Goodbye Moderate Governors, Hello Partisans

From Vermont to Hawaii, moderate governors are leaving office after the fall elections. Will partisan purists soon be running state government?
by | October 2010

Kyrsten Sinema thinks her state has gone bonkers, and she isn’t shy about saying so. As a Democrat in the Arizona House of Representatives, Sinema has been helpless as Republican lawmakers approve one policy after another that she thinks is nuts.

The Legislature barred ethnic studies classes in public schools. “That’s crazy.” Sinema says. “So now our students don’t even get the option to learn about African-American history. That’s just crazy.” As part of conservatives’ push against human cloning and stem cell research, a new law bans the creation of human-animal hybrids. “I think that people underestimate the damage that the centaurs and mermaids can do in our community,” Sinema says sarcastically. Lawmakers approved a series of expansions to gun rights. “You can take guns into bars, there’s no concealed carry weapon permit anymore and you can have an automatic weapon,” Sinema says. “Now, I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment, but this is crazy. That’s crazy. That’s just crazy.”

Obviously, Arizona Republicans would disagree with the way Sinema characterizes their legislation. But almost no one would disagree that her sentiments reflect what many Arizona Democrats have been feeling for the last two years. During this time, the state approved SB 1070, the landmark anti-illegal immigration bill. The Legislature has picked fights with unions, challenged the Obama administration over health-care reform and approved new restrictions on abortion. Add it all up and the last two years have been a golden age for conservative policy experimentation in Arizona.

The main reason all of this happened is the departure of Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, who was a one-person check-and-balance on the Republican-controlled Legislature. When Napolitano joined the Obama administration, Jan Brewer, a conservative Republican, became governor. Suddenly the Legislature could do what it pleased on many topics.

Many governors like Napolitano will leave office in January, either because of term limits or because they’ve chosen to retire. They’re Democrats in Republican states with Republican legislatures and Republicans in Democratic states with Democratic legislatures. These governors, like Napolitano, have been moderating influences on state government. They’ve blocked many of the more ideological impulses of their legislatures.

In the November elections, voters are likely to revert to form in many of the states with departing governors -- Republicans will win in Republican states and Democrats will win in Democratic states. If that happens, Arizona’s story may be repeated in states from coast to coast -- and state government may end up more partisan, more ambitious and, yes, a little bit crazier.

The Moderate Governors of 2002

Napolitano was a member of the class of 2002, the most topsy-turvy year for gubernatorial elections in recent memory. The 2000 presidential election established the political map of Republican red states and Democratic blue states. Two years later, the gubernatorial elections seemed to suggest that the whole red and blue thing was bunk.

Republicans won election to governor in many of the most Democratic states in the country: Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. When Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger won the California recall election the following year, more than half of the people in states that had voted for Al Gore in 2000 were living under Republican governors. Democrats had their own set of surprising wins in governors’ races in 2002, in Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming, in addition to Arizona.

Voters have a long history of ignoring their partisan predilections in gubernatorial races. For example, Wyoming, one of the most Republican states in the country, has been led by Democratic governors for 28 of the past 36 years. Deeply Democratic states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have equally robust recent histories of electing Republican governors. Still, what made the 2002 elections notable was that these sorts of results occurred in state after state, just when conventional wisdom said that states were becoming much more divided along partisan lines.

Much of the class of 2002 has stuck around for the last eight years. Some of these governors have been political successes, while others are failures. Some are bold partisans, while others have been cautious and conciliatory. Despite the differences, though, they played a common role.

These governors didn’t just belong to a different party from most of the voters in their states. More often than not, they also belonged to a different party than most of their states’ legislators. With the stroke of their veto pens, they constrained the ideological ambitions of their legislatures. In doing so, they directed state governments on a moderate, consensus-oriented approach.

In this regard, several governors set records. In 2008, Schwarzenegger vetoed 35 percent of the bills that were sent to him, the largest proportion in a single year of any California governor on record. The same year, Tim Pawlenty set Minnesota’s one-year record with 34 vetoes.

In 2009, Jim Douglas became the first governor in Vermont history to veto the state budget. Thwarting the Democratic Legislature’s initiatives, Douglas says, was an important part of his job. “Vermonters have sought some balance in state government,” he says, “and they’ve chosen me to provide it.”

Janet Napolitano and Arizona's Republican-Controlled Legislature

In Arizona, Napolitano was a record-setter too. She vetoed 180 bills during her six-plus years in office, easily the most by any Arizona governor. For her entire time in office, Republicans controlled both houses of the Legislature. As Democrats go, Napolitano wasn’t especially liberal, but she was a loyal enough defender of her party’s views to create perennial conflict on hot-button issues.

With Napolitano gone, Republican lawmakers have aggressively shrunk government, including eliminating universal all-day kindergarten, which Napolitano considered her signature achievement. These moves, though, reflect the harsh budget realities faced by Arizona as much as they reflect the Legislature’s ideological preference for austerity.

The more telling pieces of legislation are the ones on social issues. Even in the middle of one of the worst economic and fiscal calamities the state has ever known, Republican lawmakers haven’t shied away from restricting abortion and expanding gun rights -- subjects on which Napolitano frequently issued vetoes while in office.

If there’s one person who embodies the shift, it’s Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, a socially conservative advocacy group. Napolitano, who is pro-choice, opposed most of Herrod’s agenda. “We were not even able to get an appointment to meet with Napolitano,” she says.

Today, Herrod is derided by Democrats as a secret power in the capitol, someone to whom Brewer and Republican legislators defer. She shrugs that off. “It’s not about me,” she says. Still, she has no trouble getting meetings -- or getting results. Lawmakers have approved bills to expand private school vouchers and restrict stem cell research. The state has created a new 24-hour waiting period for abortion, restricted late-term abortions and forbidden public money from funding government employees’ abortions.

Then there were legislators’ forays into the hottest national issues of the day. In this regard, Arizona foreshadowed debates that would rage across the country. In June 2009, the Legislature approved a ballot measure to block requirements that everyone possess health insurance, months before that would become a source of controversy in federal health reform. Another legislatively approved ballot measure would require workers’ votes on organizing unions to be conducted via secret ballots, a preemptive strike on the “card-check” legislation that is a top union priority in Congress. The state also challenged the federal government in other ways, passing a bill to bar federal gun regulations from applying to weapons that are made and sold within Arizona borders. And, of course, the state reshaped the national debate on immigration with SB 1070.

Many other states, such as Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas, are controlled by one party right now. But Arizona’s activism stands out. Why?

Kirk Adams, the speaker of the Arizona House, is the best person to answer that. He notes that while Republicans lost power in many states in 2006 and 2008, Arizona Republicans actually picked up legislative seats in 2008, with Arizonan John McCain as the party’s presidential nominee. When Napolitano left, the party didn’t just have the opportunity to do all the things it couldn’t while she was governor. It also was able to give a voice to Republicans around the country who were disconcerted by the Obama administration’s policies but lacked the legislative power to do anything about them. “Arizona is becoming a leader in rebalancing the power between the states and the federal government,” Adams says. “The federal government simply has usurped too much state power and continues to do so.”

While Arizona’s turn in the national spotlight is partially a reflection of the idiosyncrasies of the 2008 election cycle, it also reflects broader trends. Napolitano had a small group of moderate Republicans with whom she’d strike deals, especially on budget issues. Most of these moderate Republicans gradually have been swept out of office in primaries or replaced by more conservative lawmakers when they retired. That set the stage for bold conservative action once she was gone.

In this way, Arizona is following a national trend. More and more legislative elections are hinging on hot-button national issues. More partisans are demanding ideological purity from their elected officials, fueling primary challenges to incumbent lawmakers. In Arizona and other states, the end result is that more legislators are coming from the edges of the political spectrum.

That’s the recipe that, combined with Brewer’s ascendance, left loyal Democrats like Sinema so frustrated. “I’ll be honest with you,” she says, “I didn’t think it was going to be this bad. I did not.”

The Republican Resurgence

The question now is whether, come January, times will be just as bad for minority parties around the country. Unless several governors’ races end in surprises, one-party rule is coming to more states.

The dominant theme in this year’s elections is a Republican resurgence. In the races for governor, though, there’s a secondary theme: a return to partisan form. Largely as a consequence of term limits, many Republican states appear set to revert to Republican control. Many Democratic states could have Democratic governors for the first time in years.

Democratic governors are retiring in Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming. In each of those states, Republican candidates for governor are heavy favorites. It’s likely that Republicans will have complete control of the legislatures in those states too, although Democrats are putting up a fight in Tennessee. If Republicans do win, they’ll have total control of Tennessee government for the first time since Reconstruction and total control of Oklahoma government for the first time ever. Already lawmakers are talking about forceful conservative action, including Arizona-style immigration laws.

Given the political climate, Democratic gains look less certain. But the party is favored to win in Connecticut, Hawaii and Minnesota. Democrats have around even-money odds in California, Rhode Island and Vermont. Each of those six states has Democrats in charge of both houses of its legislature. Each has a Republican governor who’s leaving office. Democratic wins in these states would provide the party with counterpoints to Arizona -- places where Democrats might engage in their own ideological experimentation.

In Vermont, the shift could be particularly dramatic. As governor, Douglas has had a preference for caution and a distaste for hot-button issues. Ask about his most important accomplishments, and the first things he’ll mention are his state’s solid bond ratings and well stocked rainy-day fund. He’ll also touch on his efforts to expand broadband access and cell phone coverage in rural, hilly Vermont. “I want everybody to know that our state motto is freedom and unity,” he says, “not, ‘Can you hear me now?’”

A health-care plan Douglas and Democrats agreed to in 2006 reflected these sensibilities. It provided subsidies to allow poor Vermonters to buy private insurance, but didn’t include the more robust government interventions Democrats preferred. This year, the Democratic nominee for governor is Peter Shumlin, the Senate’s president pro tempore. Shumlin is a forceful advocate for a single-payer health-care system, in which the state would provide health insurance to everyone. Already the Legislature has hired a Harvard economist to present the state with three health-care plans by February, including a single-payer one. A Shumlin victory could mean that Vermont becomes a proving ground for liberals’ notion of health-care reform, something no state has attempted. “We’re going to have to show the rest of the country,” says Deb Richter, chair of Vermont Health Care for All and a Shumlin supporter. “If it can be done anywhere, it will be here.”

Balancing Partisan Passions with Effective Governing

The story in Arizona reflects the possibilities for a political party in control, but it also offers a cautionary tale. Being a Democratic legislator in Arizona may have been miserable for the last two years, but being a Republican hasn’t always been fun either.

Soon after she took office, Brewer proposed a temporary sales tax increase to help blunt some of the budget cuts the state had to make. Arizona’s fiscally conservative Republican legislators hated the idea. Month after month the governor battled legislators from her own party, as one special session after another ended in stalemate and Democrats stood on the sidelines. “The majority has the responsibility to get the job done,” says Bob Burns, Arizona’s Senate president. “It’s easy for the minority to sit back and take potshots.” Finally this year, legislators sent the sales tax hike to voters -- who overwhelmingly approved it -- but the dispute almost destroyed Brewer’s standing with conservatives. Only SB 1070 gave her a second political life.

Intra-party conflict like that is common. Four years ago, Deval Patrick became Massachusetts’ first Democratic governor since Michael Dukakis left office in 1991, but since then he’s spent much of his term feuding with the Democratic Legislature over casinos. In South Carolina, Republican legislators have clashed constantly with Gov. Mark Sanford over his quasi-libertarian philosophy. In Idaho, Gov. Butch Otter bitterly battled Republican lawmakers who opposed his gas tax hike. Long before they kicked him out of office, Democratic legislators in Illinois despised Gov. Rod Blagojevich. When a party takes complete control, it seems, all its internal divisions come to the fore. Enacting a coherent agenda isn’t as easy as simply holding a majority.

Nor are all legislators motivated by partisan agendas -- even in 2010. You can understand it from listening to Donald Williams.

Williams was elected to the Connecticut Senate in 1993. He’s a Democrat in a state with an exclusively Democratic congressional delegation, one that has voted comfortably Democratic in every presidential election since 1992. Yet Williams, now the Senate’s president pro tempore, never has served under a Democratic governor.

This year, with Gov. M. Jodi Rell retiring, there’s a good chance that will change. If Democrat Dan Malloy wins, what’s his big idea? Williams says his top priority will be transforming the Department of Motor Vehicles with better customer service, more online services and small kiosks close to where more people live. That’s hardly the stuff of ideological warfare.

Williams isn’t unique. In Kansas, eight years of Democratic governors almost certainly will come to an end. Some Republicans are eager to pursue conservative goals, but Senate President Stephen Morris isn’t one of them. Instead, he says he’ll focus on educating more engineers in the state. “When you have these high-pay, high-tech jobs and not enough people from Kansas to fill them,” Morris says, “that hurts.”

It’s possible that people like Williams and Morris will end up as dutiful ideologues once they’re in charge. Williams hasn’t spent all his time focused on the DMV. Connecticut’s Democratic legislators have battled Rell on hot-button topics such as health care and taxes.

But it’s also possible that many of the ideologues are mostly engaged in bluster. Douglas wonders whether many lawmakers, even ones who are promising partisan agendas on the campaign trail this fall, will end up scaling back their ideological ambitions. With more one-party governments expected around the country, state legislators will face difficult choices balancing their partisan passions and constructive governing. “One of the best ways to make people responsible,” Douglas says, “is to give them responsibilities.”

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |