The Unique Role of American State Governors
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To many, the position of state governor is a faint echo of the president of the United States. The president is in charge of a vast empire stretching coast to coast with global implications while governors are seen as mere presiders, not much more than little men running little fiefdoms perpetuating their own schemes for self-interest and self-aggrandizement.
That view, of course, is blatantly false. The position of governor in the American political system far predates the concept of a president, though the role of the American president is a noble position of service as first exemplified by George Washington who refused a crown to rule as king and instead chose to serve through a presidency. Governors in the American colonies maintained relations with overseas powers and oversaw the vast expansion of the American state. Governors oversaw massive political changes as state constitutional systems were created. Governors laid the foundation for the modern American state through their vision, leadership, and administration.
And if the concept of governor is broadened even more to recognize them as presiding officers in the vast array of North American political systems, it is clear that these governors have led the way for centuries. Governors governed by Spanish, French or Mexican rule, that are now part of the United States, reach back to the 1500s before most of the northeastern states were even organized as colonies. This is not to mention the presiding governors of ancient tribes and native peoples in Hawaii, Alaska and all across the American continent. By this, it is also clear that the American constitutional role of the president established by the Constitution of 1789 is a latecomer to the game of governing in America.
Given this rich and varied background, present day state governors are as diverse as their history. At present, 27 of the 50 governors are Republican and 23 are Democrat or Independent. Thirty states have elected women as governors at sometime in their history, while 20 states including progressive states such as California, Colorado, New York and Wisconsin have never elected a woman governor.
Current governors self-identify their religious beliefs along a wide line of religious beliefs: 18 as Roman Catholic, five as Presbyterian, four as Christian, four as Baptist, three as Jewish, two as Congregationalist, two as Evangelical, and one each as Buddhist, Quaker, Lutheran, Protestant, Methodist, Mormon, and Episcopalian. Five do not list any religious affiliation – a diverse lot.
States have been governed by a wide number of ethnic-minorities as well. Ten have been governed by Mexican Americans, five by African Americans, two by Indian Americans, two by Salvadoran Americans, and one each by a Spanish American, Native Hawaiian, Chinese American, Filipino American, Japanese American, Okinawan American, and Native American governor from the Cherokee Nation.
The average age of American governors at their first inauguration is just over 56 years. Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama was the oldest serving governor upon her inauguration at 72 and Ron DeSantis of Florida is currently the youngest at 40. By contrast, the American president has been exclusively male and white with one exception, generally educated in the northeast, and mostly Protestant.
Current American governors have come to their offices by many different pathways immediately prior to their election. Eleven were lieutenant governors, eight were United States Congressmen, five were state attorney generals, four were state senators, three were state representatives, three were state treasurers, two were secretaries of state, one was a county official, one was a United States ambassador, and four were assorted executive branch officials at the state level. Seven governors currently serving had no experience as elected officials prior to their election.
And finally, the position of state governor has served as a launch pad for future presidents of the United States more than the U.S. House or Senate or any federal executive branch office. Governors are elected president more than any other elected official. Nine governors were elected directly from the statehouse to the White House while only six U.S. Senators and only three U.S. Representatives were elected directly from their respective offices. Seventeen presidents were previously elected as either state governors or territorial governors. And a total of five presidents were elected with no prior elective office experience.
Bottom line is the position of governor in the American political system is unique and powerful. Whereas the national political system creates uniformity and demands conformity, American states present diversity both in the breadth of the institutional constructs creating the office of governor, and through a variety of political, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Further, innovation, economic development, educational expansion, and the extension of constitutional guarantees are at the helm of the role in which governors serve by leading the way in our American states.
Greg Davidson is the Executive Clerk to the Governor and director of the Constituent Communication Division of the Office of the Governor in Texas. Over the past 30 years, Greg has worked for Texas Governors Clements, Bush, Perry, and Abbott. Greg holds a Master of Arts in government and a BBA in Marketing from the University of Texas at Austin. He also holds a Master of Divinity degree from the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and currently serves as the Stated Clerk for the South Texas Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. Greg was elected to serve as a presidential elector in the United States Electoral College and has been involved in presidential, gubernatorial, congressional, state, and local campaigns since 1976. He resides in Austin, Texas with his wife Donna Garcia Davidson who is an attorney in private practice concentrating in the area of campaign finance and election law. They have one daughter, a senior at Regents School of Austin, who intends to go to college, study engineering or law, and play competitive golf.
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A great thought provoking essay. I think the author presents compelling information that validates his opening statement that, “governors are seen as mere presiders, not much more than little men running little fiefdoms perpetuating their own schemes for self-interest and self-aggrandizement. … is blatantly false.” I agree with the author
But the information also undermines somewhat the sentiment, as I perceive it, that Governor-ships are THE preeminent, foundational institution upon which United States political system rests. Offices held by Presidents:
Vice President: 14
Cabinet Secretaries: 8
Federal Appointees: 2
US Legislature: 34 comprised of Senate (15), HoReps (19)
State Legislature: (21)
State Governor (22)
Second, I agree the Governors during the pre-revolutionary days where incredibly powerful offices that were models for the Presidency. Today’s Governor-ships do not carry the same weight as those Governor-ships – particularly on the International and Inter-State whose relationships where managed wholly by Governors on behalf of the King.
Regardless, the essay gave me a greater appreciation of Governors and their important role in our political system and our lives. Thank you.