Voters around the nation seem to view international affairs and homeland security as relevant to the upcoming congressional elections, but the same concerns don't appear to be any help to politicians who run state governments. Governors in particular are facing tougher re-election races than expected.
Here's the inside story from outside the beltway.
The 1990s left many states, especially large and fast-growing ones, with sizeable budget surpluses and rivers of new revenue. Given that economic foundation and the public contentment that went with it, many governors elected in 2000 decided to launch bold government initiatives.
From California to Florida both Democratic and Republican chief executives tackled vital but thorny issues like education reform, consumer protection, and energy and resource management. Many of these activist governors enjoyed high public approval ratings, and that opened the way for them to push through programs wholesale, without irritating compromises with hesitant lawmakers.
But by early 2001, a series of interest rate hikes and a slowdown in corporate expenditures started to erode the euphoria of the blissful 1990s. Then the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks jolted the nation, crushing critical aspects of some of these states' economies, such as tourism and retail sales. And that's not even considering the gargantuan expenditures needed to beef up domestic security.
Now the picture is coming into focus. Economic woes spawned by government actions from years past, combined with the unforeseen terrorist attacks, converged to make
once popular and decisive governors suddenly look arrogant and ineffective. And while that assessment may be unfair, it is nevertheless taking seed in the minds of many voters.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush still enjoys a lead over his opponent, Tampa attorney Bill McBride. But, as first reported in this column in August, Bush is polling less than 50 percent of the vote. It's possible that McBride may soon be even with the president's brother.
Bush's neighbor governors to the immediate north, Democrats all, are also having problems. In Alabama, polls show Gov. Don Siegelman trailing his Republican opponent mainly because of ethics concerns. Ethical problems for Alabama governors are not necessarily new, but Siegelman is saddled with a slumping economy, too. Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes is in somewhat of a tightening race against a virtually unknown former state senator, Republican Sonny Perdue. Barnes has avoided the ethical problems faced by Siegelman, but has taken heat for his strong and swift leadership in shrinking the state flag's Confederate emblem to a postage-stamp-sized commemorative blip at the bottom. Barnes also has forced a major economic reform that included a phase-out of teacher tenure. South Carolina's Gov. Jim Hodges also is fighting to keep his job.
The list goes on in other regions. In California, Gov. Gray Davis once seemed a major contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. But his bungling of the state's 2001 energy crisis set the stage for a reversal of fortune. When Davis acted decisively and imposed emergency measures to answer the alleged threat to California bridges by terrorists, his actions were interpreted as arrogance.
All of this begs the question: How could so many once-superstar governors suddenly find themselves with uncomfortably small leads, or no leads at all, in their re-election races? It just doesn't stand to reason that so many top-flight leaders could have lost their mojo so quickly.
The answer is public impatience. Impatience with the economy -- supposedly about to fix itself any time -- and impatience with any reform that takes more than 15 minutes to bear fruit.
Barnes of Georgia and Bush of Florida, for example, have implemented major education reforms in their states. But with tax revenue dwindling and a tradition of K-12 failure that stretches back decades, it's not hard to see that a quick and across-the-board jolt in test scores is unlikely.
Nonetheless, what was once considered bold and competent leadership at the state level is now apparently viewed in retrospect as a "my way or the highway" form of arrogance. And the quality of the opposition to these leaders -- from California's nerdy Bill Simon, to Florida's vague-on-specifics McBride, to Georgia's mystery man Perdue -- remains to be seen.
Increasingly, the 2002 elections are looking like a state-by-state referendum on the likeability of the individual candidates, a sort of referendum of incumbents. And it is largely attributable to an unstable shifting of America's political winds. With just under five weeks to go until Election Day, we'll have to see if those winds will stabilize or grow to gale force, perhaps blowing some otherwise safe incumbent congressmen and senators out of office too.
Matt Towery writes a syndicated column based out of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.
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