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'Worst Governors' List Has Suspicious Deep Red Tinge

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (left) and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, both Republicans, made a watchdog group's list of bad governors that has a very disproportionate GOP skew.
Ronda Churchill
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (left) and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, both Republicans, made a watchdog group's list of bad governors that has a very disproportionate GOP skew.

Of the 50 state governors in the U.S., 30 are Republicans and 20 are Democrats, a ratio of 3 to 2.

So when , a nonprofit watchdog group, issued a report this week listing 18 governors it alleged are the "worst in America," it immediately raised eyebrows and partisan ire for the notable party tilt of its examples — only two were Democrats.

How could that be? Wouldn't you expect at least a few more Democrats on the list, at least based on that 3:2 ratio?

I put that question to Melanie Sloane, CREW's executive director.

"The thing is, we looked at all 50. And you just can't put people on the list just in order to have an even balance. You can't say, 'Here's the percentage of governors that are Republican and the percentage that are Democrat' — and there are significantly more that are Republicans right now — and say, 'We'll have the exact same balance.' I would instead suggest somebody ought to ask, 'Who did we leave off? because we looked at all 50 and we didn't find any Democrats, any others who we felt belonged on the list based on our criteria. I think that's the main question. While people are critical, they haven't said who's missing.

"And then if we were just so anxious to protect Democrats, I don't think naming one of the lead presidential candidates for 2016 would be such a smart move on our part."

That was an allusion to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the New York Democrat who made the equivalent of honorable mention on the list (or is that dishonorable mention?). The other Democrat on CREW's list is Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.

Sure, Sloane said, the list has generated some heat, but that was to be expected.

"We always get criticism. That's part of the deal. Any Republican who's on it says they're on it because we're a Democratic front group. Andrew Cuomo has some other, I don't know what his theory is, that we're just not credible."

Actually, Cuomo's office hasn't responded officially to CREW's inclusion of the governor for what it says are failures in transparency and for cronyism. The chairman of the state's Democratic Party, Steve Capel, was quoted in the New York Daily News saying CREW is "not a credible organization."

A spokesman for the Republican Governors Association hadn't as of this writing responded to requests for comment. If and when he does, I'll update the post.


UPDATED @ 2:15 pm ET: RGA spokesman Jon Thompson offered this emailed response to the report:

"CREW is an bunch of partisans who do a terrible job of pretending to be non-partisan. There's clear evidence that shows CREW disproportionately targets conservatives as a favor to their liberal donors."


Sloane said staff in her watchdog group produced an initial draft list, then went back to the drawing board to try to find more Democratic governors.

"We looked very hard to see if there were more Democratic governors we could put on. We went back over several a couple of times to say 'How about this?' And often, things about them didn't pan out. They turned out not to be serious.

"Another thing that I think shows that it doesn't have the partisan motive attributed to us, if we really wanted to be partisan we'd put Chris Christie on the list," she said, since the New Jersey governor is viewed by many as a potentially strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

"It certainly is fodder for potential campaign commercials. And since in other cases our work has been used that way, it's not like I'm oblivious to the possibility of that. And Chris Christie is talked about a lot as a presidential contender. But he's not on the list because he didn't make the grade. It's not like he's not done anything wrong, either. But some of the stuff that he'd done wrong were holdovers that weren't solely attributable to him. We certainly looked at him. But like I said, we looked at all 50. ...

"If you look at most of these guys, especially the top six, we are hardly the first people to point to those six people. I mean Rick Scott [Florida], Rick Perry [Texas], Nathan Deal [Georgia], Bob McDonnell [Virginia] and Paul LePage [Maine], they get a lot of press for their bad conduct. We are not alone in noting it."

[Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rounds out the top six on CREW's list.]

So what is Sloane's theory for why CREW's list is skewed so dramatically and unfavorably toward Republicans?

"In some cases, I think it's that Republicans are often in general tighter with business interests and they have more complicated relationships with business than Democrats frequently do. The one Democrat who really gets into trouble on our list for the same kind of thing that I think we more frequently see with Republicans is Beshear and his mining relationships."

That's one theory. Clearly there are others. For instance, in explaining its methodology, CREW says:

"Researchers searched the Internet and the Nexis database for any credible allegations of misconduct against each governor. Researchers reviewed a wide variety of sources including news reports, personal financial disclosures, lobbying records, campaign finance reports, records maintained by state ethics bodies, state government websites, and state-based government watchdog groups."

What constitutes "credible" allegations in news media reports can obviously be subjective.

Also, timing can be everything. A few years ago, the prodigiously unethical Democratic then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now federal prisoner No. 40892-424, might have held the top six positions all by himself.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.