Comeback Governors Try to Rekindle Their Power
After a long period out of office, three governors are discovering that experience can take them only so far.
By John Gramlich, Stateline Staff Writer
The 2010 elections brought a sea of fresh faces to governor’s offices around the country, from Democrat Dan Malloy, who is pushing broad liberal changes in Connecticut, to Republican Nikki Haley, the South Carolina conservative who, at 39, is the youngest state chief executive in the nation.
But in three states, 2010 marked a return to the days of old.
California, Iowa and Oregon all elected former governors who, between them, had 32 years of gubernatorial experience under their belts even before they settled in for fresh four-year terms in January. With an average age of 67 and most of their political lives behind them, the trio -- Jerry Brown in California, Terry Branstad in Iowa and John Kitzhaber in Oregon -- represents insider experience and familiarity in a year more commonly associated with barn-storming newcomers like Malloy, Haley and the tea party.
Brown, a Democrat who was known as “Governor Moonbeam” because of his lofty and sometimes eccentric policy goals as a two-term California governor in the 1970s and 1980s, is also a former mayor of Oakland, California secretary of state and attorney general, and three-time candidate for president. Branstad, a Republican, served 16 consecutive years in Iowa’s top office, making him one of the longest-serving governors in U.S. history. And Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor and two-term Democratic governor, is best-known for promoting a nationally recognized health insurance overhaul in Oregon before reemerging as a gubernatorial candidate in the thick of the national health care debate in 2010. All three upended the conventional wisdom that voters last year were in no mood for insiders. (In two other states, Georgia and Maryland, former governors lost their bids to return to office.)
But while Brown, Branstad and Kitzhaber have the advantage of experience and name recognition, their encore appearances on the gubernatorial stage show that government insiders aren’t automatically better at turning campaign promises into policy. All three men, absent from gubernatorial office for at least eight years, are finding that the dynamics around them are substantially different now. Each of them has had to adapt, with varying degrees of success so far.
‘The new reality’
Their new challenges range from the cerebral to the mundane. Kitzhaber has picked up right where he left off, striving to find ways to make health insurance cheaper. In Iowa, Branstad notes that one of the biggest adjustments has been to the everyday practicalities of governing in the 21st century. “Technology is so much different,” he pointed out in a telephone interview with Stateline. “Every cell phone’s a camera.”
But it is California that has probably seen the most significant changes in the nearly three decades since Brown last held the job. When he first took office in 1975, Brown was 36 years old, the state enjoyed budget surpluses and the party in power could accomplish its legislative goals without requiring a supermajority. Now 73 and the oldest governor in California history, Brown runs a state where finances are in shambles and where, because of structural changes passed at the ballot box, Democrats cannot pass the budget they want, even though they hold commanding majorities in both legislative chambers. Through Proposition 13, a ballot measure approved during Brown’s first term in 1978, tax increases require a two-thirds majority to be enacted legislatively, and Democrats have been unable to push through their preferred budget because no Republicans have agreed to raise taxes.
Making matters worse is the fact that partisanship has run rampant in recent years, making compromise, particularly over taxes, an unlikely prospect. “Sacramento’s always been a highly partisan place, but none of the old timers -- and I’m an old timer -- remember it being so harsh, so bitter, so divisive, so stalemated,” says Jaime Regalado, a political science professor at California State University at Los Angeles. “This is the new reality that Governor Brown stepped back into.”
Branstad and Kitzhaber, too, must negotiate directly with the minority party to pass legislation, a fact that makes governing trickier for any chief executive.
In Iowa, Democrats control the state Senate, which is nothing new for Branstad, who dealt with a Democratic legislature for most of his previous 16 years in office. What has complicated the dynamic is the emergence of the tea party, which did not exist when Branstad was last in office and has now become a powerful player in the state legislature. “Because the extreme conservative wing of the Republican Party is in control of the House, (Branstad) has to toe a pretty conservative line,” says Mack Shelley, an Iowa State University political science professor.
In Oregon’s case, there is an even 30-to-30 split in the state House of Representatives, giving Republicans a seat at the table after being politically marginalized for the past few years. For Kitzhaber, however, it is nothing new for Republicans to have power; instead, what is different for him is that they have relatively little.
In his previous two terms, Kitzhaber dealt exclusively with a Republican-led legislature, clashing so often with GOP leaders that he took on the nickname “Dr. No” for his record number of vetoes, and he famously called his state “ungovernable.” Even the official biography of Kitzhaber on the Oregon State Archives website notes his “chronically bad working relationship” with GOP lawmakers. This time, Kitzhaber is dealing with a smaller opposition party and one that Democrats say is less confrontational than the Oregon GOP of the 1990s. The result was a surprisingly harmonious legislative session.
In that 2011 session, Kitzhaber won more power over K-12 schools than any governor in Oregon history and secured passage of a new law requiring state employees to contribute part of their paychecks toward health insurance. In both cases, he relied on Republican votes to pursue measures that alienated unions, a core Democratic constituency and one that was essential to his own election in November. The man once known as “Dr. No” issued just a single veto in 2011, compared with the 69 he delivered in 1999.
There are several interpretations of Oregon’s peaceful session. For one thing, the governor did not pursue higher taxes -- which, in Oregon, as in many other places, are anathema to the GOP and often lead to government stalemates. For another, Republicans did not have outright power in either chamber as they did during the 1990s, meaning that any legislation that reached the governor’s desk would, by its nature, have to be bipartisan.
Bill Wyatt, who served as Kitzhaber’s chief of staff during his first two terms in office, says the governor used the split House to his advantage this year by pursuing moderate policies that could attract votes on both sides of the aisle. “When we woke up one or two mornings after the election and it was apparent that there would be a split in the House, he was the first one to say that this could be a tremendous opportunity,” Wyatt says. “That was the wisdom of 25 years of experience.”
Bill Sizemore, a well-known anti-tax advocate who lost to Kitzhaber in the 1998 gubernatorial election, credits Kitzhaber for reaching out to Republicans, but believes that the session would not have been so harmonious if the GOP had more power. “I think if we had a Republican-controlled legislature this time,” Sizemore says, “he’d be ‘Dr. No’ all over again.”
In California, Brown has found no bipartisan success. Setting a frantic pace for his third term in office, the governor pledged to have his first budget done within 60 days of his inauguration. But it wasn’t until the last day of the fiscal year -- two weeks after the state’s constitutional budget deadline of June 15 -- that a budget finally was signed, and it was one that did not attract a single Republican vote. In addition, the budget assumed $4 billion in unforecast revenues over the coming year, stretching Brown’s own pledge upon returning to office that he would not sign a budget that relied on “gimmicks.”
Regalado, the Cal State political science professor, says Brown’s difficulties with the legislature this year are not from a lack of trying to cooperate. Brown has spent countless hours meeting behind closed doors with lawmakers from the opposite party, and devoted months to wooing just four Republicans to agree to his original budget so it could pass. He never got them. The philosophical gap between California’s two political parties has simply grown too wide, experts say.
Of the three returning governors, it may be Branstad who has turned out to be the most surprising to members of his own party and the opposition alike, taking a tough-minded approach that has steered in a more conservative direction than many lawmakers expected. Iowa’s legislative session this year was the third-longest in state history as the result of a sharp divide between the Republican-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate, and Branstad prioritized several pieces of legislation -- including two-year budgets to replace the existing single-year versions -- on which he showed little inclination to compromise. On several occasions, he warned Democrats that “a new sheriff” was in town.
“I think there was a real clear mandate from the people,” he told Stateline.
In the end, he won about 85 percent of the funding for a two-year state budget and an overhaul of the state’s economic development efforts, though he was not able to reduce property taxes and eliminate Iowa’s universal preschool program, as he promised to do. What stands out to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, however, is Branstad’s more assertive approach to the legislature. Where Democrats see intractability and partisanship, many Republicans see a governor who has become a tougher conservative since he last held the job.
“I expected someone who would do quid pro quos,” says Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a Republican. “What I experienced was someone who had a laser focus on a smaller number of items and was really, really committed and worked those issues hard.”
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