Quick pace of Blunt staff departures mirroring that of Holden administration

Monday, August 7, 2006

Governor's spokesman attributes losses to normal attrition for demanding jobs.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The door knob broke this past week on one of the Capitol office doors used by Gov. Matt Blunt's staff.

Perhaps it faltered because of all the people leaving for new opportunities.

Hyperbole aside, Blunt has lost seven senior staff members and Cabinet officials in the past three months -- and a total of 10 since taking office 20 months ago.

That raises a natural question of whether the departures are mere coincidence or an indication of something more.

Political scientist Dave Robertson suspects the latter.

"When elected executives run into rough water, as the governor has in the first couple of years of his term, there is often some churning in the staff," said Robertson of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "I think this certainly corresponds with that."

No plans to leave

But Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson -- who assures he has no plans to leave -- said Blunt's staff is neither suffering from discouragement nor being forced out the door. To the contrary, Jackson said, many of the senior staff members have worked so hard at accomplishing the governor's goals that they simply have worn out.

"These are very demanding jobs," said Jackson, still in his Capitol office after the traditional working day was done. "Certainly in the case of the chief of staff position and some of the Cabinet-level directors, those are basically seven-day-a-week jobs. So they do take their toll on the people who hold them."

Added Jackson: "I don't think it's unusual to see these kinds of changes at this point in a gubernatorial administration."

In fact, Blunt's departure count is nearly identical to that of his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Bob Holden, during his first 20 months in office.

But according to records kept at the State Archives, Blunt and Holden had roughly twice as many people depart during that time as did either Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, who took office in 1993, or Republican Gov. John Ashcroft, who took office in 1985.

To Robertson, that is an interesting -- and important -- distinction.

"Both the Holden and Blunt administrations had some political problems and policy problems and were struggling with public approval in the state," Robertson said, "and Carnahan and Ashcroft both had much smoother going."

Forty-one percent of people had a favorable opinion of Blunt in a poll released this summer by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Forty-four percent had a favorable opinion of Holden during roughly the same point in 2002, according to a different Post-Dispatch poll.

Holden's approval rating never recovered. He lost the 2004 gubernatorial primary to Democratic State Auditor Claire McCaskill, whom Blunt later defeated in the general election.

Blunt has tried to distinguish himself from Holden. In fact, he casts many of his accomplishments -- on school funding, Medicaid expenditures or pro-business policies like lawsuit limits -- as contrasts to those of Holden.

But the two governors share the distinction of losing their chief of staff, deputy chiefs of staff, boards and commissions director, chief legal counsel and constituent services director -- all in roughly their first year and a half in office.

Ashcroft also got a new chief of staff early in his administration. And Carnahan had to replace his legal counsel and policy development director.

Warning signal

Roy Temple served as Carnahan's deputy chief of staff at the time and today runs a political Internet blog that takes frequent jabs at Blunt's administration.

He describes a high turnover rate as "a diagnostic warning signal of an organization."

"Is it possible to have a high turnover and still have a successful administration? Yeah, it's possible," Temple said.

Of course, Temple doesn't think that's the case for Blunt's administration, while Jackson contends it is.

Carnahan's relatively stable staff was caused by a couple factors, Temple said.

"The experience of working in the governor's office is a reflection of the governor you're working for and the team he or she has built around him," he said. "It always has its stresses, but it's a very rewarding experience if you're working for a team that has a sense of purpose."

Everyone also enjoys working for Blunt -- even those who are leaving, Jackson said. The recent exodus really is more of a coincidence than a pattern, the governor's spokesman said.

"In every case," Jackson said, "it came down to them being presented with an opportunity they felt was good for them to take in their professional lives."

No more departures are expected in the immediate future, Jackson said.

It should also be noted that the governor's office door knob has been fixed.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Capitol Correspondent David A. Lieb covers Missouri government and politics for The Associated Press.

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