When former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation took effect Aug. 24, he became the 56th member of a rather exclusive club: U.S. state governors who have resigned under pressure, been impeached and removed, been recalled, or otherwise involuntarily left office before their terms were up.
With one state governor (New York’s Andrew Cuomo) just out and another (California’s Gavin Newsom) fighting to stay on, we wanted to see just how common it’s been for governors in the United States to leave office early against their will.
To do that, this Pew Research Center analysis examined the careers of the nearly 2,400 people who have served as state governors. We omitted territorial governors, colonial-era governors and those who served before the U.S. formally won independence in 1783.
Our baseline source of information was the National Governors Association (NGA), which maintains lists of current and former governors for every state. However, we found several governors missing from the NGA’s database, so we supplemented our research by consulting state archives and historical websites, as well as modern and contemporaneous media accounts.
States differ on who counts as an “official” governor. Some states include acting governors – such as legislative leaders or other state officials who served out the term of deceased or resigned elected governors – while others do not. Still others count some but not all acting governors. Some, but not all, states count people who served multiple nonconsecutive terms as governor more than once. When in doubt, we deferred to the NGA’s list; if a person appeared there, he or she counted in our universe of governors. We only counted each governor once; our unit of analysis was individuals, not terms.
Within that universe, we counted each instance where a governor was impeached and removed from office; recalled by voters; resigned in the context of some ethical scandal or legal entanglement; or removed from office in some other way, such as by a court order or legislative vote declaring someone else to be the rightful governor. We also included 15 instances in which Reconstruction-era governors of former Confederate states were removed by military or presidential order. We didn’t count voluntary resignations, such as when a governor was elected to the U.S. Senate or appointed to a federal office.
Of special note is the case of former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel. In June 1977, as he fought federal charges of mail fraud and racketeering, Mandel notified Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III that Lee would have to serve as “acting governor” until further notice. Lee served in that capacity until Jan. 15, 1979, when Mandel reclaimed his office – two days before his term expired. For this analysis, we judged that Mandel had effectively vacated his office without actually resigning, so we placed him in the “removed otherwise” category. (Mandel eventually served 19 months in federal prison, until then-President Ronald Reagan commuted his sentence.)
Counting Cuomo, only 21 of the nearly 2,400 people who have served as a state governor since U.S. independence have resigned under pressure – such as after a criminal conviction or, as in Cuomo’s case, under threat of imminent impeachment – according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. Eight other governors have been impeached and removed from power, while two others have been recalled by voters. The remaining 25 were forced from office by other mechanisms, ranging from court orders to Union soldiers’ bayonets.
The ranks of ousted governors may grow before the leaves turn. On Sept. 14, Californians will vote on whether to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom (though mail-in ballots already have been sent out) and on his potential replacement in the governor’s mansion.
Louisiana has had the most governors leave office against their will. Seven of the 56 people who have served as governor since Louisiana became a state in 1812 left the job involuntarily. All but one of those instances occurred in the dozen years after the Civil War, when Louisiana was one of the places where Reconstruction was most fiercely resisted. In that 12-year span, no fewer than 11 men served as the state’s governor – one of them for just 35 days.
But Louisiana takes second place when it comes to the highest share of governors forced from power. That “honor” goes to Arizona. Since it became a state in 1912, three of its 23 governors, or about 13%, have left office involuntarily:
- Thomas Campbell originally was declared the winner of the 1916 gubernatorial election and served for nearly a year before the state Supreme Court ruled that his rival, George W. P. Hunt, had actually won and ordered Campbell to turn over the office. (He got his revenge, beating Hunt in the 1918 election and winning a second term in 1920.)
- In 1988, Gov. Evan Mecham was impeached and convicted of obstructing justice and misusing government funds after allegedly loaning $80,000 in inaugural funds to his car dealership. Mecham also faced a recall election (which was canceled) and a criminal trial (in which he was acquitted).
- In 1997, Gov. Fife Symington resigned after he was convicted of bank fraud for allegedly lying to his lenders about the true financial condition of his commercial real estate business before he became governor. The convictions were later overturned on appeal, and Symington was pardoned by then-President Bill Clinton before he could be retried.
As far as we could tell, the first U.S. state governor to leave office unwillingly was the (appropriately named) John A. Quitman of Mississippi. In 1851, Quitman was charged with violating federal law by supporting a putative invasion of Cuba, then a Spanish colony. The charges were eventually dropped after he resigned.
Two dozen of the 56 forced gubernatorial ousters were related to Civil War- and Reconstruction-era politics, occurring between 1861-1877. Two governors, Sam Houston of Texas and Claiborne Fox Jackson of Missouri, were removed in 1861 during disputes over whether their states should join the Confederacy. Later, as the Confederacy collapsed, Union troops forcibly removed several Southern governors from office. (Several other governors, such as those in Louisiana and Texas, fled to Mexico to avoid capture.)
In the earlier phases of Reconstruction, military authorities ousted governors in five states for resisting federal authority or failing to protect the rights of freed slaves. Later, as Southern White Americans fought to reestablish White dominance and regained control of state legislatures, pro-Reconstruction governors in five states were either removed from office or resigned under threat of impeachment.
Perhaps the most dramatic instance of a governor being forced from office followed the 1899 Kentucky gubernatorial election. Republican William S. Taylor was declared the victor and took office in December, but his Democratic opponent, William Goebel, challenged the result before the Democratic-controlled legislature. On Jan. 30, 1900, Goebel was shot while entering what’s now the Old State Capitol; Taylor declared a state of emergency and called out the militia. The next day, the legislature declared Goebel the rightful governor; he was sworn in but died three days later. Taylor tried to stay in office, but the state Court of Appeals ruled that Goebel’s running mate, John C. Beckham, was the lawful governor. (Taylor eventually was indicted as an accessory in Goebel’s murder, but fled to Indiana to avoid extradition and was never tried; he was pardoned in 1909 but avoided Kentucky for the rest of his life.)
Colorado once had three governors in a single day. The 1904 gubernatorial election between incumbent Gov. James H. Peabody (R) and former Gov. Alva Adams (D) was riddled with accusations of fraud by both sides. Adams was initially declared the winner and sworn into office in January 1905. But Peabody continued to contest the results, and the Republican-controlled legislature declared him the winner on March 17, 1905 – on condition that he immediately resign and hand the office to his lieutenant governor, Jesse F. McDonald. McDonald then served out the rest of the term.
Oklahoma is the only state to have impeached and removed two state governors. In 1923, Gov. John C. Walton’s battles against the Ku Klux Klan led him to put Tulsa – and later the entire state – under martial law. The KKK-dominated legislature responded by impeaching and convicting him for corruption in office. Six years later, Gov. Henry S. Johnston was impeached on numerous charges but convicted and removed on just one – “general incompetence.”
Cuomo became the second New York governor to resign amid scandal and impeachment threats, and the third overall to leave office unwillingly. Just 13 years ago, Eliot Spitzer resigned following revelations that he patronized a high-end prostitution service. In 1913 Gov. William Sulzer, who had clashed repeatedly with the legislature and the powerful Tammany Hall machine, was impeached, convicted of perjury and filing false campaign-finance reports, and removed from office.
Should Newsom lose next month’s recall election, he would be the second California governor to do so – after Gray Davis in 2003 – and the third overall, beginning with Lynn Frazier of North Dakota in 1921. The only other gubernatorial recall election was in 2012, when Wisconsin’s Scott Walker beat back an effort to remove him.