The Peter Principles: That's Politics

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WASHINGTON (UPI) — Nobody ever said that being a governor was easy.

Several states are suddenly in the market for new chief executives, either right away or as soon as the next general election.


West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat in his first term announced he would not be seeking re-election. A member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 18 years, Wise defeated incumbent GOP Gov. Cecil Underwood 50-47 in 2000 as George W. Bush was winning the state out from under former Vice President Al Gore’s nose.

Off to a promising start, Wise’s approval rating plummeted after an inappropriate relationship he had with a female state employee went public. The woman’s husband promised to make sure voters didn’t forget the indiscretion, so Wise quit the race.

Also headed out the door is Montana Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican who is also in her first and, as it turns out, only term.

Martz is a former U.S. Olympic speed skater. She spent four years as lieutenant governor under Marc Racicot, the most popular politician in the state and now the chairman of President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election committee. She got into office by defeating state Auditor Mark O’Keefe in 2000, winning just 51 percent of the vote — quite a comedown from the 79 percent she and Racicot won in 1996.

Unlike Wise, however, Martz stumbled coming out of the starting gate.

In August 2001, a car driven by Shane Hodges, her chief policy adviser, crashed, killing state House Majority Leader Paul Sliter. Martz picked Hodges up at the hospital very early the morning after the accident and later washed his bloodstained clothes for him — items the police later sought as evidence. The backlash created when this became public drove her approval rating through the floor where it has stayed ever since.

Utah is also in the market for a new governor. Mike Leavitt, who has been chief executive since 1992 is the president’s choice to replace former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman as head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Leavitt is, by Utah standards, a moderate Republican and is not necessarily well liked within the conservative community. Fred Smith, the cheerful libertarian who runs the Competitive Enterprise Institute think tank, fears Leavitt will be “a Western Whitman” once he takes over at EPA.

Grover G. Norquist, the anti-tax activist and conservative strategist whose vaunted Wednesday meetings are central to conservative politics, calls Leavitt “the evil governor of Utah” because of his insistence on taxing the Internet. If the U.S. Senate confirms Leavitt then Lt. Gov. Olene Walker, who almost no one believes can win the GOP nomination on her own, moves in as the caretaker for the remainder of the term.

California may not have to wait as long as West Virginia or Montana. Megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger’s candidacy seems to have all but ended Gov. Gray Davis’ hopes of remaining in office.

Davis’ current unfavorable hovers somewhere around 70 percent, the level of Richard Nixon’s around the time he resigned the presidency. According to a new Field Poll, 58 percent of likely California voters favor throwing Davis out. And, as if that were not already bad enough, 27 percent of Democrats in the survey said they would vote to recall him.

The Republicans are not, however, having an easy time of it.

One of Schwarzenegger’s first moves was to appoint billionaire Warren Buffett, a Democrat from Nebraska, to his council of economic advisers. Buffett repaid the favor by telling the Wall Street Journal in an interview published Thursday that property taxes in California were too low. Incredulous conservatives, already suspicious of Schwarzenegger’s supply-side bona fides, seized on the remark as one more reason for worry.

Buffett’s comment also made it more difficult for those party operatives trying to convince 2002 GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon and GOP state Sen. Tom McClintock to drop out of the race and get on the movie star’s bandwagon.

Some had thought earlier in the week that McClintock, who is extremely well respected for his knowledge of state fiscal policy, might drop out of the race if Schwarzenegger would publicly commit to support a Colorado-style budget reform package. Such a reform would limit the growth of state spending to the level of increase in population plus inflation and require a vote of the people to raise taxes.

Proposition 13, which lowered California’s property taxes in the late 1970s and kept them low, is the intellectual precursor of the Colorado approach, making Buffet’s observation doubly damaging.

Another facing a future firing squad is Alabama’s Bob Riley, who is still in his first year as governor. A 2002 upset winner by about 3,000 votes over incumbent Democrat Don Siegelman, Republican Riley turned the state on its head by proposing a tax hike of $4.6 billion over four years. The plan passed the overwhelmingly Democrat state Legislature but must also be approved by a vote of the people, scheduled for Sept. 9 of this year.

The plan has run into heavy opposition. A whole host of state and national organizations, including Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Citizens Against Government Waste and the Alabama chapter of the Christian Coalition are all fighting the plan as are a number of state business and agricultural groups. The executive committee of the Alabama Republican Party, by a vote of 19 to 2, repudiated its own governor, likely damaging his future prospects.

Nobody ever said that being a governor was easy.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.