January 12, 2008

Massachusetts Governor Rated Most Powerful

Apparently Thad Beyle, UNC scholar on the governor's chair, releases an annual list rating the governors nationwide in terms of constitutional authority, united government, and personal gravitas. What interests me most is the first variable, which doesn't change much because state constitutions don't change much. The Maryland and Massachusetts constitutions lock their chief executives into a power advantage over the legislature. The Massachusetts governorship's only term limits are elections. The Maryland governor may be limited to two terms, but he or she can fire and hire a wide swath of at-will state employees. Both governors brandish broad budgetary powers. Finally, both Democratic executives currently serving--Gov. Deval Patrick in MA and Gov. Martin O'Malley in MD--command big, veto-proof majorities in their state legislatures.

Florida ranks somewhere in the middle of the states. It's moved up since Florida voters amended their constitution in 1998 to slice the size of the Cabinet in half from six posts to three. As of 2002, the governor of the Sunshine State can appoint the Education Commissioner and Secretary of State. The voters finally reformed the weak-governor provisions enacted after Reconstruction to take revenge on Radical Republicans. Political scientists can debate whether Governor Chiles could have accomplished more had these changes taken effect before his tenure.

Current Florida Governor Charlie Crist (R), according to Professor Beyle, has a lot to be thankful for in the constitution--plus a Republican majority.

January 11, 2008

Top Five Florida Backroads

My personal favorites so far, heavily slanted toward North Florida since that's what I know best.

1. US 90 from Tallahassee to Monticello: this landscaped rolling greenway blooms in the summertime with pink-red crape myrtles. Lake Miccosukee cypresses mark the halfway point.

2. Old Magnolia Road: An unpaved old cotton road in eastern Leon County that turns to sludge in the rain. Mules used to carry cotton to the long abandoned Port Magnolia on the Saint Marks River.

3. Miccosukee Canopy Road: The greenway to the Cook Shack, under a bramble of live oak branches and Spanish moss. Another old cotton road. There are also hiking trails and a park.

4. Avenue of the Oaks: A winding driveway in Monticello canopied by live oaks.

5. US 90 from Grand Ridge to Chattahoochee: Cross the Apalachicola River near the Georgia border and climb one of the steepest ravines in Florida to reach Chattahoochee.

Honorable Mention: The trails of Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Good place to spot raccoons on the move.

January 10, 2008

Best Backroads of Florida

A book recommendation: all three volumes of Douglas Waitley's series on Best Backroads of Florida are great resources for describing the hills, beaches, and heartland of the Sunshine State.

It's been helpful for the walk across Florida chapter especially. The books are all published by Sarasota's Pineapple Press.

Edwards for Governor?

Here's a question. If John Edwards had run for governor of North Carolina in 1998, instead of U.S. Senator, would he have had a better shot at the presidency in 2004? Perhaps he could have instituted universal health care in NC, or some innovative environmental initiative, or an anti-poverty program that stunned pundits and experts.

It might have given him firmer policy ground to stand on, plus some international resume-building through foreign trade missions and the like. Many political scientists point to the executive power in the governor's office, the slate of programs that make up an agenda, that translates easily into the language and PR imagery of a presidential bid. But being governor and living in Annapolis or Tallahassee or Richmond also just makes it easier to run against Washington, D.C. Jimmy Carter was the ultimate outsider when he walked out of the peanut fields and into the White House in 1970.

North Carolina is not a "megastate" like Florida, but it's got beach tourism, the Research Triangle, and lots of agriculture--a large dynamic economy. The explosion of the Raleigh-Durham intellectual zone is turning the state blue politically, bit by bit. Edwards' home in Orange County borders this progressive Democratic oasis.

If Barack Obama were to become president, it would throw a big wrench in the theory that governors, like small presidents, know best how to manage a massive workforce, balance a budget, and ultimately win the White House.

If Edwards fails this time, maybe he will use Chapel Hill as a platform for running for governor. North Carolina Governor Mike Easley is term-limited and Edwards already has loads of name recognition and time to campaign. What a roundabout journey that would be. If he ran, won, and governed well, it could be the last but best stage of his political career.

Governors and Hard Times

On the recommendation of an FSU professor, I'm reading an old volume studying the prospects and pitfalls of the class of governors that took office in 1990. Governors & Hard Times is edited by Thad Beyle, a professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was published by Congressional Quarterly Press in 1992. I just finished reading about J. Fife Symington III, the sometime governor of Arizona.

Now I'm onto Pete Wilson, the much ballyhooed governor of California. Like most people familiar with Wilson, I knew about his stances on immigration reform and the controversial ballot propositions that flowed from them. But I had no idea he faced such a budget crunch when he came into office in 1990.

California's projected budget deficit for the 1991-1992 fiscal year was $14.3 billion.

Governor Chiles' budget balancing was connected to the nationwide recession that sunk George Bush Sr.'s re-election campaign in 1992. When the plant closes in Cleveland, no more trip to Disney World. I'm willing to bet that nearly all the nation's 50 governors had to settle accounts painfully between 1990 and 1993. That's the challenging of describing the Chiles experience vividly and to a big audience. There are lots of things about the Florida budget that are NOT unique. They must be ignored in favor of Chiles' personality, his management style, and the state's love affair sales tax exemptions, loopholes, and other "turkeys."

January 7, 2008

Olustee Battle Festival

The most famous Civil War battle in Florida, Olustee, comes alive each year at a re-enactment event and other festivities. For my part, the role of the decorated 54th Massachusetts colored regiment is the most interesting. The remnants of the 54th formed the bulk of the Union forces' rear guard and allowed a retreat.

The Festival takes place the weekend of February 16-17.

A Third Way

Old friends of Chiles, former Florida governor Bob Graham and former Georgia U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, joined other distinguished guests at a bipartisan political forum today held at University of Oklahoma.

The transcript is found here.

One of the most interesting--and challenging--aspects of a politician's life is his or her retirement. If often a great glimpse into someone's values. It's great to see Nunn and Graham still in the policy debate. In the case of Chiles, he never really retired formally--except for the brief interregnum between the U.S. Senate and governor years. As Governor MacKay said, Chiles didn't like to talk legacy because there were always "miles to go."

I especially like Nunn's comments. One of his barbs was replayed on CNN today. It's the sort of wordplay the political South is known for. Paraphrasing: a preacher once said that lots of leaders think they're on track but if you look behind you, and nobody's following...well you're just taking a walk.

January 6, 2008

New Hampshire

It's always tough to say whether one debate had an impact on a gubernatorial or presidential election. Singling out any one variable, whether an issue or a tactic, is tough.

In the case of the final 1994 "He-Coon" debate between Governor Lawton Chiles and challenger Jeb Bush, I would argue that people were watching more than usual because of the national political environment.

The showdown between President Clinton and Republican barnstormer Newt Gingrich supercharged even local elections with significance. This was Clinton's midterm report card, and Gingrich wanted every TV set tuned in.

I think last night's Saturday night prime time presidential debate in New Hampshire was big. Sure, most people probably tuned into Redskins football during the Republican debate. But I think a lot of folks wanted to see if Obama could close the deal and overcome the Clinton machine one more time. Richardson stole the show in my opinion, with his admitted screw-up on Supreme Court basic knowledge at the end.