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A Stampede of Outgoing Governors : Power Shifts for the West

November 10, 1985|Bill Stall | Bill Stall is a Times editorial writer.

'The West careens into the future, caught like a tumbleweed in the summer wind." So wrote Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm in his 1982 book "The Angry West: A Vulnerable Land and its Future."

Lamm wrote with emotion about the prospect of massive energy development in the West, the deployment of MX missiles and other forces over which the states had so little control. Not all of the apocalyptic events Lamm dreaded have occurred--yet. Still, the West continues to careen and next year, it will do so with a new set of political leaders.

Ten of the 13 western states will hold gubernatorial elections in 1986 and a dramatic turnover is assured before the first vote is cast. Seven sitting governors--six Democrats and one Republican--will not be on the ballot, either because they cannot run again or choose not to. Among them will be the 50-year-old Lamm, after serving nearly 11 years in Denver's golden-domed statehouse.

Together, the seven governors have more than 60 years of tenure. While generalizations are risky, certain common characteristics unite these chief executives. Most are outspoken, independent Democrats who have survived two Ronald Reagan landslides that reached overwhelming proportions in much of the West. By and large, they have battled the federal government for more control of their own destinies although they have witnessed the demise of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a zealous Western movement to win control of federal lands.

They have presided over unprecedented growth, attempting to balance it with a measure of environmental protection. They have witnessed increasing urbanization and suburbanization. There are fewer cowboy hats and cowboy boots seen on western Main Streets these days--more baseball caps and work boots of the oil field worker or bulldozer operator. While cities like Denver and Phoenix have boomed, edge-of-town shopping malls have left many smaller downtowns ghostly silent and depressed.

The retiring class of '86 cannot be categorized too finely as a group. Some were the young, intellectual new governors like Colorado's Lamm, Arizona's Bruce Babbitt and New Mexico's Toney Anaya who emerged with advanced degrees and progressive ideas. They have met with varying success in bringing reform to their states. Their successors are likely to give governmental experimentation a rest.

Others are men like Wyoming's Ed Herschler, 67, who has spent 35 years in local and state government. "If ever there was a Wyoming-kind of guy, it's Herschler," one local observer said. As governor, the solid, unspectacular Herschler forged a moderate line between the forces of growth and those who seek to preserve what they can of Wyoming's cowboy tradition and its mountain and high plains environment.

Herschler served in the state Legislature back when it still was dominated by the Union Pacific Railroad and the Wyoming Stock Growers Assn. He came to the governorship opposing a coal slurry pipeline that many, including ranchers and environmentalists, feared would have depleted the state's water resources. He helped impose the state's first severance tax on non-renewable mineral resources--an unthinkable act not many years ago. But when Nevada and Utah rejected the MX missile, Wyoming eagerly accepted it, in existing Minuteman silos.

The explosive, energy-generated growth of the '70s has waned and Wyoming now is suffering through a low point of familiar boom-and-bust cycles. The new coal mines are not unionized and the old Democratic coalition anchored by the railroad workers along the Union Pacific line is gone. There is no logical Democratic successor and the governorship almost certainly will go to a conservative Republican in 1986.

In Oregon, Republican Gov. Victor G. Atiyeh, a 63-year-old former merchant, did not repudiate the state's rich environmental heritage of more liberal predecessors like Tom McCall, but he did attempt to swing the balance toward a better business climate. Oregon was hard hit by recession in the construction business and, thus, the lumber industry. Atiyeh cannot run for a third term. Neil Goldschmidt, a Carter Administration transportation secretary, may be a strong Democratic contender but early betting is on continued GOP control of the Oregon statehouse.

Colorado's Lamm rode the environmental movement into office in 1974, but was generally unable to apply strict era-of-limits brakes to state growth, in part because he faced a hostile, Republican-dominated Legislature. While liberal on many issues, Lamm has won support from conservatives in fiscal policies and in antipathy toward the federal government for its heavy-handed treatment of the West. He also has bipartisan backing for developing a modern consensus on water policy in Colorado. Lamm elicits a grudging sense of pride from some Colorado's most staid Republican conservatives.

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