Running on Hope

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A few days before Christmas, Gov. Ann W. Richards of Texas stood on the front porch of the modest white house outside Waco where she was born to announce that she would run for re-election.

Surrounded by her family and facing a crowd of several hundred supporters, the Governor called attention to the 7-year-old girl who now lives in the old suburban clapboard home.

Richards exalted a state "where you can start out on the front porch in Lakeview and end up on the front porch of the Governor's mansion.''

"Our challenge today,'' she added, "is to insure that the little girl who lives here now will have the same opportunity to go wherever her ability and her determination will take her.''

The upbeat, hopeful rhetoric was kindling for a fire that Richards and other governors who were swept into office in the 1990 elections will stoke in the months ahead, trying to soothe voters with the balm of progress and the promise of better things to come.

For as they face re-election, many of these first-term chief executives find themselves navigating the final year of what has been an uphill battle against a treacherous economy and complex political challenges.

Where they can't find kernels of accomplishment, Governors like Lawton Chiles of Florida, Jim Edgar of Illinois, John Engler of Michigan, Zell Miller of Georgia, Barbara Roberts of Oregon, George V. Voinovich of Ohio, and Pete Wilson of California will point to their stewardship through tough times and, like Richards, the sense that things in the next four years will get better because they can't get any worse.

In her formal re-election announcement, Richards made a single campaign promise: a pay raise for teachers, "come hell or high water,'' in 1995. It was a repeat of a pledge that helped her win a close-fought, come-from-behind victory in 1990. But, ultimately, it was a pledge that couldn't be kept.

"These have been difficult times for the state of Texas,'' says John O'Sullivan, the secretary-treasurer of the Texas Federation of Teachers. "It's been a disappointment. She promised to go to bat for a 5 percent across-the-board raise and she struck out.''

"In hard times, when people don't know the facts,'' Pete Wilson explained last year when his approval rating among the public was reported to be about 15 percent, "they understandably are unhappy with their economic distress, and there's a natural tendency to think that whoever is at the top is responsible.''

Mandates for Change

For many of these governors, the challenges of 1994 will be to salvage a positive record from three years in which much of their energies went to managing unexpectedly brutal budget shortfalls and to weave together a platform that projects them as state government's leading voice rather than its leading victim.

The scene is a far cry from election night 1990, when a series of close races launched the message of voter discontent and the mandate for change that carried through the 1992 Presidential race.

Perhaps the clearest beneficiary of that popular upheaval was Lawton Chiles, who swept into office in Florida in a landslide. A popular figure who had resigned from the U.S. Senate complaining of the legislative gridlock and lack of statesmanship in Congress, Chiles ran as a reluctant politician who disdained high-priced campaigns and, as in his Senate races, wanted closer contact with his constituents.

After an easy win, talk of a "new Florida'' reflected the high expectations of his supporters.

"Their optimism and excitement, fed by Chiles's unconventional campaign and stunning success, have already fueled comparisons with the Camelot days of the 1960's, when John Kennedy's Presidency inspired a national wave of voter revitalization,'' one Florida newspaper reported.

In the days following her victory in Texas, Richards declared, "The voters were ready for a governor who was going to be aggressive, who really was going to be a working governor, and who was going to address some issues that have gone unaddressed.''

"The voters in this state wanted change,'' asserted Engler of Michigan, a longtime Republican state legislator. "They wanted a better return on their taxes ... they want investment in education.''

But voters' desire for change was quickly met head on by reality.

A shrinking economy turned the 1991 legislative sessions into painful exercises in budget balancing. In California, the 1991 session involved financing a record $14 billion deficit with $7 billion in spending cuts and $7 billion in new taxes.

In the months after the 1990 election, Michigan and Florida each cut more than $700 million in spending.

"I don't know that anyone truly understood the depths of the recession,'' says R. Craig Wood, the chairman of the department of educational leadership at the University of Florida. "Governor Chiles inherited a bigger mess than everybody thought he was going to. He has tried to deal with a lot of issues, but he's been overwhelmed. You can only spread yourself so far.''

Holding the Line

Shortly after moving into the Governor's mansion in Atlanta, Zell Miller would tell the story of how he spent part of the 1970's and all of the 1980's as Georgia's Lieutenant Governor, watching spending rise and all the while considering what he might do if he were to become Governor. The 1990's reality, he said, was amusing only in its bitter irony.

To hear analysts tell it, Georgia has done well in the recent economic climate. Indeed, as many other states were cutting programs and personnel, Miller was freezing teacher salaries but managing to hold funding steady.

"This has not been a time when governors could expand programs, because money didn't roll in as it had,'' says Steven Gold, the director of the Center for the Study of the States at the State University of New York at Albany. "And all of them have had to deal with situations where it is very hard to raise taxes.''

California's Governor Wilson may be the chief executive hardest hit since that promising night in 1990. In addition to the record budget deficits, California has suffered a serious drought, earthquakes, civil unrest, and unemployment in recent years, leaving Wilson little option but to deliver the message that, under his leadership, the state has done a good job of weathering these storms.

"Pete Wilson would look immensely better if he had been able to push his agenda of concentrating on preventive services,'' Gold notes.

Economic Pressures

In Oregon and Ohio, observers say the handling of economic pressure is likely to play a prominent role in the re-election fortunes of Barbara Roberts, who faces a tough battle in Oregon's Democratic primary, and George Voinovich, the former Cleveland Mayor who is a big favorite for a second term.

Governor Roberts "has been extremely sincere in what she has tried to do, but she has misplayed the hand fate dealt her very badly,'' comments William Lunch, a political analyst who teaches at Oregon State University.

While Oregon was among the states that suffered least in the recession, a property-tax-limitation law known as Ballot Measure 5, approved in the 1990 election, has strained state budgeting by significantly reducing local school funding. The Governor's efforts to build support for another funding mechanism have fallen flat, officials say.

"Her naivete has been very unfortunate,'' Lunch says.

Roberts's clout in the legislature has diminished, and, within the education community, most people look to Superintendent of Public Instruction Norma Paulus, a Republican, as a stronger advocate than the Democratic Governor, says Bruce Adams, the president of the Oregon Education Association.

In Ohio, meanwhile, Governor Voinovich certainly did not not wish for a recession, but he's made the best of it.

"He probably would have liked to move ahead with his vision for education,'' notes Karyn Kandisky, a spokeswoman for Voinovich's re-election campaign. "But he inherited a pretty sizable budget shortage and was forced immediately to turn his attention to management.''

Voinovich is among the few state leaders who have been able to successfully make the forced budget-cutting play into their agenda.

"We've restrained the spending spiral of the 80's, cutting it back 25 percent, and saving taxpayers nearly $4 billion in the process,'' the Governor said in his State of the State Address earlier this month. "Over all, the growth of Ohio's budget increased at its lowest rate in a quarter century.''

The Governor repeated a line from his first speech before lawmakers: "Gone are the days when public officials are measured by how much they spend on a problem. The new realities dictate that public officials are now judged on whether they can work harder and smarter, and do more with less.''

"Voinovich ran on the slogan of being an 'education governor' and meant it, but you probably wouldn't find anything that would look to people outside of Ohio like sweeping reform,'' says John Brandt, a lobbyist for the Ohio School Boards Association. "He has protected the schools, and he wants to do the right thing.''

"The obstacles are knowing what the right things are and finding a way to pay for them,'' Brandt adds. "I think all politicians are groping for those kinds of things right now--they want to have something to fasten on to.''

Pushing New Programs

During Voinovich's term, his chief education accomplishments have been protecting state school aid from budget cuts, finding new money to earmark for less-affluent school districts, and winning legislative approval for an outcomes-based-education law that sets performance measures for schools and districts.

Yet, Voinovich, like other governors gearing up for re-election, is also embracing new policies and programs that may be more likely to catch voters' attention. The Governor has proposed a $95 million education-technology program that he says will equip every Ohio classroom with computers and interactive technology within five years.

In California, Governor Wilson has called in the Education Commission of the States to help draft a comprehensive, bipartisan school-reform program; after briefly flirting with the idea of vouchers, Governor Richards has said she will support only public school choice in Texas and continue to push for the teacher raise; and Governor Miller, when he changed his mind about serving only a single term, cited unfinished business in making certain that lottery proceeds will benefit Georgia schools.

"There's a lot more to do to make sure that the lottery money stays out of the hands of politicians and goes to the classroom like I promised,'' said Miller, who pledged to establish the lottery in 1990.

Still, observers note, a lean budget has given Miller little beyond the lottery to cling to, and he, too, enters the campaign facing an uphill fight. When he announced his bid last summer, about 40 percent of Georgia voters in one poll did not approve of the Governor's performance. Public opinion was strongly tied to one of Georgia's biggest political issues--Miller's position that the Confederate battle emblem should be removed from the state flag.

Last month, in an announcement his opponents described as "pure politics,'' Miller proposed a $100 million tax cut targeted at families with children and at retirees. The Governor flew around the state to proclaim that the economy had started to turna-round enough that he would also push for a raise for teachers and state employees this year.

"I am here today to tell you that the hard work and the sacrifice of the people of Georgia and the public servants of Georgia has paid off,'' he said at one stop.

Separate from the question of whether politicians will be able to convince voters that the dark clouds of their first terms are lifting just in time to allow them four more years, most analysts predict that economic growth is likely to be slow throughout the rest of the decade.

No 'Education Governors'?

The changed times will also make it more difficult for executives in the 1990's to claim the mantle of "education governor.''

Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Richard W. Riley of South Carolina, James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, and others who claimed that title in the 1980's probably would not have deserved that distinction based on the work in their first terms, observers note.

But beyond the economy, analysts say, there is plenty more working against anyone elected these days.

"The 1980's, when education was the focus of governors, was a time when state spending was increasing fairly substantially, and it was a time for new directions and new standards--a vision,'' says Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "That's good political stuff, but now what people are looking for is to get the job done.''

"Come out with another plan, and nobody would pay attention,'' Ambach says. "People want to see something in action. That is much harder work.''

Still, if the governors elected in 1990 are re-elected, observers see some natural roles for them that would grow out of the difficulties of their first terms that could make them national leaders.

After being dominated by a school-finance-equity suit during her first term, Richards could move to the forefront in implementing and supplementing the funding-equalization process in Texas; Edgar, who has expressed an interest in combining school and health services, could make progress in that effort in a second term free of the "no new taxes'' pledge that forced him to oppose school-funding measures that school leaders in Illinois deemed crucial.

Observers could foresee Engler becoming more involved in education issues after Michigan's concentrated work on a school-finance and education-reform package last year, Wilson moving beyond California's beleaguered economy to respond to the voucher issue, or Chiles expanding his push for greater local management and control of schools in Florida. Or they could strike out in new directions.

"If we had accomplished all that we want to accomplish for the people of our great state, we would not be here,'' Governor Edgar of Illinois said in announcing his re-election. "I have seen this state and met its people as only a governor can. Our problems are great. But I can tell you this: Our potential is greater.''

Vol. 13, Issue 18

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