The Second Best Job in the State

Eliot Spitzer of New York styled himself a steamroller, an uncompromising politician who preferred intimidation over negotiation. Mike Beebe of Arkansas is a behind-the-scenes dealmaker...
by | March 31, 2009

Eliot Spitzer of New York styled himself a steamroller, an uncompromising politician who preferred intimidation over negotiation. Mike Beebe of Arkansas is a behind-the-scenes dealmaker who has excelled at prodding legislators to pass controversial tax increases. Florida's Charlie Crist is known for his indefatigable optimism, impeccable political instincts and love for the spotlight.

These three governors could hardly be more different. But they have one thing in common: They all prepped for their jobs by serving at least one term as state attorney general.

Is that the best kind of experience for governors to have? There's no hard and fast answer. Beebe and Crist have been highly successful, while Spitzer was a scandal-plagued flop who lasted barely a year. But it's a question that merits asking. Currently, eight former AGs serve as governors. In the next two years, 10 or so are likely to run for the job. Almost without exception, they are considered formidable candidates.

It's plausible to argue that, failures like Spitzer to the contrary, experience as an attorney general makes it easier to do well running a statehouse. AGs tend to understand how state government works, know the major players in the capital and grasp, from years of negotiating legal settlements, how to strike compromises. Not only that, but more and more, attorneys general are reshaping the role of their office, expanding its responsibilities and turning it into a gubernatorial training ground.

The fortunes of ambitious attorneys general tend to change in rather dramatic cycles. In 1985, 10 of the nation's 50 governors had come out of the AG training ground. Then, abruptly and for no obvious reason, their luck changed. Between 1988 and 1996, 20 of 21 AGs seeking to become governor were turned down by voters. But in 1998, the pendulum began to swing again. This time, the story could be told in two words: tobacco settlement. The multibillion-dollar deal with cigarette companies, worked out by attorneys general from states all over the country, seemed to enhance the prestige of the job and catapulted a few of them into the role of local hero. More than that, it showed attorneys general how much power they really could exercise if they chose to do it. And it led ever-more ambitious politicians to choose the AG job as their stepping stone to higher office.

"The office has changed and that has changed the people who seek the office," says Cornell Clayton, who teaches law and politics at Washington State University. The old cliché that the acronym of the attorneys general association, NAAG, actually stands for "National Association of Aspiring Governors" seems to have regained the meaning it had in an earlier era of American politics.

And it's not hard to see why. What could be better publicity right now for an aspiring governor than to make headlines busting white-collar criminals or protecting consumers? "It seems to be considered the second most prominent and important position to governor," says John Brummett, a veteran Arkansas political columnist. "The other statewide offices are mostly clerical and pointless."

That's certainly true in Brummett's state, where three of the last four governors, including Bill Clinton, were attorney general first. Dustin McDaniel, Arkansas' current 36-year-old AG, is widely thought of as a leading candidate for governor when Beebe steps down after two terms. Arkansas, though, has nothing on Virginia. Bob McDonnell resigned as attorney general there in February to run for governor, making him the seventh consecutive Virginia attorney general who has won that office and gone on to seek the governorship.

McDonnell notes an advantage AGs enjoy that is cited frequently, most often by those who disapprove of it. Unlike other state officials, AGs don't really report to anyone. If they want to crusade against Wall Street fat cats or payday lenders or meth dealers or child molesters or any other unpopular lawbreaking group, they generally can do it without bothering to ask the legislature or the governor. Of course, not every case is of their own choosing. Attorneys general are forced to defend state laws in court, which occasionally puts them in the awkward position of presenting a legal opinion that differs from their personal opinion.

Still, attorneys general play a small enough role in the overall law enforcement picture that they have plenty of time to pick and choose politically appealing subjects to tackle. "You don't have to get involved in every single issue," says McDonnell, "but you can get involved in the ones where you think that you can make a difference. It has been a luxury."

A case can be made that this freedom of action sometimes leads the AG-turned-governor into dangerous habits and temptations. Governors don't always get to cherry-pick issues. They have problems thrust upon them. They can't avoid a natural disaster or a budget shortfall. They also can trip up if they perceive every political battle as a showdown between good guys and bad guys.

If there's a poster child for a failed transition from attorney general to governor, it's Eliot Spitzer. It's easy to forget that Spitzer's administration was on the rocks in New York even before the prostitution scandal that forced him out of office in the spring of 2008.

In his first (and only) full year as governor, Democrat Spitzer alienated legislators in a fight over who should be named state comptroller. He introduced a plan to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses without gathering support in advance, then stuck with it long after it became clear the idea was political poison. Most damaging, his administration ordered state troopers to monitor the travel of then-Senate Republican Leader Joseph Bruno, in the hopes of digging up unflattering information. All the while, Spitzer hurled insults at everyone from state legislators to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Did Spitzer fail because he brought a prosecutor's -- or an attorney general's -- mentality to the governor's office? Well, yes and no. Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant who worked for Spitzer, says the governor's stance was a reflection of his belief that he had a mandate to shake up Albany -- he had been elected with nearly 70 percent of the vote. But it's also true that he never fully grasped the differences between serving as attorney general and governor. "His failure was his inability to work with other people," Sheinkopf says, "and to understand that he didn't have the subpoena anymore."

What's striking, though, is that Spitzer's story is atypical. More often than not, AGs-turned-governors have built reputations as dealmakers and compromisers.

No one, for example, would confuse Mike Beebe with Eliot Spitzer. Beebe's tenure in Arkansas has been marked by utter mastery of the legislature and the tactics needed to get bills passed.

Shortly after taking office as governor in 2007, Beebe made good on his campaign promise to reduce the sales tax on groceries. Cutting taxes wasn't too hard. Next, though, he proposed an increase in the severance tax on natural gas.

In any state as conservative as Arkansas, raising taxes on a powerful industry is difficult. But the state constitution makes it harder still. Many tax increases require a three-fourths vote in the legislature. Beebe won the supermajority he needed on the severance tax, then repeated the feat this year by shepherding a cigarette tax increase through the legislature. In his control of the legislative process, says columnist Brummett, "he's almost a prime minister."

Beebe may not be the typical case, either. Prior to his four years as attorney general, he spent 20 years as a legislator, including a stint as Senate president. He'd likely never have run for attorney general if legislative term limits hadn't forced him to look for a new job.

But Beebe isn't the only attorney general-turned-governor with skills as a dealmaker. Crist's tenure in Florida has been marked by notable legislative victories on issues ranging from property taxes to health care. Crist, a Republican, has worked well with Democrats on election reform and struck a landmark (although controversial) deal with U.S. Sugar on Everglades preservation.

Then there's North Carolina's Mike Easley, who left office in January after eight years as governor and eight years before that as attorney general. Easley didn't have an aggressive public profile. In fact, to some, he was practically a recluse, to the point that his wife once called him the Where's Waldo of American politics. Although he made far fewer public appearances than almost any of his fellow-governors, Easley was in fact an effective behind-the-scenes dealmaker, persuading the North Carolina legislature to approve a series of noteworthy programs in education and a variety of other fields. He won approval of a patients' bill of rights and prodded utilities and environmentalists to compromise on a plan to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Washington Governor Christine Gregoire also knows something about striking compromises. This former AG brokered a deal on management of the Columbia River after a quarter-century of gridlock. She also broke a stalemate between trial lawyers and doctors, persuading them to agree on medical malpractice legislation. When Gregoire came to office, her standing was badly damaged by a dispute over her razor-thin victory margin that lasted for months. The second time around, last November, she won reelection by a margin of about 200,000 votes.

James Tierney doesn't think these results are a coincidence. A former Maine attorney general who now directs the Attorneys General Program at Columbia University in New York, he points out that almost any successful AG has to know how to strike a deal. "99.9 percent of cases are settled," Tierney says. "You're involved in compromises every time you bring a lawsuit." Both Easley and Gregoire, for example, were major players in the tobacco settlement in the late 1990s.

Some in the current crop of former AGs have had their troubles in the governor's office. Michigan's Jennifer Granholm has been unable to halt the precipitous slide in her state's economy and suffers from low approval ratings as a result. Oregon's Ted Kulongoski and Wisconsin's Jim Doyle both have received mixed reviews for their tenures. Kulongoski is dealing with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates, while Doyle has struggled through repeated budget shortfalls, generally getting his way but alienating many Republican legislators in the process.

It goes without saying that AG-governors with similar résumés often have very different styles and yield very different results. The legal departments they headed prior to promotion also differ quite a bit from state to state.

The Arkansas attorney general, unlike many AGs, doesn't have prosecutorial authority, and that -- in addition to temperament -- probably helped Beebe avoid a confrontational style once he reached the statehouse.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown has more than 1,000 lawyers on staff, which makes it easy for him to get involved in interstate class-action suits. Steve Merrill, a former New Hampshire governor, points out that when he was attorney general, he had only about 40 lawyers at his disposal. As a result, he was all but forced to focus his attention on in-state issues, which, he says, served him well when he decided to launch a campaign for governor. "I never would have run for governor if I hadn't been attorney general," Merrill says, "because I learned so much about how state government operates."

What may be most fascinating about attorneys general is not just that they are moving on to gubernatorial office but that more and more they're turning the AG's position into something like a mini-governorship in itself.

One sign of this trend is the growing number of AGs who begin each year by promulgating their own legislative agendas. Most now submit a list of bills they are backing at the start of the legislative session. This is a convenient way for an AG to get a list of accomplishments under his or her belt. But it's also a way to gain experience navigating the legislative process. Beebe, as a longtime legislator himself, used this approach as attorney general.

McDonnell is trying to follow the Beebe model. He's also a former legislator who didn't stop legislating when he became attorney general. In his current campaign for governor, McDonnell says 83 of his 94 proposals were enacted while he was AG.

McDonnell expanded the role of his office even further. In 2007, when the central issue in Virginia politics was transportation funding, he played a key part in crafting a package with Tim Kaine, Virginia's Democratic governor. Transportation funding didn't have anything in particular to do with the attorney general's formal responsibilities. "I've got a duty to be a leader of the party," McDonnell says.

Andrew Cuomo, the current New York attorney general, is widely thought to be preparing for a gubernatorial bid in 2010. He's traveling the state promoting a plan to make it easier for local governments to consolidate. In the past, when AGs did endorse legislation, most stuck to proposing changes that related to law enforcement. But with the consolidation plan, Cuomo is extending his reach to a broad question of governance -- the sort typically associated with a governor.

It's a potentially powerful strategy. On the other hand, it has its likely pitfalls. The more that an AG becomes powerful and prominent in his or her own right, the more pushback can be expected from other elected officials who see an invasion of their turf.

For now, though, it's clear that AGs are second only to the governor in a majority of states. That, in some cases, may even be a bit of an understatement. At the rate things are going, the question eventually might not be whether attorneys general make good governors. It might be whether, in order to shape public policy to their liking, attorneys general need to become governor at all.

Thinking Ahead

Incumbent AGs who may become governor in the next two years

Jerry Brown, D-Calif.

Tom Corbett, R-Pa.

Mike Cox, R-Mich.

Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y.

Drew Edmondson, D-Okla.

Terry Goddard, D-Ariz.

Patrick Lynch, D-R.I.

Lisa Madigan, D-Ill.

Bob McDonnell, R-Va.

Henry McMaster, R-S.C.

Current governors who served as attorney general

Mike Beebe, D-Ark.

Steve Beshear, D-Ky.

Charlie Crist, R-Fla.

Jim Doyle, D-Wis.

Jennifer Granholm, D-Mich.

Christine Gregoire, D-Wash.

Ted Kulongoski, D-Ore.

Jay Nixon, D-Mo.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |