How does an independent governor govern?

The Top Story by Chris Graham

What does the dog that barks at passing cars all day and night do when one of those cars stops?

This is the same sort of issue being faced by independent gubernatorial candidate Russ Potts – who is focused right now on pulling what the long-time sports promoter himself has said would be the “upset of the century” in his race with Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Jerry Kilgore.

The question arises if he wins – just how does he govern without a party base in either chamber of the Virginia General Assembly?

“The typical approach that the naysayers have is that, one, he really won’t do it. He won’t run. The second thing they say is he won’t get enough petitions to get on the ballot. Then they say, ‘He can’t win.’ And then the last thing they say is, ‘He can’t govern.’ Well, governing is the least of my worries. I know we can govern,” Potts told The Augusta Free Press.

Potts has some inside knowledge of how to govern as an independent in the form of his senior campaign advisor, Tom D’Amore, the one-time chief of staff to former Connecticut governor Lowell Weicker, who was elected as an independent in 1990.

Weicker’s background mirrors that of Potts – both were career Republicans who broke from the party ranks to run for governor; and both planned from the start of their campaigns for the office to govern from the middle.

“The main challenge is to make yourself nonpolitical so that you can draw both Republicans and Democrats behind you on the issues that you have deemed important. If you start being political, you’re going to alienate either one or both of the parties. You want to make sure that you stay out of the politics and really stick to what the true issues of the state are,” said Weicker, who now serves as the president of the Washington, D.C.,-based Trust for America’s Health.

“The coalitions that I used in reforming the health-care system, reforming the tax structure, reforming education, were pretty well equally divided between the two parties,” Weicker told the AFP.

“Everybody likes to think that everybody in politics is quote ‘a politician’ in the worst sense of the word. I find that not to be at all the case, especially at the state-legislature level. And I served in the state legislature myself for six years, so I would say that I know how legislators think. I would say that 80 percent of the people in the state legislature are there as a labor of love, and they’re going to do the right thing if the right thing was offered to them. So I don’t think that it’s particularly difficult to put together these coalitions,” Weicker said.

Tim Penny, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota and a 2002 independent candidate for governor in Minnesota, said things worked out a little differently in his state – which had an independent governor, Jesse Ventura, who was elected in 1998.

“Once you’re in, the challenge is that neither party wishes you well. You automatically face a skeptical if not antagonistic legislature,” said Penny, the co-director of the Hubert Humphrey Policy Forum at the University of Minnesota.

“It’s all about relationships,” Penny told the AFP. “Legislators like to feel important. And if governors schmooze with legislators, it goes a long, long way to building a relationship and building a coalition of support for your goals.

“I think if there were a failing in the Ventura administration, it was that he was unwilling to spend the time necessary to meet with and get to know better rank-and-file legislators,” Penny said. “I think if he would have done more of that, he would have had more allies in the legislature, and they would have been more reliable. As it was, he had sort of fair-weather friends. They were there when they had to be, but they were against him as often as they could be. He didn’t work hard enough to build some personal relationships that would have been possible, but that was just not his style.”

Weicker was successful in building on his relationships with people on both sides of the political aisle forged over his decades of public service in Connecticut.

“That’s the advantage in some ways of being an independent,” Weicker said. “You don’t get all the love and kisses that parties bestow upon their own in terms of funds and parties and accolades. But that’s OK. What you’re basically doing is dealing with the people of the state, and you’re sort of pushing the party structure aside, which I don’t think is a bad thing. All in all, if you will eschew the politics, and you surround yourself with the best people available, regardless of party affiliation, I think you can govern a state as an independent than if you belong to either party.

“We faced some really tough issues, and I really stuck to my knitting of continuing both to address those issues and to keep together people that were more of a nonpolitical stripe,” Weicker said.

That was evident in the work behind the scenes that led to the passage of Connecticut’s first income tax.

“The state was damn near bankrupt, and we had to pass an income tax. Obviously, nobody wanted an income tax in the state of Connecticut, and neither party wanted to be blamed as being the party of the income tax,” Weicker said. “Only an independent governor could raise the issue, and then quite frankly it took men and women of courage on both sides to put together a majority. And then neither the Republicans or Democrats could be blamed.

“They could blame it all on me, which was fine. It worked, and that’s what was needed for the state,” Weicker said.

Ventura was able to ring up some impressive legislative victories himself – including the passage of a comprehensive transportation plan, the adoption of a package restructuring how the state financed public education and returning the state’s budget surpluses to the taxpayers in the form of rebates.

That said, it wasn’t at all easy.

“An independent governor really has to spend a lot of time on public education,” Penny said. “You’ve got the other two parties and all of their associated interest groups who, more often than not, are going to be nervous about, if not opposed to, your initiatives. Independent governors tend to be change agents. They tend not to be happy with the status quo. And most of the interest groups represent the status quo, the programs just as they are, just give us more money, please. And they get worried about an independent governor who may say, you know, maybe the way we’re spending money on education, or maybe the way we’re spending money on social-service programs, isn’t producing good results. Maybe we need to change that.

“You have to be willing to go out there and explain to people why what you’re proposing is better and more cost effective and will get us better results,” Penny said. “And if you’re not willing to do that, then the opposition groups will carry the day. It’s easy to put fear and confusion in the minds of the electorate, and they will do a good job of that unless you’re out there explaining to the electorate why they’re wrong and why change is needed.”

Independent governors, in particular, “are at risk of being opposed by interest groups on the right and on the left on a regular basis,” Penny said. “Whereas a Democratic or Republican governor is benefited by the fact that if the other side’s interest groups are out there staging an event on the steps of the capitol, you can have a counterevent by your support groups across the street, which sort of balances the news coverage. But if you’re an independent governor, you can have either side or both sides out there protesting what you’re doing, and where are your supporters?” Penny said.

“You don’t have interest groups who can turn out a crowd or create an event for you. It’s just you and the power of the bully pulpit. And you have to be willing to use that on a regular basis,” Penny said.

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