Looking to governors, Bush makes waves in the states

As President-elect Bush chooses governors to fill out his administration, he creates a ripple effect of political opportunity and jeopardy in the states.

New Jersey will likely spend 2001 under an acting governor, with Christie Whitman nominated Friday to head the Environmental Protection Agency. The nation's longest-serving governor, Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson, also may be in line for a Cabinet spot. Oklahoma and Alaska could see their governors tapped, too.

''When one person shifts chairs, then everyone shifts chairs,'' said Deby Snodgrass. An Oklahoma political consultant, she sees politicians already maneuvering for state seats that would come open, domino-like, if Gov. Frank Keating joined Bush - though nothing has yet been announced.

In New Jersey, Senate President Donald DiFrancesco - a Republican already planning a gubernatorial run next year - winds up in the unusual situation of serving as acting governor while remaining the Senate leader.

States with lieutenant governors - New Jersey has none - promote them when the top spot becomes open, such as:

-Wisconsin: Republican Thompson appears in line to run the Department of Health and Human Services (though he has said he would prefer Transportation). That would make GOP Lt. Gov. Scott McCallum the governor.

-Oklahoma: Republican Keating is mentioned for possible administration spots. That would move Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, to the top spot.

-Alaska: Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles is considered a possibility for the Department of Energy. Lt. Governor Fran Ulmer, a Democrat, would be appointed.

Montana Gov. Mark Racicot and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge have said they don't want administration jobs. Bush also supports Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore to head the Republican National Committee, a job that would let him complete his term as governor.

Though the final lineup remains to be seen, Bush's interest illustrates the unique role governors are playing this year. In 1993, Clinton tapped two former governors - Arizona's Bruce Babbitt for Interior and South Carolina's Richard Riley for Education.

''It's kind of logical that Bush would look to this group of governors who he's worked with and been in office with since 1994,'' said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.

Also, Bush is less likely to turn to Congress, at least for members of his own party. Not with the Senate to be split 50-50 and the House narrowly in GOP control, 221-211, with two independents and one vacancy.

In Oklahoma, Keating's possible nomination to head the Department of Justice was quashed Friday when Bush named defeated Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft to be attorney general.

None of that stopped the political gyrations. With talk of Fallin moving up if Keating joins the administration, the state's labor commissioner, Brenda Reneau Wynn, said she will run for lieutenant governor in the next election. Then several candidates announced they would run or consider running for her spot.

''It's amazing,'' said Snodgrass, a partner in a prominent GOP consulting firm.

Most see a powerful advantage for those who get appointed to the governor's office, even if they only get to serve for a year or two. Lieutenant governors are often little-noticed and powerless.

Not all are convinced of the advantage, however.

''The history of appointed people getting and winning on their own is very mixed, not just in New Jersey but nationwide,'' said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. ''It's always assumed they'll win, but often they lose.''

In Wisconsin, Democrats say they're looking forward to working with McCallum. But they also see an opportunity after a string of dominating victories by Thompson.

''It'll be a sea change here,'' said Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, who soundly lost a challenge to Thompson in 1994. ''Obviously, when you have a person whose served 14 years in the top spot and you make a change ... ''

And for governors, many of whom are up against term limits, the administration offers a new political challenge.

''These are important career decisions,'' Madonna said, ''for the governors themselves, as they look for a viable political future.''

Whitman couldn't run for governor next year; Keating and Knowles are barred from another term in 2002; Thompson could run but has not said he would seek a fifth term.


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