Stateline Story

Crisis Can Make or Break a Governor's Legacy

  • September 13, 2005
  • By Eric Kelderman

Whether they like it or not, Govs. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) of Louisiana and Haley Barbour (R) of Mississippi -- like governors who have weathered earlier crises -- are destined to be linked forever to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

While it is too soon to appraise the storm's political aftermath, the two first-term governors will be judged by the impressions of their leadership during the crisis. A look at history shows that unexpected challenges can make or break a governor's legacy.

"When [politicians] have gotten in trouble is when they haven't shown they are in charge, ... when they've appeared to be controlled by events without any ability to do something defining," said political author Lou Cannon, who used to cover California politics for The Washington Post.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has been at the center of several political storms during his two terms, including the controversial 2000 election and the saga of the severely brain-damaged woman, Terri Schiavo, who died in 2004. But his image was burnished last year by his leadership after four hurricanes ravaged Florida over six weeks, killing 124 people and causing more than $18 billion in damage in what is estimated to be the Sunshine State's costliest hurricane season ever.

Daniel A. Smith, who teaches political science at the University of Florida, gave the governor high marks for his handling of the situation. "Bush was quite impressive in preparing the residents of Florida to take each hurricane seriously. ... When the hurricanes struck, [Bush] displayed exceptional organizational skills, helping to coordinate the various public and private agencies engaged in relief efforts," he said.

In 1993, then- Gov. Terry Branstad (R) of Iowa traded his coat and tie for jeans and a work shirt as the Hawkeye State and eight others endured flooding that caused an estimated $20 billion in damage. He said his role during the floods improved his image with voters at a low point in his tenure and helped him to win reelection to a fourth term.

"If you're the governor, you need to be on the scene and take charge and responsibility," said Branstad, who is now the president of Des Moines University.

South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell (R) also gained political strength from his leadership after Hurricane Hugo, which devastated that state in 1989, said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who served as a policy advisor to Campbell. The governor, only the second Republican elected to that office at the time, had no serious Democratic competition when he ran for reelection and captured 71 percent of the vote.

But California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) paid a political price in 1981 when an infestation of the Mediterranean fruit fly threatened to destroy the state's farm crops, said Cannon, who wrote a biography of President Ronald Reagan.

Brown at first resisted aerial pesticide spraying, then changed his mind as political pressure mounted and other states embargoed California produce. That flip-flop, along with a change of heart in favor of the state's tax-capping Proposition 13, cost Brown his 1982 bid for the U.S. Senate.

"There was always a kind of built-in suspicion ... that he was too much the gadfly, a guy who flitted from one thing to another," Cannon said.

Not all disasters are natural. In 2001, California Gov. Gray Davis (D) seemed to be caught off guard when rolling blackouts left many in his state without electricity, and consumers and the state budget were socked with soaring energy prices, Cannon said.

"Gray never recovered from the energy crisis," said Cannon. In 2003, California voters recalled Davis 10 months after his reelection to a second term -- just the second gubernatorial recall in U.S. history.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh (R) became the first Republican elected to consecutive terms to that office, and later served as U.S. attorney general under GOP Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

But he is most remembered for a 1979 tour of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant with President Jimmy Carter (D) -- just five days after a malfunction at the facility threatened to melt the core of the reactor and release a fatal dose of radiation to a quarter-million people.

During the weeklong crisis, Thornburgh quelled rumors of massive radiation leaks and was credited with preventing public panic, said Beverly Cigler, who teaches political science at the Pennsylvania State University School of Public Affairs in Harrisburg, Pa.

Former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller (R) served as vice president under President Gerald Ford (R). But he also is remembered for ordering more than 1,000 police officers and National Guard troops to storm the prison in Attica, N.Y., in 1971. The attack ended a four-day riot, but more than 40 people were killed, including 11 people held hostage by inmates who were protesting poor conditions.

In at least one case, a governor's image has come to symbolize the very crisis itself. In 1963, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace (D ), flanked by state troopers, blocked two black students from entering the University of Alabama, defying a U.S. Department of Justice order to desegregate the state's public schools and universities.

Wallace ran for president four times and became a hero to those opposing civil rights. While running for his fourth gubernatorial term in 1982, Wallace acknowledged that segregation was wrong.