Looking for common ground
Published 8:42 pm Thursday, November 24, 2005
According to the Nov. 21 Time magazine, America's five best governors are: Mark Warner, D-Va.; Janet Napolitano, D-Ariz.; Kenny Guinn, R-Nevada; Mike Huckabee, R-Ark.; and Kathleen Sebelius, D-Kan.
With the biggest fiscal crisis since the Great Depression making their mansions cold and lonely places from soaring Medicaid obligations, No Child Left Behind mandates and new homeland-security costs, great governors are those who can “reckon with reality.” It is not the “loft of their dreams but the depths of their pragmatism” that define today's state chief executives.
When it comes to raw political talent, “There's not a Bill Clinton in this group,” Time finds. “But these are the rainy days. And charisma doesn't keep you dry. A roof does,” and these are deemed to be the “hardest-working carpenters of 2005.”
A couple of evident qualities among the top performers are the audacity to raise taxes when necessary and an ability to transcend petty political partisanship.
Virginia hasn't voted for a Democratic president since LBJ, yet Warner's personal popularity helped Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine prevail Nov. 8 over a candidate President George W. Bush personally endorsed. Warner, 50, a telecommunications tycoon who built a $200 million fortune, grew up in Connecticut. The Harvard Law grad eked out victory in 2001 in a state where Republicans control the Legislature by courting gun owners and campaigning on the NASCAR circuit. He promised to create high-tech jobs just as the technology bubble burst, leaving him a $3 billion deficit to close. He earned credibility as a fiscal conservative by slashing $6 billion in spending for everything but education, eliminating 3,000 state jobs and shutting driver's-licenses offices one day a week. He pulled together a coalition with the GOP to pass a $1.4-billion tax hike, largest in Virginia history.
Napolitano, 47, governs a Republican state as a pro-business centrist. She took office in January 2003 and worked with moderate Republicans to wipe out a $1 billion deficit without any tax increases. Arizona enjoys a booming economy with a projected $300-million surplus and 4-percent job growth - second in the nation after Nevada. She has promoted social benefits with Republican help by also cutting business property taxes.
Guinn, 69, elected in 1998, in 2003 infuriated his own party by fighting for the largest tax hike in the history of the fastest-growing U.S. state, $830 million. Not bad for a lifelong education administrator and banking and energy corporate executive perceived as handpicked by casinos to guide their pro-business agenda. Guinn broadened that vision by establishing a scholarship program to help high school graduates afford college and privatized Nevada's underfunded workers' compensation program. He also fought federal plans for a nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain and diversified the gambling-dependent economy to address social ills that include some of the highest U.S. rates for suicide, teen pregnancy, youth violence and high school dropouts.
Huckabee, 50, lost 110 pounds after learning in 2002 that he has diabetes; in May he ran a marathon. He created ARKids First, which offers poor children health insurance. Since Huckabee became governor in July 1996, welfare rolls have declined by almost half. Last year the Arkansas economy grew 4.4 percent - beating the national average, 4.2 percent. In 1999, he helped persuade voters to hike their own gas taxes to fund long-overdue highway repairs.
Sebelius, 57, won in 2002 in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 2-1 and inherited a $1.1-billion budget deficit. Her sale of 700 state cars showed she was serious about finding savings anywhere she could.
Through spending cuts, fee increases and some borrowing, Sebelius balanced Kansas' budget in her first year in office without raising taxes or cutting education funding in a state where the GOP dominates both legislative houses. She named several Republicans to her cabinet, including former governor Mike Hayden, who serves as wildlife and parks secretary. Her dad, John Gilligan, was Ohio governor in the 1970s, making them the first-ever father-daughter governor combination. A number of Kansas Republicans have decided against even challenging the popular governor when she runs for re-election next year.