Lauded by both Republican and Democratic colleagues as a "consensus builder," Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) Tuesday assumed chairmanship of the National Governors Association (NGA).
In an interview with Stateline.org, Kempthorne said he believes the organization is leaving partisan bickering over federal fiscal relief and Medicaid reform behind it.
"I believe that if you leave rhetoric behind and instead focus on results, everyone can share the credit and you're going to accomplish a whole lot more," Kempthorne said.
Kempthorne, who has served as vice chair for the past year, takes the reins from Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton (D). Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D), who is facing re-election in the Magnolia State, was expected to replace Kempthorne as vice chair.
Kempthorne plans to focus the governors' federal lobbying efforts on a gamut of issues, including education, health care and transportation. He will announce today the establishment of a new standing committee on education, early childhood and workforce development. An impetus for the new committee was the challenging requirements the federal "No Child Left Behind Act" pose for states, the governor said.
Kempthorne's leadership has calmed some conservative governors who thought NGA's fiscal platform was not in line with their beliefs. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) described the situation earlier this year at the fractious NGA winter meeting as a "sort of brewing revolt" among conservatives.
"I think (Kempthorne) will go a long way toward bringing balance. Does it mean that we'll agree on every issue? No, absolutely not. But does it take away the specter of a revolt and a departure by a number of conservatives? Yes," Sanford told Stateline.org.
Many Republican governors raised concerns last winter that the NGA's fiscal relief proposals didn't reflect conservative ideals such as limited government. The organization failed this summer to agree on a proposal to reform Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor and disabled.
"(Kempthorne) has fairly proven credentials in forging consensus and I think that was obviously much needed, from the conservatives' perspective, to make sure that both perspectives were heard by the organization and heard by people outside the organization," Sanford said.
Republican Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, offered similar sentiments.
"Dirk's capacity for bringing people together is a perfect fit and perfect timing. No one sees him as partisan or a person who's trying to push an ideology," Huckabee said.
Democratic governors also applauded Kempthorne's personality and political know-how.
"He's certainly got the intellect and the broad experience in public service, plus a demeanor that is very respectful of all the members," said Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon (D).
Kempthorne, a former U.S. Senator and mayor of Boise, Idaho, has served as the president of The Council of State Governments (CSG) and chair of the Western Governors' Association. At present, he's a member of the executive committee of the Republican Governors Association (RGA).
Recently, Kempthorne was rumored to be a candidate to replace Christine Todd Whitman as director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At a Western Governors' Association meeting earlier this summer the governor told Stateline.org he'd likely accept the job if President Bush offered it to him.
"Any citizen who is asked by the president of the United States to consider a task that he has identified, I think that citizen has to truly consider that as part of your responsibility," Kempthorne said in the June interview.
However, Bush opted for Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) instead. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is pleased Kempthorne will remain among the ranks of the nation's governors.
"I'm very happy that he's staying as governor and not going to the cabinet," Richardson told Stateline.org. "Having had experience in the cabinet and as governor, governor is better."