How to Piss Off a Governor: Lessons From Two States

Niraj Chokshi

Say you're the Democratic governor of New York or Illinois. You're eager to get your legislative priorities passed and—look at that—your party also runs or holds significant sway over both houses. Piece of cake, right? Apparently, life isn't always so simple. The Wall Street Journal offers two object lessons today in how state party leaders in both those states are blocking their governor's plans. 

Take the nation's longest-serving state House speaker, Michael Madigan, an Illinois Democrat whose story, as laid out in The Journal, offers a Machiavellian example, depending on cynical you are.

Here's the situation: Illinois has the worst state pension crisis and the worst state credit rating in the nation. Unemployment is high—second only to Nevada—thanks in part to fiscal problems. Something has to be done, and Democrats control the House, the Senate and the governorship. If the situation isn't fixed, voters will hold someone—perhaps the governor?—accountable.

Madigan, who David Axelrod describes as "inscrutable," surprised many when he threw his weight behind a pension overhaul that was backed by business but opposed by unions, not exactly something observers expected from a longtime Illinois Democrat.The package passed Madigan's House, but failed in the Senate. That probably didn't come as much of a surprise to Madigan, seeing as how the Senate is run by a man who is both Madigan's protege and his son's godfather. So Quinn won't achieve a key legislative priority.

Oh, and did we mention that Madigan's daughter, the state's attorney general, is considering running against Quinn? Maybe the House-Senate divide is a genuine philosophical standoff or, maybe, as Quinn believes, Madigan and the Senate leader "know how to" strike a deal if they wanted to. Either way, Quinn's not very happy with him.

In New York, another left-of-center leader is complicating Gov. Andrew Cuomo's agenda. That would be Jeff Klein, the head of the Independent Democratic Conference, which broke ranks with the Democrats. Klein runs the Senate in a power-sharing agreement with the head of the Republicans. Cuomo and a coalition of women's groups have criticized him for not bringing  Cuomo's Women's Equality Act to a vote according to The Journal.

Why won't Klein let the chamber vote on the bill? Simple, he told the paper: "I don't bring bills to the floor that fail. That's not what leaders do."

Klein offered his own version of the package, but one that doesn't include abortion-rights provisions that the Republicans would oppose. "It's about getting the votes. It's about coming together, Democrats and Republicans, and getting enough votes," he said. Whatever it's about, Klein's got a lot of say over Cuomo's legislative goals.