Power Struggle: Governors and the Legislatures

How governors have learned to work with Legislatures controlled by the other party.
by | June 19, 2012
 

Chris Christie may be taking a particularly outspoken approach to governing, but he's far from the only governor who faces a Legislature fully controlled by the opposite party. Interviews with political experts in these states suggest that governors in this situation are using a wide variety of approaches.

For instance, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, and the GOP Legislature have repeatedly clashed, leading to "the only state government shutdown in the nation in 2011, followed by a budget deal that favored the GOP as the governor relented under public criticism over the lack of services due to the shutdown," said Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Dayton fared better in 2012 by exploiting GOP divisions over a new stadium for the NFL's Vikings.

In New Mexico, clashes have been common. A political action committee led by backers of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez went so far as to spend six figures on efforts to defeat more liberal Democrats in state House and Senate primaries. On primary day, the PAC was successful in electing moderate Democrats in seven out of the eight targeted races. The intent was to shape a Legislature more open to collaborating with Martinez.

By contrast, at least one governor, Democrat Jay Nixon of Missouri, has worked comfortably with a Legislature dominated by the opposite party. "Nixon is not a dogmatic Democrat pushing a liberal agenda against the tide," said Ken Warren, a Saint Louis University political scientist. "His relationship with the Legislature is not hostile at all, angering a lot of Democrats who think that he should act more like a Democrat."

Meanwhile, two Democratic governors - New Hampshire's John Lynch and North Carolina's Bev Perdue -- have largely been overtaken by events, observers say.

"In New Hampshire, the reform push is coming from the Legislature, and Lynch has not had enough legislative backing to keep several of his vetoes from being overridden," said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. James Pindell, the political director at WMUR-TV in New Hampshire, puts it bluntly. He calls Lynch - who is not running for another term -- "insanely popular and insanely irrelevant."

North Carolina's Perdue has also foregone a chance to run again, making her virtually irrelevant as well.

"Ever since she announced her decision at the end of January to not seek another term, she's clearly taken a backseat in the legislative process," said Jonathan Kappler, research director for the pro-free-market North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation. "At this point, the more interesting political and governing questions in Raleigh are the differences between the GOP leadership in the Senate and the GOP leadership in the House, and the potential political aspirations of those leaders."

The most intriguing echo of Christie's outspoken approach -- from the opposite partisan direction -- involves Montana Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

"His approach has been one of open aggression and battle," said one political observer in Helena. Schweitzer, who had already nurtured a reputation for outspokenness earlier in his term, took the approach to its logical conclusion when he made several branding irons featuring the word "veto." He had a public ceremony on the front lawn of the Capitol where he took about 20 bills and branded them with the red-hot iron.

"This stunt no doubt bolstered Schweitzer's popularity in the minds of many, and his aggressive style I think has served him well with the public," the source said. "People like a politician who takes a bold public stance, apparently on principle." Still, his seeming disdain for lawmakers helped derail a $100 million bonding bill, raises for state employees and additional university funding that led instead to a big tuition increase.

"He pissed a lot of people off, and, in the long term, he's hurt the reputation of the Legislature," the observer added. "Not a good thing."

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