Not all governors get mansions - nor want them

Populist Massachusetts never built an official residence. But now its governor must commute 2 1/2 hours to work.

In many states, it's as powerful a symbol of political power as the capitol dome itself: the governor's mansion.

The first house of Kentucky was fashioned after Marie Antoinette's chateau near Versailles. Hawaii's head of state lives in the home of Queen Liliuokalani, last monarch of the islands.

Yet six states - Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, Idaho, Arizona, and California - don't even have one. For some, it's a question of size: No commute is unreasonable in a small state. For others, it's a point of pride - a symbol of populist underpinnings and common-sense frugality.

But here in Massachusetts, new Gov. Jane Swift is

expecting twins in June - and that, combined with the fact that her home is 2-1/2 hours away, has led lawmakers to consider finding her an official residence in Boston.

Taken with California's decision to build a new governor's mansion, Massachusetts's quandary has rekindled debate over the worth of executive edifices - and highlighted the innovative ways mansion-less states have made do in the past.

For now, Governor Swift says she's happy commuting from Williamstown, 133 miles from Boston. She already spends a few nights a week at her brother's house in the city. When she gives birth, she plans to run the state while on a "working" maternity leave.

It helps that her husband, Chuck Hunt, is currently a stay-at-home dad with their infant daughter, Elizabeth. In addition, the advent of telecommunication has eased her decision to stay close to her family. She's chauffeured to the statehouse in an SUV with a portable phone and a computer with e-mail access.

The commute is something Thomas Salmon understands. The former Vermont governor was one of the few state executives from a distant corner of his state.

During legislative sessions in the mid-1970s, the General Assembly made arrangements for Governor Salmon to live in the homes of Vermonters who were wintering in Florida. Other times of the year, Mr. Salmon commuted the 1-1/2 hours from his Bellows Falls home to Montpelier two or three times a week.

There have been proposals for a mansion, but none has met with much success. Yankee dairy farmers in the folds of the Green Mountains don't want a potentate with all the trappings of power. "We want the governor to be a person of the people," says Gregory Sanford, a state archivist.

Vermonters still cherish the image of Thomas Chittenden, the state's first governor, working in his fields, accessible to people who wanted to stop by, Mr. Sanford says. To this day, Vermont governors are listed in the phone book.

That kind of flinty self-sufficiency plays well in Idaho, too. When former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt first arrived in Boise in 1995, the onion farmer moved into an apartment and used a coin-operated laundromat.

The state had plans to build a $1 million, prairie-style mansion of stone and timber in the hills overlooking Boise, but Mr. Batt said he didn't want it. Now, governors get $4,120 a month for housing.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis didn't want an executive residence, either. He took the trolley to work from his suburban Boston home and says he enjoyed mowing the lawn and taking out the trash. "I wouldn't have lived in a mansion if I'd had one," he says. "It's important for the governor to live like the rest of us."

Mr. Dukakis's populist attitude hints at the reason Massachusetts doesn't have a governor's mansion. From the first days after the Revolution, when the new state Senate told Gov. John Hancock pointedly that this was "not a government of men, but a government of laws," the state has been careful not to create its own king. A governor's mansion may have been a casualty of that mentality, posits Michael Comeau, a state archivist.

Indeed, all the proposals to help Swift involve temporary leases rather than a permanent residence.

Not all states feel the same way, though. California is desperate to establish a regal executive residence. After all, the leader of the sixth-largest economy in the world needs to be able entertain, some say. In 1999, the lack of a governor's mansion forced then-Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo to stay in a local hotel.

Beginning in 1903, 13 governors lived in a 12,000-square-foot Victorian mansion vaguely reminiscent of the Bates Motel. Then in 1967, three months after arriving, the Reagans moved out in a huff, calling the place a "firetrap." A new, $1.3 million mansion was built, but the following governor, Jerry Brown, refused to move in, calling it the "Taj Mahal." Since then, governors have lived in a leased house near Sacramento.

"Circumstances, events, and personalities over time have led to false starts and failures," says Vito Sgromo, curator of the State Capitol Museum. Now, a bill has passed to build a new mansion, ending a century of uncertainty.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Not all governors get mansions - nor want them
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today