Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Democratic Governors Excited for Partnership With Obama

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Democratic governors offered nearly universal praise for President-elect Barack Obama after their meeting last week. The feeling must be mutual as Obama continues to tap the gubernatorial ranks to fill out his Cabinet.

“I saw them taking notes,” Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) said about Obama and Vice president-elect Joseph Biden’s level of sincerity and engagement in the bipartisan meeting with the nation’s governors. Obama and Biden gave some brief remarks and then opened the floor for questions.

The meeting took place in conjunction with the National Governors Association gathering in Philadelphia. And although the bulk of the conversation took place behind closed doors, subsequent interviews with Democratic governors revealed a high level of excitement about the next administration.

“There were no real secrets in the room,” New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) said. According to governors in the meeting, the conversation with Obama included talks about an upcoming stimulus package, infrastructure, energy and Medicaid, as well as an overall discussion about how the federal government can partner with the states.

According to Schweitzer, the incoming chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, the discussion about Medicaid was particularly important. As the economy suffers and people lose their jobs, they are added to the state’s Medicaid rolls, at the same time when tax revenues are diminishing. Because governors can’t run up budget deficits in their states, there was talk of countercyclical payments to the states.

“He gets it,” said newly re-elected Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D). “He gets what the states are facing.”

Democratic governors were encouraged by the meeting because of the stark contrast to their relationship with the Bush administration.

“We need a partner ... someone who would listen,” said Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D), who described the meeting as a “wholesale success.”

While the Democratic governors were obviously excited to have the ear of the new president-elect, they were impressed with the way Obama asked for and handled input from the GOP governors as well.

According to participants in the room, there was a “powerful” exchange between Obama and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), who expressed significant concern that another stimulus package would potentially increase the size of the federal debt.

“We don’t want a provider, we want a partner,” said West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D), the outgoing chairman of the DGA. Other governors expressed similar sentiments, saying they weren’t looking for a block grant or a blank check, but instead the ability to shape the infrastructure into specific projects that work in their states.

Beyond the NGA meeting, Obama has looked to governors for more than advice. He will appoint Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) to head Homeland Security and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) to head the Commerce Department.

There is a downside for the DGA. Because Arizona does not have a lieutenant governor, the secretary of state ascends to the governorship, and she happens to be a Republican. The GOP pickup wipes out the DGA’s gain of a governorship from the Nov. 4 election and would return the Democrats to 28 governorships nationwide.

In New Mexico, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (D) will move up, assuming Richardson is confirmed.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) appears to still be in the mix for a Cabinet post. She is term-limited in 2010 and can’t seek re-election, but she is considered a top potential candidate for a U.S. Senate seat expected to be vacated by Sam Brownback (R). In a recent interview, Sebelius simply said the future was “a little uncertain.” Lt. Gov Mark Parkinson (D), former chairman of the state Republican Party, is waiting in the wings if Sebelius joins the Cabinet.

Sebelius and Napolitano sat next to each other on a train to Washington, D.C., after the Obama meeting in Philadelphia. They were two of 16 governors who hopped aboard a DGA-chartered rail car for a field trip to the group’s annual meeting in Washington.

[Update: According to the Lawrence Journal on Sunday, Sebelius has taken herself out of consideration.]

This story first appeared on RollCall.com on 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.