Different Party, Same People: The Virtue of Political Holdovers

Two new governors have surprised their states by keeping many of the previous administrations' cabinet members.
by | March 2017
(AP)

When new governors and mayors take office, one of the first things most of them do is install their own people to carry out their wishes. But every now and then, there are exceptions. This year, two new governors -- both of whom ran on platforms of change -- have surprised their states by deciding to keep many of the same faces in place.

In Vermont, Republican Phil Scott succeeded Democrat Peter Shumlin. Despite the change in party control, Scott chose to retain several of Shumlin’s cabinet officials, as well as numerous deputy commissioners. That has caused some grumbling from Republicans who were hoping for a cleaner sweep. “I wanted to see a Republican governor who wanted to make changes,” Don Turner, the GOP leader in the state House, complained to Seven Days, a weekly Vermont publication, in January.

It’s a bit unusual to keep so many holdovers when there’s a change in partisan control. It may be even more surprising, however, that Doug Burgum -- the latest in a long line of Republican governors in North Dakota -- has kept the top staff in his state intact. Burgum decided to retain 11 of the 17 agency heads the governor appoints, despite having campaigned as an outsider who pledged to take on the “good old boys’ club” he claimed had been running North Dakota. “He’s asking a lot of people who are the status quo to change things,” notes Rob Port, editor of the Say Anything blog on state politics. “If you were going to change up the good old boys’ club in Bismarck, or drain the swamp, as Donald Trump says, why’d you keep the same people?”

Often, new governors are superstitious about contemplating personnel changes until they actually win election, which leaves them a short window for overhauling the entire leadership structure of their state’s government. So they may allow some holdovers to stay in place for a while. By and large, however, the higher up you are in one state administration, the less likely you are to be around very long in the next one.

But the reality is that running state departments is challenging work. A new governor and his party may not have a long list of applicants willing and ready to take on the job of running an agency that employs thousands of people -- particularly in small states such as North Dakota and Vermont. “Being head of an executive agenda tends to be difficult and challenging, while paying significantly less than jobs requiring similar executive functioning in the private sector,” says John Weingart, director of the Rutgers Center on the American Governor.

State cabinet officials have to get down deep in the weeds and really run their departments. They don’t hold ministerial jobs where they can just delegate responsibility and give luncheon talks, as can sometimes be the case at the federal level.

That’s why it makes sense for even an upstart like Burgum to hire or retain some of the very people he complained about on the campaign trail. “Burgum has to work with a well-entrenched Republican establishment in the state,” says Mark Jendrysik, a political scientist at the University of North Dakota. “You can run against the old boys’ network, but it doesn’t mean the old boys’ network disappears immediately."