Lowering the Bar: America's Worst Governors

The story of American democracy is one of heroes and disappointments. Every day in this great nation, elected leaders make their constituents proud by fighting for democracy, working families, and American families. And then there are the disappointments: the elected officials who play politics with people's lives and shill for special interests.

In this week's Dispatch, we shine a light on a sampling of America's worst Governors. In the future, we'll continue to spotlight the highlights and the lowlifes who occupy America's Governor's mansions. If you've got good examples of embarassing or excellent executives, make sure to let us know.

Matt Singer

CO: Bill Owens

Colorado's Bill Owens is wrapping up his final legislative session. It must be a bittersweet period. Although Owens was once hailed as the leading light of the GOP by no less an authority than National Review (by the second paragraph, they glowingly write of his principled decision to drink Coors beer because of the Coors' families support of Contras), his political future has been declared over by Grover Norquist, the well-known anti-tax activist and good friend of Jack Abramoff. What mess does Colorado have left to clean up? Let's take a look.

Placing Workers Last: Owens vetoed a series of bills passed by Colorado's progressive legislature designed to protect workers. Among the bills were measures to ensure that workers locked out of their jobs during contract negotiations are eligible for unemployment insurance, to increase penalties for employers that fail to pay "wages owed to a terminated employee," and a bill to give employees access to their own personnel files.

Local Control of Schools? That Depends: While Norquist lost his patient with Owens over a little moderation on spending caps, spending is not the only issue where Owens shows inconsistency. While he demanded a policy this legislative session that would punish schools that failed to comply with state law regarding flags, he also vetoed a bill requiring school vending machines include healthful snacks. His argument? The bill "micromanages school districts and their policies."

Academic Rightwing Bill: Governor Owens and other conservative leaders in Colorado met with rightwing hack David Horowitz to discuss the so-called "Academic Bill of Rights," a proposal to steep public universities in political control and fear. Horowitz's proposal has been nearly universally rejected, but Colorado was the first state to consider a legislative proposal. College Presidents kept it at bay by agreeing to "monitor their own institutions and report back to the Legislature." Somehow academic freedom involves legislative accountability. We can only imagine that in Bill Owens' America, free speech will also require government review.

Spending Cap Stop-Gap: You want to know how hard it is to keep the far right happy? Ask Owens. After living with Colorado's experiment in spending caps for 13 years, virtually everyone had enough. The business community was on board to raise money to let the state government spend more money. That's how dire the situation was. When Governor Owens joined in to support compromise reform, he got immediately ostracized by the national conservativement movement, despite the fact that his version of reform failed to go far enough to actually solve Colorado's fiscal crisis.

MD: Robert Ehrlich

Governor Robert Ehrlich may be best known nationally for vetoing Maryland's recent Fair Share Health Care bill, but his shameful record did not begin there and is unlikely to end there. In fact, there's a good chance that Governor Ehrlich will continue to be an embarassment as long as he remains in office.

Picking Employers Over Employees: Governor Ehrlich has racked up an amazing anti-worker record. In May of 2005, he vetoed both the Fair Share Health Care bill that prevents Wal-Mart from shifting their health care costs to the public and a bill to increase Maryland's minimum wage by a dollar. Even better -- Ehrlich lied about the fact that Wal-Mart hosted a major fundraiser for him, claiming that the event never occured.

Hurting Democracy: On the same day that Ehrlich was vetoing pro-worker bills, he did his best to oppose efforts to strengthen democracy. He also vetoed legislation allowing for early voting, voter verified elections, and an anti-voter intimidation bill.

Human Rights: Governor Ehrlich vetoed legislation to create legislative oversight of the state's juvenile detention system, a system that has come under federal investigation during Ehrlich's term due to "complaints of youths being mistreated, inadequate staffing and other problems..."

Racial Insensitivity: After hosting an event at an all-white country club, Ehrlich took to the airwaves, defending his decision "saying its membership is 'not my business'..."

Civil Rights: As part of his efforts to spread joy to his conservative base, Ehrlich also vetoed bills that would allow for equal rights with regards to medicine, funerals, and real estate transfers for domestic partners. Taxing billion dollar estates is wrong. Separating dying Americans from their loved ones is good policy. This is the mindset of the modern right.

GA: Sonny Perdue

Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue is by no means the best known Southern Governor (that claim to fame probably goes to Jeb Bush or to Haley Barbour, featured in our sidebar). His story is an amazing one, from how he got elected to his presiding over a period of resurgence in Georgia that is less conservative and more wingnut fringe.

The Race Bait and Switch: During his campaign for Governor, Sonny Perdue criticized the incumbent Roy Barnes for changing Georgia's state flag to remove the Confederate Battle Flag. Some observers credit this move with his victory. Following his election, he held a referendum on replacing the Barnes flag, but didn't include Confederate Battle Flag imagery as an option.

Education Malpractice: Perdue backed, passed, and signed a version of the 65% Distraction requiring that Georgia schools spend 65% of their budgets "in the classroom." The proposal is nothing more than political fluff that ignores such necessary school expenses as nurses and schoolbuses. Perdue made it a centerpiece of his education agenda.

Economic Boondoggles: Flustered by economic flight out of Georgia (spurred, perhaps, by bad education policy and questionable racial politics?), Perdue felt pressure to deliver. So after Ford and GM pulled up their stakes, Georgia's Governor landed $400 million in incentives for Korean automaker Kia to build a plant in Georgia. The plant is expected to create 2,500 jobs at a cost of $160,000 a piece to the state.

Conservative Robots: In addition to passing poorly thought-out rightwing ideas like the 65% Solution (see above), Perdue's election to the Governor's office was quickly followed by Georgia's establishment as ALEC's prime state, moving multiple model bills, including asbestos tort deform and legislation to shut down Atlanta's living wage ordinance.

Scapegoating Immigrants: In a time of immigrant scapegoating, Perdue and his rightwing allies in Georgia have taken the cake -- passing a bill that threatens immigrants while basically letting employers, especially unscrupulous ones, off the hook. While happily claiming that they've passed the harshest measure in the country, Perdue smiles and says that "Georgia's government is not, and this bill is not, anti-immigrant." Right. It's just in favor of immigrant exploitation. That's a big difference.