Going for governor

Going for governor – progressive Democrats and 3rd parties in 1998 gubernatorial races

John Nichols

Most are leftwing Democrats in the Midwest or New England. They have come out fighting to recapture their party’s liberal tradition after years of Clintonization and drift. But some are third party candidates, who want to raise issues that both parties suppress.

None is more intriguing than former U.S. Representative Dan Hamburg, who represented Northern California as a Democrat in the early 1990s. He chose not to run for his old House seat in 1996 because he believed that the fundraising process was thoroughly corrupting. That same year, he switched to the Green Party and backed Ralph Nader’s Presidential effort.

This year, Hamburg is seeking the Golden State’s governorship as the Green Party nominee. And some political analysts hold out the hope that he could make a stronger showing than New Mexico’s Roberto Mondragon, who stunned pundits by earning 10 percent of the vote as that state’s Green Party nominee in 1994.

Hamburg would offer California voters a distinct alternative, especially if the Democratic nominee turns out to be Al Checchi, the former CEO of Northwest Airlines. Checchi has pledged to spend as much as 10 percent of his $600-million fortune to get elected. He is a fiscal conservative who wants to expand the death penalty and is hostile to some unions. The November gubernatorial contest may well come down to Checchi, theocratic Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren, and Hamburg.

In that scenario, an articulate Green candidate with solid name recognition, significant electoral experience, and a progressive platform could turn out to be a serious contender. “With the Republicans and the Democrats both preparing to run conservative candidates, it seems to me that there will be a huge number of voters looking for an alternative,” says Hamburg. “If we put together a very energetic, very nontraditional campaign, anything’s possible.”

Already, the California Greens are planning a major voter registration drive. along with an effort to place an electoral reform initiative on the November ballot. They are developing the machinery to put in place the most sophisticated progressive, third-party gubernatorial campaign America has seen since the 1930s.

“We want to tie together the loose alliance of progressive groups around the state-peace and justice groups. environmental groups, community organizations. Native Americans, Hispanics.” says Hamburg.

Other progressive candidates hope to build similar coalitions for their campaigns. The Republicans currently hold thirty-two governorships to the Democrats’ seventeen — and few of either party can be called liberal.

“Since the Reagan days, a lot of liberals and progressives have decided that they stand no chance in big-ticket races. But that’s where they’re wrong. It’s in the big-ticket races where people are paying enough attention so that it becomes possible to break through,” says New Mexico’s former governor Toney Anaya, one of the most progressive governors of any state in the last twenty-five years. “Conservative Republicans have figured out that governorships are where it’s at. So much power is being shifted back to the states. That means. that governors are in the driver’s seat. Progressives lost sight of that. They didn’t focus on governorships, and they’ve paid the price.”

Behind the headlines about the 1994 shift in control of Congress was news of an equally jarring turn of events. Republicans — many of them with backing from the Christian right — won two-thirds of the thirty-six governorships that were up for election that year. They took over states their party had not run in decades, and they proceeded to implement a vast array of rightwing programs.

“The front-line of the Republican Revolution runs through governors’ offices around this country,” says Newt Gingrich.

Anaya’s advice is to challenge the Republicans head on. “A good progressive candidate can excite voters who have fallen by the wayside,” he says. “There’s a whole reservoir of people out there waiting for someone to light a fire. And it’s gubernatorial candidates who light those fires.”

In Minnesota. Mike Freeman is lighting those fires in what may be the most contentious Democratic gubernatorial primary in the nation. The son of former Governor Orville Freeman, he has built strong ties with labor, farm, and social action groups as a state senator and a county prosecutor. and he is now viewed as the likely winner of the Democratic Farmer Labor Party’s endorsement.

He still faces a tough September primary, however. His opponents include Hubert Humphrey’s son, Skip, an old-fashioned moderate; Walter Mondale’s son, Ted, a Clinton-imitating New Democrat: Mark Dayton, a department store heir; and 1994 Democratic Farmer Labor nominee John Marty, who lost to incumbent Arne Carlson by a 2-1 margin.

Carlson isn’t running in 1998, and Democrats ought to have a good chance of retaking the governorship. But Freeman says they won’t do it by aping GOP rhetoric about tax cuts for business and prison-building.

“We’ve got to get back to talking about education, health care, good jobs, equal protection for all,” he says. “We’ve got to say that government can be a force for good in people’s lives if people are willing to get involved again and vote for candidates who are willing to challenge special interests. That’s the progressive tradition that I’m steeped in. I’m not afraid of it, like some Democrats. I embrace it.”

Freeman is not alone in mounting a serious populist campaign that could land him in the ranks of the nation’s governors — a group that currently includes only a handful of relative liberals such as Oregon’s John Kitzhaber, Washington’s Gary Locke, Alaska’s Tony Knowles, and Maryland’s Parris Glendening.

One good prospect for a progressive victory is in Rhode Island, where former state senator Myrth York, who came within 14,000 votes of winning the governorship in the face of the 1994 Republican landslide, is running again. A populist with a record of battling big medical corporations, York has fought for universal health care, an expanded state Family and Medical Leave Act, more school spending, public funding of abortions for low-income women, and gay rights. With strong support from elected Democrats, labor, and women’s groups, York is rated as a serious threat to Republican Governor Lincoln Almond, “a man with no instinctive grasp of politics,” according to the Providence Journal-Bulletin.

Other progressive women are vying for New England governorships.

U.S. Representative Barbara Kennelly, the highest ranking Democratic woman in the House, is challenging Connecticut’s John Rowland. Kennelly brings to the race a 100 percent pro-labor rating, along with a courageous record of opposing the Clinton Administration’s welfare-reform bill. She has also been leading the Congressional fight for a series of women’s health and child-care initiatives.

In Massachusetts, Patricia McGovern is running for the Democratic nomination on a promise to be a governor who “fights for working families — no games, no gimmicks, no hype.” The former chair of the state senate’s ways and means committee, McGovern was the architect of Massachusetts’s attempt in the 1980s to implement a state-based universal health-care plan. Polls rate McGovern as the strongest candidate against Republican Governor Paul Cellucci. She faces a tough battle for the Democratic nod in September against a bland but well-financed Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. And she could be outflanked on the populist left by the underfinanced but fiery campaign of former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, whose angry anti-corporate rhetoric echoes Ralph Nader, but whose pro-life stance is a turnoff to many Democratic primary voters.

The need for serious progressive challenges to Republican governors has never been more pressing. While Republicans at the federal level have had a hard time selling a new round of deep tax cuts for corporations, their counterparts in state capitols have pushed through legislation that has dramatically shifted the tax burden from multinational corporations to working families. Pennsylvania’s Tom Ridge complains that the $280 million a year in business tax cuts he has already won are only a drop in the corporate bucket. Pennsylvania senate Democratic minority leader Robert Mellow recently told a rally of 10,000 angry union members: “He is the best governor Wall Street ever had.”

In fact, Ridge faces stiff competition for that title. Utah’s Mike Leavitt brags about having cut business taxes in every year since his 1992 election. In Massachusetts, Bill Weld and his successor, Cellucci, won massive business tax cuts, and now Cellucci seeks to virtually eliminate taxes for insurance companies and big investors. Rhode Island’s Almond has won huge tax credits for business. South Dakota’s Bill Janklow has reduced hazardous waste reporting requirements for corporations and allowed credit card companies that locate in his state to set high usury rates while paying no state corporate tax. Mississippi’s Kirk Fordice has slashed capital gains taxes. And Montana’s Marc Racicot, Connecticut’s Rowland, and New York’s George Pataki have imposed cuts in workers compensation programs. Pataki is also pushing for elimination of gift and estate taxes for the rich. Iowa’s Terry Branstad has already hacked inheritance taxes in his state. Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson is campaigning to get rid of the last of that once-progressive state’s business equipment taxes. Illinois’s Jim Edgar, Texas’s George W. Bush, Louisiana’s Mike Foster, and Mississippi’s Fordice have all pushed through tort reforms that severely limit the ability of consumers to sue corporations.

Not content simply to eliminate taxes and regulations on business, Republican governors have sought to turn key state duties over to corporations. Michigan’s John Engler has privatized mental health services. Wisconsin’s Thompson privatized the state’s largest teaching hospital. New Jersey’s Christine Todd Whitman privatized prison health-care services. Welfare and job-training programs in Texas and Wisconsin have been sold off, as has Connecticut’s state lottery. And Pennsylvania’s Ridge even wants to privatize that state’s profitable and well-regulated liquor stores. Summing up a popular sentiment among GOP governors, Idaho’s Phil Batt declares, “The private sector can do nearly anything better than the government.”

Republican governors in the West have led the fight to eliminate environmental protections, while battling against efforts to expand national parks in Utah, Nevada. and other states. Wisconsin’s Thompson eliminated a state office that had the power to intervene on behalf of environmental quality. In Idaho and California, Republican governors have agreed to plans that make their states dumping grounds for nuclear waste. And before he was removed from office for financial misdeeds, Arizona’s Fife Symington was leading the fight to repeal the federal Endangered Species Act.

Conservative Republican governors have also been prime movers in the fight to undermine public education. South Carolina’s David Beasley brags about cutting spending for public schools. Pennsylvania’s Ridge, Wisconsin’s Thompson, and Ohio’s George Voinovich have all pushed for vouchers for private schools. Voinovich signed a bill cutting higher education funding in that state, while Virginia’s Jim Gilmore campaigned against a plan to raise teacher pay in that state to the national average. Kansas’s Bill Graves eliminated his state’s board of education. Bush in Texas has resisted court orders to equalize state education spending, a move that would give a fair shake to the poor districts in a state where some schools still lack running water.

The one place Republican governors seem to be determined to spend more money is on prisons. South Dakota’s Janklow actually converted a state college to a prison. South Carolina’s Beasley signed a law mandating life imprisonment for criminals with two convictions. Bush backed adult prison terms for fourteen-year-olds in Texas. Virginia and Arizona have effectively abolished parole. Alabama’s Fob James briefly reestablished chain gangs. Mississippi’s Fordice eliminated air conditioning in prisons.

Republican governors have led the national campaign to expand the death penalty. New York’s Pataki signed legislation restoring capital punishment in that state. Massachusetts’s Cellucci and Iowa’s Branstad pushed their state legislatures to within one vote of doing the same. In Texas, Virginia, and Illinois, GOP governors have signed record numbers of death warrants. And Mississippi’s Fordice one-upped them all by announcing a plan to make his state the “capital of capital punishment.”

A growing number of GOP governors, such as Arkansas’s Mike “I-am-unabashedly-pro-life” Huckabee, openly identify with the Christian right. They have backed stacks of anti-abortion proposals, from tough parental-consent rules in South Dakota and Virginia to a regulation requiring doctors to show women pictures of fetuses before performing abortions in Wisconsin. Utah’s Leavitt backed the Salt Lake City school board when it cut all high school clubs rather than sanction a gay and lesbian group. Many of his peers signed anti-gay-marriage bills and backed moves to prevent localities from passing gay rights legislation.

Republican governors pioneered the GOP’s “racism-lite” agenda. California’s Pete Wilson sponsored Proposition 187, which banned services to immigrants, and Proposition 209, which outlawed affirmative action. Employing none-too-subtle racial appeals, GOP governors have been pushing for punitive welfare reforms that cut AFDC payments and eliminate education aid for poor women. Alabama’s James forced through changes in absentee voting rules that limit participation by elderly African Americans.

Sometimes the racism has not been “lite” at all: Fordice in Mississippi announced in 1995 that it was time for white citizens to stop apologizing for the state’s racist past because thirty years had gone by since Medgar Evers was gunned down and federal legislation was required to clear the way for African American participation in state elections. This year, Fordice vetoed a voter-registration reform bill because it did not contain Jim Crow style identification requirements.

With that sort of record, Republican governors might seem to be ripe for the picking. But the Democratic Party establishment, which remains obsessed with its collapsing fortunes at the federal level, has been slow to respond.

In many states, the Democratic Party has opted for imitation rather than attack. Vermont Governor Howard Dean, a Democrat charged with recruiting candidates, has pushed state parties to seek out moderate candidates with deep pockets — preferably millionaires who tailor their stances to meet polling data and pay for their own campaigns.

“When I started talking about running a campaign that limited contributions to $100 a person, Howard Dean started telling people I was crazy,” recalls Ed Garvey, a progressive labor lawyer who now has the inside track for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination against Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson. “They wanted an insider who would agree to raise $5 million from special interests or they wanted a millionaire who would foot the bill himself.”

Instead, they got Garvey, a populist who backs full public financing of election campaigns, progressive taxation, a living wage, single-payer health care, gender equity, restoration of environmental protections undermined by Thompson, and measures to defend family farmers against the increasing corporatization of agriculture.

While he has gotten a cold shoulder from some Democratic insiders, Garvey’s campaign has reenergized a state Democratic Party that could not even muster one-third of the vote against Thompson in 1994.

The reason Democrats have been losing is because they’ve become obsessed with polls and focus groups and money, as opposed to principle,” says Garvey, who headed up the players’ association of the National Football League in the 1980s. “Did Rosa Parks say: Maybe we should try a focus group before we launch this bus boycott? Did Martin Luther King Jr. say: Maybe we should do a poll before we march on Washington? Of course not. Our side has never won anything without having the guts to take courageous stands and to get people organized in support of what’s right.”

New Mexico’s Anaya stresses the importance of taking this stand. He notes that governors control huge budgets, appoint large staffs of officials to oversee everything from banking regulation to health-care programs, have the ability to make or break redistricting plans, and possess some of the most powerful bully pulpits in the nation.

“Governorships matter,” he says. “When progressives win them — and I don’t care whether you’re talking about liberal Democrats or Greens or whatever — that can shift the whole dynamic in a state. It can also shift the whole dynamic in the nation, because once you’ve got this kind of power you can make your voice heard. Give me a few progressive governors and I’ll give you a whole new dialogue in this country.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 The Progressive, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group