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Humiliating crash now a political ritual for governors

Then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, right, and then-Lt. Gov. David

Then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, right, and then-Lt. Gov. David Paterson talk with students during a visit to the Campus West School in Buffalo on April 4, 2007. Credit: AP File

It happens so frequently now that it's almost becoming a political ritual - the humbling collapse of the big-state governor, the species of officeholder that once dominated the American election landscape and provided a steady stream of White House prospects.

New York Gov. David A. Paterson, a Democrat who announced Friday amid scandal that he will not run for election in November, offers the latest example of the fallen titan.

Paterson's crash comes roughly two years after he assumed office, when his Democratic predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, resigned amid a prostitution scandal. And it comes just over a year after Illinois Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who succeeded later incarcerated Republican George Ryan, was impeached.

Other recent governors in the most populous states in the nation have managed to avoid such calamitous and humiliating descents. But many of them have shared a similar fate: a dizzying rise to within sight of the White House, only to be dragged down by personal foibles or the vagaries of mega-state governance.

"The larger-than-life days are over. We're in the age of the life-sized governor," said John J. Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College political scientist.

"Decades ago, governors could get away with a lot of sordid behavior in the political, financial and personal lives," Pitney said. "They didn't have to disclose much, and reporters tended to look the other way when it came to after-hours activity. Now they live in a world of ethics codes, disclosure forms and TMZ."

In California, GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has seen his approval rating drop to 27 percent, according to a recent poll, with roughly six in 10 voters concluding that he will leave the state in worse shape than when he took over in 2003. Back then, Schwarzenegger won the governorship after unpopular Democrat Gray Davis lost a recall election.

While Schwarzenegger is constitutionally ineligible to be president because he was born outside the United States, two other big-state governors who have been the subject of White House speculation currently find themselves in political peril in upcoming primary elections: Republicans Rick Perry of Texas and Charlie Crist of Florida. Then there is Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who barely escaped electoral death earlier this month when he narrowly survived a primary challenge.

"Big-state governors have often been the nation's political giants, but today some tough political conditions have cut them down to human size," said Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political scientist.

"In big states there is a universal contempt for political leadership," explained former two-term Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, considered for vice president on the GOP ticket in 2000. "The level of contempt is very high, and it's going to take a while for it to climb out of the basement."


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