New Governors' Retreat A Chance To Regroup

More than a dozen newly elected governors gathered in Colorado over the weekend to talk about the challenges they face back home. Those challenges can be daunting, especially for those who are new to the office. On Saturday, their veteran peers at the National Governors' Association offered some words of advice.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The nation's governors are grappling with the worst economic recession in decades, high unemployment, and for some, declining state revenues. Coming up, a conversation with the new chair of the National Governors Association, Christine Gregoire, the Democratic governor of Washington state.

But first, NPR's David Schaper reports from the NGA's seminar for new governors, taking place this weekend in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Twenty-nine new governors were elected this month. That's the largest incoming class in the nation's history. And some of them are getting advice from those who know the challenges of the office best - veteran governors.

DAVID SCHAPER: The expensive, exhausting and bitterly partisan campaigns are over. Now the real work begins: Hiring a staff, assembling a cabinet, and planning for potentially crippling budget shortfalls. The transition from campaigning to governing can be overwhelming. It's like trying to sip water from a firehose, says one veteran state chief executive here at the National Governors Association seminar for new governors.

The newly elected leaders of 16 states are meeting this weekend with 14 veterans, chatting informally in the hallways and meeting in formal seminar sessions on topics such as budgeting, emergency preparedness, and shaping your agenda.

Governor BILL RITTER (Democrat, Colorado): Thank you. I'm Bill Ritter, the governor of Colorado. We know...

SCHAPER: Host, Colorado Democrat Bill Ritter, says this weekend's events are geared towards helping the new governors transition away from the intense limelight under which they campaigned.

Gov. RITTER: We do it without regard for party or partisan issues. It is our hope that this National Governors Association can actually represent a bridge in partisan politics.

SCHAPER: With donkeys and elephants set aside, the dominating topics of conversation include the slow economy and ever-shrinking budgets.

Nebraska Republican Dave Heineman offers this advice.

Governor DAVE HEINEMAN (Republican, Nebraska): Know your budget in detail. Know your two-year budget in detail. But also be looking at a four-year big picture, because that is one of the most critical things that you've got to decide as governor - where are you going to put your funding priorities.

SCHAPER: The better you know the budget, Heineman and other governors say, the easier it will be to draw the line and say no - one of the more difficult things governors will have to do.

Again, Colorado's Bill Ritter.

Gov. RITTER: Governors have to make very difficult decisions. There's a lot about the economy that continues to lag. And because of that, there are what we call unenviable choices. And that can tend to alienate interest groups, alienate people along the way. That's just part of serving now in a time that's fairly difficult.

Governor JACK MARKELL (Democrat, Delaware): I'm Jack Markell from Delaware.

SCHAPER: More advice to new governors.

Gov. MARKELL: First of all, 95 percent at least of the success of any governor, I believe, is dependent upon the people that you surround yourself with, both within the governor's office staff, as well as with the cabinet.

SCHAPER: Markell says that choosing the most qualified means being very careful to resist pressure to appoint some who may help score political points but may not be up to the task. The Delaware Democrat than added this.

Gov. MARKELL: The second thing from my perspective is that you can't get distracted by debates that are meaningless.

SCHAPER: For example, on the troubled economy, Markell says partisan squabbling over government regulation and Wall Street compensation during this fall's campaigns missed the mark.

Colorado's Ritter adds that while focusing on the transition, the budget and the cabinet, governors also need to pay close attention to what the state legislature might do.

Gov. RITTER: There are, you know, things that could surprise you and surprise you pretty early on. And a lot of governors think about on the first 100 days and want to move a big agenda in the first 100 days, but what you don't want is a surprise in that first 100 days that can derail you.

SCHAPER: That's something Ritter, who chose not to run for a second term, says he learned the hard way.

When asked if any of the new governors fear they could become one-term governors because of the tough choices they face, veteran Delaware Democrat Jack Markell answered before any of the newbies could.

Gov. MARKELL: My view is if you're thinking about that, you're thinking about all the wrong things.

SCHAPER: Governors of both parties agree that if the new class governs with their re-election in mind, they won't succeed.

David Schaper, NPR News in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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