Thursday, December 2, 2004

Democratic governors complained yesterday that their party is losing elections because it is too closely tied to Washington and said they intend to play a central role in rebuilding their political base at the state level in preparation for the 2008 elections.

Announcing that they plan to be more active and visible in the party’s affairs, the chief executives said they will propose that a Democratic governor be made the chief spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said.

“We want to become the center of gravity in our party,” said Mr. Richardson, who was elected yesterday as chairman of the Democratic Governors’ Association (DGA).

After a daylong, closed-door discussion of their party’s devastating losses in the 2004 presidential and congressional elections, Mr. Richardson and several other governors were openly critical of their party’s national leadership. They said the party needs to become more pragmatic politically and adopt a more centrist-leaning agenda.

“For too long, local candidates have had to distance ourselves from the national Democratic Party,” Mr. Richardson said. “The Democratic Party can’t continue to be a Washington-based party.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell said that too often, the national party spoke to voters in “Washington speak” and that they have “gotten away from the core values in our party.”

“Too much of our party is trapped in inside-the-Beltway thinking,” he said.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said Democrats need to participate in “dialogue about family and faith. It’s important, and often Democrats shy away from that.”

The governors did not direct any of their criticism against Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, their party’s losing presidential candidate, but some pointedly said the party had to erase its liberal image.

“We need someone who is a centrist, someone who can speak to the heart,” to be the party’s new face and spokesman, said Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, who was elected vice chairman of the DGA.

Mr. Richardson, who has been mentioned as a presidential candidate in 2008, mapped out an ambitious plan to “make the DGA a nationwide, state-based organization that will lead the [party’s] rebuilding effort.”

The central element in Mr. Richardson’s strategy is a substantial expansion of the DGA’s staff and campaign resources to help elect more governors over the next two years to strengthen the party’s base.

“In ‘05 and ‘06, there are 38 governors races. We will invest in these races, which will be critical to becoming competitive in the long term and retaking Washington in ‘08,” he said.

Many Democrats said the party’s biggest weakness in presidential politics is its lack of strong, politically ambitious, big-state governors. Democrats have won the White House in only three out of the past 10 elections, and each of those elections was won by a Southern governor, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

Democrats held a clear majority of the governorships at the beginning of the 1990s, but lost their control in the ensuing decade. Next year, they will hold 21 governor’s seats and the Republicans will have 29, including in the four biggest states: California, Texas, New York and Florida.

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