A Small Batch of Gubernatorial Transitions

With all the attention being paid to the lame duck session and the approaching apotheosis of Mitch McConnell and so forth, it’s easy for Washingtonians to miss the biennial slow-motion riot of state executive branches in transition from one governor to another.

Since the American winner-take-all system of party government prevails at the state as well as the federal level, transitions from one party to another can be pretty traumatic. I believe I’ve told the story here before of an acquaintance who was transition chief for the first Republican Governor of Mississippi since Reconstruction. He was the first landing craft on the official beach Inaugural Day, and arrived to discover the locks changed in the governor’s office, the light bulbs removed, the phones disconnected, and the computer operating system deleted. Welcome and Happy Damn New Year!

Even intraparty transitions can get sticky, as I discovered in 1983, when nearly everybody around me got fired after Democrat Joe Frank Harris succeeded Democrat George Busbee (whose staff had been a seething covert battleground of rival primary candidates) as governor.

Still, the number of state transitions is relatively low for a midterm post-election. There will be eleven new governors, with four D-to-R transitions (AR, IL, MA and MD), one R-to-D transition (PA), one R-to-I transition (AK) and five intraparty transitions (AZ, HI, NE, RI, TX). There were twenty-six new governors coming out of the 2010 elections.

Some enterprising team of political scientists or reporters should do a comprehensive study of a particular class of transitions (the biennial New Governors Seminar traditionally held by the National Governors Association right after the elections–this year’s was in Colorado a couple of weekends after November 4–would be a good initial vantage point). It would expose a lot of chaos, and enough human drama for a new Netflix series.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.