What Do Governors Look For in a Chief of Staff?

By: - December 8, 2010 12:00 am

When picking a chief of staff, as 28 new governors either have done or will do soon, there are generally two models to choose from.

One is the state government expert, an insider-type who can help a new governor navigate the bureaucracy. Connecticut Governor-elect Dan Malloy’s pick for chief of staff falls into this category. Malloy, a mayor without state government experience, picked Connecticut Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Timothy Bannon, a former state tax commissioner, who had also worked in the state treasurer’s office and as a special adviser to a former governor.

The other model is the political strategist, usually the person who managed the campaign that got the new governor elected in the first place. For that template, look at who Mary Fallin, the governor-elect of Oklahoma, chose as her chief of staff. Denise Northrup has served as Fallin’s campaign manager five times-twice in races for lieutenant governor, twice in races for Congress and now in the gubernatorial race. It’s no wonder that the new governor trusts Northrup: Fallin won all five of those elections. 

It’s not clear that one choice is the right one for one of state government’s most demanding jobs. History shows that both types of chief of staff can contribute to a successful governorship. What is clear is that the choice of chief of staff is one of the most important a governor-elect makes. That’s because the only people in state government whose responsibilities are as broad as a chief of staff’s are the governors themselves.

Governors’ shadows

Despite the differences in their biographies, governors’ chiefs of staff tend to be described in similar ways: As brilliant workaholics who are unfailingly loyal to their bosses. To the extent they get noticed publicly, the press tends to describe them as the hidden powers in state capitols: the governor’s enforcer, shadow or alter ego.

M. Lisa Moody, the longtime chief of staff to outgoing Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell, was once described by a newspaper as “The other woman who runs Connecticut.” In Alaska, legislators used to call Jim Clark, the chief of staff to former Governor Frank Murkowski, “Governor Clark.” One profile of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, recounted that many insiders joke that he works for her.

While the chiefs themselves tend to recoil at this kind of talk, the truth is that the job comes with vast, if somewhat amorphous, responsibilities. That’s why it’s so hard to find someone who is truly suitable for it. “It is a very large and complex job,” says Barry Van Lare, a former director of the National Governors Association’s Office of Management Consulting and Training. “It really is a combination of management responsibilities, political savvy and a knowledge of state government.”

NGA has tried to catalogue what chiefs of staff do and came up with ten large categories of responsibilities, any one of which could be (and often is) its own full-time job. These responsibilities range from serving as chief operating officers, chief strategists and policy advisors to overseeing hiring and scheduling and speaking on the governor’s behalf.

Those who have held the position say a huge part of the job is responding to crises large and small. They also say, however, that it’s essential for them to actively push the governor’s agenda, not just respond to the events of the day.

“There is always a crisis going on,” says Susan Goodwin, who has been Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle’s chief of staff for the past eight years, an exceptionally long tenure for the job. “You can get distracted by a million things in this job. You can’t possibly influence everything that goes on in state government.”

Loyalty required

Goodwin is a good example of the campaign manager-turned governing companion.  She ran Doyle’s campaign in 2002. The same model will continue next year in Wisconsin even as Doyle, a Democrat, leaves and Republican Scott Walker takes office. Walker has announced that he, too, will have his campaign manager, Keith Gilkes, as his top deputy.

Governors tend to prize loyalty when picking their chiefs. The new governors of Colorado, Georgia, Pennsylvania all have selected chiefs who already have held that title for them in their previous offices, as a mayor, congressman or attorney general. Georgia Governor-elect Nathan Deal’s pick is Chris Riley. Riley has been working for Deal, both on the campaign trail and in his congressional office, since he was a senior in college. Riley described his relationship with Deal to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution : “Is he one of my best friends? Yes. Would he be a pallbearer at my funeral if I died today? Yes. But he’s my boss.”

Still, not every new governor is following the conventional path. Some seem more intent in addressing gaps in their own experience than in tapping confidantes. For example, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, whose government service is on the local level, picked Keith Gardner, a well-liked state legislator. Rick Snyder, Michigan’s governor-elect, is a Lansing outsider, so he chose Dennis Muchmore, who spent years as a lobbyist. Snyder apparently valued Muchmore’s experience in the halls of power enough to overlook the fact that Muchmore donated money to other candidates during the campaign.

Mark Warner was thinking along the same lines when he tapped Bill Leighty as his chief in Virginia after winning the governor’s office in 2001. Warner was a successful businessman and a former chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, but he’d never worked in state government before. Leighty had a long government resume, having held top jobs in several corners of Virginia’s bureaucracy under both Democratic and Republican governors.

The selection of Leighty gave Warner credibility in Richmond. “He wanted to send a very strong message that this was a governing organization,” Leighty says, “and that it was not going to be overtly political.” Leighty won good reviews from both sides of the aisle, and stayed in the job into the tenure of Warner’s successor, Tim Kaine.

Political savvy a plus

Many former chiefs of staff think more governors should follow that example, rather than turning to a political operative. They wonder why people who have been designing campaign commercials or staging political rallies are assumed to have the necessary skills to oversee the complex operations of a state.

“Most governors will advise their successors that your chief of staff should not necessarily have been your campaign manager,” says Jim Carpenter, who had a fair amount of campaign experience himself when he became chief of staff to outgoing Colorado Governor Bill Ritter.

“I thought that the political experience was the least important thing I brought to the job,” adds Rick Weiner, a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party who served as one of Governor Jennifer Granholm’s chiefs of staff.

Still, deemphasizing politics doesn’t always produce good results. When he was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2006, Deval Patrick’s first choice for chief was Joan Wallace-Benjamin, a respected nonprofit administrator and political outsider. She lasted only three months, as Patrick became snared in scandals involving his selection of a state car and a costly remodeling of the governor’s office.

That’s where Doug Rubin came in. He had been Patrick’s campaign manager and knew what would get the governor in hot water. Patrick recovered from the early missteps and won reelection in November. “I think that you absolutely need the person to be political,” says Steve Crosby, a former chief of staff to Massachusetts governor Jane Swift. “Probably political first and foremost.”

Chiefs of staff, of course, aren’t selected in isolation. Someone with an administrative background can succeed so long as there are other deputies who can handle politics. And a political strategist can thrive by delegating administrative tasks to others. What’s essential, chiefs of staff say, is the strength of the relationship between the chief and the governor.

“The most important thing is to pick someone who they really fundamentally trust,” Goodwin says. “It can get lonely in the governor’s office in that job. The chief of staff is someone you are going to be dealing with every hour and every day.”

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Josh Goodman

Josh Goodman helps lead research on fiscal management and place-based economic development programs as part of Pew’s state fiscal health project. Goodman has served as a primary author for Pew studies that examine how states should evaluate tax incentives and maintain budget discipline when implementing those incentives.