Almost two years ago now, we asked experts in capitols across the nation to tell us who was worth keeping an eye on state legislatures. Ultimately, we came up with a list of 33 Democrats and Republicans (some were recommended by our readers). This time, we are looking beyond legislatures to a selection of state officials.
To qualify, we are looking at officials who have a statewide portfolio, either elected or appointed. Our list includes lieutenant governors, attorneys general, secretaries of state, state treasurers, state education chiefs, state energy regulators and state agricultural commissioners, among others.
What criteria did we use? Ambition was a necessary factor, but given how important ambition is to politics, it was not sufficient on its own. We looked for diversity in geography and policy portfolio. We also gave significant weight to these factors:
- Have they shown unusual leadership qualities? Did they strike a creative alliance across party lines, or offer an innovative policy solution that could be copied elsewhere?
- Are they pathbreaking demographically? Are they the first woman, minority, Republican or Democrat to hold their position?
- Do they have a compelling personal story?
In this column, we'll offer our choices for Democrats. Our next column will offer our choices for Republicans.
The Democratic list includes 13 officials -- seven women, two African Americans, one Hispanic, one Asian American, one Native American, one lesbian, one Mount Everest summiteer and one undefeated mixed martial arts fighter.
Did we miss somebody? Email me at email@example.com. If we get enough worthy suggestions, we'll run another column with the names.
Chiang may be an unassuming tax nerd, but he is one of the most powerful people in the nation's biggest state. He occupies a position previously held by former Gov. Gray Davis and former U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston. As controller, Chiang helps administer two of the largest public pension funds in the nation and serves on 81 state boards and commissions. He was a staff attorney for the Internal Revenue Service before winning election to the state board of equalization, an influential tax-appeal body. Elected to controller in 2006 and again in 2010, both by double-digit margins, Chiang -- whose duties include issuing state paychecks -- fought then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to pay state employees the minimum wage if legislators couldn't agree on a budget, a defiance that won him a speaking slot at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In 2011, Chiang ruled that the budget was not balanced, forcing Gov. Jerry Brown to withhold pay to legislators under a new law. Ultimately, the dispute ended up in the courts. When Chiang spoke at a California Labor Federation convention in 2010, "the building was practically shaking," a union official told the Los Angeles Times. If he chooses, Chiang could become one of the most prominent Asian-American politicians in the coming years.
Cowell, the first woman to be elected North Carolina's treasurer, oversees more than $70 billion in pension fund investments for state employees. The daughter of a Methodist minister and public school teacher, Cowell earned an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvanis and cut her teeth on Wall Street before moving to the Tarheel State in 1997. She won election to the Raleigh city council in 2001, where she served two terms, then won a state Senate seat in 2004 before winning her first term as treasurer in 2008 against a respected GOP legislator. She was reelected last fall, even as her fellow Democrats lost the governor's mansion and lost ground in both legislative chambers. North Carolina has been open to electing women to higher office in recent years, and Cowell could get more exposure than usual if the state legislature takes up tax reform this year -- an issue Cowell has emphasized during her tenure.
Esty was appointed to head the state's Department of the Environment by Gov. Dannel Malloy in March 2011; a few months later, the department was merged with the state utilities regulator, with Esty taking over as head of the newly formed department. A Harvard- and Oxford-trained professor at Yale's environment and law schools, Esty has authored 10 books on the environment, competitiveness, trade and development, including "Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage." He previously served as a senior official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and as an energy and environmental policy advisor to the 2008 Obama presidential campaign and the subsequent transition team. Meanwhile, despite Esty's deep environmental credentials, he has strong ties to the business world, having been paid more than $1.2 million in speaking fees since 2006, many from big corporations. Under Esty, Connecticut utilities have instituted a system of reverse auctions for renewable energy, a model that may spread to other states. Esty's wife Elizabeth won a U.S. House seat from Connecticut in 2012, but he has thrown cold water on speculation that he might move to D.C. for a senior position in the Obama administration.
Harris is the first woman, the first African American and the first South Asian to be sworn in as attorney general of California, a reality that gave her an almost immediate national profile, including speculation that she could become the next Barack Obama or a future Supreme Court justice. She began as a prosecutor in Alameda County, Calif., before moving to San Francisco and winning two terms as district attorney. She was elected attorney general in 2010 against a strong Republican candidate -- she was enough of an underdog victory that we initially thought she would lose. Harris' mother is a doctor who emigrated from India, and her father, of Jamaican heritage, is an emeritus economics professor at Stanford University.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe appointed Honorable to chair the state's utility regulatory body in 2011. Honorable, a Little Rock native and one of the state's highest-ranking African Americans, worked for Beebe as his chief of staff when he was attorney general prior to winning the governorship in 2006. Before joining the attorney general's office, Honorable was a staff attorney at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, a judicial law clerk at the Arkansas Court of Appeals and an assistant public defender. Honorable has been active in the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), serving as second vice president, a board member and a member of the Smart Grid Working Group, a joint effort between NARUC and the White House. In 2011, Honorable was named one of three candidates for a vacant federal judgeship in the eastern district of Arkansas, receiving support from both Arkansas senators, one Democratic and one Republican. She did not get the appointment.
Despite running in a mostly red state, Juneau was elected Montana's top state schools official in 2008 and 2012. A member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes and the daughter of two teachers, Juneau was raised on Blackfeet Nation land. She is believed to be the first Native American woman elected to a statewide position. Juneau earned a bachelor's degree from Montana State University, a master's from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a law degree from the University of Montana. In 2012, she was chosen to address the Democratic National Convention. Upon starting her second term, she said she favors raising the dropout age from 16 to 18 and increasing funding for online courses. She also supports keeping Montana as one of nine states without charter schools.
In 2012, Kane became the first woman in state history to be elected attorney general, as well as the first Democrat. A graduate of the University of Scranton and Temple University Law School, Kane was a prosecutor in Lackawanna County, Pa., chairing the county's first insurance fraud task force and working on cases involving white-collar criminals, senior citizens and child abuse. Her experience in child abuse prosecutions lent credibility to her campaign for attorney general, which she began as an underdog against former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy in the Democratic primary. As a candidate, Kane criticized former AG and GOP Gov. Tom Corbett for his handling of the three-year investigation into Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. Corbett has been criticized for the slow pace of the investigation into Sandusky, who would later be convicted of repeated child sexual assaults. In the general election, Kane ended up with 56 percent of the vote, outpolling Obama, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and every other statewide elected official. Her focus on Sandusky and Corbett could prove to be pivotal in the 2014 gubernatorial election.
Matosantos only graduated from Stanford in 1997, but she has already been appointed to head the state's Department of Finance by governors of two different parties -- Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrat Jerry Brown. In this position, she has been at the center of a seemingly endless series of crises over the state budget, one that may finally be going into the black under Brown's latest proposal. "She's often the smartest person in the room: the one who knows how everything works," Republican state Sen. Bill Emmerson told The New York Times in 2011, adding that keeping Matosantos was "the smartest thing Brown has done so far." Prior to her appointment by Schwarzenegger, Matosantos held a succession of jobs in the state legislative and executive branches. Matosantos was born in Puerto Rico to a school-principal mother and a businessman father. She lives with her partner of more than a decade, Sally Espinoza, who works in the state attorney general's office. Matosantos' only significant hiccup was a 2011 arrest for driving over the legal limit for alcohol, to which she pled no contest and received a standard sentence of probation, fine and alcohol education.
Nevadans can brag with confidence, "My secretary of state can armbar your secretary of state." In August 2012, Ross Miller stepped into a mixed martial arts cage in Lake Tahoe, won and then retired with a career 1-0 record. He has been elected secretary of state twice -- the first time he was Nevada's youngest ever secretary of state -- and is currently serving as president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. Unusually for a Democratic official, he has focused on electoral fraud, helping investigate ACORN in 2008 and courting Republicans with a voter ID proposal in 2013. Miller is the son of former Nevada Gov. Bob Miller, and the younger Miller is considered well liked, just as his father was. He has a bachelor's degree from Stanford and a law degree and MBA from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Miller also served as a White House intern under President Bill Clinton.
Newsom has been a rising star longer than anyone else on this list, attracting wide attention long before his election as lieutenant governor in 2010. Newsom grew up in the Bay Area and overcame dyslexia, eventually finding success in business. He transitioned into government as president of the San Francisco Parking and Traffic Commission, a member of the city's board of supervisors and then, in 2003, as mayor. Newsom attracted international attention for granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, which got him nearly three quarters of the vote in 2007 for a second term as mayor. By now, the telegenic Newsom seems to have recovered from the revelation of an affair that led to divorce and alcohol counseling; he has since remarried to Jennifer Siebel, an actress. Many expect Newsom to follow through on a gubernatorial run eventually, something he briefly did in 2009 before yielding to Jerry Brown. It remains unclear whether Newsom's San Francisco ties will make him appear too liberal for California voters elsewhere, even though by San Francisco standards, he was comparatively moderate.
Ritchie is beloved by liberals; conservatives, not so much. Elected secretary of state in 2006, he oversaw the lengthy and controversial recount that led to the seating of Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken in 2008. Then, last year, he took a high-profile role countering an amendment that would have imposed new voter ID restrictions. Minnesota voters ultimately rejected the amendment, but not before two Republican lawmakers filed a complaint with the state Office of Administrative Hearings charging that Ritchie had improperly used his office to oppose the voter ID amendment. (An administrative law judge eventually dismissed the charges.) Before becoming secretary of state, Ritchie worked for the state agriculture department and later as president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. He served as president of the National Association of Secretaries of State in 2011.
Raimondo, elected in 2010, has won plaudits for promoting major pension reform legislation that passed less than a year after taking office. The plan, the Rhode Island Retirement Security Act, raised the retirement age to 67, froze cost-of-living increases, and added a defined-contribution plan to a kind of defined-benefits plan -- an overhaul that won Raimondo inclusion on The Atlantic's 2012 "Brave Thinkers" list. A Rhode Island native, Raimondo earned degrees from Harvard University and Yale Law School and was a Rhodes Scholar. She later clerked for U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood of the Southern District of New York and worked for more than a decade as a venture capitalist. She has a sizable campaign warchest as well as one of the highest approval ratings of any politician in the state, making her a strong candidate for governor in 2014. Her biggest challenge will be getting out of the Democratic primary, since unions strongly oppose her pension policies; in fact, they are suing to block the law.
Wheeler, scion of an old Oregon family, earned his undergraduate degree from Stanford, an MBA from Columbia and a master's in public policy from Harvard. He was appointed state treasurer in 2010, then elected to a partial term later that year and reelected in 2012 with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Wheeler, who's responsible for managing the investment of state funds and issuing state bonds, has worked both for a local investment firm and later as chairman and chief executive officer of Multnomah County, Ore. He has proposed that the state issue $500 million in bonds to help students pay for college, and he's seeking a major reorganization of his office. In his off-hours, Wheeler, an Eagle Scout, has summited Mount Everest, snowshoed to the North Pole and competed twice in the Ironman Triathlon.