New Faces Replace Washington-Bound Governors

By: - January 5, 2001 12:00 am

Aficionados of state politics, think quickly: Who are Rick Perry, Donald DiFrancesco and Scott McCallum?

The question may sound like a quiz show stumper, but soon the answer may not be so trivial. They either are, or are in line to be, the nation’s newest state chief executives from Texas, New Jersey and Wisconsin, respectively.

Confirmation of a pair of sitting Republican governors, New Jersey’s Christie Whitman and Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson, to cabinet positions in the administration of President-elect George W. Bush would introduce two additional new faces into the ranks of state leaders in 2001.

Likely to join Texas’ Gov. Perry (R), who took the oath of office after Bush resigned his old job on Dec. 21, are New Jersey Senate President DiFrancesco and Wisconsin Lt. Governor McCallum, both Republicans.

Their debut marks a step into the sunshine for a trio of long-serving state officials who stood in the shadows of governors who became giants in the national Republican party over the last decade.

Bush’s departure from Austin with two years remaining on his second term in office opened a window of opportunity for Perry, the former Democrat who became the Lone Star State’s first-ever GOP lieutenant governor. Republicans hold a slim 16-15 majority in the Texas senate, which approved Sen. Bill Ratliff (R) to fill Perry’s slot as the state’s top lawmaker.

In New Jersey, term limits put Whitman in the home stretch of her eight years at the state’s helm. Arguably the most prominent face of GOP women in the 1990s, the probable next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency drew attention early in her tenure for a series of tax reforms. More recently, she garnered accolades for sparking a massive campaign to preserve what remains of the Garden State’s open space. New Jersey political observers say Whitman’s early move out of Trenton could be the best thing to happen to DiFrancesco, who took over as president in 1992 after 13 years in the state Senate. New Jersey has no lieutenant governor, leaving DiFrancesco in line to replace her as acting governor while he mounts a campaign for election as governor in his own right in November.

Wisconsin Gov. Thompson, Bush’s choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services, is the nation’s longest-serving governor and pioneered welfare reform initiatives that set the blueprint for national action in 1996.

First elected in 1985, Thompson is halfway through his fourth term and had left open the possibility he might seek an unprecedented fifth term in office.

As the Badger State’s second-in-command, McCallum caught every pitch Thompson threw for the last fourteen years. He has declined to outline the specifics of his agenda until after Thompson’s likely confirmation in February, but may still be tapped to deliver the governor’s annual address to the legislature later this month.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry

Born and raised on a West Texas ranch, Gov. Rick Perry stepped into George W. Bush’s still-warm office in Austin as a poster child for the Lone Star State. He played quarterback for his high school football team, became a standout on the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M University, flew C-130s in the Air Force, married the first girl he ever dated and keeps an active hand in the Boy Scouts.

Perry, 50, is also a microcosm of recent trends in state politics. The state chairman of Al Gore’s 1988 presidential bid, Perry comes from a family of Texas Democrats. His father was the Democratic commissioner of Haskell County and his great-great-grandfather served in the state legislature.

Perry entered politics in 1984 as a state representative and became an early defector in the state’s Republican revolution in 1989. The following year, he waged a David-and-Goliath campaign to unseat Texas’ populist agricultural commissioner, Jim Hightower, in 1990.

That was the platform from which Perry successfully beat out state comptroller and political rival John Sharp to become Bush’s right hand in 1998.

As Texas’ first-ever lieutenant governor, Perry spent much of his first two years deflecting speculation about his interest in his boss’s job while then-Gov. Bush campaigned for the White House. But lawmakers from both parties have given him stellar reviews for his leadership on cutting taxes, raising teacher pay and funding public schools, a record that helped sustain Bush’s reputation as governor for bipartisan achievement.

Perry will face election in 2002.

His wife, First Lady Anita Perry, is a former nurse and health care administrator. The couple have two teen-aged children.

New Jersey Senate President Donald DiFrancesco

Behind the departing Gov. Whitman, Sen. Donald DiFrancesco has been the most powerful Republican in the state of New Jersey for the last eight years, winning election to an unprecedented fifth term as Senate president in 2000. Yet few of his fellow citizens know his name, a fact now likely to change in plenty of time for the state’s fall gubernatorial race.

The normally mild-mannered DiFrancesco, whom the Newark Star-Ledger called a “consummate back-room dealer and gubernatorial understudy,” may face the most difficult task of the three replacement governors. He will have to juggle the full spectrum of the governor’s duties into his already strenuous legislative routine while he campaigns to keep his new office after November.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has twice interpreted the state’s constitution to require an acting governor to keep the legislative post: abandoning one means automatically forfeiting claim to the other.

Many in the state believe that DiFrancesco is one of the few people who could maintain the balance. A Somerset County attorney and lifelong New Jerseyite whose district lies on the edge of the Big Apple’s western suburbs, the 56-year old DiFrancesco has spent the last 25 years in the legislature crafting a reputation as an affable consensus-builder and has never faced a serious challenge to his leadership in the party.

While Whitman often held DiFrancesco at arm’s length, she has him to thank for the success of many of the legislative initiatives of her career, including the state’s trail-breaking open space legislation. And last summer, “Donnie D.” as some fellow legislators call him, took an uncharacteristically higher profile, publicly outlining positions on property tax relief, crime, health care reform and improving drinking water. He also took credit for education finance, health care reform and anti-sprawl measures in an effort to take an early lead over challengers for the party’s nomination.

DeFrancesco and his wife Diane have three daughters.

At age 50, Scott McCallum is the longest-serving lieutenant governor in the country. He also holds the record for most years in that position in Wisconsin history.

Rarely visible in his own capacity, McCallum’s name is virtually synonymous with the Thompson administration. In 1998, McCallum wrote on his Web site that he had been preparing to follow in Thompson’s footsteps for 12 years.

“The governor has had great successes in leading the state, and if given the opportunity in the future I intend to continue that legacy,” he wrote.

A four-letter high school athlete from the central Wisconsin city of Fond du Lac, McCallum worked in a local railyard prior to entering Macalester College, where he became captain of the football team. After receiving his Master’s degree in international economics from Johns Hopkins, McCallum worked in Congressman William Steiger’s Washington office He returned to Fond du Lac in 1976, grabbing a seat in the state Senate from a 20-year Republican incumbent at the age of 26.

As chairman of the Wisconsin GOP’s State Senate Campaign Committee over the next four years, he oversaw the party’s growth from ten to 14 seats in the 33-seat chamber.

McCallum failed in his bid to dislodge U.S. Sen. William Proxmire (D) in 1982 and eventually hitched his star to Thompson’s, placing his education and background as a real estate investor at the forefront of his mission to improve the state’s small business climate. He served as a trade advisor under President Reagan and as an EPA policy advisor in the first Bush administration. As lieutenant governor in the early1990s, McCallum led Wisconsin officials and businessmen on routine trade missions to Europe and the far East.

McCallum’s current policy positions appear to reflect interests in applying free market principles to everything from e-commerce to education reform to the environment.

But he takes center stage at a time when tax revenues threaten to drop rapidly. Transportation and school funding, utility deregulation, the role of casino gambling in the state’s economy, and management of the state’s Department of Natural Resources are among the key issues McCallum will likely face when he takes center stage, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel .

Solving those problems prior to Wisconsin’s next gubernatorial election in 2002 will go a long way toward determining whether McCallum can extend the Thompson legacy.

McCallum and his wife Laurie have three children.

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