Will the Real Worst Governor Please Stand Up?

In the political talent pool of of our great nation, governors have distinguished themselves by the boldness of their misdeeds, the depths of their malice, and the originality of their crimes and misdemeanors. Scott Walker’s recall election in Wisconsin topped the headlines for nearly a year, while John Kasich of Ohio engenders widespread ire in his state over his union policies. Arizona's Jan Brewer has attracted national attention for her combative style and dogged support for radical anti-immigrant legislation. The non-profit watch-dog group CREW put together a list of the 11 worst governors in recent memory, while the AFL-CIO held a ‘worst governor’ contest. But current and recent duds, including the infamous Rod Blagojevich, draw from a long and rich American tradition of gubernatorial corruption, racism, sexism, and anti-unionism. Without further ado, a mere sampling of our most abysmal U.S. governors.

1. Wilson Lumpkin (Georgia 1831-35)

Lumkpin was deeply committed to the removal of Native Americans, because three centuries of genocide just wasn't cutting it. As a member of Congress, Lumpkin was appointed to the Committee on Indian Affairs, and wrote the Indian Removal Resolution, which passed in 1830. Lumpkin described removal as a noble fight for states’ rights, "against Federal usurpation … (with) integrity altogether Roman."

As governor, Lumpkin executed the Removal Resolution with the support of President Andrew Jackson, giving Cherokee land to white settlers before the tribe had time to skedaddle. While the Choctaw and Creek tribes started to move west, the Cherokee resisted. Their principal chief, John Ross, turned to the Supreme Court, which ruled in the Cherokees' favor, honoring their sovereignty under Federal law. But Governor Lumpkin wouldn't let the Supreme Court get in his way, so he proceeded to round up Cherokees and send them on what would come to be called "The Trail of Tears," a journey of approximately 800 miles, from their land in Georgia to Oklahoma. It is estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 of the 18,000 Cherokee who made the trip died along the way from disease, poor sanitation, and exposure.

To this day, Lumpkin's legacy is honored in Lumpkin County, Georgia.

2. Governor Frank Steunenberg (Idaho, 1896-1900)

Steunenberg may be best remembered for his 1905 New Year’s Eve assassination, when he opened the gate to his home, detonating a bomb. To get elected nine years earlier, Steunenberg had wooed labor, whose support helped him win the governorship on both the Democratic and Populist Party tickets. But in 1899 Steunenberg requested President McKinley send in federal troops on a union-busting mission—he wasn't forthcoming about being paid $25,000 by the Mine Owners Association for his trouble. Troops arrived and indiscriminately rounded up men from union towns, keeping them in bullpens for up to a year with no trial. Conditions were so poor that three people died. A strike by the Western Federation of Miners (WMF) followed, but it was broken and the organization permanently weakened. Martial law continued throughout the rest of Steunenberg's term. 

Harry Orchard, a drifter, gambler, and serial bigamist confessed to the murder of the governor, but the mine owners weren’t convinced he acted alone. James McParland, an infamous Pinkerton Agency detective, was brought in to investigate the case, pressing Orchard to admit that he had placed the bomb under the orders of WFM leadership. Orchard told McParland, “I awoke, as it were, from a dream, and realized that I'd been made a tool of, aided and assisted by members of the Executive Board of the Western Federation of Miners....”

WFM Secretary-Treasurer William Haywood, President Charles Moyer, and close advisor George Pettibone were held responsible for the murder. McParland rounded up the three leaders in Colorado and brought them to Boise to stand trial. Clarence Darrow defended “Big Bill” Haywood, who was acquitted, as were the others.

3. George Wallace (Alabama 1963–1967, 1971–1979, 1983–1987) 

Wallace was elected governor in 1962, and during his inauguration, stood on the gold star marking the spot where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as President of the Confederate States. Just in case anyone missed the symbolism, Wallace proclaimed in his inaugural speech, "In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

In 1963, three months after Wallace tried to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama, four young girls were killed by a bomb planted by Klansmen at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. When Civil Rights activists, led by John Lewis, organized a march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Wallace issued an order to stop it. The marchers were met by state troopers and posse men armed with sticks, bullwhips, and tear gas. But the attack backfired on the segregationists; footage of law enforcement beating non-violent marchers was seen on televisions across the country, and proved to be a watershed moment, helping push President Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act, which he presented to congress just days after "Bloody Sunday."

4. Evan Mecham (Arizona 1987-1988)

Mecham would have had the honor of being one of the only three governors recalled in U.S. history if he hadn't been impeached first. Mecham, in true proto-Tea Party mode, was obstructionist, distrustful of government, and eager to cut education spending and freeze the salaries of state workers.

He campaigned on the promise to repeal the recently passed Martin Luther King federal holiday, which he did in his first week in office. He cautioned black people about being too demanding, saying "if you continue to push in this manner ... the time does come when the majority says we're not gonna take it anymore."  Besides, Mecham explained to black leaders at a meeting, "You folks don't need another holiday. What you folks need are jobs." 

Mecham's bigoted language and his repeal of Martin Luther King Day inspired a damaging national boycott. Stevie Wonder wouldn't perform in the state, and several organizations, from the NBA to Planned Parenthood, moved their conventions and conferences out of Arizona, contributing to a bi-partisan recall effort.

Sadly, Mecham never got to run in a recall election because he was impeached by the Arizona House, convicted by the Senate, and removed from office for failing to disclose campaign donations, lending his Pontiac dealership money from his inaugural fund, and obstructing justice by ordering the Public Safety Director to not investigate the death threat made by a Mecham appointee.

Mecham died in 2008 but lived on through his self published book Impeachment: The Arizona Conspiracy, which reveals that his downfall came not from misusing his campaign funds, cronyism, bigotry, and more, but rather “thinking I was dealing with people who had honor, integrity, and the best interest of the state at heart." 

5. Nelson Rockefeller (New York 1959–1973)

Certainly when it came to reproductive rights, civil rights, and the arts, Nelson Rockefeller could pass for a liberal. But when it came to law and order, Rockefeller was draconian. His mishandling of the 1971 takeover of Attica Prison turned the incident into the worst prison massacres in U.S. history.  

In 1971, prisoners in the state facility in Attica, New York got all hissy over being limited to one shower a week, one toilet paper roll a month, and crowded into a facility intended for 40 percent fewer prisoners. After a rumor spread that two men in isolation were going to be tortured, a group of prisoners escaped from their cells and took over the prison, killing a corrections officer. They demanded amnesty, federalization of the prison, and the hiring of black and Spanish speaking officers, as 85 percent of the inmates were black or Latino, while all of the correctional officers were white and commonly referred to their clubs as "nigger sticks."

The prisoners also demanded that Rockefeller come Attica and negotiate in person. But ignoring the advice of the Commissioner of Correctional Services, Rockefeller sent an aide to the prison and retreated to his exquisite estate in the Hudson Valley. From his perch, he ordered state police to retake the prison. The police used a stellar combination of tear gas and shotguns to achieve their objective. Ultimately, 29 prisoners and 10 hostages were fatally shot, all by the police or guards. Rockefeller declared it "a superb job."

One year later, an investigative commission would see things differently: "With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War."

On top of the Attica disaster, the governor was responsible for the “Rockefeller Laws,” signed in 1973. A person in possession of more than four ounces of narcotics automatically received a sentence of 15 years to life under the laws, about the same as a sentence for second-degree murder. Rockefeller originally wanted life sentences for any drug dealing, but didn’t get his way. The laws led to an increase in the number of convictions, and the percentage of the prison population incarcerated for drug-related crimes went from 11 percent in 1973 to nearly 60 percent in 2009.

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