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Most Rookie Governors Are Off to a Good Start

Almost a year into their new job, most have been largely successful. But some are struggling to lead.

Gov. Kate Brown celebrates the signing of the bill that makes Oregon the first state to automatically register people to vote when they get or renew a driver's license or state identification card.
(AP/Don Ryan)
With almost a dozen new governors approaching the one-year mark, we thought it was time to take a look at how they're doing so far. The answer: Not too bad.

We examined the 11 governors who won office for the first time in November 2014 -- and added Oregon's Kate Brown, who took over earlier this year after the resignation of Gov. John Kitzhaber -- to see how they've been handling their first nine months in office. Based on consultations with political observers in each state, we sorted the governors into three categories. Seven have been "largely successful so far," three have had achievements that qualify as a "mixed bag;" and just two find themselves relegated to our "struggling" category.

Largely Successful So Far


Gov. Greg Abbott arrives at the Texas House Chamber. (AP/Eric Gay)

Let's start with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The Republican has pursued tax relief, border security, improvements to pre-kindergarten education, transportation investment and ethics reform. "At the end of the session, he could declare victory on all agenda items, with the partial exception of ethics reform, which became bogged down in the legislature," said Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political scientist.

Jones credited Abbott with remaining above the fray in the ongoing disputes between the fractious Republican majority in the state House and Senate. "In all, Abbott's first nine months in office have been extremely successful," Jones said.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker -- a Republican coexisting with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature -- has racked up approval ratings approaching 70 percent, which is astronomically high in today's surly electoral environment. "He's been given a wide berth by the public and the legislature, with which he has an excellent relationship that allows for bipartisan agreement and civility," said Peter Ubertaccio, a Stonehill College political scientist.

Observers credit Baker, a former health-care executive, for his cautious and managerial approach, which helped during last year's brutal winter. But they also say his most severe tests -- handling longer-term, intractable problems -- are still to come. They include the ballooning price projections for a major transit expansion, worries about growth in heroin addiction, and continuing problems at the Department of Children and Families.

Good relations with legislative Democrats "likely won't last," added Ubertaccio, "but the goodwill he's built up this year is going to pay dividends as we move forward."

Moving forward has been Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's chief focus. The Democrat's surprise ascension to the governor's chair has at the very least put to rest the distracting scandals that surrounded her predecessor. At the same time, her policies have largely overlapped with those of former Gov. Kitzhaber, smoothing the transition.

Brown, formerly the secretary of state, successfully navigated a legislative budget session, though her effort to ease carbon rules in a transportation package irked environmentalists even as her failure to achieve it disappointed business and labor groups. She hasn't had to issue a veto yet, perhaps to be expected since her fellow Democrats hold majorities in both chambers.

Brown, who unlike other governors on this list needs to face the voters in a special election next year, has done well enough so far to keep top-tier Republican challengers at bay.

Similar to Brown, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey also works with a legislature controlled by his party. Unlike Brown, he's a Republican. But Ducey's relationship with lawmakers has been much better than that of his predecessor, Jan Brewer -- and that has paid dividends.

Most important, Ducey, despite inheriting a large budgetary shortfall, was able to enact a budget with the backing of most of his party -- a change from the often-fractious intra-Republican politics of the Brewer years. The legislative session turned out to be the quickest since the 1960s.

Beyond the budget, Ducey enacted a series of modest measures, many of them fulfilling campaign promises. He signed measures abolishing the Department of Weights and Measures, indexing income tax rates to inflation, requiring passage of a civics test to graduate high school, opening the way for Uber and Lyft, and expanding options for microbreweries. Ducey also vetoed a bill that would have allowed police departments to keep the names of officers involved in shootings secret for 90 days after the incident.

Further east, in increasingly Republican Arkansas, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has fit right in after taking over from term-limited, moderate Democrat Mike Beebe.

Observers credit Hutchinson with sticking to a pragmatic approach despite the rightward pull within his party. This was most visible in his handling of the fast-evolving controversy over a religious freedom bill that many viewed as being anti-LGBT. Hutchinson's push for a do-over on the measure was smoother and more successful than a similar dispute in Indiana.

Hutchinson also took a relatively pragmatic course in resisting efforts to eliminate the state's "private option" Medicaid expansion and in figuring out how to handle the Common Core education standards. On Medicaid, he urged changes to the program rather than scuttling it, and on Common Core, he established a committee to study the issue rather than overturning the standards outright.

Like Hutchinson, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has also opted for a pragmatic approach on some hot-button issues. Take transportation. Hogan moved to kill the Red Line, a light rail proposal to traverse Baltimore from east to west, saying it would be too costly. But he green-lighted the Purple Line, an east-west light rail project in suburban Washington, D.C., that had been backed by key elements of the business community. At the same time, Hogan announced $2 billion in future spending for bridge and road projects around the state, something that would benefit rural areas that were more supportive of his candidacy than voters in the Baltimore or Washington regions.

But more accurately, Hogan's style has alternated between an affable, conciliatory approach (a necessity for any Republican governor in a state as blue as Maryland) and a more confrontational stance reminiscent of New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who is a mentor to Hogan, according to Lou Peck, who writes about politics in Annapolis for Bethesda Magazine. Toward the end of the legislative session, Hogan tussled with Democratic leaders over spending priorities, ultimately refusing to spend nearly $70 million allocated by the General Assembly to aid school budgets in high-cost areas.

In June, just months after taking office, Hogan was diagnosed with stage 3 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Despite undergoing a course of aggressive treatment, Hogan has remained an active executive, succeeding in cutting bridge and highway tolls and expenditures in the fiscal year 2016 budget, while avoiding confrontation over social issues. He allowed two pro-LGBT measures to become law without his signature.

Finally, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, the former mayor of Valdez, defeated Republican incumbent Sean Parnell in 2014 running as an Independent. In office, Walker has navigated the tricky political balance with the Republican legislature. This is best exemplified in a special session he called to focus on the budget. After weeks of cajoling, Walker managed to get the legislature to work with him to complete the budget in time for the new fiscal year. He also worked to expand Medicaid, facing down GOP lawmakers' objections by using executive powers, an approach that, so far at least, has been upheld in the courts.

Walker's approval ratings are in the low 50s. It "was as high as the Republican-led legislature's, but his negative ratings were far lower because his honeymoon continues while most of theirs expired some time ago," said Jerry McBeath, a University of Alaska-Fairbanks political scientist.

Mixed Bag


Gov. Gina Raimondo, center, working with her staff in Rhode Island. (David Kidd)

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, has gotten much of her pro-jobs agenda through the heavily Democratic legislature. The budget included an economic development package that featured tax credits as well as money to boost school and road construction. These expenditures should make private-sector unions happy, perhaps evening out the deep opposition Raimondo inspired among public employee unions after she engineered a pension overhaul while serving as state treasurer.

Raimondo did suffer some defeats. Lawmakers shot down her proposal to tax second homes worth more than $2 million (dubbed the Taylor Swift tax, since the singer owns a mansion on the Rhode Island coast). Lawmakers also frowned on her plan to borrow $600 million to fix the state's roads, to be funded by new highway tolls on trucks.

Meanwhile, in choosing Hawaii Gov. David Ige over Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie in a primary, voters effectively traded in Abercrombie's my-way-or-the-highway approach for Ige's more soft-spoken style. "While Ige has had some success bringing disagreeing parties together in the Hawaiian style of ho'oponopono, he has sometimes gotten bogged down in the nuts and bolts of problem solving, rather than taking a stronger leadership role," said one political observer in the state.

Two high-profile issues -- a persistent homeless problem in Honolulu and a battle with Native Hawaiians on Mauna Kea over a planned telescope -- continue to await action.

Like Ige, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, defeated an incumbent. He was voted in on a wave of disappointment with one-term Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. The honeymoon, however, didn't last long.

While Wolf has won some praise for an emphasis on ethics and transparency, he has been unable to pass a budget through the GOP-controlled legislature, even though some say the outlines for a reasonable compromise are evident. For instance, observers say he could secure new education money using proceeds from a natural gas severance tax and an increase in the personal income tax, in exchange for such Republican priorities as a state employee pension overhaul and a green light for grocery stores to sell beer and wine. But agreeing to such a deal would draw fire from public employee and other labor unions, and so far Wolf hasn't pulled the trigger.



Gov. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska faces opposition from his own party. (AP/Nati Harnik)

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, governs a solidly Republican state, but the nominally nonpartisan and unicameral legislature has stymied him on several key issues. He opposed a gas tax increase, the issuance of driver's licenses for children of undocumented immigrants who came to the United States at a young age, and a repeal of the death penalty. Ricketts vetoed all three measures but was overridden each time. It was "a very bad start for a first-year governor," said Paul Landow, a University of Nebraska-Omaha political scientist. "A savvy politician would have picked the battles more carefully."

Of these three battles, the one over the death penalty has taken center stage. Ricketts made a major push to sustain the veto but lost as several potential allies in the legislature voted for repeal. Ricketts proceeded to put at least $200,000 into a referendum that would undo the repeal. The referendum is set to be included on the November 2016 ballot.

Finally, Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has been stuck in a stalemate with the legislature, which is controlled by the Democrats. The standoff centers around his veto of the Democratic-backed budget. As a result, the state has been without a budget since July 1. Federal court orders, consent decrees, temporary restraining orders and an appropriation bill have kept things running -- state employees are showing up for work (and being paid) -- even though their agencies have no operating budgets. Still, the state comptroller estimates that continuing governance this way through the end of the calendar year will add $9 billion in costs.

"Social services agencies are closing, our state museum in Springfield and satellite locations could close ... lottery winners over $25,000 can't be paid because there's no appropriation, and there's some talk some colleges could close in the spring semester," said Bernard Schoenburg, a political writer for the State-Journal Register of Springfield, Ill.

Kent Redfield, a University of Illinois-Springfield political scientist, said Rauner won't approve a budget until he gets his "turnaround agenda," which includes curbing collective bargaining rights, a property-tax freeze, and overhauls of the worker compensation and tort rules. "The Democratic legislature is not going to pass the collective bargaining part, but they probably will negotiate on the other parts of the agenda," Redfield said. "The governor shows no sign of giving up on his demand for the entire package, so nothing is getting done."

Meanwhile, other proposals by Rauner from the campaign have withered, including overhauls to education and charter schools, economic development, the tax structure, state agencies, and business regulation.

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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