By Jay Nies
Framed photos and memorabilia lined each wall of the lieutenant governor’s office in the Capitol as a member of the maintenance staff went about hanging them up, piece by piece.
One item, dated Christmas of 2010, was inscribed, “To my son, the senator, with love and prayers from Mom, with lots of help from Mary.”
It was an icon of the Blessed Mother, under her title Our Lady of Perpetual Help, holding the infant Jesus.
“My Mom likes telling me, ‘You need help from Mary’ — that she’s watching over me,” said Lieutenant Governor Mike Kehoe.
A member of Cathedral of St. Joseph parish in Jefferson City, he is the first Catholic to serve as lieutenant governor in recent memory, if not in all of Missouri’s 197-year history.
The office’s previous occupant, Gov. Michael Parson, became governor June 1 upon the resignation of Gov. Eric Greitens, and on June 18 appointed Lt. Gov. Kehoe to be the new lieutenant governor.
“It’s surreal to me that I’m in this position,” Lt. Gov. Kehoe stated. “It’s something I didn’t plan for, I never thought would happen and still can’t believe, most days, happened.”
Having spent eight years as a senator in the legislative branch, he now holds the state’s only office that is part of both the legislative and the executive branches.
The Missouri Constitution charges the lieutenant governor with presiding over the state Senate and casting the deciding vote in case of a tie.
The lieutenant governor also stands in for the governor when he is out of the state or incapacitated by illness, and serves as a member of several boards and commissions.
Lawmakers have designated the lieutenant governor also to be a spokesperson for veterans and the elderly, as well as a key promoter of the state with the Division of Tourism.
“Tourism is basically selling Missouri, and I like to sell,” said Lt. Gov. Kehoe. “So being able to sell the great assets we have here in Missouri is something I think will be a lot of fun.”
An early and important friend and advisor, Dave Sinclair, who gave Lt. Gov. Kehoe his first big break, offered him one last piece of advice before dying: “Don’t forget your roots.”
“I think that says it all,” said Lt. Gov. Kehoe.
The youngest of six siblings, he grew up four doors down from what was then Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in the Baden neighborhood of North St. Louis.
“My father left when I was a year old,” he stated. “My mother raised six kids by herself.”
He paused before adding: “My mom went to Mass every morning at 6 o’clock. Every morning. She never missed.”
Helping Lorraine Kehoe form her children in the faith were the priests of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish and the Sisters of Loreto at the parish school.
Brothers and priests of the Society of Mary at Chaminade College Prep, an all-boys Catholic high school in St. Louis County, helped Lt. Gov. Kehoe aspire to Christian adulthood.
At the time, he thought his strict, demanding teachers were mean.
“But looking back, they’re probably what saved me,” he said. “They were tough but very good.”
Young Michael stayed busy with Church activities “because my mom volunteered me for them left and right,” he said. “Whenever the servers didn’t show up for early-morning Mass on Sunday, our pastor called my mom and said, ‘Tell Michael we need him.’”
She also taught him the “Guardian Angel” prayer. He still prays it every day in memory of his sister, Carol, who died young of leukemia.
Beacons in Baden
Father Dennis Doyle, who was a newly ordained priest serving at Our Lady of Mount Carmel when Lt. Gov. Kehoe was little, remains a family friend.
“As I would say to anyone of that era, we all grew up together,” said Fr. Doyle. “Those were growing-up days for me as well as for them.”
The Kehoe children were spread throughout the parish school and kept their mother very busy.
“But they were a vital part of the parish and never missed Mass,” said Fr. Doyle. “They were active in the school and active in the neighborhood.”
“Michael’s mother was certainly a real beacon for him,” the priest added. “And he had an aunt and uncle, and then Dave Sinclair. So he had some significant role models in his life.”
So were his older brothers and sisters.
“They’ve all been powerful influences on his life,” said Fr. Doyle. “The relationship among him and his siblings has always been very strong.”
Faith of our fathers
When Gov. Parson asked if he would serve as lieutenant governor, Lt. Gov. Kehoe said he needed to talk to his family about it.
He also took it to God in prayer.
“My prayer to the Good Lord is pretty much the same in every situation,” he said. “It’s ‘Help me make the best decision. Whatever’s right, whatever’s supposed to be, that’s what I’m good with.’”
He said being Catholic is “the core of who I am.”
As a state senator, he occasionally heard from constituents who asserted that his faith should have no bearing on his politics. This often came in light of issues such as abortion and marriage.
“But I said when I was running that I’m a Catholic family man with strong values, and the people elected me,” he said. “So I’m giving them what they voted for.”
He believes that although people should be able to put their faith into practice at home and at work without fear of government interference, there’s plenty of room for understanding and cooperation between people of faith and the government.
“We are a country built on faith, specifically on God,” he said. “I believe our Founding Fathers and many who have led us since then believed very much that God should be a part of our lives, and there’s definitely a place for that as we govern.”
“You’d never believe”
Lt. Gov. Kehoe noted that this has been a contentious time in the state’s government.
“I think Missourians are sick and tired of the drama and are ready for something steady and reliable,” he said.
He believes an important part of being American is not taking for granted the freedom and opportunities this country provides.
“There’s no way on earth that if you saw the North City of St. Louis neighborhood I was raised in, you’d believe that I’d end up in this office … even this building … really, even this city,” he said.
“I believe that’s what this country does,” he said. “It affords anybody the opportunity who really wants to succeed — and different definitions of success, I understand, are out there — but if you want to do something, you can do it in this country.”
Lt. Gov. Kehoe’s mother could not afford his high school tuition, so he applied for a work scholarship.
“I cut grass and painted every room in the residence hall,” he said. “They had an old cinder track when I was there, and I had to rake and weed that cinder track. That was my big thing. And carrying hurdles.”
His senior year, he went to work for a man who would become for him a father-like figure and role model: Dave Sinclair, “the South County Ford Dealer.”
“He was probably the most influential person to me in terms of helping me understand business, understand employees, understand customers and appreciate how to work hard and get where you want to be,” he said.
Mr. Sinclair was also a devout Catholic family man.
“I for sure wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him,” said Lt. Gov. Kehoe.
Lt. Gov. Kehoe said his wife Claudia “is also from a very strong Irish Catholic family.” They got married in 1989. They have four children.
Lt. Gov. Kehoe helped establish Osage Industries, a company in Linn that builds ambulances, in 1987 and purchased a Ford dealership in Jefferson City in 1992.
The family also bought a farm in Phelps County in 1984, where they raise cattle and horses.
“St. Pat’s in Rolla and St. Theresa’s in Dixon became our adopted home parishes away from home,” he said.
In 2006, Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos asked Lt. Gov. Kehoe and Jefferson City accountant John Sheehan to be the general chairmen of the diocese’s “Grateful Memories … Faithful Future” capital campaign.
The $23 million campaign helped bolster Catholic education and priest and lay-employee retirement and provided seed money for Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia.
“We worked on that with hundreds of people, and thanks to thousands of great people in the diocese, we hit the goal,” said Lt. Gov. Kehoe.
Having served on the State Highway Commission and what is now the board of trustees of Missouri State Technical College in Linn, Lt. Gov. Kehoe was elected as a Republication to the state Senate in 2010 and 2014.
Time away from home
Lt. Gov. Kehoe said he’s looking forward to new opportunities to meet people, “finding out their life stories, listening to their challenges, trying to help them, seeing products that are manufactured or built in Missouri, taking a deeper dive into how our economy works and what’s keeping it going.”
“I think all of that will be very exciting,” he said.
Going from representing seven counties in the Senate to 114 counties and the City of St. Louis as lieutenant governor will mean more traveling and time away from his family.
“Family is important to me,” he said. “My family was supportive of me accepting this position, but traveling around the state and spending time away from home will probably be the hardest part of it.”
He said he understands that not everyone in Missouri or in his Church agrees with his worldview or policymaking priorities.
“I respect people who have disagreement as long as we can move on to the next issue and see what we can work on together,” he said. “You can disagree with people and still have a relationship with them and work to figure out solutions that you do agree on.”
Lt. Gov. Kehoe is grateful for all of the promises of prayer he’s received.
“I tell people, what I want them to pray for is that we make the right decisions together,” he said.
As a friend and longtime spiritual advisor, Fr. Doyle said he couldn’t offer Lt. Gov. Kehoe any better advice than what Mr. Sinclair had already given him: “Don’t forget where you came from.”
Praying for the lieutenant governor and for all government leaders, Fr. Doyle asks God to help them “do justice and watch out for the needs of the people, especially those in need.”