Here are a few of the reviews some governors have received lately: “Politically incompetent.” “Liar.” “Not effective.” “Lack of leadership.” “Narcissistic opportunist.” “Never had a real agenda.” “An embarrassment to our state.”
Such harsh words have not arrived via social media or even come from members of the opposing party. Instead, a handful of governors presiding over one-party states are now taking serious hits from legislators and leaders in their own political parties.
In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is engaged in a feud with state Senate President Stephen Sweeney that has led to threats of a primary challenge. In Kentucky, Republican Lt. Gov. Jeanne Hampton warned recently about “dark forces” operating within Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration. Craig Blair, who chairs the state Senate Finance Committee in West Virginia, called on Republican Gov. Jim Justice to resign on Monday.
“When you have a Republican governor and a Republican-led House and Senate, one would presume, since they are all on the same team, that they would function as teammates,” says Woody Thrasher, a former West Virginia commerce secretary. “But there is tremendous discord within that team.”
In states with divided governments, it’s almost to be expected that governors and legislators will sometimes sling arrows at each other. In Wisconsin, for example, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the top Republican leaders who control the legislature are barely on speaking terms, less than six months into Evers’ term.
But most states are dominated by a single party, and their most powerful politicians are finding that it can still be difficult to get along.
“In some ways, our state is looking like a two-party system, despite the fact that all the squabbles are happening within one political party,” says Brigid Harrison, a political scientist and law professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Rich Guys Finish Last?
The circumstances in Kentucky, New Jersey and West Virginia are all different. Separate sets of personality disputes and policy differences have led to intraparty disagreements.
But the three states do have something in common. In each case, the governor is a wealthy man who had never held elected office before. None rose up through the ranks in a way that would have allowed them to foster legislative relationships over the long haul and build up reservoirs of support.
Kentucky's Bevin was a financier who launched an unsuccessful primary challenge in 2014 against Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the U.S. Senate. Bevin then reemerged in 2015 as the narrow winner of a contentious gubernatorial primary. In office, he has frequently criticized Republican legislators, often in personal terms.
His decision to drop Hampton from his reelection ticket this year has led some tea party activists to threaten to sit out the election in November. Bevin has never won over the whole of his party. In last month’s primary, Bevin won a bare majority of the Republican vote.
New Jersey Gov. Murphy, a Goldman Sachs executive who had served as an ambassador and Democratic National Committee finance chair, spent his own money on his way to the Democratic nomination in 2017, offering hefty financial support to county parties in exchange for their endorsements.
“Murphy suffers from not having any legislative background or political background for dealing with the tsunami-like crosscurrents of the legislature,” says Carl Golden, an aide to past New Jersey Republican governors and a political analyst at Stockton University.
West Virginia's Justice, a coal billionaire, was a true party outsider. He was elected as a Democrat in 2016 before announcing his switch to the Republican Party at a rally in 2017 held by President Donald Trump.
“Government is inherently an exercise of compromise,” says Thrasher, whom Justice fired as commerce secretary last year. “The governor has never worked for anybody in his life but himself. He fundamentally doesn’t understand give and take.”
Along with Trump himself, several businessmen have started their political careers at the top as governors. Many have enjoyed success. Tennessee Republican Bill Lee and Illinois Democrat J.B. Pritzker, to cite two examples, can each brag about getting multiple priorities through their legislatures during their first sessions this year.
Still, some governors who start as political newbies are bound to lack a sure political touch.
Missouri Republican Eric Greitens, for example, was a political neophyte who kept portraying himself as an outsider long after arriving in the capital. Once he found himself in legal trouble, he had no allies to watch his back. Greitens resigned last year, less than 18 months after taking office.
“People who are in it for the long haul have cadres of loyal supporters who have been with them not for months but for decades,” says Harrison, the Montclair State professor. “Some of these rich-guy politicians missed that memo. They think that writing the check is all that matters. That helps you win the election. It doesn’t help you with governing.”
Déjà Vu in New Jersey
Murphy’s path to power represented almost a perfect replay of his state’s recent past.
A dozen years earlier, U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine, another former Goldman Sachs executive, spread plenty of his own money around on his way to the governorship. Like Murphy, Corzine elbowed aside a sitting state Senate president who wanted the job.
“We’re repeating recent history in New Jersey to a surprising extent,” says John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
Sweeney, the Senate president, not only blames Murphy for costing him the governorship but almost his own seat in the Senate. In 2017, the New Jersey Education Association spent $5 million backing Sweeney’s Republican challenger as part of what was one of the most expensive state legislative elections in history, if not the most expensive.
Sweeney called on Murphy, who had close ties with the teachers union, to get his allies to back off. Murphy claimed there was nothing he could do.
“Murphy’s refusal to get involved on behalf of Sweeney was seen by the Sweeney forces as effectively an endorsement of the attack,” says Benjamin A. Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship.
It’s not just that Murphy failed to come to Sweeney’s defense. Even before taking office, Murphy lobbied senators in hopes that they would remove Sweeney from his leadership post. The two have never made peace.
Suspicion and hostility have become almost second nature, Weingart says. Even in areas where the two men agree, such as legalizing marijuana, they haven’t been able to come to terms.
“I’ve been around New Jersey politics for a long, long time,” says Golden, the former gubernatorial aide. “I’ve never seen the level of personal animosity that’s arisen here. It almost doesn’t matter what the issue is, there’s a major difference of opinion.”
Murphy has gone after George Norcross, a longtime power broker in South Jersey and a boyhood friend and ally of Sweeney. He created a task force looking into possible corruption surrounding economic development grants received by Norcross and his brothers. Norcross has sued to block the task force from issuing its report, complaining that the governor is engaging in “political retribution.”
Murphy faced the potential embarrassment of becoming the first New Jersey governor to have a veto overridden in 22 years. Last month, Murphy issued a conditional veto of a bill requiring more disclosure from so-called dark money political action committees. Sweeney pursued the crackdown after a 501(c)4 group involving Murphy's former campaign manager and other allies failed to disclose its donors.
Since the bill had passed nearly unanimously, there was "no question" Murphy would have been overridden, Sweeney said. The governor agreed to sign the same bill after it was passed again Monday by the two legislative chambers.
There are other areas of tension and disagreement.
Last year, New Jersey’s government nearly shut down due to the legislature’s refusal to enact a tax on millionaires that Murphy promised during his campaign. Ahead of the June 30 deadline to pass this year’s budget, Sweeney intends to send the governor a budget that will not include the new tax. Last month, Murphy threatened to veto the budget if it didn't include the tax.
“Murphy’s in an untenable position here,” Golden says. “Sweeney has already framed the narrative that the governor is willing to shut down all government services for a tax increase.”
Dworkin, the Rowan University scholar, says that the need to enact a new budget will force the two camps to cooperate. He calls their current battle a “border skirmish” that won’t necessarily lead to all-out war.
“The state Senate president can’t do things without working with the governor, and the governor can’t do things without working with the state Senate president,” he says. “They have to find a way to make it happen.”
But any truce might be temporary.
Norcross has threatened to back a primary challenge against Murphy in 2021, leading to speculation that Sweeney himself will take on Murphy. A contested primary might not end up costing Murphy the Democratic nomination, but it would certainly weaken his chances that fall.
Corzine, the other Goldman Sachs executive-turned-governor, lost the job to Republican Chris Christie after a single term. New Jersey, in fact, hasn’t reelected a Democratic governor since 1977.
“I don’t think the relationship is going to get any better,” Golden says. “It’s only going to get resolved by the 2021 election. The winner at that point will at least be in a position to say that ‘the voters have spoken, and I won.’”
In West Virginia, ‘Bullies’ and ‘Cow Dung’
West Virginia Gov. Justice already faces primary challenges next year from Thrasher and other GOP candidates.
Next week, Justice is holding a fundraiser that will feature Donald Trump Jr. The invitation pointedly didn’t include Mitch Carmichael, the state Senate president and a Justice critic.
“I’m not one that believes we should want four more years of this type of leadership, or lack of leadership,” Carmichael said last Friday on the MetroNews “Talkline” radio show. “Hopefully, he can get his act together and get involved in his job.”
Carmichael has criticized the governor for failing to support right-to-work legislation and claims the governor “piled cow dung” on the state budget.
Their biggest area of dispute, however, has been education. Last year, West Virginia teachers staged a walkout, winning a pay raise and triggering similar actions in other states. Justice supported giving teachers a raise, and he has opposed legislative efforts to create charter schools and education savings accounts, an updated version of school vouchers.
Justice notes that polls suggest most West Virginia residents are opposed to charters, and he accuses Carmichael of breaking a handshake deal not to pursue education savings accounts. Carmichael and other legislators, in turn, accuse Justice of being an absentee governor, failing to attend cabinet meetings or play an active role in the legislative process.
Justice lives 100 miles outside of Charleston, the state capital. He faces a lawsuit from a Democratic legislator looking for courts to enforce the constitutional requirement that the governor “reside at the seat of government.”
That may be the least of Justice’s legal troubles.
He faces millions in fines and multiple civil and criminal lawsuits regarding his businesses. On Monday, Kentucky's finance department announced that companies tied to Justice agreed to pay $1.2 million in unpaid taxes, just a portion of the overdue tax bills Justice has had pending.
That same day, federal investigators issued a subpoena to a Justice-owned company seeking tax information. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section issued a subpoena seeking information about the Greenbrier resort and other properties the governor owns.
Sensing potential vulnerability, Justice’s critics in the legislature have grown louder.
On Monday, Sen. Blair appeared on “Talkline” and called for Justice’s resignation, saying he would introduce a “no confidence” resolution the next time the legislature meets. A similar resolution was approved in April by the GOP executive committee in the state’s largest county.
At a news conference Monday, Justice dismissed his critics, describing Blair and Carmichael as “halfway friends” who, he says, have dug themselves into a hole.
“Craig Blair is a bully,” Justice said. “That’s all there is to it.”
This appears in the Politics newsletter. Subscribe for free.