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Factbox: Governorships Up For Grabs In 12 States

(Reuters) – Republicans and Democrats will battle in a dozen U.S. states that will hold elections for governor on Tuesday, and many of the races could be close calls.

NORTH CAROLINA

Drawing national attention because of a debate over transgender rights, Republican Governor Pat McCrory is seeking a second term against Roy Cooper, a Democrat who has been the state’s attorney general since 2001. Polls show Cooper with a modest lead in a state that also has competitive races for president and the U.S. Senate.

MISSOURI

In one of the year’s closest gubernatorial races, polls put Republican former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens in a dead heat with Democrat Chris Koster, the state’s attorney general. They are bidding to succeed Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat who has served the maximum two terms in office.

INDIANA

Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who initially sought re-election, withdrew from the gubernatorial race in July to campaign as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s running mate. Lieutenant Governor Eric Holcomb, a Republican, stepped in for Pence and will compete against Democrat John Gregg, a former state lawmaker. Gregg narrowly leads Holcomb, according to polls.

WEST VIRGINIA

Democratic businessman Jim Justice leads Republican state Senate President Bill Cole in polls, though data is sparse. Democratic Governor Earl Ray Tomblin was barred by term limits from running again.

MONTANA

Democratic Governor Steve Bullock is battling Republican tech entrepreneur Greg Gianforte to keep his seat. A poll conducted last month by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research put Bullock ahead of Gianforte 47 percent to 45 percent.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Democrat Colin Van Ostern has a modest lead over Republican Chris Sununu in recent polls. Both are members of the state’s Executive Council, which helps to administer state government, and are seeking to succeed Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, who is running for the U.S. Senate. The term is two years.

VERMONT

Republican Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott and Democrat Sue Minter, a former state transportation secretary, are vying to succeed retiring Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat. One poll last month gave Scott a seven-point lead, while another showed a dead heat. The term is two years.

OREGON

Democratic Governor Kate Brown is favored against Republican Bud Pierce, an oncologist. Brown was sworn in last year after her predecessor, John Kitzhaber, resigned in scandal. The election is for the final two years of Kitzhaber’s term.

UTAH

Polls put incumbent Governor Gary Herbert, a Republican, at an advantage over Democrat Mike Weinholtz, a healthcare executive, in Utah. Herbert, who took office in 2009 after his predecessor, Jon Huntsman, resigned, is seeking a second full term.

WASHINGTON

Democratic Governor Jay Inslee is widely favored in the polls to win a second term against Republican Bill Bryant, a businessman and former commissioner of the Port of Seattle.

NORTH DAKOTA

Republican Doug Burgum, a former Microsoft Corp executive, is expected to defeat Democratic State Representative Marvin Nelson in the solid Republican state of North Dakota. Governor Jack Dalrymple, a Republican who was eligible to run for re-election in 2016, declined to seek another term.

DELAWARE

Democrat John Carney, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, had a wide lead in a University of Delware poll last month against Republican Colin Bonini, a state senator. Democratic Governor Jack Markell is prohibited by term limits from running for re-election to the position he has held since 2009.

(Reporting by David Ingram and Laila Kearney; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

IMAGE: North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory speaks after viewing the damage caused in a firebomb attack on local offices of the North Carolina Republican Party in Hillsborough, North Carolina, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Keane

Christie Casts Generous Light On Fiscal Record

By Maddie Hanna, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

TRENTON, N.J. — In his appeals to a national audience, Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) is promoting a record of fiscal accomplishment in New Jersey: cutting spending, shrinking the state payroll, and bucking Democratic demands to raise taxes after years of excess in Trenton.

“If we did it in New Jersey…for God’s sake we can do it in the United States of America,” he recently told a crowd at a Republican dinner in New Hampshire, after describing $2.5 billion in cuts to spending and an 8,000-person reduction in the state government workforce.

Generally unmentioned in Christie’s pitch — which the governor recently has been making everywhere, from town-hall-style meetings in New Jersey to speeches in Washington — are numbers that cast a less favorable light on his record.

That includes a total of eight downgrades of New Jersey debt by the three credit-rating agencies during his tenure as the state has confronted successive revenue shortfalls _ the product of his administration’s overly rosy projections and a lagging economic recovery.

Christie speaks of 150,000 private-sector jobs created on his watch, but in job growth, New Jersey has trailed much of the nation.

He touts a reduction in the use of one-time fixes to plug budget holes, though he filled last year’s gap by cutting more than $2.4 billion in scheduled pension payments, backtracking on the terms of a law he signed in 2011 that was intended to stabilize the long-underfunded system.

He has also delayed property tax rebates, which help ease the burden for many homeowners in a state with some of the highest property taxes in the nation.

The governor has also not achieved a transportation plan he announced in 2011 that called for increasingly paying for road and bridge projects with cash rather than borrowing.

All state appropriations to the Transportation Trust Fund now go toward debt service, and the fund will hit its statutory borrowing limit in the fiscal year beginning July first.

Christie recently said the trust fund’s outlook was “not a crisis.”

The challenges complicate Christie’s presidential chances in a race expected to feature rival governors who also have home-state accomplishments to trumpet.

“He knows that once this primary comes up, his opponents will surely call his record into question,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. “And we know that will be particularly true with regard to the governor’s handling of the state’s economy and the state’s budget.”

“Every candidate running for president has tried to put the best light on what they’ve done,” said former Republican Governor Thomas H. Kean Sr. “That’s not unusual.”

Since his budget address last month, Christie has pushed for more pension and benefits changes — which he has described as “the last big fiscal problem to solve in New Jersey.”

His summary of his economic record features a dire picture of what he faced when he took office in January 2010.

“I inherited a government that by the second pay period, March 2010, was not going to be able to meet payroll,” Christie said at the New Hampshire dinner. “Imagine that.”

At the time, New Jersey “was facing a very, very severe fiscal problem,” said Joseph Seneca, an economics professor at Rutgers University and former chairman of the New Jersey Council of Economic Advisers. Before the recession, the state had been raising taxes to pay for its spending — and when the recession hit, its income tax revenues fell by 15 percent, Seneca said.

Christie, who had to fill a $2.2 billion midyear shortfall as he took office, “cut school aid, municipal aid, county aid, property tax rebates, and wouldn’t raise tax rates,” Seneca said. “It was a difficult thing to do.”

Adding to the challenges was the state’s chronic neglect of the pension system, resulting in a looming unfunded liability.

Christie worked with Democratic lawmakers to gain concessions from public workers while agreeing to ramp up the state’s payments into the system.

But those plans took a turn after income tax collections missed their mark last spring. Christie lowered revenue estimates for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 by $2.75 billion, also scaling back contributions to the state pension funds for the two years.

New Jersey’s budgeted revenue assumptions — projections put forward by Christie and approved by the Democratic-led Legislature — “have been very optimistic, considering how slow the economic recovery has been,” said Baye Larsen, vice president and senior analyst for Moody’s.

Democrats blame Christie for failing to grow the state’s economy. Last year, New Jersey ranked 48th in job growth, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“What he’s been successful at getting away with for years is…’Look over here, don’t pay attention to what’s going on,'” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “The problem is the economy.”

Christie says Democrats have limited his ability to effect change by blocking tax cuts.

“I don’t know exactly whose economic plan has been implemented or not,” Christie said at a New Jersey Chamber of Commerce event in Washington in February. “But what I can tell you is, I’m going to continue to take responsibility for fighting the fight to make this state more affordable.”

Christie and lawmakers did agree on a five-year business tax-cut plan and an expansion of the state’s economic incentive program.

Critics say the measures are corporate giveaways that haven’t worked, while proponents argue they have made the state more business-friendly.

“We can’t expect we’re going to see the results of a program like that immediately,” said Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

The governor also claims success reining in property taxes, thanks to a 2010 law that has capped annual property tax growth at two percent. At the same time, he has delayed property tax rebates — including this year for more than 820,000 homeowners who expected to collect an average $469 benefit. Benefit amounts also have been cut.

Overall, the state’s budgets have grown. Christie’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July first is $33.8 billion; his first budget proposal, in 2010, was $29.3 billion.

Larsen, the Moody’s analyst, said that based on the state’s growth last year, the 3.8 percent revenue growth anticipated by the administration “will be a high target for them to reach.”

She also points to one looming budgetary challenge — a court ruling against Christie that could make it more difficult for the state to cut future pension contributions.

Christie supporters say that the governor inherited many of the current challenges and has fought for reforms.

“If you forget where we started, it’s easy to ignore how far we’ve come,” said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth.

Photo: Michael Vadon via Flickr

Drama Builds As Oregon Governor Is Urged To Resign

By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SALEM, Ore. — Will he or won’t he?

Nobody seemed to know Thursday afternoon whether Gov. John Kitzhaber was planning to serve out his historic fourth term at Oregon’s helm or resign in ignominy, under the cloud of at least two investigations for ethical breaches, a request by top legislative leaders that he step down, and a recall effort.

The normally quiet state capital was churning with speculation as the drama of Kitzhaber’s future in office changed from hour to hour.

The president of the Oregon Senate and the speaker of the state House of Representatives called on the governor to resign during a morning meeting in Kitzhaber’s private office — a ten-minute session that ended with the embattled Democrat’s next step still unclear.

“He was upset. He was defiant. He was struggling,” Peter Courtney, president of the Oregon Senate, said of Kitzhaber’s response during the meeting.

Then, as Courtney was on the Senate floor conducting legislative business an hour later, his chief of staff delivered a message from the governor that included something about “a transition.” By the time Courtney called a news conference after lunch, the state senator still didn’t know what might happen.

“The note said he was initiating a process to start a transition with the secretary of state,” Courtney said, referring to the official who would replace Kitzhaber if he stepped down. “That was the note — ‘Thank you for your honesty or your candor or your straightforwardness.’ ”

But the week’s events have shown that Kitzhaber’s future moves are anything but predictable.

Courtney said that he had met with Kitzhaber on Tuesday morning, and the governor told him then that he was going to resign. That’s the same day that the governor called Secretary of State Kate Brown, who was in Washington, D.C., at a conference, and told her to cut her trip short, hop on a plane and return to Oregon on Wednesday for a private, emergency meeting.

Brown, who succeeds Kitzhaber if he leaves office, did just that. She detailed what happened next in a written statement that dropped like a bombshell Thursday morning.

“I was escorted directly into a meeting with the governor,” Brown said. “He asked me why I came back early from Washington, D.C., which I found strange. I asked him what he wanted to talk about. The governor told me he was not resigning, after which, he began a discussion about transition.

“This is clearly a bizarre and unprecedented situation,” Brown continued. “I informed the governor that I am ready, and my staff will be ready, should he resign. Right now I am focused on doing my job for the people of Oregon.”

Brown’s early return from a meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State — of which she is president — started a raft of speculation about Kitzhaber’s next move. It also prompted Kitzhaber to send out an official statement Wednesday afternoon that he was staying in office for the long haul.

It was his third such public declaration in less than two weeks, and it was insistent: “Let me be as clear as I was last week, that I have no intention of resigning as governor of the state of Oregon,” he said. “I was elected to do a job for the people of this great state and I intend to continue to do so.”

On Thursday, his office did not return calls for comment. But the fusillade against him continued, with state Treasurer Ted Wheeler adding his name to the list of those asking Kitzhaber to resign.

The state Ethics Commission and the Oregon attorney general are investigating whether Kitzhaber’s fiancee, environmental consultant Cylvia Hayes, had falsified tax forms and been paid consulting fees to influence her future husband, among other allegations, and whether Kitzhaber was guilty of any wrongdoing.

Kitzhaber, who has been in public service for 36 years, has come under fire for his handling of the intersection of their private and public lives.

In a tense news conference on Jan. 30, Kitzhaber acknowledged “the legitimacy of some of these questions” while maintaining that he and Hayes had done nothing illegal.

“We knew there was a gray area, and we took intentional steps to try to clearly separate her volunteer activities as first lady from her paid professional work,” Kitzhaber told reporters at the time.

“Questions concerning whether or not her activities and contracts or my activities as governor have violated Oregon’s ethics laws are currently before the Ethics Commission and we are cooperating fully with the commission to allow them to arrive at a conclusion.”

The boggling mess left even friends of Kitzhaber bewildered.

“I don’t know what to expect in view of my conversations with him,” an emotional Courtney said Thursday.

Photo: OregonDOT via Flickr

Chris Christie’s Style Colors Presidential Prospects

By David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Suddenly, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a Republican miracle worker.

For the moment, the Republican establishment is looking past his temper, the George Washington Bridge scandal, his state’s budget problems, and the uneasy feeling that he’s not conservative enough to be the nominee.

Instead, they hailed Christie at last week’s Republican Governors Association meeting as a veritable savior, the association chairman who raised millions of dollars to help colleagues and took risks that helped spur victories in tough states.

Yet all this good cheer probably won’t mean much should Christie run for the 2016 presidential nomination. The controversies are still percolating in the Republican heartland, especially among the party’s influential hard-core conservative wing.

“He’s a loudmouth and he’s not conservative,” said Jerry DeLemus, a founder of the New Hampshire tea party movement.

The best way to handicap a Christie White House candidacy at this point is this: “One of his strengths is that he’s interesting,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Like or hate him, Christie draws a crowd and is forever intriguing.

“He has the skills and charisma to connect with an audience. It’s an ability nearly unmatched among the rest of the field,” said Kevin Hall, columnist for TheIowaRepublican.com, an online political newsletter in the nation’s first caucus state.

Last week, Christie’s audiences were congressional Republicans, whom he addressed Monday on Capitol Hill, and then his fellow governors. He was funny and he was careful. He wouldn’t answer broad questions about immigration, saying there was no need because he isn’t a candidate for president.

“If I run, I’m sure I will,” he said at the governors’ meeting.

He’s made no decision about 2016 and won’t this year. “It’s a family decision,” he said.

Outside the friendly confines of the Boca Raton resort, though, Christie still has a lot of image-polishing to do. The “Jersey comeback” he once touted is waning. The state budget has been ailing, and the Garden State has had trouble with its pension payments.

The bridge scandal remains under federal investigation. Christie has maintained that his aides closed the bridge last fall, causing huge traffic tie-ups, but that he was unaware of the closing at the time. The action may have been prompted by a local Democrat’s refusal to endorse the governor’s re-election.

Few people in New Hampshire, Iowa or anywhere else are familiar with the bridge, though, and the Republican establishment appears to have dismissed the controversy.

“If it was a problem, it’s been absorbed. People are grateful for how much he did during the last campaign,” said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire Republican activist and former state attorney general.

The bigger liability is Christie’s temper. The governor’s aides have been trying to present a kinder, gentler Christie with forums such as a high-level state meeting to discuss strategies for fighting drug addiction. But that’s been undermined by a series of very public outbursts.

Christie fought publicly with Kaci Hickox, a nurse he ordered quarantined upon her return from West Africa because she may have been exposed to the Ebola virus. She tested negative and protested her confinement. When Hickox threatened a lawsuit, Christie said, “Get in line. I’m happy to take it on.”

What rankles Republicans most is an incident Oct. 29 in Belmar, N.J. James Keady, a Democratic former Asbury Park council member, confronted Christie, protesting that money to help victims of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy wasn’t being dispersed quickly enough.

An angry Christie shouted him down, telling Keady, “So listen, you want to have the conversation later I’m happy to have it, buddy. But until that time, sit down and shut up.”

Privately, governors and strategists say that kind of behavior is troublesome. “I raise my voice as a last resort,” DeLemus said. “With him it’s not a last resort. It gets nasty with him.”

Voters, though, are angry, and Haley Barbour, a former Republican Party chairman and former governor of Mississippi, thought the style might play well.

“What you describe as temper, I describe as candor and openness,” he said. “A lot of people like that.”

Such views illustrate the paradox of Christie and what makes him so uniquely interesting, Weingart said. “It seems like he’s very present in the moment, thinking and responding,” he said, which many find refreshing in an era when so many politicians seem so tightly scripted and robotic.

Or puzzling.

“It’s one thing to look at how someone has helped another candidate for governor,” Rath said. “It’s another thing when you’re considering policies and demeanor.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr