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Nation: Rookies with Big Dreams

8 minute read

Two fledgling Governors try to make a national splash

Because the Federal Government overshadows the statehouses, first-term Governors can rarely expect to become national figures. It is different, however, when they are considered possible contenders for the presidency. That is why attention has been focused on two of the rookies elected in 1976: Illinois’ Republican Governor James Thompson, 41, and West Virginia’s Democratic Governor John D. Rockefeller IV, 40, nephew of former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.

Here is how they have fared so far:

Riding High. When “Big Jim” Thompson won the Illinois governorship by a whopping 1.3 million votes, people wondered if it would be all downhill from there. The government Thompson inherited was on the verge of bankruptcy because of the free-spending policies of maverick Democratic Governor Dan Walker. The statehouse was a shambles because of Walker’s incessant feuding with Chicago’s Cook County Democratic machine. Yet as Thompson starts his second year as Governor, he is far and away the most popular politician in the state and a reasonable contender for a place on the national ticket in 1980.

The onetime U.S. Attorney who sent more than 300 corrupt officials to jail between 1971 and 1975 has proved equally skilled at politics. The Chicago machine trembled at the prospect of a prosecutor as Governor, but he has allayed their fears. “I made a special effort to get along with the Democrats,” he explains, “because everybody was tired of the constant fighting. I wanted to show them that I was not afraid of compromise and that I was not the holder of all wisdom.”

He courted the Chicago Democrats in the legislature and quietly cut a deal with them. For years they had wanted to build a new expressway on the West Side to relieve traffic congestion in the city, but Walker had balked at the project, largely because of his hostility to the Cook County Democratic machine. Thompson approved construction of a more modest expressway, and in turn the Cook County Democrats abandoned their drive to add $100 million to his proposed $3.45 billion education appropriation. “That was the make-or-break issue in the budget,” says Thompson. Thanks in part to higher tax revenues from a reviving economy, he expects to end fiscal year 1978 with a tidy $85 million surplus.

Thompson also achieved his second goal, a tough new crime bill that imposes minimum sentences for serious offenses. He asked for mandatory imprisonment of from six to 30 years for what he called “Class X crimes,” including rape, arson, hard-drug transactions and armed violence of any kind. The legislature watered down some features of the bill but basically gave him what he asked for. Says Thompson: “It’s time to put to rest the notion that prisons are for rehabilitation. When they can accomplish that end, it is good. But the primary purpose of prison is to separate criminals from the rest of us and to punish them so as to deter other people from similar behavior.”

The Governor has had some setbacks.

He campaigned hard for a new ethics bill to require strict financial disclosure by state officeholders and better policing of lobbyists. But the bill did not survive the senate. He was also overridden on two vetoes. One of the measures banned the use of state funds for abortions for women on welfare, the other legalized the use of the controversial drug Laetrile for the treatment of cancer. Both vetoes outraged Illinois conservatives, and may hamper Thompson’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination. But he has no regrets: “I wouldn’t compromise just because it might cost me votes in some conservative sections of the state.”

Thompson is considered a shoo-in for re-election this fall, though his likely Democratic opponent, State Controller Michael Bakalis, 39, is no lightweight. He has already started attacking Thompson on the issue of his presidential ambitions. “We have a Governor who plans to get out of the state as soon as possible,” charges Bakalis. Other Democrats accuse Thompson of being a “do-nothing” Governor, though his program of “limited goals” seems to be as popular with voters in Illinois as it is with other Americans who are fed up with Government interference and bureaucracy.

But Thompson has put no limits on his own visibility. Outfitted in jeans, T shirt and cowboy boots, he frequently travels around the state with his wife Jayne, 31, pumping hands, slapping backs and exchanging small talk, of which he is a master. He claims that “being Governor is three jobs rolled into one.” He occasionally finds time for his hobby of collecting Victorian antiques, but he has virtually given up racquetball, allowing his weight to slide up another 20 Ibs., to 220. To enhance his national image, he has hired Washington Political Consultants Douglas Bailey and John Deardourff, and his critics darkly hint that even the Thompson baby due this summer was programmed for maximum political effect. For the record, Thompson refuses to discuss the presidency. Almost. He says it would be “foolish” for him to rule out a try for it in 1980.

Bogged Down. Like Thompson, Jay Rockefeller won in a rout, posting the biggest victory margin (66%) in West Virginia history. Like Thompson, he promised a limited, efficient government. But Rockefeller has had trouble living up to that goal. A balky state legislature, though controlled by fellow Democrats, has shredded some of his major proposals. “His first seven months were a total loss,” admits Senate President William Brotherton, a Rockefeller ally. “He’s not flamboyant, and that’s a drawback. He states the facts like an accountant.” Rockefeller does not demur from this judgment, but he likes to remind people, fairly enough, that he still has three years to goin his first term.

Rockefeller did get some key proposals through the legislature. He streamlined the cumbersome state health department, set up an office of economic and community development, and pleased the state’s 54,000 active coal miners by upgrading mine safety regulations. But he was forced to retreat on two campaign promises. First, the legislature would not buy his proposal to eliminate the 3% sales tax on groceries. Says John Fanning, chairman of the senate finance committee: “I saw no reason to give sales tax relief and then have to raise other taxes to make it up.” Rockefeller’s request for $100 million to improve secondary roads was slashed to $54 million. He further antagonized his fellow Democrats by refusing to fire thousands of Republicans holding patronage jobs. “Everyone expected a wholesale change in patronage,” complains Democratic State Chairman J.C. Dillon. “That’s been traditional here for generations.” Rockefeller, who has hired outside experts at generous salaries (up to $55,000, which is $5,000 more than his own salary) to run some of his departments, replies that he believes in the “non-politicalness of getting things done.”

Mother Nature provided Rockefeller with additional problems. Already worried by an exceptionally harsh winter, he was informed last January by the National Weather Service that a monster blizzard was heading toward the state, and issued a warning over the state emergency radio broadcasting system, which had never before been used. Understandably alarmed, people got into massive traffic jams and fought over bread and milk in grocery stores. But the storm never came. Ever since, it has sneeringly been referred to as “Jay’s blizzard.”

Rockefeller may find his second year in office as trouble-ridden as his first. He has proposed 10% pay hikes for state employees, along with tax breaks for people 65 and over. But he has also asked for an increase in the gasoline tax, to 110 from 8.50, and a hike in the cigarette tax, to 170 a pack from 120. Complains State Representative James Teets, a Republican: “He talks about improvements in the economy and a growing tax base. This contradicts a necessity for a tax increase.”

But Rockefeller has some advantages that may eventually come to his rescue. At the top of the list is a thriving state economy because of the coal boom. Personal income in West Virginia is rising at the eighth fastest rate in the nation. From 1970 to 1977 it doubled, increasing to $6,068 per capita. The Governor also has an ability to keep cool. He remains, to a large extent, the unassuming, engaging antipoverty worker who first came to West Virginia 14 years ago, a carpetbagger who chose to stay. His wife Sharon, 33, the daughter of Illinois Senator Charles Percy, is a definite political asset. The lanky (6 ft. 6 ½ in.) Governor can often be seen playing catch or shooting baskets with their three children in the backyard of the executive mansion, closely watched by the security guards that inevitably attend a Rockefeller.

“Maybe people expected him to solve all their problems right away because he is a Rockefeller,” says Brotherton. “He has found out that state government is a give-and-take proposition, and he communicates a lot better than he did at first. He’s a bigger man than when he came into office.” ∙

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