by Robert Powell
When the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership recently collected eight former governors for a dinner in Richmond, the oldest, Linwood Holton, quipped that it was “a parade of has-beens.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
In many states, the presence of so many former governors from the past 42 years would suggest a restless electorate continually throwing the bums out the door. But Virginia cranks out ex-govs like hot Krispy-Kreme doughnuts because of its unique one-and-done system.
No Virginia governor is allowed to serve two consecutive terms. Other states that tried this system (including my native state, Georgia) have junked it. For once, Virginia should follow the herd.
The former governors featured at the Sorensen dinner included Holton (who served from 1970 to 1974), Chuck Robb (1982-86), Gerald Baliles (1986-90), Doug Wilder (1990-94), George Allen (1994-98), Jim Gilmore (1998-2002), Mark Warner (2002-06) and Tim Kaine (2006-10). Batting ninth in this lineup was the closer, Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Each former occupant of the Executive Mansion was given a few minutes to talk about his legacy. Holton, Virginia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, recalled his decisions to declare an end to Virginia’s resistance to segregation and enroll his children in largely black Richmond public schools.
All of the men spoke with awe about the governorship. “There is no greater honor than to be governor of Virginia,” more than one said.
They were almost equally unanimous about the sense of urgency they felt in trying to accomplish their goals in one term. “You only get four years,” said Gilmore. “You really have to act fast.”
In fact, Virginia governors really have less than four years to get things done. They have only one budget they can truly call their own during their single term. As their fourth year rolls around, many of their Cabinet members begin to leave, snagging plum jobs in the private sector.
Maybe because they left the governor’s office with energy to spare, most of the former governors have pursued higher office. Six have run for the U.S. Senate (often competing against one another, as Allen and Kaine are this year) and three — Wilder, Gilmore and Warner — made brief presidential bids.
Those presidential ambitions point up the dilemma of a one-term governor. After ruling the roost at the statehouse for four years, being a freshman in the seniority-focused, 100-member U.S. Senate can be a comedown.
Perhaps that is why Warner, who appears frustrated by the Senate’s glacial pace, is rumored to be considering another run for governor in 2013. The looming threat of his candidacy has kept at least one potential Democratic candidate, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, from committing to run
For many former governors yearning for more top executive experience, however, the next target in politics is the White House. Four of our last six presidents were governors.
One of them was Jimmy Carter, who decided to run for president in the closing months of his single term as governor of Georgia. The headline the next day on the Atlanta Constitution editorial page read “President of what?”
Back then, Georgia, like Virginia, prohibited its governors from serving two consecutive terms. Had he wanted to, Carter likely had little chance of dislodging the Democratic incumbents occupying Georgia’s two Senate seats. As host to Democratic leaders visiting Georgia, he had sized up the competition for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 and decided he was as smart as any of them. Carter went for the big prize and won against all odds.
I admire Carter as a global humanitarian, and I think he has defined the role of ex-president. Nonetheless, his presidency largely was a disaster.
When Reagan defeated Carter in a landslide in 1980, I called my parents to see how they were taking the news. “Well,” my mother said. “At least we won’t feel responsible for him anymore.”
Of course, Carter might still have run for president even if he had been able to stand for re-election as governor. Georgia’s one-term law, however, soon was changed, allowing Carter’s successor to serve two consecutive terms. In the years since, every governor has either been elected for two terms or been defeated trying. And none of them has run for president.
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