Against the Grain

Governors are finding success in the unlikeliest places. They're doing it by choosing boldness over caution.
by | October 2006

If you travel the streets of Phoenix this month, it won't take you long to notice the giant yard signs with one huge name on them: JANET. They make an aggressive statement in support of Janet Napolitano, the aggressive Democratic governor whose advertising--even down to the lawn-sign level--seems to symbolize her style of management. The signs are a bold bright blue in a state that is seriously red. Arizona has voted Republican for president every time but once since 1950. The GOP has a nearly two-thirds majority in the legislature and an 8-to-2 edge in the congressional delegation.

Napolitano's own election as governor in 2002 was seen as something of a fluke. Then the state's attorney general, she won with only 46 percent of the vote against a Republican congressman who ran a poor campaign. In this context, Napolitano could have been expected to tread lightly when she took office in January 2003. She didn't.

Instead, she's spent her term taking on virtually any fight the legislature was willing to wage, be it on the budget, immigration, abortion or school vouchers. It was a risky strategy, but it seems to have worked. After nearly four years and more than 100 vetoes, most Arizonans--including those who keep electing Republicans to nearly every other office--still like her and have made her an overwhelming favorite for reelection.

Napolitano's story would be interesting if it were unusual, but it's even more interesting because something similar is going on in much of the country. At a time when Americans are constantly being told that they are more divided than ever, into conflicting red and blue political cultures, governors stand out as a giant asterisk. Twenty- one of the nation's governors come from the political party that lost the state's presidential vote in 2004.

And while most of these governors are somewhat more centrist than the national parties they belong to, they generally aren't conciliatory in their approach to governing. From Vermont to Kansas to Arizona, they have fought contentious fights with hostile legislatures. And like Janet Napolitano, these muscular moderates have gained ground with the voters by doing so. America may, in fact, be deeply divided between red and blue, but for the most part, that color scheme does not explain gubernatorial politics.


Napolitano's relations with her Republican legislature have been defined by conflict throughout her term. "It started out tenuous," says Ken Bennett, who has served as Senate president all four of Napolitano's years in office, "and got worse from there."

When Napolitano took office in 2003, Arizona faced one of the most severe fiscal crises in its history. The immediate problem was plugging a $300 million hole in the budget for the already half- complete 2002-03 fiscal year. Republican legislative leaders proposed cutting expenditures for health care and education to help make up the difference. Napolitano said no, the money would have to be borrowed, and she traveled the state to promote this position. She was able to bring along enough maverick Republicans to block the cuts and impose her preferred solution.

Later that year, the budget shortfall had ballooned to a billion dollars. And the scenario played out much the same, with a bloc of dissident Republican legislators balking at the plans of their leaders and Napolitano taking advantage of the GOP division to win approval of a compromise budget that once again relied heavily on borrowing and one-time revenue.

This deal might have been a step toward building goodwill between Napolitano and the legislature, but the governor had something else in mind. She line-item-vetoed 35 parts of the budget, largely to provide more funding for education and health care. Republican lawmakers took her to court, claiming she was usurping their power to appropriate money.

The relationship seemed on the mend in 2004, when Napolitano vetoed fewer bills and won approval of her signature achievement: all-day kindergarten. But that progress evaporated in 2005. After giving the governor a victory on the kindergarten issue, Republicans expected her to sign off on a tax credit for businesses that give scholarships to private school students. When she vetoed that provision, the Republicans called her a deal-breaker and liar. For her part, Napolitano said Republicans broke the deal first by not including a sunset provision in the tax credit.

The relationship between the governor and the legislature has never recovered. Stephen Tully, the House GOP leader, puts it bluntly. "There isn't really a relationship between the governor and the legislature at all," he says. "The governor's office, they just want to sit back and veto bills."

There's no question that using the veto is a key part of Napolitano's governing style. She's vetoed bills requiring parental consent and waiting periods for abortions, and a bill to protect gun owners' rights during emergencies. She angered GOP legislators in another way by signing an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in state employment. Napolitano can't be described as an out-and-out liberal--she supported a major tax cut earlier this year and has maintained generally good relations with the business community--but she's clearly chosen to fight things out in situations where one would expect a Democratic governor in hostile territory to act cautiously. She says success isn't about getting along with the legislature, which she labels "ultraconservative."

Republican legislators complain that much of Napolitano's image has been created by a sympathetic and submissive press corps. They say she claims credit for things Republicans have actually done, such as cutting taxes and strengthening the state's rainy-day fund, and that the press helps her with these deceptions.

But if those charges are valid, the Republican-leaning Arizona voters don't seem to be buying them. To all appearances, they enjoy having a Democratic governor who fights with the lawmakers they've elected. Napolitano has scored approval ratings of 60 percent or higher fairly consistently throughout her term. Part of the explanation, says Fred DuVal, a prominent Arizona Democrat, is that Napolitano's hard-nosed style fits with the state's Western ethos. In a place where any election for any office reminds some voters of a campaign for sheriff, cultivating a reputation as someone who doesn't back off from a fight is a good thing.


Western stubbornness might explain Arizona. It certainly doesn't explain Vermont, a Democratic-leaning state where Republican Governor Jim Douglas has followed a similarly headstrong path to consistent popularity since his 2002 election. George W. Bush took only 39 percent of the vote in Vermont in 2004, his third-worst showing in the nation.

The following year, Douglas faced the biggest political debate of his tenure over health care. The legislature sent him a bill that aspired to provide near-universal coverage. Douglas objected to the funding mechanisms, including a tax on the payrolls of employers that didn't offer insurance, and said it went too far in encouraging Vermonters to get their health insurance from the government. Despite Democratic legislative majorities and widespread support in the state for comprehensive health care reform, he vetoed the bill.

And, as in Napolitano's case, he got away with it. The political response from voters was muted, and this year the governor and legislature reached a compromise, creating a new program called Catamount Health that relies far more on private insurers than the one Democrats had initially pushed forward.

A similar pattern prevails in Kansas, where Governor Kathleen Sebelius presides as a Democrat in a heavily Republican state. Sebelius isn't quite as belligerent as Napolitano, but she fights, and she usually gets her way. In 2004, Sebelius wanted to increase sales, property and income taxes to comply with a state court order requiring additional funding for schools.

When legislators rejected her approach, she sent them a budget the following year with no added school funding at all, telling them that if they didn't like her recommendations, then it was up to them to deal with the situation on their own. "Probably everyone I know thought that was a mistake," says Joe Aistrup, a Kansas State University political scientist, "but that was the best thing she could have done." The legislature produced a plan she saw as inadequate; she allowed it to become law without her signature. When the judges rejected it, Sebelius finally got the larger increase in school funding she was looking for, along with the court's approval.

Sebelius hasn't shied away from causes seemingly out of the conservative Kansas mainstream. She's rejected bills to allow carrying of concealed firearms and to require annual licensing for abortion clinics. She opposed the state's constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and signed legislation giving in-state tuition rates to some illegal immigrants. None of these actions have substantially cut into her popularity. Like Napolitano in Arizona, Sebelius is a heavy reelection favorite.

So is Jodi Rell, the Republican governor in largely Democratic Connecticut. Rell is clearly a moderate Republican; she signed the first bill to allow gay civil unions that wasn't prompted by a court order. But when the Democratic legislative majority wanted to raise income taxes for the wealthiest state residents in 2005, she fought them and negotiated a budget without the tax increase. An equally strong reelection favorite is Oklahoma's Brad Henry, a Democrat who won a startling upset victory in 2002. Henry persuaded conservative voters in his state to expand gambling, create a state lottery and raise the cigarette tax through referendums in 2004. Other "mismatched" governors who seem poised for reelection include Republican Linda Lingle in Hawaii and Democrat Dave Freudenthal in Wyoming. The most muscular moderate of all, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, seems headed for a second term as well.

Not every mismatched governor is coasting this fall. Maryland's Bob Ehrlich, a Republican in Democratic territory, is fighting for survival. GOP Governor Don Carcieri of Rhode Island, despite encouraging approval ratings, is in no position to take reelection for granted. But most of the mismatched have, like Napolitano in Arizona, enjoyed a measure of success through a combination of independence and a willingness to take on the opposing party's majority in crucial situations.


Len Munsil, a lawyer and conservative activist, will oppose Napolitano in November. "I think the core values of the people of Arizona," he says, "are more like my core values as a Reagan conservative than like hers." But Munsil needs an issue to crystallize his argument to the electorate. There is only one real possibility: immigration. It is a subject that has dominated public debate in Arizona all year. As Napolitano says, "it's all immigration, all the time."

As on almost every other issue, Napolitano hasn't avoided a fight. She says she favors a crackdown on illegal border crossings, but also a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. In June, when the legislature sent her a bill that would have made illegal immigrants subject to prosecution for trespassing, she vetoed it, accusing legislators of ignoring the concerns of business and placing a burden on local law enforcement.

This might have been one step too far if Napolitano hadn't insulated herself from such criticism well in advance. Last year, she and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a fellow Democrat, both declared a state of emergency on the border, freeing up funds for expanded law enforcement efforts. In March, Napolitano issued an executive order expanding the National Guard's role at the border. The legislature wanted a say in the matter, and passed a bill ordering the governor to deploy the Guard. She vetoed it, saying it would undermine her prerogatives as chief executive, but the political effect of the whole confrontation was clear: Napolitano had demonstrated that, moderate stance notwithstanding, no one was going to label her as passive on immigration.

The result is that, a month before election day, most Arizona Republicans are focused more on trying to thwart Napolitano by securing veto-proof legislative majorities than on defeating her at the polls. Even that's considered a long shot. At this point, it seems highly likely that Napolitano, along with Sebelius, Douglas and virtually all the other mismatched governors, will begin a second term next January in solid political shape.


What's the explanation? Why is it that Rhode Island has had a Republican governor for 18 of the past 22 years, or that voters in Kansas are willing to embrace a Democrat who is pro-choice and cool to gun rights? There are various theories. Some observers think that voters in Northeastern states elect Republican governors to check the power of free-spending Democratic legislatures. They perceive that a governor from the opposite party can't enact much of an agenda even if he wants to, and therefore doesn't pose a serious threat to anything.

Others reflect that most of these governors represent states with relatively small populations, where retail politics can overcome traditional partisan preferences. Douglas has been using personal familiarity to win statewide campaigns in Vermont for the past quarter-century. "People don't drop over in surprise if they're standing next to Governor Douglas in line for a movie," says Gaye Symington, Vermont's Democratic House Speaker.

But there are plenty of counter-examples. Montana's Governor Brian Schweitzer is a Democratic governor in a conservative state that voted for Bush, but voters didn't put him in office to counter-balance a GOP legislative majority: They elected a Democratic House and Senate along with him in 2004. George Pataki has won three terms as a Republican in Democratic New York, a state where it's impossible for any politician to meet more than a tiny fraction of the voters.

Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina has his own provocative explanation: He doesn't think America is all that polarized. In his 2004 book, "Culture Wars? The Myth of a Divided America," Fiorina argued that even on the most emotional issues-- abortion and gay rights, for example--public opinion data show that broad swaths of Americans favor a middle ground. This is true, he says, in the reddest of red states and the bluest of the blue.

From Fiorina's perspective, the idea that America is a country of strong partisan fault lines is a creation of journalists who see conflict between political leaders, and assume that regular folks are up in arms, too. If his theory is correct, then the presence of nearly two dozen mismatched governors shouldn't come as much of a surprise at all. When voters choose a Janet Napolitano or a Jim Douglas, they aren't crossing partisan or ideological lines; they're just oblivious to them.

If Fiorina is right, however, it raises a new puzzle. Why, if partisan polarization is largely a myth, does it seem so strong in presidential and congressional elections? Kansas voters may be comfortable with Sebelius as their governor, but they haven't elected a Democratic U.S. Senator since the 1930s, and they haven't backed a Democrat for president since 1964. No matter how well Jim Douglas does in Vermont next month, it's highly unlikely any Republican presidential candidate can carry it in 2008. When it comes to national elections, red and blue states really do exist.

Fiorina's answer is that extremists have commandeered the national political parties. He says the ideologues who run the Democratic and Republican parties don't generally allow the nomination of moderates, the kind of people who can win regardless of partisan registration. In other words, Janet Napolitano can win a nomination for governor in Arizona; she couldn't win a presidential nomination. And the kind of Democrat who does win a presidential nomination doesn't stand a chance in Arizona.

Perhaps there's some truth to that. But people on the ground in states such as Arizona, Kansas and Vermont put it a slightly different way. As they see it, voters just don't think about governors in ideological terms. The issues that dominate gubernatorial politics-- economic development, education, crime, and transportation--seem to them far removed from the debates that take place in Washington. As Arizona's Fred Duval says, "you can build up a lot of credibility on the non-ideological issues." And Napolitano has done that.

Moreover, even in a state where voters don't run into the governor in a movie line, they still get to know her in a way they don't know their legislators on the federal level. Phil Lopes, the Democratic leader in the Arizona House, sees significance in those signs that just say, "JANET." They reflect, he says, a level of trust and familiarity she has been able to build up in four years of nearly constant travel and media exposure. Build a sufficient level of trust, and voters may be willing to look past red and blue. That's what they seem poised to do next month.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |