The Eight Habits of Highly Effective Governors

SHORTLY AFTER the polls closed on election night, November 7, it was clear that voters from all around Massachusetts had turned out in droves to elect Democrat Deval Patrick as governor. At one point that evening, CBS4 political analyst Jon Keller went on the air with some wry advice for the governor-elect. Noting that there were still several weeks before the official swearing-in, Keller turned to the camera as if addressing Patrick himself and said, “Run for your life!”

If the humor depended on the notion that the new governor was about to step into a booby trap, the suggestion was defensible. It’s not often that someone succeeds—really succeeds—in the job of governor of Massachusetts. Consider the recent record. Since 1974, six individuals have served in the governor’s office over eight terms. Only two of those terms can be seen as notably successful: Michael Dukakis’s second stint (1983-1987) and William Weld’s first (1991-1995). Two out of eight suggests that the mathematical odds of success for a new governor in the modern era are 25 percent.

But what do we mean by success? It is a testament to Patrick’s uplifting campaign that the question seems to have suddenly come alive. Keller’s jest aside, the state’s political mood as Patrick takes office is anything but fatalistic.

“He’s coming in with expectations that are sky-high,” says Charles Baker, an official in two Republican administrations in the 1990s and now chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. “A lot of people have sort of cognitively mapped their vision of the world and the future onto his administration, and onto him.”

And why not? One of Patrick’s campaign slogans was “Hope for the best—and work for it.”

The high expectations derive, as well, from a sense that Patrick may be able to make the governorship powerful again. His campaign organized a large, highly motivated network of supporters; he won by a large margin; and unlike the Republican governors of recent years, he doesn’t start off immediately hobbled by the Democratic Legislature.

In his election-night speech, Patrick said the state has gone through a period of “government by gimmick and photo op and sound bite.” He added, “Do not expect more of that from me.”

But what should we expect? What will he need to do to succeed? In the weeks before and after the election, I spoke with several astute observers of Massachusetts politics and asked their opinions about who has succeeded, and why, as governor. (The assessment above about Dukakis and Weld is the consensus view.) What are the most important habits of highly effective governors?

It’s a simple question, and it is answered simply enough. The baseline for good performance is to hire talented people; set a few clear, achievable priorities; work with the Legislature to produce a balanced and productive budget; insist on high ethical standards throughout government; and stay focused on the job for a full term.

But in the spirit of “hope for the best,” I pressed the question a bit further. How might a governor—in this place, in these times—lead an administration that is better than good? To borrow the title of the bestselling management book by Jim Collins, what would it mean to go “from good to great”? Is it even possible to imagine greatness in government?

When thinking it over, some of my experts talked about the skills necessary to be an excellent manager in the public sector. Others spoke of leadership skills, which overlap with management ability but are not the same. As Marty Linsky, an early Weld aide who teaches leadership in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, puts it, “There is a huge difference between governing well and leadership.” He notes that a governor can sometimes “succeed” by avoiding contentious issues that a true leader will take on. In his book Leadership on the Line (co-authored with Ronald Heifetz), Linsky makes a distinction between the way leaders confront technical problems, for which solutions already exist if the right people are tapped, and the way they respond to “adaptive challenges,” which are problems that involve sweeping change and uncertain outcomes. In Linsky’s view, looking for new solutions and coping with people’s resistance to change is a higher-order challenge for leaders.

Governing well, of course, is the starting point for greatness. From my interviews, I have distilled eight commonly agreed-upon elements that have defined “good” in past administrations. Making the leap from good to great depends on combining competent management with visionary leadership on the tough calls. And succeeding as a visionary leader depends on judgment — not on whether a governor’s decisions are immediately popular but whether they are the right ones. In other words, whether they lead to lasting improvements in the living and working conditions of the Commonwealth.

Here, then, are eight elements of success for a governor in Massachusetts:

1. Hire good managers

Practically the first words out of Michael Dukakis’s mouth when I sat down with him at his office at Northeastern University were, “It starts with people.” Running an administration requires the ability to choose good managers who will, in turn, choose other good managers.

Charles Baker, who worked for Republican governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci, explains it this way: “If you’re the governor, you appoint a whole bunch of people who work directly inside your office, then you appoint a whole bunch of people who become cabinet secretaries, and they appoint a whole bunch of people, with your permission, who become commissioners of big agencies and department heads. And at the end of the day, for better or for worse, a lot of those people you put in those jobs are going to define your administration.”

As anyone who has ever been involved in hiring knows, there is always an element of chance involved in selecting personnel. “You pick someone you think is going to be terrific and they turn out to be less than terrific,” Dukakis says. “Sometimes you pick somebody you’re really kind of concerned about and they turn out to be your star.”

The media glare can be especially hot when a governor first starts to build an administration. Massachusetts has a rich tradition of patronage hiring in the public sector—as well as a reactionary subculture of contempt for government hiring, in which columnists and talk-radio windbags routinely characterize public employees as “hacks.” In the weeks after the election, Patrick showed an awareness of the perils of patronage, notifying legislators that he intended to make hiring decisions based on “merit,” not connections. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Everyone is connected to someone—and the recommendation of an “insider” may be more reliable than a résumé delivered over the transom.

Dukakis started his first term, in 1975, with a reformer’s high-minded disdain for patronage. As he is the first to admit, the Democrat’s first term was not a success, partly because he had strained relationships with legislators, so when he returned to power in 1983 he made a point of interacting with lawmakers. By the time he left office eight years later, a noisy chorus of critics, fired up by anger over tax increases and an economic downturn, christened a generation of government employees as “Dukakoids.”

When Weld took office in 1990, the boil was lanced. The new governor pledged to get rid of “the walruses”—the lounging, long-in-the-tooth state bureaucrats. Whether Weld’s hiring practices were superior to Dukakis’s tends to be a matter of partisan perspective. The “hack” epithet didn’t disappear in Weld’s term, but there was no general abuse of “Weldoids.”

Baker maintains that new talent from unexpected quarters was what made Weld’s first term as governor a singular success: “I would argue that Bill Weld’s first cabinet was as good as any cabinet any time, anywhere, any place.” And there’s a leadership lesson for Patrick in Weld’s approach, Baker says.

“As he starts choosing people to fill some of these jobs, I would argue that boring is better,” says Baker. “If I were him, I’d be looking for talent, competence—I sound like Mike Dukakis here, I guess—and a little less for ideology. At the end of the day, most of the voters of Massachusetts are pretty pragmatic. They just want stuff to work. And his challenge is going to be that he’s going to get tremendous pressure from a lot of places to [consider] philosophy and ideology first and experience and skill-set second.”

For his part, Dukakis faults recent Republican administrations for a lack of energy and activism. Patrick doesn’t necessarily need new programs and new funding to make significant change in state government, Dukakis says. Instead, he needs new blood: “If he picks the kind of people I think he’s going to pick, and they in turn recruit the kind of people they should, you’ll see a transformation in the way this government works that will be dramatic and very impressive—without any [new] money.”

The challenge in getting from good to great, though, goes beyond recruiting. It’s not how many “stars” are hired but whether an ethic of good management works its way from top to bottom. “Managing in the public sector is 50 times more difficult than managing in the private sector,” Dukakis says, “because you don’t control your environment.” Talented public officials find ways to handle the public scrutiny and countervailing power that is inherent to government.

The slow pace of change can frustrate the very type of people government needs: people with good ideas for change. A great governor would find ways to inspire the legions of government workers, at all levels, to believe that public service requires more patience and dedication than ordinary jobs do.

2. Set an ethical tone

Corruption, or the appearance of corruption, can sink an administration. Joanne Ciulla, a leadership scholar who teaches ethics at the University of Richmond, says the most important thing for any leader to realize is that “the first handful of major decisions you make sets your values system for the rest of the term.” That’s especially the case with ethics.

Democrat Edward King’s term (1979-1983) was marred by charges of cronyism and corruption. When his transportation secretary, Barry Locke, was convicted in early 1982 of conspiracy to commit bribery, the headlines helped doom King in his rematch against Dukakis later that year.

In fact, Massachusetts government in the 1960s and 1970s was rife with bribery, extortion, and kickbacks, especially in the awarding of public construction contracts. A special commission led by John William Ward concluded in 1980 that corruption was “a way of life” in the Commonwealth.

One of the accomplishments of Dukakis in the 1980s, and of the Republican governors who followed, is that out-and-out graft was mostly rooted out of state government. Locke remains the only Cabinet official in recent decades to serve time for official corruption.

The governor’s chief legal counsel serves as the top ethics enforcer in the executive branch, but the governor is the one who is responsible for setting the tone. “If there is any impropriety, they have to be fairly draconian about it right up front, because that’s the only way you start nipping it in the bud,” Ciulla says. “Leadership is a lot like parenting. If you let everyone run amok in the beginning, and then try to get strict, it really doesn’t work too well. But if you start very, very strict and you fire people who have done things wrong and you’re really tough, you have way fewer problems later on. And you can even loosen up a little bit. But you can never go from loose to tight.”

3. Set clear priorities

Jeanne Shaheen has something in common with Deval Patrick. When Shaheen was elected governor of New Hampshire in 1996, Democrats had not held the office in 14 years, almost as long as the 16-year Democratic exile that has just ended in Massachusetts. Now director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School, she remembers the exhilarating but daunting moment of taking office.

“Suddenly people feel like you can do everything that’s on everybody’s agenda,” she says. “So it’s important to try and be clear about what you want to do and try and manage those expectations from people.”

David Osborne, who studied six governors for his 1988 book Laboratories of Democracy, sees a challenge on that front for Patrick. “In politics and government you can’t focus your public energies on too many things,” Osborne says. “Bill Clinton taught me this, back when he was governor. He said the public has to be able to articulate what you’re about in one or two sentences. If you’re doing 15 good things, to them it’s nothing. It needs to be one or two big things that they understand about you.”

Choosing those one or two issues involves using what political scientists call the agenda-setting power of the executive. It’s widely accepted that the agenda has to be limited and focused, but there is also a matter of timing. The savvy leader must recognize when windows of opportunity are open. In the early 1990s, the time was right in Massachusetts to concentrate on wholesale changes to public education. But the drive for a universal health coverage law that started at the end of the final Dukakis administration languished in the 1990s. Suddenly, for several reasons, the chance for health care reform came in 2005 and the governor and the Legislature reached agreement on a major initiative.

Governors always hope to drive the agenda, but sometimes events force their hand, and the best they can do is recognize opportunities and react. “If you’re lucky, you set 50 percent of the agenda,” says Shaheen. “The other 50 percent is what you can’t know about in advance.” For Shaheen, an urgent item was dropped on her desk when the state’s Supreme Court invalidated New Hampshire’s system for funding public schools. For Republican Mitt Romney last year it was construction defects on the Big Dig. Other governors—such as in Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi—have faced severe natural disasters. An obvious rule for governors today is that if you do not make emergency preparedness a priority, you may well end up costing people their lives. And ineffectiveness in an emergency can put the rest of a governor’s agenda in jeopardy.

Osborne says one challenge sure to face Patrick is that he does not have the expanding economy that allowed Dukakis in the mid 1980s to focus on revitalizing older cities and “spreading the wealth,” or the technology-fueled prosperity of the 1990s that allowed Weld to simultaneously cut taxes and increase spending on education. The current economic situation, according to Osborne, calls for finding ways to “squeeze more value for less money out of state agencies,” to control costs in health care and public pensions, and to focus on budget reforms.

Osborne’s perspective rests on the idea that “there’s just no way people are going to accept significantly higher taxes.” But that gets at the heart of the priority question. Lower taxes were a top priority for Weld in the 1990s, and he worked with the Legislature to enact more than two dozen tax cuts. Patrick campaigned on the idea that local property taxes should be cut but that state tax levels were about right. Of course, in campaigns most budget numbers are fictional. One cannot govern successfully without making the leap from wishful numbers into the cold waters of budgetary reality. Candidates don’t need to limit their promises, but governors do.

4. Master the budget

Former Senate President Tom Birmingham, now comfortably ensconced in the downtown Boston law offices of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, still shakes his head in wonder at the way Weld mastered budget details, especially given Weld’s reputation for a short attention span. Bir mingham was elected to the state Senate in 1990, the same year Weld was elected governor. As Senate chairman of the joint education committee and then, beginning in 1993, as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Birmingham became familiar with every nook and cranny of the state budget. From the start, Birmingham was negotiating with Weld on a vast expansion of state funding for public schools.

“I remember being involved with him about the Education Reform Act,” Birmingham recalls. “This was when he was really engaged, right at the beginning. He was as bright a person as I ever met in state government. And the Education Reform Act was a fairly complex piece of legislation. Weld grasped not only the initial and secondary implications on some of the financing pieces, but even the tertiary implications.”

When it comes to the state budget, knowledge is power, and it’s a power that has to be acquired quickly. After just eight weeks in office, a new governor must submit his first budget proposal to the Legislature, setting out his priorities for state government in cold, hard cash.

“Most people who become governor don’t realize how fast that process sucks you in and how hard it is to get on top of it,” says Robert Pozen, who served as secretary of economic affairs for Mitt Romney at the start of his administration in 2003.

Many new governors come in pledging to squeeze fat out of the state budget. Birmingham is skeptical there is much fat to be squeezed out. In his view, 16 years of Republican administrations, along with careful scrutiny by legislative committees, have kept the budget reasonably lean. “Unfortunately, there’s no line item in the budget that says ‘waste and inefficiency,’” Birmingham says.

The difficulty for Patrick, says Pozen, is that however tight the current budget is, the appetite for expansion may be overwhelming. “There’s this pent-up demand” among Democratic constituencies that may make it harder for Patrick to keep the lid on, says Pozen.

Though Patrick’s primary task will be to get the budget into balance, government reformers say there’s a bigger job ahead: What about transforming the budget-writing process so that spending trends can be more easily analyzed? What about making the budget a tool for streamlining government?

These are perennial questions but not always welcome ones in the Legislature and the state agencies. Weld’s first secretary of administration and finance, Peter Nessen, made a run at “performance-based budgeting,” but the Legislature didn’t go for it. In the most recent administration, Pozen was part of an unsuccessful effort to set up “performance metrics” designed to answer, throughout the state’s agencies, a simple question: Did you get what you want out of the money you spent?

Osborne, who lays out a process he calls “budgeting for outcomes” in his book The Price of Government (see Considered Opinion, CommonWealth magazine, Spring ’04), argues that “people don’t realize how bad the fiscal future is” in state government. With more of the budget eaten up by health care and pension costs, Osborne says, there is little room for growth for anything. Therefore, he argues, the budget process should be turned into a process of focusing on better results with the money available.

As Baker points out, that hasn’t happened in Massachusetts because legislators want to have control over the budget. “The Legislature really wants to be able to own that document every year,” he says. Good governors are part of the annual effort to balance the books. But it would take a great one to guide the Legislature toward a whole new way of using the budget to improve results.

5. Find a way to work with the Legislature

One of the surest ways to earn a national reputation as a good governor is to work well with a legislative branch controlled by the opposite party. Former Virginia governor Mark Warner, for example, was considered to be a future Democratic presidential candidate after he worked with a Republican legislature on a challenging agenda, which even included tax increases. Democrats Janet Napolitano in Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas have also won high marks for working with Republican lawmakers.

Weld’s success derived from his ability to work things out with a strongly Democratic Legislature. Though he campaigned as a Republican against Beacon Hill, he struck up a working relationship with then-Senate President William Bulger and House Speaker Charles Flaherty. Birmingham, who succeeded Bulger as Senate President in 1994, says that Weld’s virtues were his pragmatism, his flexibility, and his ability to have fun with Beacon Hill insiders even as he slammed them with partisan rhetoric.

“You could cut a deal with Weld,” Birmingham says. “He was prepared to come to agreements on issues when his staff was kicking and screaming and saying, ‘You shouldn’t do it.’” The fact that Weld held weekly meetings with legislative leaders made a big difference, Birmingham says. “You can’t underestimate that—it counts for a lot.”

Patrick faces a different dynamic. If some expect him to achieve great things because he will be working with fellow Democrats, others will want him to hold the Legislature in check—in lieu of an effective block by Republicans, who have at least temporarily gone out of business in Massachusetts.

Dukakis’s three terms demonstrated the various perils of the legislative relationship among members of the same party. The lesson he says he learned in his first term is that a governor can’t get much done by casting himself as a scold of the Legislature. His second term saw major steps forward in transportation and economic development policy because, he says, he and his staff spent much more time developing a collaborative relationship with lawmakers.

“You don’t begin to go down a policy road without involving key legislators from the beginning. That’s the rule,” Dukakis says. “You bring them in from the beginning.”

Birmingham notes that it helps if a governor has good chemistry with the two top legislative leaders, especially if the Senate President and House Speaker are not as ideological as he and former Speaker Tom Finneran were. There wasn’t much Gov. Paul Cellucci could do, Birmingham admits, during the legislative battles of the late 1990s. “Finneran and I were like a Japanese horror movie,” he says.

Romney made a rule early on that his agency leaders were not allowed to speak with legislators unless authorized by his legislative liaison’s office. The result was perhaps the worst executive-legislative comity since Dukakis’s first term. Romney and legislative leaders managed to produce a significant health care law, but only because of a unique set of external pressures, including a drive to put the issue on the state ballot and the federal government’s threat to withhold Medicaid funds if the state didn’t reform its system for covering the uninsured.

Perhaps Romney saw the Legislature as a lost cause, since he had no power base there. But a governor who doesn’t want to mingle with lawmakers—and cajole and exhort and wheel and deal—might as well look for another job. The great governors are the ones who can walk among a group of backslappers, policy wonks, ideologues, egomaniacs, seat-warmers, and pork-barrel pragmatists, and move them in one direction.

6. Stay on the job

Nobody has been more scathing about Mitt Romney’s job performance as governor than Mike Dukakis. Romney’s efforts to move onto the national stage exposed him to criticism that he became an absentee governor halfway into his term. “That guy was out of there two years later,” Dukakis says. “There was no interest.”

But, I asked Dukakis, didn’t you also take your eye off the local scene in 1988? That was different, he protests, asserting that he made it a rule to be on the job, in the State House, four days a week while he sought the presidential nomination in the middle of his third term.

But still, wouldn’t you agree it’s a hazard to run for higher office while still serving as governor? “It’s a hazard,” he agrees.

It’s impossible to know whether Dukakis could have emerged from his third term in better form had he stuck with his day job. The recession that hit the East and West coasts in 1989 would have created severe pressures in any event. But the fact that Dukakis appeared to be AWOL in 1988 made the public reaction to hard times more severe.

Today, there’s bipartisan agreement that the state needs a governor who will put national ambitions aside, and that greatness is only possible with full immersion in the governor’s office. Says Baker: “There’s no way you can be a great governor if you don’t invest yourself completely, utterly, and totally in that job the entire time you are doing it. No way.”

7. Show some courage

David Osborne recalls the battles Bill Clinton waged in Arkansas for education reform in the 1980s. One of his more controversial proposals was competency tests for teachers, which were strongly resisted by the teachers’ union. Clinton pushed it through by generating public support, and by emphasizing other gains for teachers in his education reform package. He was aware of what New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia long ago said is the most important lesson in politics: how to say no to your friends.

In Marty Linsky’s view, saying no is practically the definition of good leadership, and good leaders challenge their constituency rather than pander to it. Linsky cites the decision by Gov. Francis Sargent, a liberal Republican in the 1970s, to oppose a new ring of urban highways in Boston. A former public works commissioner, Sargent was “a highway guy” and was expected to be on board. Instead, he stopped the project, infuriating his core constituencies. That, says Linsky, “was a very gutsy thing to do.” The maxim Linsky offers is: “Leadership is about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.”

Osborne sees several tests of greatness for Deval Patrick when it comes to reforms that public employee unions oppose. “If he has the courage to cross some of these interest groups at times, then he has the potential to become a great governor, I think,” says Osborne.

Joanne Ciulla, though, resists the notion it is inherently admirable to say no. “That assumes the leader is always right, which isn’t the case,” she says. “Americans have a very macho view of leadership—and also men do.” There is a necessary collaboration between leaders and followers, she says, and the learning must go in both directions: “There is a really big difference between leadership in business and in politics. Businesses are not democracies.”

But Osborne says there is a time for give-and-take, and a time to stand firm. “I’ll tell you that the single most important thing I’ve learned about leadership over the last 25 years is, ‘It takes courage,’” says Osborne. “In times like this, where you have to reform institutions—because we’ve got these Industrial Age bureaucracies—you don’t get results without courage.”

8. Invigorate democracy

Nobody’s quite sure what to make of Patrick’s idealistic campaign rhetoric (which was a big part of his appeal) about a “transformed politics and a whole new civic life,” as he put it in one speech. What does he envision? Will there be a new Bureau of Democratic Renewal? How does a campaign plank for “reviving citizenship” translate into gubernatorial policy?

Patrick is justifiably proud of the grassroots organization that propelled his campaign, and he speaks movingly of the need to keep such activism alive. That could mean steering his network of volunteers into Democratic Party politics, and it could mean reactivating the ground troops when the governor wants to put pressure on the Legislature, as Clinton did when he pushed education reform.

Patrick has authorized his lead organizer, John Walsh, to keep a grassroots organization alive and buzzing. But Baker, who sends out a regular Friday e-mail message to the employees of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, says the new governor must find ways not just to stay in touch with his political base, but also to enlarge his sphere to include the slightly more than 100,000 full- and part-time workers for the state.

“If he really wants to succeed, to be great, he’s going to have to figure out some way to communicate with his own employees in state government, and with the larger body politic in Massachusetts, that goes beyond communicating through the press conference and through the news media,” Baker says. “He’s going to have to come up with some way to communicate more directly and more regularly.”

Any excitement Patrick creates that keeps people politically active has to be considered a gain. Much of what he wanted to accomplish in his campaign was to show that politics could be hopeful and idealistic, not bitter and vituperative. It’s part of his strategy of encouraging more people to participate. By maintaining a positive, inclusive style of governing, Patrick may improve the tone and tenor of politics in Massachusetts.

Yet there are a host of problems that can be seen as part of a democratic dysfunction here that only a great leader with a genuine passion for democracy could address. For instance, the Legislature has consistently nullified the process that gives citizens the right to propose, vote on, and enact laws and constitutional amendments. This contributes to the kind of public cynicism about politics that Patrick decries.

There are several other reform issues that could be on a civic agenda: Is one-party rule healthy in civic life? One of the reasons Republicans are given no chance to get a foothold in the legislative and congressional delegations is that Democrats control the drawing of political district lines. What about the lack of people willing and able to run for public office? Is it a problem that mounting a challenge costs so much that most incumbents go unopposed?

Maybe direct democracy and nonpartisan “good government” reforms don’t really lead to results that are in the best long-term interests of the Commonwealth. That has surely been the judgment of the top legislative leaders here for a long while. And Patrick himself showed no interest in the campaign for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (throughout the campaign, Patrick said the public has “moved on” from the question) and raised no objection when the Legislature failed to give the amendment an up-or-down vote in November.

The Supreme Judicial Court has several times ruled that the Legislature has violated the state’s constitution by blocking citizen-initiated laws and constitutional amendments. An ordinary governor would chastise the Legislature when he disagreed with its ends. An idealistic governor would champion the democratic process even when he’s not sure where it leads. Perhaps it would take a great one to address the mistrust that now exists between citizen activists and elected representatives—and to lead the way to an honest democratic dialogue.

RISING TO GREATNESS

One way of thinking about how a governor can go from good to great is to think in terms of hitting on all eight cylinders. Turning in a good performance on all the elements described above might add up to a great tenure. Another factor is whether a leader is willing to take enough time to succeed. In Jim Collins’s book From Good to Great, he notes that some companies amble along for many years with average performance, then suddenly come upon a turning point that allows them to take off.

As Patrick himself has noted, the job may take eight years rather than four. Nelson Rockefeller was elected to four terms in New York, serving from 1958 to 1973. He had some stormy times, but there’s no question he left his mark on the Empire State. And, like Dukakis, Bill Clinton had a better second term in Arkansas after learning painful lessons in his first one.

In Osborne’s Laboratories of Democracy, Clinton talked about his attempts to create “lasting change” as Arkansas governor: “I think the acid test is, when you’re through, have you made a difference?” It could be argued that policies enacted in Dukakis’s second term made a real difference by dramatically improving conditions in decaying cities such as Lowell. It could be argued that Weld made a difference by putting the brakes on the growth of state government while going along with an ambitious plan to make Massachusetts public schools some of the best in the country.

Robert Pozen argues that to match the successes of Dukakis and Weld, the new governor needs to accomplish only two things: “He’s going to be a great governor by keeping the budget in balance and by making health care work.” If the new health insurance law succeeds by extending health insurance to all residents without breaking the budget, Pozen says, it will be a model for every other state. “If he can do that, then he’s a hero.”

Jeanne Shaheen says “there’ll be a lot of other things he’ll have to deal with” to keep Massachusetts economically competitive, such as new initiatives in education. But, she notes, the governor’s success ultimately depends on taking the long-term view.

“[For] a lot of the decisions that you make, you’re not going to be able to determine what the ramifications are for a number of years down the road,” says Shaheen. “When Jesse Ventura was governor [of Minnesota, from 1999 to 2003], there were a lot of people who thought at the time he was a great governor. But if you look at it 10 years from now, the decisions that he made, will they really have meant that it was great for the state? That’s probably not an assessment you’re going to be able to make right now.”

In the end, greatness is a matter of legacy. Looking back, are there some governors who have left their states different—and better—for having been governor?

Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing magazine, has written about a lasting change made by Woodrow Wilson in his one brief term as governor of New Jersey. Wilson was a pioneer in inserting himself into the legislative process and pushing his own agenda. Before his tenure, most Americans had assumed the separation of powers made such executive activism improper. In an interview, Ehrenhalt notes that Robert LaFollette took a similar approach as a Progressive reformer in Wisconsin. But the chief executive who stands out for him is Al Smith, who served as governor of New York from 1919 to 1921 and again from 1923 to 1929.

“He really found ways to take Progressive reform ideas and make them practical,” Ehrenhalt says. “His greatness was that he had the practical political skill of a Tammany Hall politician and the vision of a Progressive, even though he was an uneducated man.” Smith pushed for worker’s compensation and occupational health and safety, among other measures. “He was the person who figured out ways to protect people against some of the worst abuses of the industrial system of that era,” Ehrenhalt says.

It’s no accident that Progressive-era governors come to mind when we think of great leaders, Ehrenhalt suggests. It was after that period that Justice Louis Brandeis referred to states as “laboratories of democracy.”

Could the new governor of Massachusetts make that phrase ring true here? It’s something to wish for. It might even be what Deval Patrick calls “hoping for the best.”

[Originally published in CommonWealth magazine under the title "Recipe for Success: What ingredients would make Patrick a good governor -- or even great?"]


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