Every four years, when Virginia's gubernatorial election season gets underway, residents of the commonwealth are reminded that their governors are the only ones in the nation not allowed to serve consecutive terms. They can serve more than one nonconsecutive term, but this hasn't happened since Mills Godwin was re-elected in 1974, after serving as governor from 1966 to 1970.
The prohibition on back-to-back terms is a relic of Reconstruction, intended to prevent Southern governors from amassing too much power. That doesn't mean it isn't working well in this day and age. All the other Southern states gradually allowed their incumbent governors to seek re-election, but Virginia's chief executive is already one of the most powerful in the nation. He has the power to appoint the secretary of the commonwealth -- an elected office in most states -- and almost all the members of many state boards and commissions, including independent entities like the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. A governor who begins as a lame duck cannot parlay these appointments to electoral advantage, making it more likely that candidates are selected based on their expertise rather than their political usefulness.
And since Virginia's governor gets only one crack at crafting the commonwealth's biennial budget, the spending plan also is more likely to get the focused attention it deserves by a chief executive who has had to live with his predecessor's mistakes.
State Sen. Thomas Garrett, R-Hadensville, plans to file a bill allowing whomever wins the gubernatorial election in 2017 to run for re-election. The last such proposal didn't make it out of a legislative subcommittee. Part-time legislators are understandably reluctant to relinquish one of their few advantages. A change to this rule would require approval by two successive legislatures before going on the ballot, so chances of success are slim.
Recent inhabitants of the governor's mansion have all been reluctant to leave the post first held by Patrick Henry when their four years were up, but blogger Norm Leahy notes that they've "largely done pretty well for themselves and the state under the one-and-done rule." Three of the last four Virginia governors have gone on to the U.S. Senate.
As for the argument that one term is not enough to get anything done, it just isn't true. When Gov. Bob McDonnell leaves office next year, his legacy will include a long overdue $4 billion transportation package and a constitutional amendment banning the use of eminent domain for private gain. Not bad for a lame duck.