Naming a new lieutenant governor in California has been no easy task. At one point last month, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic leaders of the Assembly fought over whether the Assembly had actually approved Schwarzenegger's pick for the post.
Schwarzenegger intended to swear in Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado, despite Democrats' claims that his nomination had been rejected, primarily for being too conservative. The governor even threatened to go to court. All the fuss was over a position with a term that expires in 10 months.
In California, as in several other states, it's hard to keep in mind that the lieutenant governor's office is primarily designed to be a sort of insurance policy in case something happens to the governor. Instead, in several states like California, the position recently has been a political liability. The intrigue is even more baffling because many of the most hotly contested fights are in states where the lieutenant governor's powers are relatively weak.
To be sure, in a few states, the lieutenant governor's powers rival that of the governor. In others, the lieutenant governor holds dual appointments as agency directors or constitutional officers. But in California, Illinois and Louisiana, states that are now questioning whether to even keep the position, the lieutenant governor's responsibilities are minor.
In California, Schwarzenegger eventually sent Maldonado's nomination to the Legislature for a second look. "I'm a big believer," the former action star said, "that sequels can be better than the original." During Maldonado's first confirmation attempt, his colleagues in the state Senate easily assented, but the Assembly vote was a different story. The 37-35 vote favoring Maldonado didn't clear the 41-vote threshold that would mark a clear majority in the 80-seat chamber. To add to the confusion, the California Constitution is murky on the point: It says a nominee should take office if he is "neither confirmed nor refused confirmation."
California's No. 2 spot opened up when the previous occupant, Democrat John Garamendi, was elected to Congress last year. Aaron McLear, a Schwarzenegger spokesman, says the governor is pushing ahead with Maldonado's nomination because the lieutenant governor plays an important role in state government. He sits on a board, for example, that determines the fate of off-shore oil drilling, as well as holding a seat on the University of California Board of Regents. The lieutenant governor also breaks ties in the state Senate. "The office exists. It serves a role," McLear says. "As long as that's the case, the governor has an obligation to fill it."
That said, some still question whether a lieutenant governor is worth having at all. In fact, an Assembly Republican and a Democrat co-sponsored a constitutional amendment proposal to abolish the office. "My guess is most Californians do not know what a lieutenant governor does," wrote Assemblyman Charles Calderon, the Democratic sponsor, in the San Francisco Chronicle. "I have served in the Legislature for 20 years, and I have yet to see why this office is needed."
Similar sentiments abound in state capitols in Illinois, which currently has no lieutenant governor, and Louisiana, which won't have one in a few months. In both cases, the push to do away with the No. 2 spot comes as a result of early February elections.
In Louisiana, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu cruised to victory in the election for mayor of New Orleans, the day before the New Orleans Saints won their first-ever Super Bowl. With Landrieu leaving his state post in May, Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican, now faces the task of picking Landrieu's replacement. Jindal has made it clear he will only consider candidates who promise not to run for re-election in 2011. In the meantime, he is pushing to eliminate the office. The move is backed by business leaders in New Orleans, mainly because it would consolidate the tasks of promoting tourism and economic development in the governor's office. Currently, the lieutenant governor heads those efforts, but the governor has an agency that works on them, too.
Races for lieutenant governor have rarely been controversial in Louisiana, says Louisiana State University political science professor Wayne Parent. The last three lieutenant governors - Landrieu, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (who went on to become governor) and Melinda Schwegmann - were all well-known to voters, because of previous political campaigns or their family names, Parent notes. "We've had a pretty colorful history" in Louisiana, Parent says, "but the lieutenant governor has never been part of that colorful history."
The same is certainly not true in Illinois. Revelations about the checkered past of Scott Lee Cohen, winner of the Feb. 5 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, mark only the latest in a long list of mishaps involving lieutenant governors and candidates for the position in the Land of Lincoln. Cohen, a pawnbroker who boasted in TV commercials of the job fairs he hosted for unemployed Illinoisans, dropped his bid when news accounts revealed that Cohen had once been arrested for holding a knife to a girlfriend, who had been charged separately with prostitution, among other allegations.
Illinois has struggled with the position since the state adopted its current Constitution in 1970. The state charter stripped the lieutenant governor of the duties of presiding over the state Senate. Instead, the back-up governor was left with a number of small-bore tasks assigned by the General Assembly, such as reviving downtowns and promoting Illinois rivers.
Dave O'Neal famously resigned the office in 1981 out of boredom, after a failed bid for U.S. Senate. Likewise, Bob Kustra, now president of Boise State University, left the office early in 1998 to take a job in academia. But the biggest scandal occurred in 1986, when a follower of far-right perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche captured the Democratic nomination for the post. Embarrassed by the association and forced to run on the same ticket if he remained a Democrat, gubernatorial candidate Adlai Stevenson III formed a separate party to pursue the governorship, only to get trounced.
Now, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, who also heads the Illinois Democratic Party, is leading the move to abolish the lieutenant governorship in reaction to Cohen's candidacy. But under Illinois law, which wouldn't change under Madigan's proposal, the attorney general would be the next in line for the governorship. Madigan's daughter, Democrat Lisa Madigan, is currently Illinois' attorney general. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat who was himself a lieutenant governor until the impeachment and removal of Rod Blagojevich, opposes Madigan's amendment.
Still, history is firmly against those who want to get rid of the lieutenant governorships. Only four states - Alabama, Florida, Maryland and Mississippi - have ever done away with the position, according to the National Lieutenant Governors Association. All four reinstated the post. Maryland was the last to do so, in 1970, shortly after Republican Spiro Agnew left the governor's office to become Richard Nixon's vice president and the Maryland Legislature replaced Agnew with House Speaker Marvin Mandel, a Democrat.
In fact, all of the proposals for eliminating the lieutenant governorship face significant obstacles. Elsewhere, states seem to be moving in the opposite direction, including New Jersey where its first-ever lieutenant governor took office in January. The new post ends a practice in which the president of the state Senate took over during a gubernatorial vacancy. New Jersey had two vacancies in the governor's office over the last decade, raising the public's awareness of the lack of a lieutenant governor. It especially became apparent during one week in January 2002, when three different people served as acting governor.
Forty-three states now elect a lieutenant governor on the ballot. Plus, state senators in Tennessee and West Virginia choose a president who also bears the title of lieutenant governor. The only states without lieutenant governors are Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon and Wyoming. According to the NLGA, 20 lieutenant governors have taken the helm of their states since 2000.
While the process of filling a vacated governor's spot is normally smooth, the act of finding a new back-up has often been contentious. In New York, for example, the state's highest court split 4-3 on the question of whether Governor David Paterson had the authority to name a successor to himself in the lieutenant governor's slot. The New York Court of Appeals' decision validated Paterson's appointment of Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch - the first appointed lieutenant governor in New York history.
But the process doesn't have to be so difficult, argues Alaska Lieutenant Governor Craig Campbell. Just consider his own ascension. Early last fall, then-Governor Sarah Palin, a Republican, told Campbell she wanted him to be third in line for the governorship. Campbell says as a member of Palin's cabinet - he headed the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs - he readily agreed. He had no idea Palin was considering resigning.
The Alaska Constitution gives governors the authority to name who they want to be the third in line for the governorship, subject to legislative approval. The arrangement in Alaska forces lawmakers and the executive branch to hash out their political differences before a vacancy occurs, Campbell says. "I think it proved wise when you look at the other states with vacancies, and those vacancies stay open for a long time."
Campbell was in Austin, Texas to celebrate his mother-in-law's birthday last July when he saw his boss resign on television. "I listened to the speech," Campbell says, "and realized my life had changed." In Alaska, the lieutenant governor oversees elections and handles many of the administrative duties that, in other states, are typically delegated to the secretary of state. Governor Sean Parnell also charged Campbell with leading a task force on winter-related issues and for promoting foreign trade with Asia.
Both Parnell and Campbell are running to keep their new posts in this year's elections, but their fates are not connected. Like in 17 other states, party voters decide the races separately, although the victors of the Republican primary in August will run as a team in November.
Campbell says he is concerned about the move in other states to do away with the lieutenant governor. "I think it's unfortunate politics," he says. "It's not what people should be focused on. What they should be focused on is strengthening the executive branch in times of transition."