Stateline Story

Massachusetts Gov Rated Most Powerful

  • March 09, 2007
  • By Pamela Prah

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick doesn't have the Hollywood celebrity of California's Arnold Schwarzenegger or the high profile of New York's Eliot Spitzer, but the newly elected Democrat bested both better-known colleagues in a yet-to-be-published ranking of governors' powers.

Patrick also edged out his peers in Alaska, Maryland, New Jersey and West Virginia in the latest power rankings of state chief executives by University of North Carolina political science professor Thad L. Beyle.

Schwarzenegger (R), a former bodybuilder and actor, and Spitzer (D), who made a name prosecuting unethical business practices on Wall Street, had larger-than-life reputations even before they landed in the governor's mansion, giving them political influence from the get-go. But other governors are helped – or hurt – by their own state constitutions and laws that influence how much power they wield.

Beyle, who has ranked the governors since the 1980s, looks at tenure, budget authority, appointment and veto powers and at whether the governor's party controls the legislature in figuring out which governors have the most clout.

The last factor helped Massachusetts surpass Alaska, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia, which all had been tied for top billing in 2005.

Patrick's victory in the 2006 elections gave Democrats control of both the governorship and statehouse for the first time in 16 years, and the party has a veto-proof, overwhelming majority in both chambers. “That was the big difference,” Beyle said.

Massachusetts also has no term limits for governors. Patrick replaced Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who chose not to run for a second term and is now making a bid for the White House.

Massachusetts' top power billing, however, may come as small comfort to Patrick, who has been under fire for a series of political blunders. The missteps include his use of a $46,000 Cadillac DeVille for state business and a recent acknowledgment that he made a phone call on behalf of a mortgage company to a bank that has substantial dealings with the state.

Maryland and Colorado also boosted their power rankings with Democratic gubernatorial wins last fall. In Maryland, former Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) unseated Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, the only incumbent to lose in last year's mid-term elections. In Colorado, former Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter bested his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, in a contest to replace Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who was forced to step down because of term limits.

In both states, Democrats retained control of the legislatures, giving O'Malley and Ritter more friendly legislatures than their Republican predecessors had.

In Maryland, the governor's power to hire and fire state employees dominated statehouse discussions in recent years after Democrats accused Ehrlich of firing 340 state workers for partisan reasons after he took office in 2003. “The Democrats' interest in the [issue] seemed to wane after O'Malley's election,” The Washington Post reported.

Keon Chi, a senior fellow with the Council of State Governments, said one reason New Jersey ranks so high in Beyle's study is that the governor is the only elected top state official. He or she appoints the secretary of state and the attorney general, positions that in many other states are filled by elections. New Jersey currently has no lieutenant governor, although voters there will elect their first in 2009. “The governor of New Jersey is a bit like the president of the United States in terms of who he can appoint and fire” at the top levels, Chi said..

Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) with just a two-year term in office, a Democratic-controlled Legislature and no line-item veto ranks last in terms of institutional power, according to Beyle's rankings.

New Hampshire, the only other state with a two-year stint for governor, moved up from the bottom-five ranking it held in 2005 now that New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) has a Democratic-controlled statehouse. The Democrats' win in New Hampshire put the party in control of both the legislative and executive branches for the first time since just after the Civil War, giving Lynch more leverage.

Rounding out Beyle's list of states where the governor has little institutional power are Rhode Island, Alabama, Oklahoma, Indiana, Mississippi and North Carolina.

In Texas, another state that ranks relatively low on the list, Gov. Rick Perry (R) has come under fire for using executive orders to make policy. Perry, for example, bypassed the Legislature and signed an executive order requiring that all 6th-grade girls be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancers. Lawmakers are pressing Perry to reverse the mandate, and a lawsuit has been filed to block it.

The governor's inability to make key appointments is one of the main reasons the Texas governorship is so weak. The governors of Arizona, California, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, for example, can appoint the top personnel in corrections, education, health, transportation, public utilities and welfare, a power the Texas governor lacks.

In another survey, Beyle looks at both the personal as well as institutional powers of governors, although those findings are incomplete since the job performances for governors elected in 2006 are not yet available. The top five in that list are: Colorado, Nebraska, Arkansas, Connecticut and New York.

Beyle stresses that while he can calculate the effects of budget power and other factors, “you can't really measure personal skills.” Governors with an assertive personality and skills in using the bully pulpit can overcome any limits imposed on them by a state's constitution and laws, he said. Beyle's rankings will be contained in a forthcoming book, Politics in the American States: A Comparative Analysis, published by the CQ Press.


Contact Pamela M. Prah at pprah@stateline.org