Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley is currently mired in a scandal of his own making – an inappropriate relationship with a top adviser. The Republican was caught saying sexually explicit things to his senior political advisor, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, on a leaked audio recording. Both have denied that the relationship was ever physical. Mason has since resigned her position, and Bentley is now facing the possibility of impeachment.
What’s unusual about Bentley’s troubles is, well, how unusual they are for governors these days.
We last addressed the decline in gubernatorial scandals three years ago. At the time, we noted that between 2002 and 2010, there were at least two gubernatorial scandals percolating at any given time, peaking in 2004 with four governors simultaneously facing ethical troubles.
The period between 2008 and 2010 was a particularly sticky time for governors, encompassing the corruption probe of Illinois Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the sexual escapades of New York Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer and South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, and the ethical improprieties of Nevada Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons. But the run of gubernatorial scandals seemingly came to an abrupt end: During 2011, 2012 and the first part of 2013, there were no significant gubernatorial scandals known to the public. The last time that had happened was in 1998 and 1999, about a decade and a half earlier.
The dearth of scandals between 2011 and early 2013 may have been explainable by the fact that many governors had only recently been sworn in, leaving them with barely any time to turn bad. Still, this explanation couldn’t have been the only reason since other governors who had been in office for longer periods hadn’t faced any troubles. What’s more, Blagojevich, Gibbons and Spitzer had managed to get into hot water within their first two years in office.
Today, about half of the governors are moving into their sixth year in office, and still the scandal count is pretty low.
In the three years since we addressed the decline in gubernatorial scandals, we could find only four that met our criteria – that is, cases where a governor's troubles become publicly known while he or she is still in office, and where the governor is either formally charged on ethical or legal grounds or gets in trouble for sexual misconduct.
And unlike many previous scandals that dragged on for two to five years, most of the recent scandals have been resolved quickly, doing little to hamper state governance.
Consider the conflict-of-interest scandal involving Oregon Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber and his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes. From start to finish, the controversy was public for less than six months, ending with Kitzhaber’s resignation just weeks after taking the oath of office for his fourth term. Kitzhaber’s quick exit enabled his successor, Democrat Kate Brown, to clear the decks and move on.
A pay-for-play scandal involving Virginia Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell may have ended more problematically for the politician -- with a criminal conviction on public corruption charges -- but was over quickly. The revelations that culminated in his prosecution began to become public less than a year before he would have been term-limited out of office, and his indictment came after he had officially left the governor’s mansion in January 2014.
Then, of course, there are Bentley’s troubles, which have only just come to light in recent weeks. It remains to be seen how long he’ll be affected by the controversy. Only one recent scandal has bled beyond one year: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate.”
Ever since Christie was sworn in to a second term in January 2014, questions have swirled about whether appointees of the Republican governor -- or perhaps even the governor himself – ordered lane closures on the George Washington Bridge as a form of political payback. Though Christie himself hasn’t faced serious legal jeopardy yet, three top aides have been indicted and a flurry of investigations has cast a pall over Christie’s second term.
And in case you were wondering, we’re ignoring the indictment of Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry in our tally. The legal action received bipartisan criticism from the beginning and Perry was ultimately cleared.
Bentley is the only governor elected in the large gubernatorial class of 2010 or later to face a scandal, which is notable. It’s taken the class of 2010 -- which includes 23 governors -- six years to produce its first scandal-tinged member.
In our earlier column on the subject, we proposed a couple theories to explain the relative lull in gubernatorial scandals. One, as we’ve noted, was the large number of recently elected governors. The others included leaner state budgets, which made it harder for a governor to skim off the top; heightened public intolerance with corruption in the wake of the Great Recession; an increase in governors who are motivated by ideology rather than money; lessons learned from the public integrity prosecutions of the 1990s and 2000s; tighter ethics laws; and reduced scrutiny from a shrinking local media.
We ran those theories by the same four experts we interviewed three years ago to get their take on the continued low level of scandals.
“The optimist would say that the relative lack of scandals is the direct result of the election of more principled, transparent leaders,” said Ben Cannatti, a Texas-based Republican consultant. “The pessimist would say the lack of scandals is the direct result of more eyes and citizen investigators watching their leaders. The answer probably is someplace in between.”
Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University, said that media shrinkage remains a serious problem. “Who broke most of the scandals? Newspapers,” she said. “They had investigative teams, which many no longer have, and some of the newspapers no longer exist or have become shells of what they once were.”
Stan Brand, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who specializes in public corruption cases, sees this as a cycle that will eventually turn around again. “Public corruption is a cyclical phenomenon for governors, as it is for all elected officials,” Brand said. “My view is that at some point you will see a new outcropping of cases, as you do every decade or so.”
He added that while the gubernatorial scandal front is relatively quiet, prosecutions have ravaged other parts of government, notably the leadership of the New York Legislature.
Rich Lee is a former New Jersey statehouse journalist and was spokesman for New Jersey Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey, who resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal. Lee says he believes “our perception of what constitutes a scandal is also a factor.”
Lee points to social media, which frames its “news” in bite-sized pieces rather than with carefully cultivated backstories. Scandals that involve a learning curve may fail to gain attention, says Lee, who is now an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University.
For instance, when New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo began his re-election campaign in 2014, “his opponents thought they could capitalize on the governor’s role in dismantling a commission investigating public corruption. But to fully comprehend the issue, one needed to be familiar with the origins of the commission, the differences in the three branches of government and plenty of insider politics,” said Lee. “The ‘scandal’ never gained traction with voters and Cuomo easily won re-election.”
Lee sees Bridgegate as fitting the same pattern. “Those familiar with the volume of traffic at New York’s Hudson River crossings had no trouble understanding the consequences of closing traffic lanes approaching the George Washington Bridge,” he said. “But when Christie campaigned for president in other parts of the country, voters who had never experienced gridlock at the bridge or the Lincoln or Holland tunnels just couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.”