Governor races: Key to defeating the right wing

With the question of war or peace hanging in the balance, the Nov. 5 elections for the Senate and House of Representatives have center stage. But voters in 36 states will elect governors. Since there is no incumbent in 21 of these races, voters will have elected at least that many new governors when the polls close Tuesday night.

Twenty-three of the governorships on the 2002 election block are presently held by Republicans, 11 by Democrats and two by Independents. For the first time in history, nine women are running for governor.

Two of the most closely watched races are in Florida and Maryland, with Democrat Bill McBride challenging Gov. Jeb Bush (R), and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) facing Rep. Robert Ehrlich (R). Many others – Arizona, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee – were still in the “too close to call” category a week before election day.

Gubernatorial and state legislative races have always been important. Now, with states struggling to close total budget deficit of more than $50 billion, they are even more important. The battle is the same as always: “Who pays and who gets?” Only this time it is being fought out in 50 state capitals. And so far “they” are winning.

Since states are required to balance their budgets, they are cutting spending, most of which falls on low-income people at a time when poverty is rising and many low-wage workers are losing jobs.

Among the most shameful are cuts for child care and and cuts in funding for public schools. The surge in health care costs, particularly for prescription drugs, has led to cuts in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. States have reduced or eliminated funding subsidies for the elderly, for homeless shelters and for agencies that protect abused and neglected children.

True, policies adopted by Congress and the White House, such as last year’s $2 trillion tax cut, have contributed to the states’ budget crises. And the situation has been made more acute by shifting more and more of the responsibility for providing for the general welfare from Washington to state and local governments. But states are not blameless. In all too many instances they have contributed to the situation by cutting taxes on corporations and the rich.

Pennsylvania stands as an example of both. During eight years of Republican reign, Pennsylvania shifted 20 percent of the cost of public education onto the back of local governments who, in turn, increased real estate taxes on the homes of working families while tax cuts to corporations like Mellon Bank and US Steel, cost working families $3 billion in lost services and/or increased taxes.

These battles underscore the significance of who occupies the governor’s mansion. Governors have a great deal of influence on the legislative process and have the power of the veto. That, combined with mass struggle, can go far in fending off the worst of a bad situation. And that, alone, points to the need for a large voter turnout on Nov. 5.

But there’s another – perhaps even more important – reason: Because they occupy a prominent spot on the ballot, they play a key role in determining the outcome of elections for lesser office, including for the House of Representatives.

We would go one step further. This year’s elections – especially in Florida and Texas – have as much to do with 2004 as with 2002. Friend and foe alike will see the outcome in these states as a vote for or against President Bush and his policies. Although symbolism has its limits, popular perceptions do influence the way people think and, therefore, they help generate the “can do” spirit that is needed if the right wing’s grip on the levers of power is to be loosened this year and broken in 2004.

One other battle must be fought and won before any of this can happen: People have to go to the polls on Nov. 5. According to most reports voter turnout this year has been disappointing, with fewer than 20 percent of eligible voters voting in this year’s primaries.

The AFL-CIO, with its “Labor 2002” campaign, is concentrating on getting out the vote for labor-friendly candidates in 25 states scattered from Alaska to Florida, with major efforts in Oregon, Maryland and several other states where Democrats risk losing a seat they presently hold. On the other side of the coin, the federation is working hard in Florida, Texas and several other states where GOP incumbents face the possibility of defeat.

Unions are not taking anything for granted, even in Pennsylvania where Democrat Ed Rendell enjoys a double-digit lead. Phone banks have been running six days a week and voter identification efforts have been increased.

With memories of 2000 and this year’s primary high on the radar screen, the Democratic National Committee dispatched hundreds of lawyers and paralegals to Florida to protect the right of Floridians, especially of African Americans and Latinos, to vote and have their ballots counted.

The authors can be reached at and

PDF version of ‘Governor races: Key to defeating the right wing’