Materials developed by-
K. D. Kennedy
Political Science Department
College Of San Mateo

Lesson Fifteen: "Roles and Powers of the Governor"

ReadingTest Material DiscussionLinks

Reading Assignment:
Debow and Syer, Chapter 8, (pages 181-193)

Final Exam Material

These are things to pay attention to on the FINAL that are contained in this part of the chapter. Remember, these are just "clues" to things that are on the final examination.


Decades ago a famous political scientist, V. O. Key developed a model of looking at the behavior of political chief executives like the President. That model retains some usefulness in looking at the governorship. It involves analyzing the job of governor by breaking the job down into different sets of behaviors referred to as "roles" By themselves, roles do not fully describe how well (or poorly) a particular office holder is doing. But, taken as a whole, looking at roles give you a chance to compare how well or poorly a governor is doing in certain areas of his job.

Though these analytical roles are pretty much the same for the President and the Governor, the emphases may be completely different. For example, Chief of State is an important role for the President. It is far less important for an governor. Yet, even this role, described below as "ribbon cutting" can have a strongly negative effect if misplayed. This lesson ends up with a table which lists the roles and their common behaviors. But for now, let's describe them in increasing order of importance.

Chief of State: This role is largely ceremonial. Cutting ribbons to open a new freeway or receiving foreign leaders, representing the state at official conferences and giving awards are typical behaviors for this role. Doing well in this role probably won't make or break your governorship, but I recall that when his popularity waned for other reasons, the public began to regard Jerry Brown with suspicion. Was he really a governor? I recall his absence when Queen Elizabeth II came to San Francisco. Around that time, his popularity began its long decline.

Commander-in-Chief: This hugely important role for the President is only of modest effect for the governorship. Yet, here too, if misplayed it can hurt. Two governors come to mind which were troubled by this role. George Deukmejian allowed guardsman to voluntarily be sent to Central America, This apparently did not sit well with Californians. Certainly it did not cause him to be defeated (he never was), but it caused him to lose popularity. Popularity is like fuel for an engine, it can enable a governor to "face down" opponents and increases the likelihood that he will be able to achieve his agenda. Jerry Brown's father Pat Brown, himself a two term governor, was criticized for being slow to use the National Guard during the first Watts riot. Who can say how much it contributed to his unsuccessful attempt for a third term.

Final Judge: This is a role where the governor has more importance than the President. In recent decades the role has had a central issue, i.e. the death penalty. The public has focused on the governor's attitudes and in particular on their judicial appointments. It may not be too much to say that Jerry Brown's career was derailed by is connection with Rose Bird and the death penalty. Connection with Jerry Brown has been a negative for most candidates. Let's see how well Gray Davis does. He was in Jerry Brown's administration.

Head of Party: Now we move to more critical roles. Again we find Jerry Brown (and Pete Wilson) a bit on the outs with their own party. It makes it hard to develop political support for things you want to do if you don't have the enthusiastic support of your party. The best head of party in the post war (WWII) period was almost certainly Ronald Reagan. Reagan had a strategy, good people in critical positions, and the warm and affectionate support of his public. His strategy (Team 70) was not completely successful. Like a lot of politicians, Reagan was not able to convert his enormous personal popularity into success for his party. (Neither could Eisenhower) He rode his excellent political sense all the way to the White House. Detractors (I have often been among them) always wanted to believe he was "lucky", lucky to have a good economy, lucky to be President when the "evil empire" fell, lucky to be governor during the tax revolt years, lucky to be nominated after being out of office for 6 years, etc etc. Lincoln should have been so lucky. His years as governor left the state with a financial surplus and his party in excellent condition. His later years as President were marred by scandal, inattention and loss of focus thereby depriving him, in all likelihood of "greatness". But, he was an outstanding example of head of party.

Chief Legislator: This must seem an odd role. Legislator??? Yet the Governor and the President play very important legislative roles. Think about it, some of the most important legislation (like the budget) begins in the executive (President's Office of Management and Budget, and Governor's Dep't of Finance) and ends with the ability to veto. Plus, the Governor has the item veto, recently deprived of the President by a Supreme Court decision. Along the way, the Governor and various members of his administration have powerful influence on legislative outcomes. The Governor, in fact, lays out his "agenda' in his State of the State Address to the Legislature. All in all, this role is the one where the Governor can do the most leading in terms or priorities and objectives.

Chief Executive: Finally, we come to the role which literally characterizes the office. In this role the governor enforces the law, makes major appointments, and formulates policy. This role has been the "make or break" role for Brown, and Wilson. Does the governor take responsibility, make good appointments, make clear what is objectives are?

The table below lists the roles and their typical behaviors:

Executive Roles
Chief of StatelowBrown (poor); Regan (well)Honorary, Ribbon Cutting Role
Commander-in-ChieflowDeukmejian (poor)
Wilson (good)
Orders National Guard
Declares Emergency, Martial Law
Final JudgemediumWilson (good)Clemency, Pardons, Handles Death Penalty
Head of PartymediumReagan (great)Leads Party, Fund Raising, Helps Candidates
Chief LegislatorhighReagan (fair) P.Brown (good) Budget, State of State Address
Veto and Item Veto Power
Chief ExecutivehighReagan and P. Brown (good)Appoints Positions, Makes Policy

A final question, "Is the California governorship good 'training' for the presidency?" California governors are almost automatically thought of as presidential candidates and this dramatically increases their political influence, hence their power. On that matter, here is a quote from a keen observer of presidents:

If the twentieth centruy taughts us anything about the preparation of a president, it is surely the fact that men who have served as governors of large, complex states are far better groomed for the White House than men from small, one-party states. Think of the presidents who came from the governor's chair in the big states: Teddy Roosevelt from New York, Wilson from New Jersey, Franklin Roosevelt from New York, Reagan from California. Compare their performances in the White House to the two men who came from the smaller states of Georgia and Arkansas. It's a much bigger leap to the White House from Litlle Rock than from Sacramento.

from Gergen, Eyewitness to Power, Simon and Schuster, 2000, p. 159


This area contains a few links to sites that have material that applies to the subject. I hope to expand this as we go along and invite you to send links to me when you find interesting material that you think is relevant.

California Governor's Office
The new governor's site here
The governors of California site
Line ItemVeto (presidential)

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