Glendening positioned to lead governors' group

High-profile post would place him in national spotlight

August 07, 1999|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Bill Clinton, John Sununu and Lamar Alexander took the job and became national figures. Scott Matheson, Julian Carroll and Booth Gardner did it too, but never became familiar names.

Now, Parris N. Glendening has maneuvered himself into the position of future chairman of the National Governors' Association. He quietly campaigned for months for the chairmanship, provoking speculation that he, like so many governors before him, wants to raise his national profile and land a Cabinet post or other high-ranking job when he leaves office.

The nonpartisan governors' group meets this weekend in St. Louis, and Glendening is all but certain to become vice chairman at the close of the conference Tuesday. He would automatically ascend to chairman next summer, in the heat of the presidential race.

Glendening is keenly aware that he has a chance to represent the country's governors in an election year, when the public is most focused on politics. It is a well-timed opportunity that could help elevate him to national stature.

Officially, the job description of NGA chairman is rather pedestrian: represent the governors in Washington as an advocate for the states, and focus the governors on a few key public policy issues for one year. Some governors simply do that much and never become household names.

Others have gone on to become candidates for president, like Clinton; or members of presidential administrations, like Sununu, former chief of staff under President Bush; or both, like Alexander, a member of the Bush Cabinet who's running for president again after a failed 1996 bid.

"It's the governors who decide that they want to play on the national stage who become chairmen," said Robert Behn, director of The Governors Center at Duke University. "It's the sort of mid-sized or smaller state governors. I mean, George W. Bush doesn't need NGA."

Glendening, as governor of a state of 5 million people who associates say might like a Cabinet-level post in Washington, would seem to fit that description. But the governor maintains that his interest in the chairmanship has nothing to do with any ambitions he may harbor beyond his governorship, which ends in January 2003.

The former college professor said he sought the job because of his abiding interest in public policy.

"I just really like these issues," Glendening said. "I like to try and lead and maybe even help create some of the agenda."

The governor locked up the vice chairmanship -- and the eventual chairmanship -- by conducting a quiet campaign among his Democratic colleagues. The political parties alternate picking the chairman from year to year.

Glendening told fellow governors at last summer's meeting he was interested in the job, then asked for pledges of support after his re-election as governor, making telephone calls and engaging his colleagues at official functions. In part because he expressed interest early, he had little opposition.

Only one other Democratic governor, Tony Knowles of Alaska, made a serious bid for the job. He had the distinct disadvantage of being far away from Washington, where the association chairman often has to be for lobbying and legislative negotiations on Capitol Hill. By the end of the group's winter meeting in February, Glendening was assured of victory.

His rise to chairman is expected to begin Monday, when the 21 Democratic governors (from 17 states and 4 territories) meet privately to designate the vice chairman. Glendening would begin his term as vice chairman on Tuesday.

Though his term as chairman is still a year away, Glendening already has the broad outlines of his agenda mapped out: education and his anti-sprawl initiative, Smart Growth. The governor says he looks forward to meaningful discussion of those issues, not to his own career enhancement.

"To be able to say in some small way you're helping to shape a national debate on both education and controlling sprawl, it's rewarding, it really is," the governor said. "Personally rewarding."

But if Glendening can closely identify himself with one of his issues, it could be even more personally rewarding. Alexander, whom NGA officials credit with making education a top priority for governors, went on to serve as secretary of education under Bush.

Glendening has generated some buzz in political circles with his advocacy of Smart Growth, an issue that Vice President Al Gore has adopted in his presidential bid. The chairmanship would give Glendening a prestigious platform from which to capitalize on that buzz.

"Certainly, if Gore or Democrats were to maintain the executive branch with the next election, he would be a prime candidate for a Cabinet post," said Keith Haller, a Bethesda-based pollster. The chairmanship, Haller said, will give Glendening "instant credibility and a leverage in politics that he certainly hasn't experienced outside the borders of the free state."

Glendening knows his timing couldn't be better.

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