Politics

Obscure, Yet Powerful, Jobs in State and Local Government

The most powerful political offices can sometimes come from surprising and seemingly insignificant places.
by | September 30, 2015
Lawrence Weekly, a member of Nevada's Clark County Commission, which oversees the Las Vegas Strip -- and its 40 million customers a year. (David Kidd)

Everyone knows governors, legislators and mayors wield a lot of power, but did you know, for example, that one state's liquor board is unusually powerful? It turns out there are plenty of political offices that exercise a surprising amount of power, and often the titles of these positions do little to advertise their degree of influence.

To identify these obscure offices, we asked political observers around the country to name one -- either elected or appointed -- that, despite appearances, is actually quite powerful. We culled the nominations and came up with the list below. It's made up primarily of executive branch positions. But, admittedly, we probably missed a number of posts that should be on this list. So if you have one or more in mind, email me at ljacobson@tampabay.com. If we get enough new nominees, we'll publish an updated list.

Texas Railroad Commissioner

Among the positions on this list, the Texas Railroad Commission may have the most deceptively blasé title. "Only a small proportion of the Texas public has heard of the commission," said Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political scientist, "with even fewer knowing what it actually does."

The commission was created in 1891 as a populist measure designed to regulate the railroads, which were resented by many Texans for their high rates and operational issues. During the first quarter of the 20th century, its portfolio was extended to include the energy industry. From the end of the Great Depression through the early 1970s, the commission greatly shaped global oil prices, until its influence was eclipsed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Ironically enough, the commission doesn't even regulate railroads any more. Instead, it oversees Texas' oil and natural gas industry -- the nation's biggest -- giving it a hand in everything from monitoring fracking and other forms of drilling to the operation of the state's large network of natural gas and oil pipelines.

The commission is made up of three commissioners, which are each elected to a staggered six-year term. The three current occupants are Chairman David Porter, Commissioner Christi Craddick and Commissioner Ryan Sitton. All three commissioners are Republicans; it's been more than 20 years since a Democrat won a seat.

Somewhat surprisingly, it has not been a significant stepping stone to higher office, with several former members losing congressional bids as well as races for state attorney general and state Senate. Similar panels in other energy producing states also wield significant influence, including the North Dakota Industrial Commission and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

California State Controller

As the nation's largest state -- with an economy that by itself would rank in the world's top 10 -- California is home to several statewide elected offices that could qualify for this list, including state treasurer and insurance commissioner. But unlike the other offices, the California state controller oversees a large staff of more than 1,000 employees, has extensive audit authority over both state and local government, and "has the standing and authority to defy orders from the governor," said Garry South, a veteran Democratic consultant in the state.

Several occupants of the office have gone on to win higher office: Alan Cranston became a U.S. senator, and Gray Davis became lieutenant governor and then governor. Controller Betty Yee's predecessor, John Chiang, won a race for treasurer in 2014 and is now a possible gubernatorial contender in 2018. "One of the reasons the position of controller has been more of a launching pad than other state positions is [its] check-writing function," South said. "Every state tax refund, every state pension fund check, every payment from the state of California comes from the controller, and is signed by him or her. Over time, millions of Californians will get payments directly from the controller."

South recalls that when he was running Davis' campaign for lieutenant governor in 1994, people would often come up to him and say, "Oh, I've been getting my pension checks from you for years."

Another influential position is the comptroller of New York. Currently held by Democrat Tom DiNapoli, the comptroller controls two major levers of power: state pension funds and state audits.

Delaware Chancery Court

Delaware has long had tax-friendly laws, which is one reason that about half of U.S. public corporations have incorporated in the state. The court that holds jurisdiction over those companies -- and, as a result, that wields significant power nationally and even internationally -- is the Delaware Court of Chancery.

The five members of the court "are among the most respected judges in the country," said G. Marcus Cole, a Stanford University law professor who has studied Delaware's role in business regulation. "Academics regard them as among the most scholarly bench to be found anywhere. Corporate lawyers know them by name and temperament in much the same way that others know the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Their published opinions and academic articles are influential in other states and with the federal judiciary."

Another position with significant influence over the business community, particularly over Wall Street, is the New York attorney general. Two previous AGs have ridden Wall Street prosecutions to gubernatorial victories -- Democrats Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo -- and a third Democrat, current occupant Eric Schneiderman, has taken on allegedly questionable business practices, such as Donald Trump's "Trump University."

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board

Dating back to 1933, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is one of a handful of state bodies that actively sells alcoholic beverages. In Pennsylvania's case, that means more than $2 billion in annual sales at roughly 600 brick-and-mortar stores and an online portal - a large commercial enterprise by any standard.

The board consists of three gubernatorial-appointed and state Senate-confirmed members. Over the years, intensive lobbying efforts have been made to privatize liquor sales, but none has succeeded so far.

Clark County Commission

When thinking of casinos and resorts in Nevada, most Americans have "Las Vegas" in mind. But the real economic engine of Vegas resides in the unincorporated areas of Nevada's Clark County, notably the "Strip" and its lavish high-rise hotel-casinos. The governing body that oversees the Strip -- and its 40 million customers a year -- is the Clark County Commission. A clear sign of the dollars flowing through Clark County is the desert-inspired Clark County Government Center, a striking sandstone structure built in 1995, offering 385,000 square feet and built on 38.8 acres of land.

Ohio Controlling Board

The Ohio Controlling Board, established in 1917, handles adjustments to the state budget, such as those due to fluctuations in federal funding. Its role is hardly high profile; still, it has played a big part in the effort by Republican Gov. John Kasich to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. When the GOP-controlled state legislature frowned on Kasich's effort, the governor turned to the Controlling Board, which approved the initiative by a 5-2 vote.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, an unusual, five-person, popularly elected body known as the Executive Council, wields significant clout, approving all gubernatorial appointments to agencies, commissions and the judiciary, as well as every state contract valued at $10,000 or more.

Less Obscure, Yet Key State Election Officials

Certain states play particularly important roles in the nation's political process, and often one position in those states carries special influence.

The New Hampshire secretary of state -- since 1976, Bill Gardner -- is the guardian of the state's first-in-the-nation primary slot. The primary is so important to New Hampshire -- and Gardner has been so dogged about protecting its primacy -- that even though he's nominally a Democrat, Gardner has been returned to office every two years by the legislature, regardless of which party is in control.

One need only look at the contested post-election period of 2000 to understand the significance of Florida's secretary of state. Republican Katherine Harris played a pivotal role in the weeks-long battle that ended with the election of GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore. Since 2003, Florida's secretary of state has been an appointed office, with the current occupant, Ken Detzner, tapped by GOP Gov. Rick Scott. "Given Florida's history as a purple state in presidential elections and the numerous election problems that have occurred in Florida during and since 2000 -- hanging chads, computer voting without paper verification, long lines, inaccurate felon purge lists -- the secretary of state of Florida has had outsized influence on the nation," said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political scientist.

A number of states carry out legislative and congressional redistricting using bipartisan commissions, but one state is worth special note: Iowa. There, the Iowa Legislative Services Agency, a group of civil servants, proposes new district boundaries without respect to incumbent's homes or the voters' political leanings. While the legislature and the governor still need to approve the lines, Iowa's system, instituted in 1980, has become a model for nonpartisan line-drawing and has produced a high level of electoral competitiveness.

The final position in this category is the Kansas secretary of state -- and not because of any inherent power of the office, but rather from the efforts of its current occupant, conservative Republican Kris Kobach, to flex his muscles on both the state and national level on issues such as immigration and voter fraud. After winning election in 2010, Kobach took over "a sleepy office that administered elections and maintained lists of lobbyists," said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis. Since then, he has been "highly aggressive in seeking both policy changes -- restrictions on voting, increased documentation to register -- and in seeking the power to prosecute voting fraud in-house." Observers say he would be formidable in a GOP primary for higher office, and Democrats - who view his policies with special distaste - aren't much of a factor in Kansas politics these days.

Discuss

More from Politics