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Ex-governors getting back in the running

As many as many as six former state chief executives around the U.S., including California's Jerry Brown, may be on the ballot next year. Says Iowa's Terry Branstad: 'I know I could do this better.'

December 05, 2009|By Mark Z. Barabak
  • The Democrat's campaign website for 2010 speaks glowingly of his California governorship, which ended in January 1983.
The Democrat's campaign website for 2010 speaks glowingly of his… (Nick Ut / Associated Press )

Jerry Brown has fashioned a career alone on the cutting edge of politics, but as he looks ahead to 2010, the California attorney general finds himself in the midst of an unusual pack: former governors eyeing a return to their old jobs.

At least four, and perhaps as many as six, ex-governors may be on the ballot around the country next year, a pattern apparently without precedent or any clear-cut explanation, beyond the fact that few jobs in American politics beat the chance to run your own state, even in these difficult times.

"It just makes me sick, thinking 'I know I could do this better,' " said Iowa's former Republican governor, Terry E. Branstad, who is returning to politics to seek a fifth term after more than 10 years away.

The trend -- call it political recycling -- seems odd at a time of fierce anti-incumbent sentiment, manifested in the dismal approval ratings for Congress, state legislatures and lawmakers across the country. Now hardly seems the moment for a renaissance of the career politician. But the tough times also make for a contrast, allowing these comeback candidates -- in California, Georgia, Iowa and Oregon -- to tout the days when they were in charge.

"Recycling old politicians is not a good message," said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan campaign analyst. "But bringing back somebody who governed when times were good -- that's a whole different ballgame."

Branstad, for instance, boasts of leading Iowa from the farm crisis of the 1980s through the boom years of the 1990s, leaving behind a surplus and record-high employment after an unprecedented 16 years in office. He expects to face Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, who has confronted, among other problems, Iowa's highest jobless rate in decades.

Brown, who has yet to officially declare his gubernatorial candidacy, declined to be interviewed. But on his campaign website, the Democrat offers a similarly rosy-tinged remembrance of his two terms as governor, which ended in January 1983. "During Gov. Brown's tenure," the site reads, "California produced 25% of the nation's new jobs, significantly reduced taxes and built up the largest state surplus ever. His eight years in office are generally considered among the most innovative in California history."

Analysts who follow statehouse races say it is not unusual, every now and again, for an ex-governor to try to win his old job back. Among those who did: Bill Clinton, who lost his first reelection bid in 1980, then returned, humbled, to spend 10 years as Arkansas governor before becoming president.

None of those experts, however, can remember an election cycle when so many former governors have run at the same time. Along with Brown and Branstad, Democrats Roy Barnes of Georgia and John Kitzhaber of Oregon are seeking return engagements. After a single term, Barnes lost reelection in one of the biggest political upsets of 2002. Kitzhaber, elected twice, left office in 2003 when term limits prevented him from serving a third consecutive time. Brown, Branstad and Kitzhaber all start as the front-runners in their respective contests.

On the Republican side, former one-term Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Tommy G. Thompson, who served 14 years as Wisconsin governor, are considering another run.

Each of the return candidates starts with advantages, among them considerable name recognition which, by itself, is worth millions in advertising -- a big help in this tough fundraising environment. They also enjoy a ready-made campaign structure, with a sizable network of previous donors and supporters.

But with experience comes at least a certain amount of political baggage.

In California, for example, Brown's GOP opponents blame many of the state's perennial fiscal problems on its public employees unions, whose bargaining power was boosted under his administration, and they are prepared to raise that issue in the fall campaign. (Brown is running effectively unopposed for the Democratic nomination.)

In Georgia, hard feelings still linger from Barnes' education reform effort, which attacked the teacher tenure system, and his remake of the state flag, which greatly diminished the size and prominence of the Confederate emblem, alienating conservatives and many rural voters.

Barnes, who suffered a reputation for arrogance in office, seems to have learned from his defeat. "When I was governor before, I didn't do enough listening," he said in his June announcement speech. He was even more contrite in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "You learn from mistakes you've made in the past."

Any comeback attempt requires a healthy ego and, especially for a politician running in these times, a certain amount of audacity. Part of the attraction for some of those running again is the huge scale of the problems facing their state.

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