There is nothing in U.S. politics more powerful than Beltway conventional wisdom. No mountain of facts can put the slightest dent in it. It’s the ocean in which all of Washington swims. Which is why Chris Christie still thinks he can be president—just resurrect his “tough-talking” “truth-telling” persona, and violà! It doesn’t matter how many lies he’s told, so long as the media buys—and sells—his “truth-telling” spin, reframing the facts as just what “critics say.” And if not Chris Christie, then some other GOP governor, because it’s 1999 all over again, and national disgust with Beltway Republicans can only mean one thing: Americans must be clamoring for a GOP governor to be “a uniter, not a divider.”
There’s just one problem with this narrative: The entire current crop of GOP governors is a passel of knaves, scoundrels, extremists and panderers, whose monumental collective failures aren’t even a blip on the D.C. media’s radar screen—though they should be. Because out in the states, their failures are killing people—literally by the thousands when it comes to denying Medicaid expansion (over 13,000 in eight Southern states this year)—and may even contribute to killing the GOP’s chances of a strong showing in Congressional elections come November. Take Georgia, for example. It’s still a safe red state that Romney won by almost 8 percent in 2012, but Democrat Michelle Nunn has a decent shot at winning the Senate seat her father held for decades this November—and that would greatly complicate GOP hopes of retaking the Senate. A fair number of Beltway folks are starting to notice this, but less noticed are the possible spillover effects between Georgia’s Senate and gubernatorial races, as scandal-plagued Nathan Deal is struggling to stay afloat against Democratic challenger Jason Carter, President Carter’s grandson.
What’s Nathan Deal done, exactly? Enough to warrant the No. 1 spot in “The Worst Governors in America,” a 2013 report from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The report explains the list as follows:
Some governors on the list essentially turned their authority and regulatory agendas over to special interests. Others abused their office in return for gifts and campaign contributions. Many appointed donors to key positions and gutted transparency measures. All failed to live up to the public trust.
And yet, as we’ll see, at least six or seven of them have been mentioned as possible GOP candidates for president or vice president—a rather striking sign of just how lacking in credible political talent the GOP now is.
But before taking a closer look at Deal—and others on that list—it pays to consider how corrupt politics are protected by conventional wisdom these days. Back in March, Time’s Michael Grunwald wrote a piece complaining about media-focused “pseudo scandals,” as he called them. And he had a point. Embarrassing failures in political maneuvering may be easy to cover, but ultimately don’t matter much, he argued. “My point was that political scandals rarely get traction, and shouldn’t get traction, without a semi-plausible link to significant public policies,” he explained, in a recent follow-up, where he talked about two brewing potential substantive scandals facing Florida Governor Rick Scott.
Yet, even as Grunwald rightfully criticized the skewed and misleading focus of much political coverage, his own casual mention of Scott’s scandalous past (CEO of a healthcare companyfined a record $1.7 billion for fraudulent Medicare billing) implied a disengaged stance in which scandals only matter to the degree that other politicians make them matter—a stance that is entirely commonplace today, but is deeply at odds with the First Amendment spirit that the press itself is the living conscience of the people. It’s the failure of today’s press to fulfill that historical mission that has led nonprofit groups like CREW to take up the role that far too many in the national media have abandoned—though to be fair, CREW’s own reporting is deeply and openly indebted to a wealth of mostly state and local reporting, covering many of the details, but generally lacking the power to frame overarching perceptions and expectations, which are vital to the health of a vibrant democracy. This is why CREW’s report is an invaluable stepping-off point for any serious consideration of the state of Republican governors today, in the run-up to the 2014 elections.
With that in mind, concerning Deal’s placement, the report explains:
His inclusion stems from: (1) using his gubernatorial campaign to benefit his daughter-in-law [she was paid $40,725.03, despite having have no previous campaign experience]; (2) using his office to benefit a business partner; (3) using his office to benefit a top donor; (4) arranging a taxpayer-funded job for a political foe; and (5) obstructing ethics investigations into his business dealings.
CREW also notes that “Gov. Deal was previously included in CREW’s 2009 Most Corrupt report” when he was a member of Congress:
The report cited the way then-Rep. Deal and his top aide, Chris Riley, blurred the line between Rep. Deal’s private business interests and his official duties, using public resources to attempt to influence other public officials to benefit his private affairs. The pattern continued during his successful 2010 campaign for governor and his term in office.
So, it’s not like Governor Deal’s slimy ways should come as a surprise to anyone. Like his next-door neighbor Florida Governor Rick Scott—he of the $1.7 billion Medicare/Medicaid fraud lawsuit settlement referred to above (which whistleblowers say that he knew all about)—Deal’s loose style and questionable business ethics were blindingly visible before he took office—and the staunchly patriotic, anti-corruption Tea Partiers embraced both of them wildly, along with many others. Indeed, CREW’s report includes 18 governors, of whom 16 are Republicans, 11 of them elected in 2010, one in 2009 and one in 2012, for a total of 13 from the Tea Party wave era. They are, if anything dramatically more corrupt as a group than the governors elected before them.
CREW’s entry on Deal comes with 91 references, news stories, documents and the like. There’s nothing haphazard or arbitrary in what they’re doing. Indeed, since the report came out, the obstruction of the ethics probe has exploded into top-tier status.
During the 2010 gubernatorial election, a series of ethics complaints were filed against then-candidate Deal and his campaign with the State Ethics Commission. The commission’s chief of staff, Executive Secretary Stacey Kalberman and Deputy Executive Secretary Sherilyn Streicker prepared subpoenas for Gov. Deal and other associates in June 2011, at which time the new Chair of the State Ethics Commission, Patrick Millsaps, a Deal appointee, informed Ms. Kalberman her pay would be cut about 30 percent and Ms. Streicker would be dismissed due to budget cuts. Both women filed whistleblower lawsuits, and on April 4, 2014, a jury awarded Kalberman $700,000 in damages, plus attorneys’ fees. After that the state settled with Streicker and two other whistleblowers. With attorneys’ fees, the total came to between $3 million and $4 million.
Meanwhile, the AJC has learned that both the FBI and the state auditor have been given copies of the memo. The auditor and the state Inspector General are each investigating the commission.
In short, it would not be surprising if Deal ended up like the #3 governor on CREW’s list, Robert McDonnell, once touted as a top prospect for being Mitt Romney’s running mate, now former governor of Virginia, standing trial on 14 counts of felony corruption, obstruction and making false statements in federal court. CREW’s list was divided into three tiers—six “ringmasters,” six “clowns” and six “sideshows.” Joining Deal and McDonnell in the top tier are two men who’ve been touted as possible presidential candidates—Texas Governor Rick Perry (despite his laughingstock performance in 2012: “Oh look! His new glasses make him look so policy-wonk serious! Like Jerry Lewis in “The Nutty Professor”!”) and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (If Christie stays dead, Walker wins re-election and nobody else with a pulse shows up)—as well as Maine Governor Paul LePage and Florida Governor Rick Scott.
There’s more to Rick Perry than an “SNL” goldmine presidential campaign, as the intro to CREW’s entry on him explains:
His inclusion stems from: (1) promotion of a political culture rife with cronyism and pay-to-play appointments; (2) the pervasiveness and influence of revolving-door lobbyists in his administration; (3) accepting free trips on the private planes of donors and special interests; (4) abusing his position to benefit his family; (5) simultaneous collection of a state government salary and state retirement pension; (6) financial disclosure reporting violations; (7) repeated flouting of transparency standards and blocking of public disclosure; (8) misuse of state resources for his presidential campaign; (9) advocacy for voter identification restrictions; and (10) killing a measure that would have required politically active nonprofits to disclose their donors. He was included in CREW’s 2010 report on governors.
The list above is a multifaceted picture of what neo-feudalism looks like—an old-fashioned medieval power structure floating on a sea of money, drowning the people who are supposedly sovereign. Is it any wonder a clown prince rules over it all? A few snippets of the CREW report on Perry give the rancid flavor of the whole. It begins like this:
Culture of Cronyism and Pay-to-Play Appointments
Gov. Perry has appointed hundreds of campaign donors to state posts and fundraised aggressively among his appointees. According to Texans for Public Justice, between January 2001 and June 2010, Gov. Perry raised more than $17 million from 921 of his appointees and their spouses. Those contributions made up 21 percent of the $83.2 million Gov. Perry raised during that period.
One part of this system is particularly noteworthy:
The Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF) was designed to lure businesses and jobs to Texas. It has made $487.4 million in state-funded corporate grants since 2003….
In March 2010, the Texas Observer found that since TEF’s inception, 20 of the 55 grant recipients gave money directly to Gov. Perry’s campaign or to the Republican Governors Association (RGA), a group that supports Republican candidates for governor across the country. Gov. Perry was the RGA’s chairman in 2008 and 2011 and its finance chair in 2009 and 2010. Those 20 companies collectively received $174.2 million from TEF and donated $2.2 million to Gov. Perry and the RGA, with several of the donations made close in time to when the companies received grants from TEF.
And of course, there’s the nepotism angle, in the guise of good works, no less!:
Used His Position to Benefit His Family
Gov. Perry’s wife, Anita Perry, worked as a $65,000-a-year contract fundraiser for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA)…. In September 2011, the Austin American-Statesman reported Anita Perry’s salary at TAASA came indirectly from the governor’s donors, state contractors, and companies with business with the state or issues before the legislature. The newspaper found 34 out of TAASA’s 37 major donors during Mrs. Perry’s tenure had ties to the governor or state business.
They say that everything’s big in Texas, and Rick Perry’s chutzpah is certainly no exception.
Another larger pattern Walker replicated was the ongoing, habitual nature of his fast-and-loose political practices. Just as Nathan Deal’s scandals as a congressman continued in his campaign and conduct as governor of Georgia, Walker’s political operation as executive of Milwaukee County and his campaign for governor were the subject of a prolonged “John Doe” [secret grand jury-like] investigation, resulting in convictions for aides and campaign contributors—though not Walker, thanks in part to hefty legal fees (as detailed in CREW’s report). But now there’s a second John Doe investigation, in which, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Prosecutors allege Gov. Scott Walker was at the center of an effort to illegally coordinate fundraising among conservative groups to help his campaign and those of Republican state senators facing recall elections during 2011 and 2012, according to documents unsealed Thursday [June 19].” Walker’s prospective political defense to all this—that he’s totally innocent, but surrounded by crooks—also echoes a broader pattern, exemplified most prominently by Chris Christie.
There are other patterns one could cite as well–voter suppression laws, failed economic promises—Walker is nothing if not a deeply derivative empty suit. But, as Andy Kroll of Mother Jones explained, there’s one more limited pattern—that of unaccountable dark money funds purportedly to promote job growth—that also encompases two nearby upper Midwest GOP governors, Ohio’s John Kasich and Michigan’s Rick Snyder (both in CREW’s third “sideshow” tier) along with Wall Street Democrat New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (also in the “sideshow” tier). As Kroll explained:
Soon after taking office, Walker ditched the state commerce department and replaced it with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a private nonprofit created to help Walker fulfill a key campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs by 2015.
Three years later, the WEDC is a scandal-plagued mess, and Walker is 145,000 jobs short of his goal with a year to go in his first term. The questions dogging the WEDC, whose board Walker chairs, aren’t where its money comes from—it’s almost all taxpayer funds—but how the nonprofit spends it. The WEDC has given out hundreds of millions in loans, tax credits, grants, and other incentives; recipients have in turn donated nearly $400,000 to Walker’s campaign account, according to an analysis by the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now.
Exempt from open records requests relating to financial matters, the WEDC has been criticized by state auditors for failing to keep records on a host of issues—how WEDC selects incentive recipients, how that incentive money is ultimately spent, and whether WEDC grants actually create jobs.
JobsOhio has faced charges of political favoritism and pay-to-play. Its board of directors,hand-picked by Kasich, includes multiple donors to Kasich’s campaigns and employees of Kasich donors. The Ohio Ethics Commission also found that 9 of the 22 JobsOhio officials required to file financial disclosure statements in 2011 and 2012—including six of its nine board members—had potential financial conflicts such as holding financial stakes in companies that had received incentives from JobsOhio.
If you think that what’s happened in Wisconsin and Ohio sounds like a slimmed-down, streamlined version of the way things work in Rick Perry’s Texas, congratulations—you’re absolutely right. And the same is true of Michigan as well, where Governor Rick Snyder has established an anonymously funded nonprofit, the New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify, or NERD, Fund. I won’t go into details about that, because Snyder has much more grievous and unique problems worth focusing on—most notably, the profoundly anti-democratic emergency manager law, which allows the state to replace local elected government with appointed emergency managers who have virtually dictatorial control over the localities under their jurisdiction.
But there is a clear-cut connection between concentrating immense political power in the hands of a wealthy, anonymous few, and depriving large numbers of ordinary citizens of the most basic power to select those who will govern them. There’s also a much more specific connection as well, as Kroll reported:
It’s worth noting that Walker, Kasich and Snyder have all been mentioned as possible GOP presidential candidates in 2014, though their national profiles so far are virtually nonexistent, and their dark money creations alone would be reason enough to disqualify them automatically—if democratic values counted for anything at all in America today. Rather obviously, they do not—at least among our unelected political commentariat. Yet, even with such jaw-dropping media complicity, it’s hard to imagine any of these lackluster characters doing anything but losing in a landslide to Hillary Clinton in 2016, in the likely event of her running.
One GOP governor who’s deservedly deeply in trouble is Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett. CREW placed Corbett in the middle of their middle tier. The report explained his inclusion as follows:
His inclusion stems from: (1) accepting gifts from law firms, lobbyists, and others with business before the state; (2) concealing the awarding of a state contract to a campaign contributor; (3) an investigation into his handling of the Penn State abuse scandal while attorney general; and (4) advocating for new voter identification restrictions.
His unpopularity has multiple sources; some plausibly blame a combination of unpopular stanceson high-profile social and economic issues (privatizing the state lottery, Medicaid expansion, background checks, gay marriage), others point to a combination of style and substance that’s alienated core Democrats and Republicans by turn, and never sold itself convincingly to the broad middle. But there’s also a distinctive combination of budget shenanigans and savagery focused on education that he shares with many other governors, but has taken further than most.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, of course. Obama’s undersized stimulus package lacked sufficient state funding aid (made even smaller by widely praised “centrists” like Maine’s Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe), which guaranteed that state and local government spending would plunge during the Great Recession, the exact opposite of what was needed. So the stage was set for destructive policies everywhere. But some went much more overboard than others. Two other examples similar to Corbett are Sam Brownback of Kansas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. We’ll get to them shortly. But first some details on Corbett and Pennsylvania.
According to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, Pennsylvania’s 2014‐15 budget is “taped together with quick fixes” totalling at least $1.6 billion, including $394 million from a one-month payment delay to managed care providers, $150 million from changes in unclaimed property laws, $100 million in optimistic revenue projections, $75 million in Philadelphia casino licenses, and one-time transfers from oil & gas leases ($95 million), the Tobacco Settlement Fund ($225 million), and various other funds ($247 million).
Education cuts in Corbett’s first two budgets topped $1 billion for K-12 and higher education combined, but an April 2014 PBPC report further highlighted how the pain of those cuts had been concentrated on those who can least afford it:
Philadelphia educates 12% of Pennsylvania’s school students but experienced 35% of statewide school funding cuts.
State education funding cuts have affected all school districts, but targeted those with the poorest students. Philadelphia ranked first with cuts of $1,351 per student, followed by Chester-Upland ($1,194), York City ($1,096) and Southeastern Greene, a rural district ($1,022). Meanwhile some wealthy suburban districts experienced cuts of only $36 to $59 per student. Statewide, three years after close to $1 billion in state reductions to classroom funding, 54% of per student cuts remain.
Within Philadelphia, state funding cuts, and the siphoning off of state school funding to charter schools, have wreaked tangible devastation on schools and children.
Corbett may be headed for near-certain defeat in November, but the same fate could catch up with Kansas Governor Sam Brownback as well. Brownback had promised that his efforts to slash income taxes would “be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy,” but instead it’s blown a hole in the state budget. Even before that, Kansas education spending had been cut so severely under Brownback that in March, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that Brownback’s education funding levels were unconstitutionally low. Then, in July, 100 current and former Kansas Republican officeholders (including three former Senate presidents)endorsed his Democratic opponent, Paul Davis, largely due to alienation from Brownback’s failed ideological extremism and inflexibility. Davis leads Brownback by eight points in the latest SUSA poll.
Brownback was once one of the darkest GOP dark horse presidential hopefuls, and he didn’t even make CREW’s list of worst governors, but Bobby Jindal made the list in the “sideshow” tier, and was once widely touted as a presidential possibility. First elected in 2007 and re-elected in 2011, he’s not on the ballot this year, but his dismal record vividly contrasts with the hype that once surrounded him. Balancing the state’s budget has “been a continuing problem for this governor,” Jan Moller, Director of the Louisiana Budget Project, told Salon. Jindal’s problems had their origins in too much temporary good news, Moller explained:
When he came in in 2008, Louisiana was at the tail end of an artificial economic boom, that everybody knew was artificial, because we were in the post hurricane reconstruction period, we were in a period of unnaturally high oil prices, where an oil and gas state, and as result, the governor came in and inherited a billion-dollar budget surplus. We had more money coming into state government than anybody knew what to do with. And the governor came in vowing to govern as a fiscal conservative.
This wouldn’t have been a problem if only “fiscal conservative” actually meant what it used to mean: someone committed to balancing budgets as their primary economic concern. Now, however, it means the exact opposite: someone committed to tax cuts for the wealthy, regardless of the consequences. In his first year, Jindal “passed the largest income tax cut in Louisiana history, and he didn’t even intend to pass it,” Moller explained. “It was a bill that accidentally got out of committee, that they had opposed in committee, that took on a life of its own, and it became politically impossible for him to oppose it. So we ended up embracing it.”
The timing could not have been worse, Moller noted, “He cut income taxes on the eve of the worst recession in most people’s lifetime, in 80 years. So the bottom fell out of the Louisiana economy in 2009, as with the rest of the country, and then we sort of staggered back to normal.” But even as the economy returned to normal, the budget did not—thanks to those tax cuts. “As a result, they’ve had to rely on increasingly creative ways to satisfy the constitutional requirement of a balanced budget,” Moller continued, “and the capstone of that was in the budget they just passed this past June for the fiscal year that started this month, there is almost $1 billion in one-time money, or money that is not guaranteed to materialize again next year.” Sound familiar? Well, at least a few of the details differ from Pennsylvania’s:
There’s been a variety of gimmicks he has been using, tax amnesty programs, they’ve been selling state property, they have been raiding various trust on, including a trust fund for nursing homes—they had more than $800 million in it a few years ago and it’s on track to be empty by the end of next year—and a half billion dollar balance in the state employee health plan that they slowly have been burning through in order to meet day-to-day operating expenses.
In a perverse way, Jindal really does remain as the poster child for GOP economic policies (although Deal is the poster child for Tea Party-era sleaze), as Moller tells it:
The other equation to this is that the governor made a solemn vow, as a candidate, to never raise taxes. In Louisiana and elsewhere during good times, you raise spending a little bit, and maybe cut taxes, but in bad times, you raise revenue a little bit and you cut spending. But under the new administration, for the past six and half years, the only response is been to cut the budget, and when you don’t want to cut the budget, or you can’t cut the budget anymore, you find these tricks and gimmicks to keep going for another year.
Just to be clear, even the supposedly “moderate,” “pragmatic” former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger followed a virtually identical script, though in his case, repealing the vehicle licensing fee via executive order his first hour on the job took the place of Jindal’s income tax cut. He spent the rest of his time in office using special effects to try to make his budget shortfalls disappear.
Schwarzenegger is long gone from the political scene; he never ran for office in the Tea Party era, but he’s well worth a mention precisely because he clearly shows how much the Tea Party era is actually nothing new in terms of policy—it’s just more of the same old same old at its core, but amped up to 11 in its extremist expression, since that’s the only way left to do distract from the fact that it’s a total and abysmal failure.
GOP policy collapsed in ruin under George W. Bush, and the only way to defend it now is blame-shifting, denial and outright hallucination. Jindal—elected in 2007—is a perfect bridge figure, making the underlying continuity perfectly clear. “He also has refused the expansion of Medicaid, that’s something you obviously have in common with many conservative governors around the country, and the result of course is that more than 250,000 low-income adults don’t have access to health coverage,” Moller added—yet another aspect of how post-Bush ideology has crystallized around being anti-other, with “other” being a catch-all category in which “atheist,” “Muslim,” “fascist,” “socialist,” “RINO,” “Beyoncé voter” and more all merge together in one big towering cloud of Sharknado menace.
As health goes, so goes education. “We have led the country in cumulative cuts to state support for higher education over the past five years,” Moller pointed out. After the oil industry bust of the 1980s, it took 20 years for Louisiana to restore its higher education funding to the Southern regional average, he said, “and just as quickly as we got there we started cutting the budget again.”
There are many more GOP governors I could write about. There’s Florida Governor Rick Scott, who I’ve alluded to in passing. There’s North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for 29 years, received massive financial support from Duke’s PAC and executives, and appointed regulators who reached a sweetheart settlement protecting Duke from citizen lawsuits over coal ash groundwater contamination, which was only withdrawn after a staggering February 2014 spill. There’s the pugnacious Paul LePage of Maine, and South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, a pale shadow of prominent endorser Sarah Palin, who’s never lived up to her national-level hype. LePage is #2 on CREW’s list, Haley, #10. But reading CREW’s summaries of each, one gets the distinct impression that the differences are more a matter of temperament and degree than of substance or kind.
Here’s CREW’s summary on LePage:
His inclusion stems from: (1) the pervasiveness and influence of lobbyists in his administration; (2) personnel problems and retaliation against state employees; (3) improperly bullying state Department of Labor employees; (4) nepotism; (5) reducing government transparency; (6) repeatedly making rude, inappropriate, and offensive comments; and (7) advocating for new voter identification restrictions.
And here’s CREW’s summary on Haley:
Her inclusion stems from: (1) an investigation into her private sector work while a member of the state legislature; (2) pay-to-play appointments; (3) accepting free trips on the private planes of donors, appointees, and people with business before the state; (4) flouting of transparency standards; (5) misuse of federal funds; and (6) advocating for new voter identification restrictions.
Last, but not least, I’ve only just alluded to Chris Christie in passing. He’s nowhere to be found on CREW’s 2013 list—let that sink in for a moment. Returning to Michael Grunwald’s piece about pseudo scandals, one decidedly false note he struck was calling Bridgegate “mostly a nothingburger.” He had a good point to make: “That’s a shame, I guess,” he wrote about Bridgegate, “but Governor Christie himself openly killed a federally financed rail tunnel from New Jersey to New York City, a decision that was just as politically motivated and will cause traffic problems in Fort Lee and beyond for decades. Somehow, though, the actual policies made by policymakers aren’t seen as scandal material.”
That point is inarguably true. Yet, because some in the press took Bridgegate quite seriously, a much more accurate, comprehensive picture of Christie’s politics has emerged on a variety of interrelated fronts, including the way that killing the tunnel feed into a slush fund to help Christie avoid raising taxes, as Steve Kornacki explained in a landmark segment on his Jan. 26 program,
To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, journalists go to war with the scandals they’ve got—not with the ones they wished they had. But if their instincts, their vision and their fighting spirit are true, they will find their way to the true scandals, and we will all be better off for it. That, at least, is the solemn hope and promise on which the press part of the First Amendment was founded. But shaping our politics to reflect the reality of what they uncover—that is a task that is up to all of us. It’s a task the GOP is betting will go undone. Because if they’re wrong, the picture of pervasive failure by the GOP governors will crush their hopes of gaining anything significant this November, and make their outlook for 2016 even more dire than it already is.
Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.