Campaigning for Governor Isn’t Enough, Start Planning a Transition — Now

Now’s the time to start studying floor plans, picking a chief of staff, planning a post-election schedule — and learning from advice of past governors

GOP gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno and Democratic candidate Phil Murphy
Notes to gubernatorial nominees Phil Murphy and Kim Guadagno: In addition to continuing to campaign for governor, start looking at the governor’s office floor plans, make time to have coffee with lawmakers, and expect the unexpected.

Yes, even though New Jersey’s gubernatorial election is still more than three months away, it’s not too early for the candidates to start preparing for their transition into office, asserts a new Rutgers University report.

“From Candidate to Governor-Elect,” released on Tuesday by the Eagleton Center on the American Governor, is something of a guide and planner for prospective state chief executives. It comprises, in part, advice and insights from previous governors and their staffs, including specific actions that should be taken before election day. There’s also what could prove to be a prescient section with the title, “Don’t make promises you may regret.”

In its introduction, the report says its objectives are “to help gubernatorial candidates and their staffs learn from the experience of previous governors-elect and perhaps avoid pitfalls or seize opportunities that might otherwise be missed.” It also informs those watching the next transition what to expect.

A smooth transition

“It may seem at first presumptuous for a nominee to make specific plans for what he or she will do in the ten weeks between being declared the winner on the evening of November 7 and being sworn in on January 16, but effective use of that transition period can greatly increase the likelihood of a relatively smooth and effective start for a new administration,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics and director of the Eagleton Center on the American Governor, who co-authored the report. “For the nominees in New Jersey and Virginia, it is not too soon to be laying the groundwork.”

Right now, for instance, the campaigns of Republican Guadagno and Democrat Murphy should be working on eight pre-transition tasks that include deciding on the size and structure of the governor’s office, choosing a chief of staff, and designating most or all the members of the main transition team. Identifying potential cabinet appointees, developing plans for the lame-duck session, and planning the governor-elect’s immediate post-election schedule — including a vacation — are also key tasks to be working on prior to election day.

“Expect a major unexpected problem,” the report warns. For instance, Gov. Thomas H. Kean’s transition period was three weeks shorter due to uncertainty about his small margin of victory — 1 1,797 votes. Gov. Jim Florio did not learn the true size of the fiscal crisis he was facing until the transition had begun. And Gov. Christie Whitman had to spend a significant amount of transition time rebutting false claims of voter suppression by her campaign manager.

Keeping promises?

For those who have observed or been involved in state politics, many of the promises that the report urges candidates to avoid sound very familiar, including specific ethics reforms and cutting the size of the state workforce. About another oft-made promise, to reduce the size of the governor’s office staff, the report states, “Announcement of such changes can earn brief positive media coverage, but then significantly hamper a governor’s office’s ability to nimbly handle all the issues and problems that will come its way. Often the result is that the gaps quickly become apparent and key positions from other agencies are then quietly moved to the governor’s office.”

Weingart said that in the current political climate, it’s important to have the best-organized transition possible.

“I do think the current polarization, even though it is less virulent at the state level than nationally, makes a well-planned transition all the more important,” he said. “The governor-elect has a brief time to craft an infrastructure that is going to increase his/her ability to contend with all the dueling priorities and crises that will vie for time once in office.”

Weingart said one key task for the nominees is to choose now, or soon, someone or a group of people they trust “who do not want a position in the administration.” These people will “play a leadership role before the election in charting out options and recommendations for the decisions that will need to be made quickly once the votes are counted.”

‘Honest self-reflection’

It’s also a good time for the nominees to “do some quiet honest self-reflection to inventory their strengths and weaknesses, so that they can then both design a structure for the governor’s office and pick the key members of their executive staff that will be most effective for them,” Weingart said. He also offered some specific advice to New Jersey’s two major party nominees. “Since neither nominee has served in the Legislature, they ought to consider filling a chief of staff or counsel or other upper-level position with a present or former legislator or experienced legislative staff member.”

As for the transition period itself, the report offers advice on a dozen tasks. These include trying to get copies of the transition reports written by each department and agency before they were edited by the outgoing governor’s office; determining goals for the first 100 days and which executive orders to issue and eliminate; and meeting with legislators individually and in a group.

Doug Berman, Florio’s campaign manager in 1989 and his first state treasurer, is quoted saying, “The single biggest mistake in the first part (of the transition) was not spending enough time, not just with the Legislature, but being available to just have a cup of coffee with people.” Florio famously proposed and was able to get through the Democratic Legislature a $2.8 billion tax increase and new school-funding plan, prompting a huge public backlash. Two years later, the Democrats lost control of both the Senate and the Assembly and Florio himself lost his bid for re-election in 1993.

Particularly interesting are remarks by Byrne, the governor who enacted New Jersey’s income tax, about how he cultivated relationships with lawmakers.

“You start off by having them at the governor’s mansion,” Byrne said in an October 2007 interview with the Center on the American Governor that is cited in the report. “They like that, and I would have, for instance, when I was putting the income tax together I would have pool parties on Sunday afternoons and the legislators would bring their kids to swim and cook hamburgers and we’d have an afternoon of it, and there are people today who remember that that’s the way it worked. So they start out by wanting to come to the Governor’s Office. We’d have sessions at the Governor’s Office or events or social events at the Governor’s Office and it did develop camaraderie. But then they also wanted you to come to their district and meet them at their district and make the local papers. It was a nice blended thing.”

The 90-page report, funded by a grant from The Fund for New Jersey, also includes appendices with timelines of key dates and appointments in the transitions of governors from 1973 through 2009, as well as a list of executive orders issued in each of their first 100 days.