So You Won the Governor’s Race, Now What?

The transition from one administration to the next sets the tone for a new governor. But there are ways to mess it up.
December 2014
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

By the start of the new year, there will be a number of new governors taking the reins of power. We’ll leave it to the political prognosticators to predict the impact these new governors will ultimately have on policy in their states. What’s clear to us is that the success of the new administrations will be largely contingent on the skill and care with which they manage the transition from the old regime to their first terms.

MORE: Read the rest of the December issue.

“You come in semi-exhausted the day after [the election] and there’s a big press conference,” says Nancy Rodrigues, the former co-chair of Viriginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s transition team and now secretary of administration in his cabinet. (McAuliffe was one of only two new governors who took office in 2013.) “You walk over to the transition offices that are set up for you and there are lobbyists circling like sharks in the water.” Then, she says, you realize that, “My God, we’ve won! And how short a time we have to set this up.”

Traditionally, most governors-elect have about eight to 10 weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day to get an awful lot of preparatory work done. In reality, though, the actual transition period can extend for several weeks more -- perhaps the first 100 days of the new administration.

The transition isn’t just a happenstance affair. In most cases, there will be a clearly appointed team that will be given the task of creating an environment for success. It’s generally wise for this team not to build a wall around itself, inside of which wisdom about future programs is supposed to spout forth. When Georgia’s Gov. Nathan Deal took office in January 2011, Jay Neal was a state legislator. Deal, Neal says, “engaged us in the process of coming up with a solution to tough problems, and got support and feedback on the front end. He engaged the minority leader, as well. It was a breath of fresh air. He was more engaging of the legislature than we’d seen in previous transitions.”

One of the first things that the governor’s transition team -- in close collaboration with the incoming governor -- needs to do is to select a cabinet, notably a chief of staff, who will act in many, many roles, including that of office manager, chief strategist, policy adviser and crisis coordinator (even, potentially, the role of personal confidant).

Not surprisingly, according to Bill Leighty, former chief of staff to Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in Virginia, and one of the nation’s most outstanding experts on gubernatorial transitions, it’s likely that the biggest thing that can go wrong in a transition is mucking up the personnel selection process of key officials. A few years ago, the National Governors Association issued specific words of advice along those lines. It wrote that “strategic recruitment also may involve balancing political and professional considerations when reviewing potential candidates for high state government positions. Most governors warn that building an administration based solely on the groups of people who were instrumental in the election campaign can be a dangerous approach to appointments.”

One major snafu that assails many transitions is that no one is thinking about continuing to provide good constituent services during the last weeks of the old administration and the first weeks of the new one. This can amount to something as simple as making certain that the constituent mail gets answered. “That one is often solved by having a good plan with the outgoing group,” says Leighty. “You’d be surprised how often the old folks just dump a bunch of boxes on the new staff.” With constituent communications often arriving in the form of emails, the transition team needs to consider the complexity of shifting old requests to a new administration, particularly when roles and key players have changed.

A third big obstacle that stands in the way of a new administration’s smooth debut is made up of purely logistical issues. Sometimes the bureaucracy just keeps paying for the phones and the lights when a new administration comes in, and things run relatively seamlessly. But that doesn’t always happen. For example, when Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore left office in 2002, there was no budget in place. So the new administration simply did not have a checkbook in its hands from which the necessities of governmental life could be paid.

A few more big no-no’s according to Leighty:

  • Blaming your problems on the guy who has just left office.
  • Forgetting that everything you say or do is under a microscope, being carefully watched by the press as well as your political opponents. This, of course, applies to everyone in the office, not just the new governor. Not long ago, a number of people in one governor’s office were chatting about some sensitive issues over the tops of their cubicles. A legislator walked in and heard them. He tweeted out the still-secret news gleaned from their discussion. You can just imagine the hell that ultimately broke loose.
  • Committing acts of arrogance. For obvious reasons, says Leighty, it’s not wise to “come in and build an exorbitant office or plush new drapes; treating everybody as if there’s a new boss in town.”