Pundits Say Results in Governor’s Races Carry Warning on Spending

By Peter Schmidt — November 14, 1990 5 min read

Although gubernatorial candidates regarded as having strong records and stands on education fared well over all in last week’s elections, observers said the poll results also carried a warning that voters are likely to balk at costly education reforms.

In contrast to the Congressional races, in which almost all incumbents were re-elected, the nation’s 36 gubernatorial elections were marked by considerable turmoil. Six incumbents went down in defeat, at least eight open seats changed partisan hands, and two former Republicans running as independents gained office.

The only contest still to be decided late last week was in Arizona, where the major-party contenders apparently will have to meet again in a run-off election.

The national teachers’ unions, which mounted major efforts to influence the gubernatorial races this year, pronounced themselves satisfied with the results. Eighteen of 31 candidates endorsed by state affiliates of the National Education Assoion were successful, as were 13 of 22 contenders backed by American Federation of Teachers’ affiliates.

And, although voters tossed out two educationally prominent Democratic Governors, James J. Blanchard of Michigan and Rudy Perpich of Minnesota, they also chose several other candidates who previously had gained the approval of educators in their roles as governors or members of the Congress.

“This was a very serious election,” observed Rachelle Horowitz, political director of the A.F.T. “The people who just did negative spots did not do well. It was those people who seriously talked about issues, who talked about education, who talked about the economy, who did well.”

But Steven D. Henriksen, who followed the gubernatorial elections as a consultant to the Education Commission of the States, injected a note of caution.

“If there is one characteristic, one theme, that runs through many of the gubernatorial races,” he said, “it’s that voters are increasingly stingy with their money.”

“In the coming two years,” Mr. Henriksen warned, “educators will have to be very careful in terms of phrasing their requests for spending--not only in terms of voter attitudes, but in terms of the predispositions of the new governors not to support any tax increases.”

With the economy hovering on the brink of a recession that could have a potentially devastating impact on state governments, few candidates found much political mileage this year in proposing costly new initiatives for schools. In the campaigns where education became an important issue, the debate frequently centered on how the state can pay for current programs, rather than how it can start others. (See Education Week, Oct. 31, 1990.)

Mr. Henriksen also argued that economic unease and resistance to taxation appeared to have been a key factor contributing to the defeat of Mr. Blanchard of Michigan by his Republican challenger, State Senator John M. Engler.

Similar factors were at work, he said, in Democratic victories over two Republican incumbents: Gov. Mike Hayden of Kansas, who lost to State Treasurer Joan Finney; and Gov. Kay A. Orr of Nebraska, who was beaten by Ben Nelson.

And in the pivotal California race, an anti-tax platform appeared to have helped the Republican standard-bearer, U.S. Senator Pete Wilson, hold off his Democratic opponent, Dianne Feinstein, and thus keep that crucial governorship in GOP hands.

In the one state where education spending appeared to be the central issue, however, the electorate of Illinois swung in favor of a Republican candidate who resisted cutting a tax that aids the schools.

Secretary of State Jim Edgar narrowly defeated Attorney General Neil Hartigan, the Democratic nominee, after Mr. Hartigan gained considerable ground on him by promising to end an income-tax surcharge that provides more than $350 million a year for schools.

Mr. Edgar said he would ask the legislature to extend the 20 percent tax surcharge that it had approved two years ago, but Mr. Hartigan sought to mobilize a wave of anti-tax sentiment by promising to let the surcharge die. Instead, he promised to generate funding for education by trimming budgetary fat and committing portions of state revenue growth to schools.

Mr. Henriksen noted that there were other key factors in determining the result, such as Mr. Hartigan’s relatively poor relations with Chicago’s traditionally Democratic black community.

But Randy J. Barnette, press secretary of the Illinois Education Association, which supported Mr. Edgar, offered a different explanation.

The Republican’s victory, Mr. Barnette argued, shows “you can be honest with people and tell them you intend to put more money in education.”

Mr. Edgar’s victory was bittersweet for the N.E.A., though, for it meant that a Republican governor would be holding veto power when legislative districts are redrawn under the 1990 Census, which appears likely to deprive the state of two U.S. House seats.

Over all, however, the N.E.A. fared well in its goal of making sure that Democratic governors have a key role in redistricting states and thus determining their party’s influence in the House, asserted Mickey Ibarra, political-advocacy manager for the union’s office of governmental relations. (See Education Week, Oct. 10, 1990.)

Republicans handed the governorship over to Democrats Lawton Chiles in Florida, which stands to gain four House seats, and Ann Richards in Texas, which stands to gain three seats.

Although Republicans retained the governorship of the biggest redistricting prize--California, predicted to gain seven seats--Democrats control both houses of the legislature.

Governor Perpich, a former chairman of the E.C.S. who received national attention for his support of Minnesota’s pioneering open-enrollrogram, was among the most prominent election losers with close ties to education.

In addition to Governor Blanchard, their ranks also included Paul R. Hubbert of Alabama, head of the state teachers’ union and the unsuccessful Democratic candidate against the Republican incumbent, Guy Hunt, and John R. Silber, Democrat of Massachusetts. Mr. Silber, on leave from his post as president of Boston University, was defeated by William F. Weld, a Republican, after a series of controversial remarks angered many in the state.

The list of gubernatorial winners with close ties to education included:

Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut, a former U.S. Senator who was regarded as one of the GOP’s leading Congressional supporters of education. He ran as an independent, defeating U.S. Representatives John G. Rowland, a Republican, and Bruce A. Morrison, a Democrat.

Mr. Chiles of Florida, also a former U.S. Senator, who as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee during the 1980’s staunchly defended education programs against budget cuts. Mr. Chiles defeated the one-term Republican incumbent, Gov. Bob Martinez.

Four Governors who were very active last year in the national education summit: Carroll A. Campbell Jr., Republican of South Carolina; Bill Clinton, Democrat of Arkansas; Roy Romer, Democrat of Colorado, who serves as chairman of the National Governors’ Association panel on educational goals; and Terry E. Branstad, Republican of Iowa.

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 1990 edition of Education Week as Pundits Say Results in Governor’s Races Carry Warning on Spending