The Patronage Trap

Patronage and hiring violations are facts of life in almost all governments.
December 2005
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

Three American governors are in trouble right now over a single issue: patronage. Two of them are Republicans, Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland. One is a Democrat, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois. On the surface, they wouldn't seem to have much in common.

But they do share one interesting characteristic: Each brought his party back to power after an abnormally long stretch of failure--26 years without a Democratic governor in Illinois; 24 years in the wilderness for Republicans in Maryland; 32 for the GOP in Kentucky. Each one brought with him to the statehouse aides and friends who hardly knew what it felt like to set foot there.

Their common troubles are, as you probably suspected, no coincidence. If you look back through a history of the states, you'll find that the juiciest patronage scandals nearly all occur when one party sweeps the other out of entrenched power and finally gets its hands on a chance to hire its own people after decades of frustration.

That's not to say it is transfers of power that produce all the really serious patronage abuses. Patronage and hiring violations are facts of life in almost all governments, whether they're brand-new or deeply entrenched. But transfer-of-power time is when the scandals occur--the time when the media is watching and wrongdoers get caught.

Ehrlich's administration is being investigated over allegations that his office sent a roving hit man around from agency to agency looking for employees he could fire and replace with the governor's loyalists. Blagojevich's office has been served subpoenas by a federal prosecutor looking into complaints that the departments of Transportation and Children and Family Services were larded with dubious political hires after the governor took office in 2003.

But Fletcher's is the most dramatic case and offers the most useful lessons. The probe into hiring in his administration has preoccupied Kentucky to the point where other issues have been forced off the public agenda for the past year.

Fletcher took office early in 2004 and began presiding over a political hiring apparatus of massive sophistication and complexity. It's laid out for everyone to read in a long chain of e-mails captured off state computers in the investigation started a year ago by Kentucky's (Democratic) attorney general. Here are a few of the details:

Every one of the major state agencies (called "cabinets" in Kentucky) was given a "disciple," a true-believing GOP loyalist whose job it was to see that only certified Republicans be considered for jobs that came available--including jobs ostensibly protected by merit law. The governor's constituent service offices around the state--part of a program called Local Initiatives for a New Kentucky--were essentially converted into Republican hiring halls.

Obtaining a job generally required completion of an eight-step obstacle course, along which one of the steps involved noting the applicant's "political deal and name," and the final step consisted of gaining approval from the governor's designated political contact in the applicant's county.

Some of the e-mails from job candidates and their patrons are interesting. One applicant for a position as an assistant highway supervisor was hired after his county sponsor promised to vouch for his "integrity, his commitment to God, family and the Republican Party."

The problem with this is that Kentucky has a strict patronage law, passed in 1960, which provides that for 80 percent of the jobs on the state payroll, nobody can be hired or fired on the basis of political affiliation. Hiring for politics (rather than merit) is a misdemeanor punishable, in some instances, by as much as a year in prison.

It's a clear rule, and Fletcher not only understood it but also endorsed it. When he ran for governor in 2003, he praised Kentucky's merit system as being "very effective at keeping politics out of state government."

By July of this year, after the e-mail evidence had brought his administration's actual practices to light, Fletcher had changed his mind and was calling the state merit system "rigid, confusing, obsolete and ineffective." In August, he turned combative, denouncing the investigation and proclaiming that "this is a war we're in." Later that same month, however, he invoked the 5th Amendment before a grand jury and pardoned all nine administration officials who had been indicted up to that point, but also fired them, acknowledging that they had acted improperly. By September, Fletcher had assumed a posture of contrition and apologized to the state's voters in a public speech.

The governor's unbelievably clumsy shifts of position have left most of the state convinced that major offenses were committed and even led to some impeachment talk. Preoccupation with the process and the apparent cover-up have all but obliterated meaningful discussion of what ought to be the central question in the whole affair: Just how serious were these offenses?

Frankly, I can't look at all this stuff without feeling a fair amount of sympathy for Ernie Fletcher. Think what it would be like to come in as a Republican governor after seven straight terms of Democratic rule. Every important state job and most of the unimportant ones had gradually migrated into Democratic hands. In the words of longtime Kentucky legislator and Supreme Court Justice Walter Baker--a Republican widely respected by both parties--"For 32 years, there was a neon sign over the Capitol: Republicans need not apply."

But as Republicans saw it, there was a worse problem than that. In the mountains of Appalachia, there are Kentucky counties that have been voting loyally for GOP candidates, win or lose, for the past century and a half. They are 70 to 80 percent Republican; they are also very poor and dependent on state jobs, in the highway department, the hospitals and the welfare offices. In a few of the counties, one out of every seven workers is a state employee. But when a Democrat holds the governorship in Frankfort--and that has been virtually all the time since World War II--the tiny cadre of Democrats in these counties monopolizes all the jobs.

The bottom line is that on the rare occasions when Republicans do break through, the pressure to rectify previous patronage inequities is enormous. It would have been a powerful burden on Fletcher even if he had chosen to play by the rules and avoid blatant patronage hiring.

Of course, as the e-mails show, he did not avoid it. He set people up in all the important state agencies to find jobs for Republicans in every county who had contributed, in dollars or labor, to his 2003 campaign. It was against the law, and he is being punished for it politically.

But how sensible is a law such as Kentucky's in the first place? In my opinion, maybe halfway sensible. That is, people who hold merit- protected jobs (jobs below a policy-making or executive level) are entitled to keep them when control of a state changes hands. Nobody should be laid off as a file clerk for insufficient loyalty to the governor. Fletcher's people did that in a few instances, as did Ehrlich's people, apparently, in Maryland. It's unfair, and it should be punished.

But what about vacant positions? Does a new administration have the right to fill those jobs on the basis of partisan allegiance? Well, you may feel that all jobs should be awarded on the basis of qualification--period--and not politics. That's what the Kentucky law says. It's also what the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

But all you have to do is think for a minute to realize how silly that is. Granted, at the top of the employment pyramid, it's possible to delineate some criteria that make one candidate for assistant commissioner better qualified than another. That's not true for the vast majority of jobs in a state transportation department. Barring an occasional example of stark incompetence, one person can do the job as well as another. There's no such thing as "best qualified."

In the words of President Andrew Jackson, who believed in patronage and practiced it, the majority of government duties are "so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance." That was true in the U.S. Treasury Department in 1830, and it was true of the Highway Department in Knox County, Kentucky, in 2003. If a new governor comes in and wants to fill routine jobs with his own loyalists--people, in many cases, who have spent months at little reward helping him win election--how exactly does the public good suffer?

Fletcher's "disciples" broke the law, and the law should be invoked. But as Charles Dickens wrote in "Oliver Twist," sometimes "the law is an ass." I think it pretty much is in this case.

Even so, the whole situation calls up a couple of meaningful lessons that future governors ought to learn, especially if they are ending a long drought for their party. One is not to make extravagant promises of purity during the campaign--Fletcher vowing to "clean up the mess in Frankfort, or Ehrlich talking about a "culture of corruption," or Blagojevich promising an end to "business as usual." Those nearly always turn out to be embarrassments before too long.