Stateline Story

Once, Twice, Three Times a Gov?

  • May 31, 2006
  • By Eric Kelderman

Among the fresh faces running in the nation's 36 gubernatorial races this year are three who have seen it all before - because they used to be governors.

Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D), elected to his limit of two consecutives terms in 1994 and 1998, entered the race for his old job this week. Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, who narrowly lost a second term in 2002, is on the June 6 ballot for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, even as he stands trial for alleged political corruption during his first term.

And former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R) is seeking to become only the second man in U.S. history to have governed two states with his bid for the governor's mansion in his new home, New York.

Since 1977, 16 of 45 former state chief executives who have attempted gubernatorial comebacks have regained their seats, according to data from University of North Carolina political scientist Thad Beyle. The group includes former President Bill Clinton (D), who served as Arkansas governor from 1979 to 1981 and again from 1983 to 1992, and 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, who was governor of Massachusetts from 1975 to 1979 and again from 1983 to 1991.

The most recent was Cecil Underwood, who was elected governor of West Virginia in 1996 after a 36-year hiatus.

Two governors since 1970 have moved in and out of the governor's mansion three times: New Mexico Gov. Bruce King (D), who served from 1971 to 1975, 1979 to 1983, and 1991 to 1995, and Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards (D), who served from 1972 to 1980, 1984 to 1988 and 1992 to 1996.

Knowles would be only the second Alaska governor to serve three terms if he were to win the seat currently held by Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), who ended months of speculation May 26 with the announcement that he will seek re-election. Alaska is one of 15 states where governors are limited to two consecutive terms but are eligible to run again after a four-year break, according to the Council of State Governments.

Knowles told reporters he is following in the footsteps of Alaska's first governor, Bill Egan (D), who served two terms from 1959 to 1966 and a third term from 1970 to 1974. Another Alaska governor to leave office only to return later was Walter Hickel, who was first elected as a Republican in 1966 but resigned when President Richard Nixon appointed him as U.S. Secretary of the Interior in 1969. He lost gubernatorial bids in 1978 and 1986, but won in 1990 as the Alaska Independence Party candidate.

Knowles faces state Rep. Eric Croft (D) of Anchorage in the Aug. 22 primary.

In Alabama, Siegelman is currently on trial on charges that he traded official favors for campaign cash and gifts while governor. Recent polls put him far behind Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley for the state's Democratic nomination. Siegelman lost his 2002 gubernatorial re-election bid by less than one percentage point to Bob Riley (R), who this year is in a primary contest with former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore.

Previous Alabama governors to exit and re-enter the office include Gov. George Wallace (D), who served 16 years - 1963 to 1967 (after which he was succeeded by his wife, Lurleen), 1971 to 1979, and 1983 to 1987. Gov. Fob James was elected to a single term as a Democrat in 1978 and again in 1994 as a Republican.

If he were to win his long-shot bid in New York, Weld would make the history books as a two-state governor along with the legendary Sam Houston, who was governor of Tennessee from 1827 to 1829 and of Texas from 1859 to 1861. Weld served as governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997, then resigned when President Clinton nominated him to be ambassador to Mexico. The U.S. Senate, however, did not confirm Weld, and he returned to private law practice.

Now, Weld is in New York to run for governor against former state Assemblyman John Faso in New York's Sep. 12 GOP primary for the seat being vacated by three-term Gov. George Pataki (R).

This election year, four other former governors toyed briefly with political comebacks. In Arizona, former Gov. J. Fife Symington (R), now a pastry chef, chose the heat of the kitchen over that of the campaign trail. Former two-term Govs. Jim Edgar (R) of Illinois and John Kitzhaber (D) of Oregon and former four-term Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) of Wisconsin also publicly considered reviving their political careers before bowing out.