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A Deep Bench

When the governor retires, does it help to have obvious successors?


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

Florida and Tennessee both will elect new governors in 2010. But they will do it in dramatically different ways. Although Florida's primary is more than a year away, it seems pretty certain that the nominees will be two elected statewide officials: Attorney General Bill McCollum for the Republicans, and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink for the Democrats. In Tennessee, confusion prevails. There are four serious candidates on the Democratic side, three on the Republican side, and the outlook is for a bruising campaign in both parties that may not be settled until late on primary night in August of next year.

What accounts for the difference? It's not that Tennessee politics are more fractious than Florida's. My colleague Josh Goodman recently came up with an intriguing explanation: It has to do with the number of statewide executive office-holders elected directly by the people.

In Florida, as a result of administrative reforms that took effect a few years ago, there are four of these: the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the chief financial officer and the agriculture commissioner. When there's an opening at the top, this is where both parties go to find someone with relevant experience and statewide reputation. It was a four-year term as attorney general that made Charlie Crist the odds-on Republican favorite and an easy winner for governor in 2006. (He's leaving to run for the U.S. Senate.)

Tennessee doesn't have an elected attorney general or financial officer. In fact, it doesn't have an elected anything except the governor himself. All the other top state executive offices are awarded by legislative appointment. So there's nobody next in line who can claim relevant management experience and a broad-based political following. In those circumstances, it's not surprising that a whole bunch of ambitious politicians would say to themselves, "Somebody has to win this thing. Why not me?" That's how you get a primary contest with lots of less-than-familiar names on the ballot.

I'm not saying this system is always a recipe for disaster. In recent years, Tennessee has had some pretty good governors. But the system was directly responsible for electing Ray Blanton, a man who was arguably the most corrupt governor in recent American history. Blanton's office sold pardons to state prisoners in exchange for cash. By the end of his four-year term, in 1978, the deals had become so blatant that Blanton's successor had to be sworn in early to prevent things from getting even worse.

How does a state end up with leadership like this? In Tennessee's case, it happened this way: The incumbent governor in 1974 was ineligible for a second term and there was no obvious choice in either party to succeed him. Lots of people with dubious credentials applied for the job. Blanton, an undistinguished three-term congressman, had enough friends and allies in his rural district to eke out a win in the Democratic primary with 23 percent of the vote. And in a landslide year for Democrats, he coasted through the general election and gave the state four years of embarrassing government. One or two statewide officeholders ready to move up to the top job could have prevented the whole Blanton fiasco.

States vary widely in how many executive positions are filled by popular election. The numbers range from just one (in Tennessee, Maine and New Hampshire), to nearly a dozen (in North Dakota). Why the nation's 47th-largest state would need so many elected officials is a provocative question, but there's a simple answer: During the Progressive Era, in the early 20th century, reformers felt that electing more state leaders by popular vote would reduce the power of lobbyists and corporate interests. They won their point, which is why a century later North Dakota still elects an auditor, an insurance commissioner, a treasurer and many other state executives. It sounds excessive, but it has yielded some interesting results: Both of the state's current U.S. senators, Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, used the obscure position of tax commissioner as a springboard to higher office.

It's fair to believe that while every state is different, the right number of executives to elect might be somewhat greater than one. And indeed, in recent years, some of the states that have traditionally done it Tennessee's way have begun to ask whether that's such a good idea. New Jersey, which has never had an elected lieutenant governor, re-wrote the rules to create one after two recent gubernatorial resignations forced members of the legislature to take over state government for significant periods of time.

One could easily conclude that states with a single elected executive are, at the very least, leaving their political systems open to periodic risk. But it's not that simple. Politics and government are two different enterprises. Investing so much authority in a single person may be dangerous politics. But from the standpoint of running an effective administration, it's actually a pretty reasonable idea.

Look at it this way: At the federal level, we elect a president and then allow him to pick the cabinet he wants, subject to Senate confirmation. We don't elect a treasury secretary, or an attorney general to run the Justice Department. The idea of doing that seems ludicrous on its face.

But it doesn't seem ludicrous in most states. In 43 of them, the attorney general is elected separately by the voters. The secretary of state is chosen by popular election in 38 states. There will be 42 elected lieutenant governors once New Jersey makes the changeover this fall.

What's wrong with this? Well, in some cases, probably not much. Some 24 of the nation's lieutenant governors run on the same ticket with the governor, and even if they aren't precious assets to an administration, they are at least part of the team. In several states, however--Texas, Georgia and Alabama being the prime examples--the lieutenant governor essentially runs one chamber of the legislature and can obstruct or even sink the administration's program if he wishes. In Texas, it's commonly said that the lieutenant governor is more powerful than the governor. That doesn't sound like rational government, and usually it isn't.

Then there's the secretary of state, who in most places is not a highly visible public official but is a very important one. This is the office whose occupant is trusted to run an impartial, nonpartisan system of state elections. In a democratic system, scarcely anything is more important than that. Filling these offices with candidates elected independently on a partisan ticket is just asking for trouble, even if the people chosen are reasonable and fair-minded.

The attorney general is a more complicated case. He or she is, in a sense, the governor's lawyer, but also the people's lawyer, so one might argue that it's reasonable to have someone in the job who's free from gubernatorial pressure. But that freedom comes at a high price: Popularly elected attorneys general, with their power to sue whomever they wish, too often become political loose cannons, responsible to no other entity of government.

States that created a raft of separately elected executives no doubt did it mostly to provide checks and balances. And checks and balances are a good thing. But courts and legislatures are around to provide oversight, assuming they do their jobs. It's hard to see how a state serves its public interest by having a whole cadre of separately elected executives roaming the capitol corridors looking for ways to further their own political agendas. In a good many states, that is often what we have.

And therein lies the paradox at the heart of this somewhat arcane but genuinely important issue. When elections come around, it's a valuable thing to have elected officials with experience ready to step up to the state's top office. In between elections, it's these same officials who can be prone to do the governmental process more harm than good.

So there's no perfect answer. My own view is that, on balance, it's best to avoid having too many cooks stirring the executive soup. Governors should be given power to implement a program, and then the voters can judge in four years whether they merit reelection. But in doing things that way, it's useful to keep in mind that, every once in a while, you are opening the door to a Ray Blanton.

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