Lt. Governors: Running In the Shadows

By: - August 19, 2002 12:00 am

You may not know them, but theyre running for governor this year, trying to break out of the shadows cast by long-serving chief executives who, because of term limits or other reasons, arent running for re-election. They are lieutenant governors who have served without much recognition. Seven of them hope to change that on Nov. 5.

They are lieutenant governors who have served without much recognition. Seven of them hope to change that on Nov. 5 if they can convince voters they have what it takes to govern a state. Some probably won’t make it, but some – like Vermont Democrat Douglas Racine – have a good shot at winning if current polls are accurate.

There were 10 former or current lieutenant governors running for their state’s highest office this election season. Three were defeated in primaries. Two – Republicans Rick Perry of Texas and Scott McCallum of Wisconsin – already hold governorships by default. Perry inherited the post from President Bush and McCallum assumed the job when it was vacated by Tommy Thompson, who resigned to become Bush’s Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Recent polls indicate that Perry and McCallum may be in for the political fight of their lives to win the job for a full four-year term.

The same seems to be true for a third Republican, Michigan Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, who is hoping to succeed Gov. John Engler after 12 years in office.

In addition to Racine, McCallum, Perry and Posthumus, lieutenant governors making their own bids for the top state job are Democrats Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of Maryland, Fran Ulmer of Alaska and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.

Ulmer and Hirono are trailing in their races, while Townsend – once considered a sure bet to succeed Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening – is now in a tight race with Republican Congressman Bob Ehrlich.

Although McCallum assumed Wisconsin’s governorship nearly two years ago, voters are still slow to embrace him even though he served in Thompson’s administration for 14 years.

In Michigan,early polls have Posthumus trailing Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic nominee.

Texas’ Perry may have the biggest shadow problem of all, having been Bush’s deputy. Although he has carried on many of Bush’s policies, Perry is in a tight race with Democratic nominee Tony Sanchez.

The problems for this trio are not unlike that of other lieutenant governors who struggled to step out of the shadow cast by a popular, or in some cases, tainted outgoing governor.

“It’s quite a task for lieutenant governors to make a go of it on their own, especially the ones so closely tied to one governor. So much depends on the mood of the voters,” says University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato.

“After the governor serves for two or three terms, people are usually looking for a change. Sometimes it’s a change within the dominant party, so they don’t want someone tied to the person who’s been governing for eight or 12 years.”

Gail Manning, executive director of the National Lieutenant Governors Association, agrees in part. But Manning says history has shown “the LGs,” as she calls them, to be a lot more successful in gubernatorial elections than some political observers believe.

Since 1980, she says, 35 lieutenant governors have gone on to be elected governor. But many of them were first elected lieutenant governor in states that hold separate elections for the top two executive branch positions. That made it easier for them to maintain their own political identities.

“Some have had a difficult time trying to distance themselves from the governors they served with, but there have been a lot who managed to succeed on their own,” says Manning.

Eighteen states still hold separate elections for governor and lieutenant governor. But the number of states holding so-called “team elections” that place both candidates on the same party ticket has increased from three to 24 since the 1950s.

Some political observers contend that team elections have enhanced the powers of lieutenant governors, many of whom end up filling important state jobs, such as emergency relief coordinator, secretary of commerce, agriculture or some other state Cabinet-level position.

Lieutenant governors in 26 states also preside over the Senate with specific legislative responsibilities, such as assigning legislation to committees and appointing lawmakers to various positions. In 12 states, the lieutenant governor can also cast tie-breaking votes.

There are seven states that don’t have lieutenant governors – Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, West Virginia and Wyoming. In Tennessee the Speaker of the Senate also carries the title of lieutenant governor.

In states with team elections, a governor can be fairly certain that his running mate will adhere to his political agenda. But all kinds of mischief can occur when the governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately and represent different parties.

Who can forget the 1979 war between California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, a Republican? Every time Brown left the state, Curb tried to wield power under a law that allowed him to act in the governor’s absence. On one occasion, Curb nominated a Republican judge as chief of the state court of appeals.

Brown, who was testifying before Congress, beat a fast path back to Sacramento and withdrew the nomination. But the shootout didn’t end there. A lawsuit took it to the state Supreme Court, which upheld Brown’s authority to nix the nomination. Later, the Democrat-controlled legislature acted to curb the lieutenant governor’s powers to prevent further mischief.

The Kentucky legislature took similar steps after Lt. Gov. Thelma Stovall, a Democrat, took advantage of Republican Gov. Julian Carroll’s absence from the state in 1978. Stovall grabbed a pen and vetoed a resolution rescinding the state’s 1972 ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. The veto was later overridden.

While these may be extreme examples of the power struggles that can occur between governors and lieutenant governors, they are representative of what can happen – and still does now and then – in states that elect the top two executives separately.

The idea of team elections is relatively new, according to Sabato. Prior to the 1960s most states still held separate elections. In those days, lieutenant governors held few powers, other than serving in a ceremonial capacity, presiding on occasion at Senate sessions or simply being on standby to take over if something happened.

“In a way, the (team election) system has produced lieutenant governors that govern more, hold more powers and are better prepared to take over if necessary. The odd thing is, they can have a more difficult time getting elected on their own,” says Sabato.

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