security consulting business and founded The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that helps veterans readjust to civilian life. The organization’s success gave Mr. Greitens a national profile. He wrote two best-selling books, 2011’s “The Heart and the Fist” and 2015’s “Resilience. (video)” In 2013 Time magazine named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

With his star on the rise, Mr. Greitens entertained the advances of Missouri Democrats who wanted him to run for Congress. All the while, he says, his politics were evolving. He announced his party switch in a July 2015 op-ed at FoxNews.com. “I was raised to stand up for the little guy, for working families and the middle class,” he wrote. “If I thought the Democratic Party had the right ideas to do that, I’d still be one of them. But they don’t.”

The change in his thinking, he says, grew out of experience more than philosophy: “Seeing what it took to actually start a business, while at the same time working with all of these other veterans who are trying to start businesses, just gave me a very practical sense of what it means to deal with burdensome regulations.” He didn’t know policy, so he turned to think tanks. “I read things that are put out by the Manhattan Institute. I read things that are put out by the American Enterprise Institute. I also read things that are put out by left-leaning organizations,” he says. “I think that it’s important to see what works.”

Last month Mr. Greitens traveled to Springfield, in the state’s southwest, to greet President Trump, who was in town stumping for tax reform. Unlike in many states, Mr. Trump did better in Missouri than other Republicans running statewide, beating Mr. Greitens’s vote total by more than 150,000. A recent SurveyMonkey poll gives the president a respectable 50% approval rating in the Show Me State.

When I ask Mr. Greitens if he has a good relationship with Mr. Trump, he grins broadly and doesn’t quite answer. “The president, on multiple occasions, has been great to Missouri,” he offers. He cites a February incident in which vandals desecrated a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. Mr. Greitens, who is Jewish, organized an interfaith initiative to restore the damaged headstones. The president called the next day to thank him, the governor recalls, for “standing up to anti-Semitism” and “bringing people together.”

Isn’t that a contrast with Mr. Trump’s initial equivocation last month after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va.? Mr. Greitens is quick to condemn that rally. “I grew up in this household where we always talked about, ‘Never again. Never again,’ ” the governor says. “You have to be willing to stand up and fight and defend people.” But he declines to criticize the president directly, observing only that in a crisis, it’s important for a leader “to send a very clear and strong message.”

He faults his predecessor, Gov. Nixon, for failing to do so in 2014 when riots erupted in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. “The great tragedy of Ferguson,” Mr. Greitens says, “was that if you had had a leader who had shown up with any kind of command presence and courage and calm and clarity, we could have had peace by the second night.” Mr. Greitens’s time as a SEAL taught him how to assess whether a tense situation is about to spin out of control: “What you saw in Ferguson was a complete abandonment of the situation by our political leadership.”

Same with the 2015 disruptions on the University of Missouri’s flagship Columbia campus. The Mizzou administration, Mr. Greitens says bluntly, “was too willing . . . to appease the left.” There was “a failure to act,” as in Ferguson. “One of the things that I’ve found in everything that I’ve done: People want leaders to create a sense of direction and to lead and to act,” he says, “and they know that we will never get everything perfectly right, but they want us to lead.”

While Mr. Greitens is conservative, he isn’t always predictable. When I ask his opinion of Mr. Trump’s proposal to ban transgender military service members, he opposes it vigorously. “The military is not a place for us to have culture wars,” he says. “The No. 1 criteria that we should be looking at for every person who joins the military is, ‘Can they close with and kill the enemy in close-quarters battle?’ ”

Then last month Mr. Greitens earned praise from opponents of capital punishment when he stayed the scheduled execution of Marcellus Williams. A DNA test had raised serious doubt about whether Mr. Williams had in fact killed Felicia Gayle, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who was stabbed at home in 1998. Mr. Greitens says he’s not against the death penalty but views it as “the ultimate irrevocable punishment.” A board of inquiry will now review the evidence against Mr. Williams and make a recommendation. “Ultimately, it’ll be my decision,” the governor says, “and I will make it.”

Mr. Greitens is the nation’s second-youngest governor, after 42-year-old Chris Sununu of New Hampshire. If he survives what is sure to be an unrelenting union assault on his 2020 re-election, Mr. Greitens will be only 50 when term limits require him to leave the governor’s mansion in 2025. What comes after? Mr. Greitens is too disciplined to bite. “There are certain times I think in your life where you feel like you’re in exactly the right place at the right time,” he says. “I love doing this job.”