One of the U.S. Constitution's most important amendments is the 10th Amendment, the one that defines federalism. That's a fancy word that simply means that powers not granted by the federal government are reserved to the states. In effect, it establishes the sovereignty of state governments.
This is an important law because as powerful as the federal government is, it can't be expected to meet the needs of every place in America. New York has different problems, populations and issues than Alaska or Texas, for example. For this reason, a state government plays a big role in making sure citizens' needs are met, and that their voices are heard in the decision-making process. Each state also has its own specific laws and statutes.
Like the federal government, state governments are divided into different branches, including legislative and executive branches. The head of each state's executive branch is its governor, a position elected by the people within his or her state.
Governors' responsibilities, powers, and even terms vary widely from state to state. Nonetheless, they maintain a strong role in local government and local politics, often through appointments of judges and government officials, in guiding and signing (or vetoing) legislation and pushing various policies and initiatives.
As executives, governors are also important because many of them use the position as a platform to achieve higher office. Several presidents were governors at some time before their elections, including George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and others. Sarah Palin was Alaska's governor while she ran for vice president in 2008, and current New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination that same year.
In this article, we'll look at what the 50 men and women who run our states actually do, examine the history of the position and learn how they work to shape the lives of citizens in their states.
What Does a Governor Do?
A governor is the state's highest-ranking elected official, but his or her actual duties are more varied than, say, an elected member of the state legislature, whose main role is to propose and vote on new legislation. A governor's responsibilities vary from state to state depending on the constitution within that state.
A governor's official duties can include signing bills into law, serving as commander-in-chief of the state's National Guard and militia forces, convening special sessions of the state legislature, delivering a "state of the state" address to citizens, granting commutations and pardons to prisoners and appointing people to various judicial and state offices.
The governor is also a high-profile member of his or her political party and has much sway over its policies. In effect, the governor of each state is similar to the U.S. president, but on a smaller scale. The governor leads the executive branch of each state, whose job it is to carry out the governor's policies. They even live in an official residence administered by the state, known as a governor's mansion.
The governor also influences decisions made by the state's legislative bodies. He or she can push for various bills and policy initiatives to pass. A governor can use his or her standing to commend or criticize a bill in the legislature. In some states, the governor can also veto a bill once it has passed, although this is rare -- in California, only about 7 percent of bills get vetoed [source: California State Government Guide]. In some states, a governor has the power of line-item vetoes, which is the ability to eliminate certain specific items from the proposed state budget.
A governor is also the ceremonial head of state and often hosts dignitaries from other states or countries. He or she uses their position to bolster the state's standing in the world, to attract new businesses and industries and to form partnerships with other governments. A governor also attends public events and ceremonies and visits with constituents across the state.
Next, we'll take a look at how governors are elected.
In all states, the governor is elected by the people in a statewide election. Once a governor's term has expired, he or she has to run for re-election, and will sometimes face opponents from his or her own party. That election is called a primary. Voters across the state typically register with one party or another then cast their vote for the candidate who will run as a Republican, Democrat or an Independent.
The winner of that primary will go on to face the primary winner from other parties in the general election. In some states, the lieutenant governor runs on the same ticket as the governor -- much like the president and vice president do -- but in others, they run separately.
People from all backgrounds can choose to run for governor, but the strongest contenders are usually those with previous political experience. In the recent governor's race primary in Texas, the candidates included the current governor, a U.S. senator and the former mayor of Houston.
Candidates travel all over the state to spread their message, speak to voters and raise campaign money. Many private citizens also run, but since the costs to run a campaign are so high, it's usually reserved for people with lots of money and connections. Just as an example, in 2010, cost of running the governor's race in California could top $150 million [source: Reuters].
Governors serve for four years once elected -- with the exception of Vermont and New Hampshire. In those two states, governors serve two-year terms. In 38 states, governors are limited to two consecutive terms [source: NGA].
Now let's look at how a governor's office is organized, and how they're able to get the job done.
Organization of a Governor's Office
A governor has a high-profile position in state government, but at the end of the day, he or she can't accomplish much without a staff working to push the governor's policies and make constituents' lives better.
In each state, the governor has a staff of interns, attorneys, analysts, finance experts and other people who specialize in a specific area of policy.
Each governor has a wide variety of organizations in the state's executive branch. These can include budget analysis, homeland security, constituent services, legal counsel, and a press office to field inquiries from the news media and open records requests from citizens. The governor's office can also include special commissions that focus on elderly people, drugs, women's issues and any number of other interests.
Often, the governor's office can include an office for the first lady (if there is one) to manage her appearances and initiatives. The governor's staff can oversee historical commissions and even commissions to bring the film industry to the state, for example. Again, these offices vary from state to state, but the aim is the same: to aid citizens and promote the state's economic well-being.
On the next page, we'll look at the history of state governors' offices, and how the name "governor" itself dates back to colonial America.
History of the State Governor
By the 1700s, the original 13 colonies were ruled by royal governors who were appointed by the British crown. Their duty was to represent the executive power of the English king. In fact, a royal governor was the subject of an important early battle over the freedom of the press. John Peter Zenger, a newspaper publisher in New York, wrote articles condemning Royal Governor William Cosby, which led to Zenger's trial -- and later acquittal -- for seditious libel, which helped establish the tradition of press freedom in America.
But being ruled over by a governor appointed by the king wasn't an arrangement most colonists were happy with. This, coupled with unfair taxation without representation and a host of other issues, is what eventually led to the American Revolution. At the end of it, nearly all the royal governors were tossed out or fled for their lives. However, the "governor" title was kept for the state's chief executive.
As the United States expanded westward, the federal government added new territories. Those new territories had governors who were originally appointed by the president, but upon gaining statehood, they switched to a system of popular election.
During the Civil War, the Confederate states continued to elect their own governors. But after the South lost the war, many of them vacated their offices and fled to Mexico.
Governors have marked important milestones in modern America as well. Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected the first female governor in Wyoming in 1925, and L. Douglas Wilder was elected in Virginia as the first African-American governor in 1989. Other governors have gone on to become U.S. senators, and some have even become president.
Each state has its own history, cultures and politics, and state governors have long played an important role in each state's historical record. Today, state governors continue that tradition by shaping local politics and making the government work for the people.
For more information about state governors, local politics and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Archiving Early America. "Peter Zenger and Freedom of the Press." (April 27, 2010) http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/bookmarks/zenger/
- Cornell University Law School. "CRS Annotated Constitution." (April 27, 2010) http://www.law.cornell.edu/anncon/html/amdt10_user.html#amdt10_hd7
- Eaton, Leslie and Campoy, Ana. "Perry Rolls to Victory in Texas Primary." The Wall Street Journal. March 3, 2010. (April 27, 2010) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703807904575097400551012476.html
- Guide to Government. "California State Government -- State Executive Branch Overview." June 26, 2009. (April 27, 2010) http://www.smartvoter.org/gtg/ca/state/overview/state_exec.html
- Henderson, Peter. "California governor's race to set spending record." Reuters.com. March 21, 2010. (April 27, 2010) http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE62K0G320100321
- National Governors Association. "Term Limits." (April 27, 2010) http://www.nga.org/portal/site/nga/menuitem.9e1238065e726e63ee28aca9501010a0/?vgnextoid=3d252bf8a1cb6010VgnVCM1000001a01010aRCRD
- Nevada State Library and Archives. "Guide to the Territorial Governor's Records." (April 27, 2010) http://nsla.nevadaculture.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=880&Itemid=418
- Office of the Governor Bobby Jindal. "Office of the Governor." (April 27, 2010) http://www.gov.state.la.us/index.cfm?md=pagebuilder&tmp=home&navID=10&cpID=4&catID=0
- Office of the Governor Rick Perry. "Duties and Requirements." (April 27, 2010) http://governor.state.tx.us/about/duties/
- Wooster, Ralph A. "Murrah, Pendleton." Texas State Historical Association. (April 27, 2010) http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/MM/fmu15.html