The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

February 5, 2013

Phill Brooks, columnist: Words of caution about second-term governors

By Phill Brooks
Globe Columnist

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Listening to Gov. Jay Nixon’s State of the State address, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Gov. Mel Carnahan shortly after he began his second term as governor.

There have been just five two-term governors in Missouri history. Prior to the election of Warren Hearnes in 1968, Missouri’s Constitution limited governors to a single term, effectively making them lame-duck leaders the day they took office.

For his second term, Jay Nixon presented to lawmakers the broadest agenda he has offered as governor — with proposals to expand Medicaid, lengthen the school year, ease environmental regulation over business and expand mental health care services. He even threatened to go to the voters if lawmakers refused his demands for campaign contribution limits.

It was a sweeping legislative package for a governor who had been relatively constrained in legislative proposals during his first term.

I was reminded of my conversation with Carnahan because he spoke about the dangers of being too aggressive in a second term, citing what he saw happen to Hearnes.

In his first term, Hearnes had pushed through one of the most sweeping agendas in the state’s history. He dramatically expanded the state’s higher education system, brought mental health care into the 20th century and oversaw construction of the state’s four-lane highway system.

Re-elected in 1968, Hearnes sought to continue that progressive and aggressive approach. He got a major income tax increase passed, but the Senate’s president pro tem, Earl Blackwell, promptly launched a referendum campaign that led to voters turning it down.

That did not stop Hearnes. He called the legislators back into a special session to pass it again. Lawmakers had no real choice. The budgets Hearnes had pushed through the legislature to finance his programs had left the state broke.

Lawmakers passed his tax increase, nearly identical to what the voters had rejected. But they were not pleased at what they were forced to do. It left deep bitterness among some lawmakers about Hearnes, particularly in the Senate, which had to oust Blackwell as its leader in order to pass the tax hike.

Never again would Hearnes enjoy the legislative popularity and success he had in his first term. I vividly recall the nasty attacks legislators launched against Hearnes in his final years as governor.

Blackwell’s successor, Pat Patterson, struck me as a laid-back and friendly rural lawmaker. But when he talked about Hearnes, he spoke in caustic terms that I’ve rarely heard from legislators discussing state leaders. Since then, I have never heard the level of anger and almost hate expressed against a governor by members of his own party.

Like Hearnes, Kit Bond pursued an extremely activist agenda in government ethics and consumer protection for his first term.

But unlike Hearnes, Bond slowed down considerably in his second term. It was as if he were trying to mend fences with legislators whose toes he had stepped on while pushing through his first-term agenda. In his second term, rather than dictating, demanding or threatening, Bond cajoled legislators.

He parlayed his first-term accomplishments and second-term peaceful legislative relations into a landslide election to the U.S. Senate.

Hearnes, on the other hand, never again won elective office. Within four years after leaving the governor’s office, he was defeated in his party’s primary for the U.S. Senate and later lost a race for state auditor.

I’ve wondered over the years if there was a connection between how those two men handled their second terms and their subsequent political history.

Political leadership is not a sport for the kind or gentle. Passage of major policy initiatives like those accomplished by Hearnes and Bond requires pressure at levels that bruise legislative egos and can provoke angry public attack.

Maybe political success requires a few years of peaceful relations from a second term in office so that the angry attacks on a governor fade in the minds of the voters.

However, Bond’s immediate successor, John Ashcroft, proved my theory wrong.

In his second term, which began in 1989, Ashcroft pushed a pretty aggressive agenda. Like Nixon this year, he called for a longer school year. He got passed a requirement for welfare recipients to work. He got a tax increase put on the ballot for higher education, although it was defeated by the voters.

Two years after leaving the governor’s chair, Ashcroft won an easy victory to the U.S. Senate.

As for Mel Carnahan, I was reminded by the Columbia Tribune’s Statehouse reporter, Rudi Keller, that Carnahan did not follow his own advice.

Instead, in his second term, Carnahan pushed through the last major Medicaid expansion with a program to cover children of the middle income under the health care program. It led to some heated legislative attacks.

Carnahan’s death during his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2004 leaves open the question of whether an aggressive second term on controversial issues is a disabling political liability.

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri Statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the Statehouse press corps. He is the Statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since Warren Hearnes.