The 10 Scariest GOP Governors: Bringing a Radical Right-Wing Agenda To a State Near You
Ranking the worst Republican governors is next to impossible. Since the Tea Party sound and fury swept the Class of 2010 into power in swing states and even true-blue states like New Jersey, it's been more like a horse race between the main contenders. One will propose a law that seems so terrifying it could never make it through the legislature, let alone be topped. Then it passes, and in the blink of an eye another state's trying to outdo it.
These governors all have some things in common. Most of them were elected in 2010 while progressive turnout was depressed and conservative anger, particularly the virulent anti-government type springing from the Tea Party movement, spilled over at the polls. Many of them took over swing states from Democratic administrations. Most of them did not run on promises to take away collective bargaining from workers, slash pensions and health care and outlaw abortion. Instead, they focused on jobs—and, admittedly, their own solution to creating jobs, which is, of course, cutting taxes.
A year or more into their terms, taxes have been cut, the wealthy are doing fine, and working people, particularly immigrants and women, are struggling. The promises of jobs have given way to Shock Doctrine-style cuts, attacks on unions, public services, and voting rights. Since it can be hard to keep up with the moves by different governors around the country, we've compiled a list of the 10 scariest GOP governors and their proposals.
Who knows what target will be next? Will someone attempt to give fetuses voting rights, or perhaps decree that employees should pay employers for the privilege of working?
Lest you think we're unfairly picking on the Republicans, we've thrown in honorable mention for a couple of Democrats in the nation's biggest blue states who seem to have taken a page from our right-wing friends.
But first, how about a few governors you may have missed?
10. Robert Bentley, Alabama. Bentley has been one of the quieter governors among the new class, but his lack of Chris Christie-like bluster has allowed some of Alabama's scarier provisions to sneak by unnoticed. A dermatologist who was accused of using his title “Dr.” on the ballot to sway voters, Bentley is also an evangelical Christian who declared on the day of his inauguration that “anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."
No word if undocumented immigrants who happen to be Christian are his brothers. Alabama passed the nation's most restrictive immigration law just last month, surpassing Arizona's SB 1070 as the worst place in the country to be an undocumented immigrant—or be mistaken for one. The bill, HB 56, was called a “wish list of restrictionist immigration provisions at the state law level,” by Kevin Johnson, dean of the law school at the University of California, Davis.
The bill not only makes it a crime for undocumented immigrants to be in the state, but attempts to criminalize every aspect of their existence. It requires schools to ask students about their immigration status, and bans undocumented students from state universities; it makes it illegal to rent housing to immigrants, and allows police to ask for papers using “reasonable suspicion.” HB56 also makes contracts that undocumented people sign unenforceable—so if employers do break the law and hire immigrant workers, they can treat them as badly as they like without fear of repercussions. And that's just one possibility.
9. Nikki Haley, South Carolina. Nikki Haley, daughter of immigrants, is South Carolina's youngest governor, its first woman, and its first person of color. So we should be proud, right?
Not so much.
Haley defeated the good ol' boys on the campaign trail despite rumors of a sex scandal, mostly by outflanking them to the right. She used her status as the child of immigrants to tout a new, extreme anti-immigration bill, and took to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal to decry a decision by the National Labor Relations Board that Boeing was not able to circumvent its union workers by building new planes in non-union South Carolina. “It's called capitalism,” she wrote.
It's actually called union-busting. Boeing decided to move the assembly line to South Carolina after repeated strikes by the union workers in Washington State, and the NLRB ruled that the statements by company executives made it clear the move was in retaliation for union activity. Which is illegal.
Haley pushed for a picture ID law that would require voters to show ID at the polls before voting. In a state with a long history of disenfranchising people of color, the requirement, which makes it difficult for those without drivers' licenses to vote, brings back unpleasant memories.
Haley made national news before she'd even won her primary, but these days the news close to home isn't so good for her. “I believe she is the most corrupt person to occupy the governor’s mansion since Reconstruction,” John Rainey, a longtime Republican power broker told Corey Hutchins at the Nation. She's been replacing the old boys she promised to sweep out with confidantes and campaign contributors, and the only jobs she's created so far have been for close allies. Yet Sarah Palin-like, she remains popular on the national scale and appears to have far-reaching ambitions.
8. Jan Brewer, Arizona. It's Barack Obama's fault that we have Jan Brewer. Janet Napolitano was governor of Arizona, a popular Democrat in the state that gave us John McCain and Barry Goldwater. When she was tapped to become the new Homeland Security secretary, a border state with boiling-hot tension over immigration was left in the hands of the former Secretary of State, a Republican who went on to sign into law SB 1070, the “Papers Please” law that spawned the copycats in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and other states around the country.
Brewer likes to talk about the violent crime immigrants are responsible for, claiming “beheadings” despite absolutely no evidence, let alone links to immigrants, and blaming them for nearly every crisis her state (and the country) face.
She's also signed a law that aims to prevent unions from using member dues to fund political activity, and just for good measure cut funding for children's health care. She cut more than $72 million from health services, spearheaded a bill to eliminate KidsCare, the state's Medicaid program for children (though that failed, she pushed through an enrollment freeze on the program), and proposed eliminating the Early Childhood Development and Health Board. (Twenty-three percent of Arizona's children live in poverty).
In the interest of fairness, it is worth pointing out that Brewer has vetoed some of the more extreme bills coming out of the Arizona legislature this year. A “birther” bill that would have required candidates for office to submit a “circumcision certificate” or a “baptismal” certificate if the “long form” birth certificate constantly demanded of President Obama was unavailable was too much even for Brewer. And after the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Brewer shot down a bill that would allow guns on “public pathways” close to state schools. State Senator Kyrsten Sinema told the Daily Beast, though, that it's all part of a plan where legislators pass bills to satisfy extremist primary voters, and Brewer, who is not up for re-election, vetoes them.
But LePage's animosity toward labor history extends well beyond art. He recently signed into law a bill that eases child labor laws, lowering restrictions on the hours and days teenagers can work. No word as to what he plans to do about those 8 percent of adult Mainers who are looking for work as well—they want pesky things like health insurance, benefits, full-time hours, and are more likely to know their rights and complain about them than 16-year-olds.
He's been so vitriolic that eight state senators from his own party wrote an op-ed published in three Maine newspapers, asking him to tone it down. "Belittling comments, whether they come from the governor or his opponents, have no place in Maine public life," they wrote.
And while conservatives in Congress take aim at Barack Obama's health care reform, LePage signed into law a rollback of consumer protections against health insurance companies, which can now raise premiums on individuals up to 10 percent a year. Previously, the state had to grant permission to insurance companies before they could hike premiums. Maine progressives are organizing against this move.
LePage is one of many who have also targeted the voting process, aiming to make it more difficult to register to vote and to cast a ballot. First the state eliminated its nearly 40-year-old same-day registration process, a process that was used by 60,000 in 2008 and is credited with being the reason behind Maine's high voter turnout rates. A bill that would have required photo ID to vote did not make it through the legislature. Voter ID laws disproportionately target the elderly, students and poor people who are unlikely to have drivers' licenses; they add one more layer of difficulty between voters and the ballot box. Conveniently, those are all constituencies that usually lean left.
6. Rick Perry, Texas. Oh, Texas. You've given us so much: Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, as well as George W. Bush. And now you have given us Rick “Goodhair” Perry, as Ivins used to call him.
Perry and his hair have been governing Texas since Bush left, and unless he succeeds in seceding from the union or running for president, it looks like he'll be there for a while. So he's had the time to rack up a truly unfair list of achievements, from executing at least one innocent man to hosting Ted Nugent at a concert where Nugent wore a Confederate flag shirt and shouted insults about non-English speakers.
But what has Perry done for us lately? Plenty.
He's signed a voter ID bill, making it harder for elderly Texans, students, and others without drivers' licenses to vote, passed a budget with $15 billion in budget cuts, and a bill requiring women to have sonograms before they can obtain abortions. While a woman can refuse to look at the sonogram, her doctor is required to describe it.
Perry also pushed a bill that would ban so-called immigrant sanctuary cities, putting yet more pressure on Texas' large immigrant population, and a bill that would prohibit “intrusive” airport pat-downs, to curry favor with angry libertarians. Both bills died in the legislature.
Maybe next he'll combine his legislative achievements and require that fetuses have photo ID. If he doesn't hit the national campaign trail, that is.
5. John Kasich, Ohio. Ohio's one of those states that becomes tremendously important to the national political scene come presidential election time. In between elections, it's often forgotten.
But Kasich has done his part to keep Ohio in the news, first by choosing an all-white, mostly-male cabinet (and defending that choice by saying "I don't look at things from the standpoint of any of these sort of metrics that people tend to focus on, race or age, or any of those things"), then killing Ohio's high speed rail project, which would have created jobs and provided faster, greener transportation for Ohioans and those traveling across the state.
The move that drew thousands to protest in the Ohio capitol, though, was SB 5, a bill that eliminates collective bargaining over health care and benefits, bans strikes, and institutes so-called merit pay for the state's public workers. Ohio drew some energy from Wisconsin's labor protests, but has created its own movement to fight back against the law. Just last week, workers marched in a “People's Parade” to deliver their petition to repeal the bill to the Secretary of State; 1.3 million signatures were collected on the petition, more than five times the number required to get the repeal on the ballot in the fall.
Of course, no right-wing governor worth his salt would pass up an opportunity to sign the country's most restrictive anti-abortion bill, right? A bill that would ban all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected just passed the Ohio House and heads to the Senate.
Kasich's approval ratings have been the lowest for a first-term Ohio governor since 1983, dropping to a low of 33 percent, and Democrats are moving for a recall, though it's unlikely to happen while Republicans still control the legislature. Still, an unpopular Republican governor in the state spells good news for Democrats both on the state and national level.
4. Rick Scott, Florida. Rick Scott wins the award for being the least popular governor in the country. A mere 29 percent of Floridians think their governor is doing a good job.
The good news is Scott is so unpopular that even his party is abandoning their support of his agenda. State Senator Dennis Jones said of his state: “This is certainly not the ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ that the public expected. If we added everything up, we’re probably in the negative this session for jobs, not the positive.” The bad news is that Scott might actually be the most extreme governor in the country, and he's not giving up on his agenda just because the legislature dislikes him.
Suzy Khimm at Mother Jones wrote:
In 1997, Rick Scott was implicated in the biggest Medicare fraud case in US history, stepping down as CEO of Columbia/HCA after the hospital giant was fined $1.7 billion and found guilty of swindling the government. As Florida's new governor, Scott is now trying to kill off an anti-fraud database that would track the fraudulent distribution of addictive prescription drugs in Florida, over the protestations of law enforcement officials, Republican state lawmakers, and federal drug policy officials.
And that's just one step. Scott was the founder of Conservatives for Patients' Rights, which was out to torpedo health care reform any way it could, and he rejected first $2.4 billion in federal funds for high-speed rail and then $1 billion to implement health care reform. He's slashed 10 percent from the state's education budget, and couldn't even get his own party to vote for an SB 1070 copycat anti-immigrant bill. And like Rick Perry, he's signed a bill that requires pregnant women to get a sonogram before they can get an abortion.
Like in Ohio, a deeply unpopular GOP governor in Florida could be the key to Barack Obama's reelection. Democratic strategists credit anger at Scott for surprise victories in mayor's races, and hope the anger will still be there in 2012.
3. Rick Snyder, Michigan. Michigan has given us one of the most frightening power grabs in a year of power grabs. Snyder's “emergency manager” legislation gives him the power to appoint a unilateral authority over a city or school district, who can then fire officials, close schools, void union contracts, and otherwise assume near-total control.
In March, the Michigan legislature passed an update to state law that gave “emergency financial managers” expanded powers over cities and school districts facing financial distress. The provision drew protests immediately, with thousands converging on the Capitol on March 16, the day the law was signed. Unions and community organizations recognized the law as a threat, not just in the cities where emergency financial managers were imposed, but around the state, where unions would be pressured to make concessions in order to keep a financial manager from being imposed on them. Since financial managers have the power to wipe away a union contract with a pen stroke, the unions are left with an impossible choice—concede great chunks of hard-won benefits and wages, or risk losing it all.
That would be enough to land Snyder near the top of this list, except of course it's not all. Snyder eliminated the Michigan Business Tax and replaced it with a flat tax of just 6 percent for corporations, which essentially handed them a $1.8 billion tax cut. To pay for that cut, he cut education spending and of course public workers—and then eliminated the exemption that allows senior citizens not to pay taxes on their pension income. Yes, he taxed old people and cut funding from children to lower the corporate income tax rate.
Of course there are anti-choice bills moving in Michigan, as well as anti-immigrant legislation, and swipes at domestic partner benefits for university employees. But the “emergency manager” law is a unique accomplishment for Snyder, one that warrants the recall campaign against him.
2. Chris Christie, New Jersey. Chris Christie seems to have watched a few too many episodes of "The Sopranos." The New Jersey governor relies on bluster and swagger, taking shots at teachers and legislators and engaging in a very public name-calling match with the very same Democratic State Senate president who helped him pass what has been called the worst anti-union bill in the country. He's made himself a YouTube star, prompting cheers from the right and sending chills up the spine of the left, who fear Christie on a national level.
Christie was the advance guard for the class of 2010, knocking out former Governor John Corzine in 2009 amid cheers from the Tea Party and shivers from Democrats, who were sure this guy couldn't possibly win in New Jersey. He could, and he did, and even though 51 percent of voters now say they'd support someone else, the damage has been done. He's pulled money out of renewable energy and cut $820 million from education budgets—a move ruled unconstitutional because it “fell more heavily upon our high risk districts and the children educated within those districts.”
The reason his former buddy Steve Sweeney is so angry with Christie? After cutting a deal with the Democrats for the anti-union law, Christie used his line-item veto to slash programs Democrats had bargained for:
He mowed down a series of Democratic add-ons, including $45 million in tax credits for the working poor, $9 million in health care for the working poor, $8 million for women’s health care, another $8 million in AIDS funding and $9 million in mental-health services. But the governor added $150 million in school aid for the suburbs, including the wealthiest towns in the state. That is enough to restore all the cuts just listed.
No wonder Sweeney called him a “mean old bastard.”
1. Scott Walker, Wisconsin. We really ought to be grateful to Scott Walker. Because of him and the Wisconsin state legislature, dominated by the Fitzgerald brothers, progressives and especially the labor movement were reenergized. The Tea Party became yesterday's news as protesters thronged the capitol in Madison, refusing to leave for days while the Democratic state senators hid out in another state to prevent a vote on Walker's bill, which eliminated collective bargaining for the state's public workers.
Without Walker, public sector unions wouldn't have become a rallying cry for the left, that's for sure. But he picked the wrong fight in a state with a proud history of organized labor—a state that teaches labor history in the public schools.
Still, the bill passed, Walker's still in charge, and he's been taking aim at those who could defeat him. He got his way with a vicious voter ID bill and his budget cuts hit everything from the state university to the public schools to the state's health care program, one of the best in the country. He targeted rural broadband, people with disabilities and reproductive health care, and he's even messing with craft beer. (He really should know better on that one, but it seems there isn't a fight Walker's unwilling to pick.)
Walker's not eligible for recall yet, but the state senators who're supporting him are, and the elections are already moving forward. And like most of the other states on this list, the results in Wisconsin could have a big impact on the race in 2012.
The rightward shift in the country in 2010 didn't just bring us Tea Party-backed governors salivating over a chance to enact their agenda on the bodies of women, union workers, and immigrants. It also brought us some Democrats who seem to be buying into the same pro-corporate, anti-working people policies. So honorable mention here goes to:
1. Andrew Cuomo, New York. I know, I know, he just passed marriage equality, right? Well, he's taking a bit too much credit for that, since the Republican-dominated state legislature wound up bringing up and passing the bill simply because it was actually really popular right now to do so in New York. Meanwhile, Cuomo's refused to keep the popular “millionaire's tax” and cut a third of homeless youth shelter beds instead. Cuomo too has made enemies within organized labor, freezing workers' salaries and calling for cutbacks, mounting a political campaign even after taking office aimed at demonizing labor.
And this is the leading Democrat being discussed as a presidential candidate for 2016?
Research assistance on this piece came from Charles Monaco at the Progressive States Network.