Politico

We asked governors what they want from Biden. Here’s what they told us.


Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama, who was a supporter of former President Donald Trump, has something in mind she would welcome from a new president who she voted against: money.

Specifically, the Republican leader is urging President Joe Biden to lead the charge for new spending on infrastructure, which she regards as key to “the rebuilding and strengthening of the manufacturing sector.”

A thousand miles to the north of Montgomery, a Democratic governor who is in most ways the ideological opposite of Ivey is hoping that Biden and Congress will work together on precisely the same goal. “Infrastructure is critical to our state,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. “Hundreds of thousands of our residents are employed in New York and Philadelphia, and rely on mass transit to get to their jobs.“

In his inaugural address, Biden issued an appeal for “unity” and a revival of functional government. The weeks since — with an impeachment trial and gaping differences over the size of a pandemic relief package — have made clear the low probability in the near-term of changing the relentless partisanship of the nation’s capital.

But a POLITICO survey of select governors, which collectively represents a quasi-symposium, suggests the revival of the practical-minded center Biden extols might be attainable for his administration. Its path likely would run though places like Montgomery and Trenton, as well as Montpelier and Salt Lake City and Olympia, before finally arriving (if at all) in Washington, D.C.

It is not that polarization and grievance don’t exist in the states. No one following the way that Republican state parties in multiple locations have been taken over by Trump acolytes — who have passed resolutions denouncing Republican lawmakers who show insufficient fealty to the former president and his bogus claims that he won the election — could harbor that illusion.

But the survey respondents did illuminate a kind of steady, practical-minded focus that crossed both partisan and geographic divides.

Democrats, not surprisingly, are more eager than Republicans for the new administration to robustly expand government’s role in fighting the pandemic and its economic and social consequences. Several Democrats wish for a national mask mandate from Washington, for instance, while no Republicans do.

More striking, however, is the relative blurring of ideology in the answers. All seven governors who participated in POLITICO’s queries expressed concern about the condition of their state’s economy. Most said assistance from the federal government is necessary for their state governments to meet the demands of the moment, though a couple said they would make do without it.

The survey had two parts. In the first, governors answered multiple choice questions with the understanding that answers would be described cumulatively but the answers of individual governors would not be shared by name. The second part of the survey invited governors to expand on their views and experiences with on-the-record answers.

Both sections highlighted a sense of urgency — and in some cases, a sense of precariousness — that governors perceive about the condition of a pandemic-stricken country as Biden begins.

Their concerns were in every instance about what might be called material politics — that is, problems and remedies which have a tangible manifestation, from job rates to infection rates to energy supply and transition to low-carbon alternatives. In no case did the answers gravitate to the cultural issues — from concern about race relations, or “cancel culture,” or even the all-consuming debates about Trump — that have animated so much of national politics over the past 12 months or the past four years.

Almost certainly, this reflects the nature of a governor’s job, rather than that these particular politicians are somehow wired differently in their interests. But the answers do suggest a way that Biden might transcend a style of politics that often defaults toward remorseless personal and ideological conflict and away from problem-solving. It is by organizing his own administration — as by most appearances he seems to be doing — around material politics. These types of issues by nature tend to reward concrete results rather than rhetorical appeals, and allow for a degree of practical difference-splitting on the way to those results.

What follows are excerpts of the on-the-record portion of the survey results.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, Republican


What about your job worries you the most right now, and why?

Striking a balance between protecting people’s personal health and their livelihood has been the primary goal of mine throughout the pandemic. Alabama went from a pre-pandemic record low unemployment rate to now being in recovery mode. I look forward to regaining that momentum, while helping distribute a successful vaccine to people in all 67 counties.

From your perspective as governor, what one major policy area do you want the president and Congress to address? Why?

Continually investing in our infrastructure is important to Alabama. Throughout the Trump Administration, we have put Alabama and America first, which has launched business and industry forward. Alabama is a great example of the rebuilding and strengthening of the manufacturing sector. When you prioritize business, you are prioritizing middle America.

Maine Gov. Janet T. Mills, Democrat


What about your job worries you the most right now, and why?

Making life and death decisions and decisions that affect the economy, schools and people’s livelihoods; making sure people have confidence in the decisions our public policy and public health officials are making. What disturbs me most about recent events, including the election and the effect of the pandemic, is the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the learnings gap in our schools and the earnings gap in our working communities, things that the vaccine alone will not cure.

From your perspective as governor, what one major policy area do you want the president and Congress to address? Why?

Taking measures to combat and mitigate the effects of climate change — rejoining the Paris Climate Accord; enforcing CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards, mercury and ozone emission regulations and appliance efficiency standards; providing incentives for energy efficient and safe homes and buildings, renewable energy sources, electric vehicles and home heating apparatuses such as heat pumps.


What about your job worries you the most right now, and why?

As we navigate the second wave, what worries me is the many hard decisions that are ahead if the pandemic continues to worsen. This pandemic has left Governors with options that can only be described as bad and worse. [Last] March, I made the immensely difficult decision to shut down our state, a decision many other Governors around the country made as well. While this was the right choice, it had a massive economic impact on our state, and the struggles that New Jerseyans, whether they are essential workers, small business owners, students, or anyone else, are going through are always at the top of my mind.

We must also continue to serve low-income residents and our communities of color. These residents have been amongst the hardest-hit by this pandemic, not only in terms of the death toll, but also in terms of the economic impact. Food insecurity and demand for essential social services are at all-time highs and we need as much federal aid as we can get to protect the most vulnerable among us.

From your perspective as governor, what one major policy area do you want the president and Congress to address? Why?

New Jersey serves as a gateway to New York City and Philadelphia, the first and sixth largest cities in the United States. As such, infrastructure is critical to our state. Hundreds of thousands of our residents are employed in New York and Philadelphia, and rely on mass transit to get to their jobs. We have made meaningful progress on portions of the Gateway Program, but we must complete this project in order to avoid economic catastrophe, not just for our region, but our nation. The area covered by the Northeast Corridor rail line is responsible for 20 percent of the GDP of the United States.

The North River Tunnel [that runs under the Hudson River] is in need of imminent repair, and if shut down without a replacement tunnel, will cause immense damage to the state, regional, and national economies, something that the country could not afford before the pandemic, but certainly won’t be able to after. It is of immense importance that the … administration and Congress fund the Gateway Program. We are fortunate to have a [president] that understands more than almost anyone else in government, the importance of a functioning Northeast corridor, and I am more hopeful than I have ever been before that we … have a true partner in the White House.


What about your job worries you the most right now, and why?

There are many things that have kept governors up at night these past nine months, but one of the most serious challenges we face is the amount of COVID-related misinformation and denial we see, fueled by online conspiracy theories and fact-free ideological websites.

From your perspective as governor, what one major policy area do you want the president and Congress to address? Why?

There is no shortage of problems the Federal government must address: COVID-19, the cost of healthcare, infrastructure, the debt, the economy, restoring global alliances, etc. But one of the most impactful initiatives they should pursue is a major federal effort to expand rural broadband across the country. States have worked hard and struggled for years to expand coverage with some success, but we simply cannot get to the last mile without federal help. The digital divide between urban and rural parts of our country has seriously hampered rural economic development in a 21st Century economy increasingly dependent on reliable connectivity. And the pandemic has demonstrated just how critical this need is for rural states.

We have faced a similar problem before and must pursue a similar solution. In the early 20th Century, the urban-rural divide was electricity. Recognizing the importance of electrification to the economy and quality of life in rural America, Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act (REA), which helped states like Vermont get to the last mile. Our country needs an REA-type approach to broadband to help grow our economy, which will help states raise revenue organically to invest in other critical areas.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Democrat


What about your job worries you the most right now, and why?

Answering in December, before cases began falling: The growth of COVID-19 cases throughout my state and the ability of our health care system to serve all who need care. We must slow the spread of new cases, hospitalizations and death. I remain deeply concerned about the economic impact of the virus on workers and businesses.

From your perspective as governor, what one major policy area do you want the president and Congress to address? Why?

Congress: Financial assistance to help individuals, workers and businesses who have been impacted by the virus.

Next president: Stronger direction and coordination from the federal government, the states have been left to their own devices for the past year and strong federal leadership would have saved lives and protected health.

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, Republican


Gordon chose not to answer most of the on-the-record portion, but he did respond to this question:

For the sake of your state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis, what’s the most urgent unsolved problem to address?

Supporting businesses so that they are able to survive through the winter months, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding [an] additional relief package.

Former Utah Gov. Gary Richard Herbert, Republican


Herbert left office shortly after completing this survey.

What about your job worries you the most right now, and why?

Economic development in rural Utah.

From your perspective as governor, what one major policy area do you want the president and Congress to address? Why?

They should focus on balancing the budget.

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