The case against a 2-term governor

by Paul Goldman

[ Editor's note:  Delegate Bob Marshall, Chairman of the Constitutional Amendments/Campaign Reform/Ethics Subcommittee of the Privileges and Elections Committee, has appointed a study group to help advise the General Assembly on the proposed Constitutional Amendment to allow a sitting Governor to seek a second, consecutive elected term.

           Chairman Marshall appointed a four person study group.

          Two of the members are Democratic Chairman Larry Framme and Republican Chairman Gary Thomson to the study committee. Both are members of Virginians for a Two-Term Governor, the recently formed lobbying group of 31 of the state's most powerful business, political and community leaders who are raising money and hiring staff to push the adoption of their proposed amendment.

          The other two members are Pat McSweeney and Paul Goldman. Mr. McSweeney, a former GOP Chairman and widely regarded as the state's leading anti-tax conservative, has written several articles in support of keeping the state's prohibition against a sitting Governor running for a second consecutive elected

         On Sunday, the Washington Post ran my article on the issue, which
I have copied below. The same or similar articles have already appeared, or will shortly appear, in other publications around the state.

         My support for keeping the one-term law - and the political competition and opportunity that result - is based in good measure on my experiences in running Doug Wilder's two campaigns, and my efforts, which go back as far as Henry Howell and Chuck Robb's gubernatorial campaign, and continued as Democratic Party chair, to help breakdown the barriers so that we could elect - as we did - a record number of folks formerly effectively locked out of a fair competition, including
a record number of African-Americans and women to state and federal office.
The Downside of Two-Term Governors

Sunday, January 19, 2003; Page B08

On the surface, the idea -- championed by Virginia's business leaders -- of allowing a governor to serve two consecutive terms seems to be a benign constitutional change. But if enacted, this proposal could cause significant erosion in what little political competition still exists in Virginia.

In the November election, for example, not a single incumbent running for reelection to the U.S. Senate or House from Virginia faced a serious challenge. In the last General Assembly election, the trend toward a lack of competition was exacerbated by the GOP's partisan redistricting, a right recently upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court.

If the state constitution is changed to allow a sitting governor to seek a second consecutive term, competition for the lieutenant governorship and the office of state attorney general also could become less competitive.

The one-term gubernatorial law ensures a competitive race for the state's top spot. For example, in the past five gubernatorial contests, not only was the general election competitive but tough fights for the nomination from one party or the other were the rule too, sometimes between the lieutenant governor and the attorney general. In turn, the open gubernatorial seat invariably meant nomination battles in both major parties for the posts of lieutenant governor and attorney general.

In this same five-cycle period, only two incumbent statewide officeholders -- Attorney General Mary Sue Terry in 1989 and Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. in 1993 -- sought reelection, each time to avoid an intra-party gubernatorial fight with another statewide officeholder.

But assume the state constitution is changed. Unless the incumbent governor is unpopular, the sitting lieutenant governor and attorney general almost always are going to stay where they are and run for reelection. Challenging a governor of your own party is political suicide, even if successful. Challenging a governor from the other party would be risky, especially with the governor's ability to raise money. The smarter political play would be for the lieutenant governor or the attorney general to run for a second term and then go after the governorship when the incumbent couldn't seek reelection.

In the modern history of Virginia politics, three sitting statewide officeholders -- Terry, Beyer and Democratic Attorney General Andrew Miller in 1973 -- sought reelection. None faced opposition for re-nomination. In the general election, Democrats Beyer and Miller both got a second term, even though the gubernatorial candidate of the Republican Party won the election. Terry and Miller faced only token opposition; Beyer faced stiff competition, but his incumbency allowed him to win a close election.

Thus, a sitting lieutenant governor or attorney general, short of a scandal, is an overwhelming favorite for reelection based on the historical record both in Virginia and across the country. Giving up a should-win reelection race in favor of taking on a sitting governor is bad politics, unless the incumbent appears easy to beat.

Accordingly, if the two-term governorship becomes law, Virginians can expect a sharp reduction in the intra- party political competition for the jobs of lieutenant governor and attorney general and greatly reduced general election competition as well, because two incumbents, armed with big bankrolls and high name recognition, are unlikely to face serious challengers. Given the fundraising and other political advantages of a governor seeking reelection, serious challengers also will be scarce.

The business leaders say that the two-term  will give people more choice. But in practice, it might have the opposite effect and further reduce political competition in the Old Dominion.

-- Paul Goldman was chief strategist for the gubernatorial campaign of Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner and is a former chairman of the state Democratic Party.

[Editor's note:  The views expressed by columnists are strictly their own and are not reflective of VNS which has a policy of allowing all philosophies and opinions to be represented.  You may contact them through VNS, if there is no direct email listed.]