Another Lesson From Spitzer

Around election time, I'm sometimes been interviewed by other news outlets about the races for governor. There's one question I can always count on hearing: ...
by | March 11, 2008

Around election time, I'm sometimes been interviewed by other news outlets about the races for governor. There's one question I can always count on hearing: Who among the new governors is likely to run for president? In other words, they want to know who the stars are. This question comes up at conferences all the time, too.

The thing is, you don't know. And if you think you do know, you're usually wrong.

In November 2006, it was clear that Eliot Spitzer was the star of his class. As attorney general of New York, he had become the most widely-known state official in the country, excepting Arnold Schwarzenegger, who of course had an unfair advantage. Spitzer had driven a three-term governor from the race and rung up the biggest margin of any gubernatorial candidate in history.

He promised to be a hard-charging governor, coming in with a big mandate and an aggressive style and promising to clean up Albany. Because Albany so clearly needed (and still needs) cleaning up, it seemed the perfect marriage of man and mission.

In retrospect, it's much easier to see that Spitzer was, in fact, not well suited for the top job.

He remained prosecutorial in his approach. He got off on the wrong foot almost instantly, making a tour of the home districts of legislators to rail against them if they dared oppose him.

Spitzer's most celebrated successes as a prosecutor came through settlements. He was not famous for winning big cases, but for intimidating people so they had to admit guilt. This is not a winning strategy in politics, where your fellow elected leaders are more likely when attacked to become defensive and start firing back.

We now can see that, in Spitzer's case, pride goeth before the fall. But there's a good lesson here in terms of guessing who will succeed when they accede to the top position. Reporters are not necessarily any better than voters when it comes to guessing who will turn out to be the right fit.

You never know who is going to turn out to be a good deal-maker. Those with legislative experience seem like they'll know how to operate with their former colleagues, but it doesn't always work out that way. And there are plenty of former prosecutors who turn out to have a knack for management -- Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Janet Napolitano of Arizona come to mind.

It's impossible to guess which governors are going to run into bad luck. But it can also come as a surprise when a governor who is dealt what looks like an impossible hand turns out to be successful anyway. Think of Democrat Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas, skillfully navigating her difficult political position among so many Republican legislators and voters.

I seem stuck on Democratic women, but there are plenty of other positive and negative examples illustrating the point I'm trying to make. Which is simply that the qualities that make a politician successful at drawing media attention before becoming governor don't necessarily line up with the skills needed to be a good governor.


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