Monday, February 25, 2008

The myth of the good governor

A Telegram & Gazette letter writer criticized Deval Patrick last week for having national aspirations, suggesting:
I hope it is now apparent to everyone that the reason why he is stumping so hard for Barack Obama, and the reason why he is never in the state, is because he wants out of Massachusetts and to be part of Mr. Obama’s Cabinet.
The news today that Patrick made an "iron-clad" promise not to serve in an Obama cabinet has taken a little steam out of my discussion of this letter (not to mention rendering the writer very wrong). But, the author ends the letter with an incredibly illogical argument:
Massachusetts has a long line of governors leaving for other offices (William Weld, Paul Cellucci, Mitt Romney). Let’s rid ourselves of this deceitful politician. In the future, let’s consider true, homegrown politicians who have our best interests in mind.
First, how should we "rid ourselves" of Deval Patrick? Impeachment? Has he actually done anything to warrant removal, or is harboring imaginary national aspirations enough to warrant removal? And wouldn't it logically follow that the best way to rid ourselves of Patrick would be to have him leave for Obama's cabinet? So the writer wants to be rid of Patrick, but he doesn't want Patrick to leave. I'm getting dizzy.

Second, while Massachusetts does have a long history of governors leaving for other offices--although I'm not sure Mitt Romney should be included since he actually finished his term, while the other two governors on this list did not. But let's accept that Romney should be included because he clearly had national aspirations while he was in the corner office. Mentioning Paul Cellucci is also curious since he, as a lifelong resident of Hudson, is about as homegrown as any politician could be.

In any event, it looks like the criteria for being a good governor are to be homegrown and not to seek or accept work in Washington.

The mythical good governor that the author mentions has rarely existed in Massachusetts. Looking back at the last 100 years, most of the commonwealth's governors have either sought or accepted positions in Washington and a few were not born in Massachusetts. Of the 29 governors elected since 1906, 10 of them were both "homegrown" and did not seek or accept higher office during or shortly after their terms:

Ed King, 1979-83
Frank Sargent, 1969-75
Endicott Peabody, 1963-65 (although he did run for the Democratic Vice Presidential nomination in 1972)
Robert Bradford, 1947-49
Charles Hurley, 1937-39
Joseph Ely, 1931-36
Frank Allen, 1929-31
Alvan Fuller, 1925-29
Channing Cox, 1921-25
Ebenezer Draper, 1909-11

Notice something about the length of these governors' terms? They are all very short. In fact, of the 10, only three (Ely, Allen, Cox) were reelected. The other seven were all voted out of office after just one term (Sargent was acting governor for two years before being elected in his own right in 1970).

History suggests that homegrown governors without ambition are so poor that their constituents reject them after a short time.

Rather than seeing ambition as a bad thing, the voters of Massachusetts by and large have noticed leaders when they've seen them despite--or because of--their national ambitions. This tradition of serving both the state and the country goes all the way back to John Hancock, who was elected the first governor of the commonwealth in 1780 and resigned in 1785. Later that summer, he served in congress under the Articles of Confederation and was elected president in November.

Perhaps the people of the commonwealth would have been better off if John Hancock had remained in Massachusetts and kept the state's best interests in mind.

The evidence does not suggest that these homegrown governors are successful, despite their lack of national ambition and the implied focus on "our best interests." And the evidence also doesn't support the claim that Patrick is leaving office before the end of his term. I wouldn't be surprised if Patrick is looking to a bigger stage in the future--I think he will run for reelection in 2010, leave the statehouse after his second term (assuming he is reelected) and then running for president in 2016--but he's not now. And the incentive to be successful will ensure that he attempts to accomplish what he sets out to, since failure would doom any chance of him ascending to national prominence.

(Information on Massachusetts governors from wikipedia and

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