I want to be governor

One night earlier this month, shortly before Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) announced he would be running for governor, he and his wife were both shaken from their sleep with second thoughts about the decision.

“[We] woke up at about 3 in the morning, saying, ‘What are we doing? What’s going to happen?’ ” he says.

Abercrombie made his announcement on March 8 and immediately thereafter went on a two-day, statewide campaign tour. At the end of the trip, he laid all doubts to rest.

“I realized — after those two days of virtually no sleeping — I realized how happy I was,” the 11-term congressman says. “I want to come home so badly. It’s almost an exalting feeling of ‘These are the islands; this is my home.’ ”

Several other members of Congress are hearing a similar call back to their states. Though the 111th Congress is not even three months old, six lawmakers have already officially announced runs for governor, and at least five others have expressed interest or are expected to announce their gubernatorial campaigns soon.

Their reasons for wanting to return to their states are varied, but, in reflecting on their decision to run for governor, many of these lawmakers talk about an intense tie to their home, a new opportunity to use their legislative experience, exhaustion from the Washington commute and a desire to have an impact on more people faster.

For Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), the swearing-in for this Congress was bittersweet. He announced his gubernatorial run the day before the first day of the 111th session.

“Nobody loves serving here more than me,” he says.

But Wamp, in his eighth term, is staying true to his goal: “I never wanted to be a career guy up here,” he says.

The congressman is under no illusion that his attempt to return home will be easy. He calls the 10 weeks since his announcement “a blur” and recounts a recent March weekend in which he  left Washington on a Friday night, met his wife and two children in middle Tennessee to embark on a string of seven campaign events, and was back in the Capitol by Monday morning.

Wamp wanted a new challenge but knew he wouldn’t find it in chasing a lucrative job in the private sector. (“Sometimes that’s frustrating for my wife,” he admits.)

“I wanted to push myself to see, can I help more people?” he says.

For Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.), who unveiled his gubernatorial intentions March 4, returning to South Carolina is about putting his money where his mouth is. He says he wants to help the state provide the same opportunities to its residents that they might get in states with big cities like Atlanta or Dallas, to which they often migrate. That way they wouldn’t feel compelled to leave their families — something he has done reluctantly for his four terms in Congress.

“My family is in South Carolina, my home has always been in South Carolina,” he says. “I love what I do … and I love Washington, but I do miss my state. I do miss my family.

“I don’t want to be governor to say I’m governor,” Barrett says. “Listen, I think the governor’s mansion would be pretty cool. But I want to share my vision for South Carolina. And that’s what I’m excited about.”

Many of these lawmakers also talk about it just being the right time for their gubernatorial runs. Wamp says he “really felt it in my bones that this is my time.”

Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.) says state party leaders had approached her for previous gubernatorial races, but she wasn’t ready then.

She is now. Fallin announced her campaign earlier this month, after word leaked to the press. She says she has “grown as a political leader” since coming to Congress.

“I carefully prayed and thought about it and talked to my friends and supporters that know me the best, and I felt like this is the time for me to run for governor,” she says. “Over the years, when people tried to get me to look at the governor’s race, my children were younger. Now they’re two young adults, and I’m more available.”

Abercrombie came to his decision partly through his work with President Obama’s campaign. He took Obama’s message of change to heart.

“I thought, ‘I can’t not believe it for myself,’ ” he says, “because I’ve always thought about [being governor].”

But even though these members of Congress would trade in a commute to Washington for the comforts of home if they win their state races, their new job’s demands can be just as brutal or worse, say those with experience.

“Both jobs are just like farming a ranch,” says Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), who was a governor before coming to Washington. “You get up in the morning. You have a list of chores to do. You never get through them all.”

Bob Wise, who served in the House for 18 years before becoming West Virginia’s governor, calls the governorship “an experience unlike any other.” Not only is it a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week job (whereas members of Congress leave Washington every four or five days), governors’ words are parsed even more closely than those of lawmakers, he says. And in his and the current aspiring governors’ cases, they have to implement what they once voted for in Congress — the “ultimate curse on this earth,” he says.

Even campaigning is different, says Wise, who now heads a Washington-based education policy organization called the Alliance for Excellent Education.

“Every time you start talking about your amendment to House Bill 4242, you lost them,” says Wise, explaining that bragging about congressional committee assignments or the use of clever parliamentary tactics doesn’t impress voters. “What they’re interested in [is], ‘I want my children going to a good school.’ ”

And for Barrett and the others looking forward to moving into the governor’s mansion, Wise warns them to kiss their privacy goodbye.

“It’s not a case of living above the store — you live in the store,” he jokes. “Don’t sleep in, because what will happen is when you sleep in you’ll go downstairs and run into the first tour group that’s coming through.”

Many of Congress’s aspiring governors say they understand the tradeoffs and are ready to leave Washington for new challenges.

“It’s a bittersweet thing,” Wamp says, “but you know when to move on, and now’s the time.”