Some Rookie Governors Fumble

By: - March 23, 2007 12:00 am

From Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) indulging in $12,000 drapes for his office to Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) enraging labor supporters with his first veto, some of this year’s freshmen governors have gotten off to a wobbly start.

Less than three months into the job, Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons of Nevada has seen his approval ratings dip to 29 percent – lower than those of the war-torn President Bush. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) has raised hackles in Albany with his biting name-calling, including dubbing himself a “steamroller.” Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) has spent considerable time fighting fellow Republicans in the Legislature.

“They are playing in a league where they have never played before, so they do make rookie mistakes,” said Robert D. Behn, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.


Mass. Gov.
Deval Patrick (D)

Among the 11 governors new to their jobs this year, Massachusetts’ Patrick has drawn the most fire for political blunders, so much so that he has pleaded to his supporters, “Don’t give up on me.” The flaps include using a state police helicopter to travel across the state – an extravagance the public loudly rejected when tried by a predecessor, former Acting Gov. Jane Swift (R). He ditched outgoing Gov. Mitt Romney (R)’s state car – a Ford Crown Victoria – for a more expensive, $46,000 Cadillac DeVille, and he spent $27,000 to renovate the governor’s statehouse office.

An attorney in a Boston law firm who served on numerous corporate boards before running for public office for the first time last year, Patrick also misjudged the political consequences of making a telephone call on behalf of a mortgage company to a bank with substantial dealings with the state.

Larry Saboto, political science professor and founder of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said all new governors have a “shakedown cruise” that tests their governing abilities. “Those who don’t think of their steps carefully get mired in the mud.” He called Patrick’s missteps “dumb, dumb, dumb.”

Speaking from experience, former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise (D) said a governor’s profile is far higher than that of someone in the private sector or even in Congress. “Once you become governor you literally are in the public eye, 24-7,” Wise said.

As a congressman in the 1980s and 1990s, Wise said he might get a mention in the newspaper every few weeks. He learned in his first press conference as governor in 2001 that most local media had reporters assigned to produce a story a day about the governor and that “even the most-minute action” could be news fodder.

The learning curve is even steeper for those who come from the private sector, such as Patrick. “Something that is not an issue in the private sector can be a big issue in the public sector,” said Wise, who now heads the Alliance for Excellent Education , a Washington, D.C.,-based advocacy group.


Colo. Gov.
Bill Ritter (D)

Novice governors soon learn their legislature can be tricky to handle, too, even if the governor and statehouse are of the same party. Take Colorado, where Democrats now control the statehouse and governor’s office for the first time in more than 40 years. The Colorado Legislature put Ritter “in a vise between labor and business” by passing a controversial bill making it easier to organize unions, said John Straayer, a political scientist at Colorado State University.

Ritter vetoed the bill, calling the controversy “overheated politics at its worst.” The veto incensed his labor supporters, who saw it as betrayal of a campaign promise. Straayer, though, said the fracas may wind up strengthening Ritter by building up chits with business without leading to a “divorce” with Democratic lawmakers.

In Idaho, Otter similarly is having a testy time with partisans in his Republican-controlled Legislature. Otter vetoed one tax measures because he disagreed with GOP lawmakers over who should get a higher grocery-sales tax credit. Another veto – of an obscure change in how tax notices are mailed – was seen by lawmakers and political observers as Otter simply flexing his political muscle, according to The Spokesman Review (Spokane).


N.Y. Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D)

In New York, Spitzer’s aggressive move to cut health-care costs has ostracized labor, the health industry and heavy hitters in both Albany and Washington, D.C. Several newspapers reported that U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, complained of the “food fight” between the health-care industry and the governor’s office.

Spitzer, who made a name for himself prosecuting unethical business practices on Wall Street, also has sparred with state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R), saying that to call the Senate’s budget plan “Enron-style accounting, is to be unfair to Enron.” He also has been quoted calling health-care lobbyists “crybabies” and reportedly told a top Assembly Republican, “Listen, I’m a (expletive) steamroller and I’ll roll over you and anybody else.”

Spitzer’s combative tone, though alienating some, could score points with voters. “It reinforces the impression that he is a very aggressive politician,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Fordham University in New York City.

Of all the new governors, Gibbons of Nevada appears to be in the biggest trouble politically, said UVA’s Sabato. The FBI is investigating whether Gibbons, while he was a congressman, helped a friend land lucrative military contracts. In addition, Las Vegas police investigated allegations that Gibbons grabbed and propositioned a casino cocktail waitress but didn’t file charges. Gibbons has denied he assaulted her.

On the flip side, some new governors already have pushed through key campaign promises. Iowa Gov. Chet Culver (D) can take credit for a -per-pack tax increase on cigarettes – more than tripling the prior 36-cents-a pack rate. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D) succeeded in halving the state grocery tax from 6 percent to 3 percent.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) has earned high marks so far as she attempts to achieve what her predecessor could not: building a new natural gas pipeline. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has avoided controversy thus far. And “the jury is still out” on Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D), UVA’s Sabato said, calling Strickland the most important of all the 11 new governors because of Ohio’s significance as a swing state in national elections.

Panagopoulos said the media’s obsession with early gaffes can be misleading. “We tend to focus on gubernatorial failures, especially early on, so much that it seems as though they are misstepping every step of the way. … Sometimes that is an inaccurate picture.”

Freshman Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), for example, got into hot water before his inauguration in January over plans for a g litzy inaugural ball for which lobbyist were asked to pay as much as $500,000. Crist canceled the event. He since has earned accolades from Democrats for his willingness to work with them and scored points for his quick passage of property-insurance reform legislation.

Perhaps the most telling example is California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who in his first term insulted Democratic state politicians by calling them “girlie men” and proposed four high-profile ballot measures that voters soundly rejected. Schwarzenegger found his footing later in the term with a more conciliatory tone. He started his second term this year with a 63 percent approval rating and is basking in the national spotlight for his campaigns to overhaul the health-care system and combat global warming.

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