Around the Institute

Democratic Governors Discuss Body Cameras, Transportation, Fracking, and More

August 4, 2015  • Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger

Above, watch the full conversation featuring four Democratic governors. 

Four Democratic governors took to a public stage as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series in Aspen, CO, in a wide-ranging discussion with Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson about myriad issues facing their states and the country. Governors Steve Bullock of Montana, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, and Jay Nixon of Missouri discussed money in politics, the Affordable Care Act, transportation infrastructure, criminal justice reform, and police and gun violence, among other topics. 

Money’s influence in politics

Bullock, who was elected governor in 2013, discussed Montana’s fight against the influx of money into politics. The state used to have a law on its books banning corporate money in politics since the days of the “copper kings” in the early 1900s, Bullock explained. After the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, Montana’s corporate money ban was challenged, and Bullock, then as attorney general, successfully defended it up to the Montana Supreme Court level. But in 2012, the US Supreme Court struck down the ban, ruling that the Citizens United decision applies to state and local elections. 

“We had a 100-year law that served Montanans so well,” said Bullock, “and two years after Citizens United, 100 years of real, clean campaigning in Montana were wiped off the books.”

Montana responded to the defeat by passing a law — with a two-thirds Republican legislature, Bullock noted — requiring transparency in political donations.

“If you want to spend money to influence elections, fine, just tell us where it’s coming from,” is how Bullock explained the law. “At a minimum, adding sunshine to any system can only help it.” 

Expanding Medicaid

Bullock also touted being able to work with his heavily Republican legislature to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Montana’s Medicaid expansion is set to happen through a law sponsored by a Republican state senator and passed this spring.

Asked by Isaacson how he was able to do it, Bullock cited three things: 

  1. Learning “leadership from the balcony” as an Aspen Institute Rodel Fellow, which means “trying to look above and think about what are people’s interests, not just locking heads”
  2. Following his own advice that “we need to start acting like our kids are watching, and they probably are”
  3. The importance of compromise

“Yes, you do have to compromise,” he said, adding that after 126 vetoes it’s not like he’s a pushover. “The Medicaid bill was not everything I wanted, but let’s figure out a way where we can all walk out of here happy.” 

A new agenda for Connecticut

Malloy, who said he “wasn’t supposed to be” reelected Connecticut’s governor in 2014, discussed his two priorities for his surprise second term: transportation and a “second-chance society agenda.”

The main impediments to repairing and improving the nation’s aging transportation infrastructure needs, Malloy said, are the federal government (Congress, unable to pass a transportation reauthorization bill, has been approving a series of short-term funding extensions) and the Republican Party in general, which, as it moves further and further to the right, is “throwing out” those members who can constructively work on a solution.

“Once you can cut through the politics and the fear that it’s going to be held against you, Americans get that their infrastructure needs help,” said Malloy.

Malloy is in the first year of implementing a $100 billion program to overhaul Connecticut’s transportation infrastructure over a period of 30 years, and he managed to get a measure passed in the state budget that would earmark one-half percent of the current sales tax to help pay for transportation expenses.

Politicians shouldn’t worry about drifting too far to the left with such large-scale government programs, Malloy said, offering FDR’s Social Security plan as an example. 

“What was once seen as revolutionary eventually is looked at as evolutionary,” he said.

Malloy’s other priority, what he calls his second-chance society agenda, centers on criminal justice reform, an issue that has recently been embraced by both political parties.

“If people weren’t brought here in slavery or they’re not Native American, everybody else came here for a second chance,” Malloy said by way of explaining why it’s a universal idea. “We go to church on Sunday for a second chance. We created bankruptcy laws because we didn’t want to put people in jail for overspending.” 

But stricter, more long-term punishments that resulted from 1960s-era protests and clamping down on narcotics have created a system whereby, in Connecticut, 500 to 600 people are in jail, costing taxpayers $120 per night, for possession of narcotics. “And that’s often because of self-medication because we don’t do as good a job as we can with mental health,” Malloy added. “I think we need to reset the clock and be more supportive of permanent reformation.”

One of the things Connecticut has done, as part of its implementation of the Affordable Care Act, is to ensure that people who need them have access to mental health services. 

Yet, after the Newtown shooting, in which the killer should have been able to access and afford mental health services, “we also have to find a way to wrap around families tighter, and make sure we can approach this subject.” 

Missouri governor on Ferguson, body cameras, and more

Nixon, Missouri’s governor since 2009, said he has “learned a lot” from the turmoil in Ferguson that resulted from the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown last summer.

A big piece of the learning has to do with listening, Nixon said, which also includes listening to personal criticism. But what’s heartening was that “while the language was rough, and actions were strong, a whole new generation of people felt like they had a voice. It was in the streets sometimes, but that was good.”

Nixon said he’s also learned that “there are no short-term solutions,” and Missouri is focusing on the long term. The state legislature recently passed a sweeping bill intended to reform the municipal court system to eliminate debtors’ prisons. The state is also requiring St. Louis County police departments to be certified; only 14 of 58 currently are. New training requirements for police officers were passed, and a new statewide mental health liaison program has already proven effective, with some 12,000 calls from police to the 30 liaisons in the first year.

But Nixon wasn’t as enthusiastic about body cameras, which he doesn’t consider a long-term solution and therefore is not actively pursuing (although he said he would sign a body-camera bill into law should one come across his desk).

“Taking a picture of something bad happening is not a discussion about having that not happen,” Nixon said, adding that in any case everyone has a camera these days.

“I’m not against body cameras, but sometimes it diminishes people’s ability to talk,” he said. “I don’t think it will solve the problem. I do think it increases prosecution rates and conviction rates, but it’s not going to free as many people as it’s going to lock up.”

Gun control in Colorado

Hickenlooper, whose state was left reeling after the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting and the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, touched on his attempts at gun control in Colorado. In March 2013, he signed into law a bill that banned high-capacity magazines and expanded background checks for gun purchases, the first such law passed after the Newtown school shooting. But the law sparked recall elections for two pro-gun control state legislators and angered many county sheriffs.

Still, noted Hickenlooper, background checks work. He cited statistics that showed that background checks have prevented gun purchases by 38 people convicted of homicides, 620 people with outstanding restraining orders, and 420 people who had outstanding warrants for their arrest.

And he derided the politicization of the gun control issue, noting that while Republicans are almost unanimously against universal background checks in public, “all my conservative friends who are not in government think it makes sense.” 

Hickenlooper, a former geologist and brew pub owner who was first elected to public office as Denver mayor in 2003, also touted the importance of bringing the “common sense from business into local and state government.” In running a major city and now a state, he said he has focused learnings from the private sector in three areas: hiring people, developing lean government policies, and taking the friction out of regulation.

He also noted that Colorado’s investment in arts and culture has paid off economically, making it a high-tech hub along the booming Front Range. Metro Denver has become a “great magnet” for young people and high-tech entrepreneurs because of its arts and cultural scene, its multitude of live music venues, and general quality of life. “That kind of creative energy does attract creative folks,” he said.

Hickenlooper also took credit for managing the natural gas fracking boom in Colorado, mainly by making sure all interests were represented when drafting new, important regulations.

“The process of having everybody in the same room and making sure everybody gets credit” resulted in “the oil and gas industry spending $80 million a year making sure the air in Colorado is getting cleaner,” he said.