State of the Union: Governors keep their distance from Trump

State executives this year have often compared the shape of their states favorably to the federal government.

Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey speaks beside President Donald Trump at a 2018 White House dinner. Ducey this year noted differences between “the Arizona way” and “D.C. politicians.” (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey speaks beside President Donald Trump at a 2018 White House dinner. Ducey this year noted differences between “the Arizona way” and “D.C. politicians.” (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted February 4, 2020 at 10:04am

To hear New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tell it, his Empire State is strong but threatened by a national mood he compared to a sea “as tempest-tossed as we have seen,” with “waves of anxiety, injustice and frustration  . . .  fanned by winds of anger and division, creating a political and social superstorm.”

His Jan. 8 State of the State address in Albany framed the state of the union under President Donald Trump as a disaster that would be far worse for New Yorkers if not for his state government.

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo distributed a poster with a nautical theme after his State of the State address on Jan. 8.

Trump, in his State of the Union address before Congress on Feb. 4, will no doubt paint a different picture. But many governors around the country appear to be happy to contrast their self-proclaimed steady hands to the gyrations of the federal government.

Executives who have delivered speeches so far this year have often compared the shape of their states favorably to the federal government. Democrats, predictably, have been more likely to criticize Trump, but polarization and the perception of inaction at the federal level are popular targets for rhetorical punches.

While Democrats are more likely to make direct references to Trump, Republicans, too, seek to draw a contrast between their state governments and the Washington power structure.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey made references in his speech to “the Arizona way,” which included both an ideological mantra to reduce the scope of government and a procedural record of working across party lines. Both represented differences with “D.C. politicians” and other states, he said.

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Several governors noted a divisive national mood in their addresses, with many trying to distance themselves from the polarization, warning it could infiltrate their states. Cuomo, for example, framed national division as a serious threat to New York.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican starting his fourth year in office, appeals to civility and collaboration in every State of the State speech he’s given. He’s highlighted the issue more every year, says Rebecca Kelley, a spokeswoman for the governor.

“We’re certainly not immune to the growth in partisanship we’ve seen around the country,” says Scott spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley.

Scott, an understated former construction manager, has also spoken against Trump when he’s felt the president has been particularly divisive. When the president said four women of color who are freshmen Democrats in the House should “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Scott called the remarks “offensive, racist and certainly not what we expect” from the president.

“Words matter,” he said at a news conference. “And we’ve seen the same rhetoric used throughout history to discriminate, degrade and divide.”

As a statewide official in a mostly blue state, the governor has a good reason to distance himself from Trump. And on policy, too, he’s diverged from his party and the president on several issues, although apparently not as regularly as the state’s Democrats would like.

“There are some very important, notable things that I absolutely applaud him for that are the exception not the rule,” says Vermont House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, a Democrat.

But Scott stood with the state’s congressional delegation — Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch, both Democrats — at a 2017 news conference to oppose House Republicans’ efforts to repeal the health care law signed by President Barack Obama in 2010.

And he and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker were the first Republicans to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of state governments that agreed to stick to the conditions of the Paris climate accord after Trump announced plans to pull out of it. He also reversed his position on guns to sign a Democratic gun safety bill shortly after the Parkland shooting in Florida and after authorities foiled a mass shooting plot in Vermont.

Kentucky’s new Democratic governor,  Andy Beshear — a moderate like Scott, but in a conservative state — made appeals in his address to working across party lines and urged lawmakers to reject partisanship.

“Now don’t get me wrong, I believe Kentucky has a lot going for it,” he said. “But there are so many needs, so many in crisis, too many families crying out for help. There is simply not enough time or enough bandwidth to solve these problems if we play partisan games.”

Beshear also used his speech to try and make a clean break from former Gov. Matt Bevin, the Republican incumbent he beat in November. The new governor’s agenda was a direct reversal of some Bevin policies.

In his first days in office he restored voting rights to nonviolent felons and rescinded a Bevin-led Medicaid waiver that required Kentuckians to work, attend school or complete some other community service in order to receive benefits from the program.

In perhaps his strongest repudiation of Bevin in the Jan. 14 speech, Beshear also called on lawmakers to pass a raise for public school teachers, whose relationship with Bevin deteriorated to the point where many participated in a coordinated “sickout” last year, missing school to protest the governor.

The fight was unpopular in the commonwealth and contributed to Bevin’s image as an uncompromising governor with an abrasive personality — and likely to his loss. Beshear said he was eager to reverse the state’s position.

“We can wipe the slate clean, and we can move forward in support of public education together,” he said.

Staying the course

Beshear is one of only two new governors this year. The other, Republican Tate Reeves in Mississippi, hasn’t scheduled a State of the State address.

In general, the surplus of incumbents means governors are more likely to project a positive view of their states in speeches. It also means broad, ambitious plans are unlikely to be revealed this year, says Brian Sigritz, the director of state fiscal studies for the National Association of State Budget Officers.

But governors seeking to emphasize positives have been fortunate in recent years as unprecedented economic growth has given them more examples to use.

Most have highlighted existing initiatives or priorities. Increasing teacher pay and otherwise boosting funding for public education, addressing transportation infrastructure and encouraging job growth have been among the most common policy areas governors have mentioned so far this year.

The longest period of economic growth in the country’s modern history has eased the financial strain on states. Many have been able to grow their rainy day funds as officials await a downturn. But many also expect the good times to ebb in the near future and governors in several states will likely have to plan for how to handle a slowdown in the economy.

Fitch Ratings, a credit rating company, projects 2020 will see economic growth around 1.7 percent — still expanding, but at the lowest rate since 2011.

Some governors believe identifying problems in the state gives viewers the impression they’re up to the task.

Cuomo’s speech, which warned of “a challenging year” ahead, was notable for its bluntness about difficulties the state faces. Richard Azzopardi, an adviser to Cuomo, says that tone reflects what citizens see. Cuomo’s speech came mere weeks after a man stabbed five people during a Hanukkah celebration in a heavily Jewish community.

The act was considered a hate crime by many and heightened a sense of fear.

Scott identified a “crisis” of population loss in most areas of Vermont while claiming “enormous faith” in the state’s ability to solve that and other problems.

“The governor feels it’s important to not put our head in the sand on our demographic challenges,” his spokeswoman says. “We’re not going to solve them if we can’t acknowledge them.”