Democratic governors, bolstered by victories in several major states last month, served notice on their congressional counterparts yesterday that they expect to play a larger role in shaping and delivering the party's message on the economy, health care and homeland security.
Democrats lost ground in the House and Senate last month but picked up a net of three states in gubernatorial races, including wins in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois. Although they fell short of capturing a majority of governorships, the Democratic state executives said yesterday that their campaigns proved they know how to win in all regions of the country and that the national party leadership should learn from their successes.
Gov.-elect Bill Richardson of New Mexico called his fellow governors "the bright light" on Election Day and said one reason the party lost House and Senate seats was because "we didn't have an economic message" during the midterm elections. "These Democratic governors in their states did."
In meetings with Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence McAuliffe, the governors presented a wish list to boost their influence within the party.
Their list includes a seat at the table in the development of a Democratic economic plan to counter President Bush's pending economic stimulus package, more seats on the national committee and assurances that governors will be included more regularly in the delivery of Democratic responses to Bush.
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, who was national party chairman during the 2000 presidential campaign, said the governors would work cooperatively with congressional Democrats but would not shrink from making their voices heard.
"Politically they're glad to see us," he said, "but I don't know if they're going to enjoy being pushed. But we should push them respectfully, understanding that they've got their own responsibilities, their own difficulties. But we didn't come here to do nothing."
Pelosi, emerging after a closed-door meeting with House Democrats, agreed that the party had failed to deliver an economic message this fall. "I thought we should have done it in the campaign," she said. "If we take this to the American people and the people understand the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, I think we'll have a fair hearing from our Republican colleagues."
Democrats picked up several governorships in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, reelected to a second term and now vice chairman of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), said one reason was "a strong message that resonated" with rural voters. He has begun to organize a "heartland caucus" of midwestern governors to help the party blunt inroads Republicans have made with rural voters in presidential and congressional elections.
Republicans enjoy an advantage over Democrats in rural America because of cultural and social issues. But David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist working with Vilsack, said Democrats can counter the GOP's strength with a strong economic message. Republicans feel cultural solidarity with rural voters, he said, but have done little to stem the economic decline of small towns.
Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the new DGA chairman, said Democratic governors intend to develop their own plan to present to congressional leaders but offered no specific ideas. Rendell said any new tax cuts should be aimed at stimulating investment and job creation and not go to the wealthiest Americans.
Democratic governors said they will work with GOP governors to pressure Bush and congressional Republicans to live up to their pledges to provide additional funds to the states for education, health care and homeland security.
"If additional funding is not possible, the federal government needs to give us more flexibility" to administer Medicaid or the president's new education reforms, Locke said.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.