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Lieutenant Governor Mania

A Commentary By Larry Sabato

Friday, July 31, 2009

In the mid-nineteenth century, a delegate to a Virginia constitutional convention argued against the office of lieutenant governor, calling it, "the fifth wheel of a wagon, and much more useless." Worse has been said about the vice presidency over the centuries. Franklin Roosevelt's first VP, John Nance Garner, declared his position was not worth a pitcher of warm spit. He actually cited another bodily excretion, but the press of the day cleaned up the language.

Gradually, as lieutenant governors and vice presidents succeeded to governorships and the Oval Office--just this week Sean Parnell assumed the top job in Alaska after former Gov. Sarah Palin's resignation--the occupants of the second-banana, Rodney Dangerfield posts finally began to get some respect. After Al Gore and Dick Cheney, few doubt the influence of the V-POTUS (the acronym for Vice President of the United States). And given what has happened in statehouses across America in the past decade, lieutenant governors are recognized as more than stand-by equipment.

Only 42 states have an elected lieutenant governor, though New Jersey will become the 43rd following this year's election. Arizona, Oregon, and Wyoming have an elected secretary of state that is the functional equivalent of a lieutenant governor and next in-line to the governor, while five other states (Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Tennessee, and West Virginia) simply designate their state Senate president as the governor's immediate successor. Tennessee calls the Senate president a "lieutenant governor."

As the accompanying tables 1 and 2 (available by clicking here) show, over a fifth (22 percent) of all lieutenant governors in the past 25 years have gone on to become governor. Nearly a quarter (23.6 percent) of all recent state governors served as lieutenant governor prior to taking the top office.

More important, 28 lieutenant governors became governor in the past quarter-century without the benefit of an election. They succeeded governors who died, resigned, or were impeached. Some of the cases tell quite a tale:

  • Arizona has had three secretaries of state replace governors who resigned. Rose Mofford (D) took impeached Gov. Evan Mecham (R)'s seat in 1988. Jane Dee Hull (R) succeeded Gov. Fife Symington (R), who was convicted of fraud in 1997. Jan Brewer (R) became governor after Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) joined President Obama's Cabinet. Note that two of these three successions involved a change of party in the governor's office.
  • In 14 cases, the incumbent governor resigned to accept another elective or appointive position, usually a Senate seat or a presidential Cabinet post. In two of these cases, Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000, governors left to become president of the United States.
  • Seven governors had to resign because of scandals, often because of legal convictions that made them ineligible to serve. These tragedies have occurred in the states of Alabama, Arizona (twice), Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, and New York.
  • Five governors died in office--one each in the states of Florida, Indiana, Missouri, South Dakota, and Vermont. Two of these governors were killed in plane crashes: Missouri Democrat Mel Carnahan, who was campaigning for the U.S. Senate, and South Dakota Republican George Mickelson.

Since 2000, the states have seen 15 lieutenant governors succeed to the top job. Many of these elevations happened in well-known circumstances. Parnell (R-AK) succeeded to office following the resignation of former VP candidate Palin (R). Mike Huckabee (R-AR) stepped in once Gov. Jim Guy Tucker (D) was convicted on a Whitewater scandal offense. Pat Quinn (D-IL) was next-in-line to the Obama Senate seat-selling Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). David Paterson (D-NY) became America's first legally blind governor after Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) saw too much of prostitutes.

Of course, people in and out of South Carolina are still waiting to see if Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer (R) will inherit the governor's office from the disgraced and very strange Mark Sanford (R), who continues to cling to power after his extramarital fling in Argentina--having gone AWOL from his responsibilities.

The Bauer example is instructive. The main reason Sanford has been able to survive (other than the voters' gullibility) is the unacceptability of Bauer, who is widely considered to be too immature and wild to serve as governor.

This is a cautionary tale for Americans everywhere. You may not think the candidates for lieutenant governor are worth your time and attention, but they are. At any time, a powerless number two can become an omnipotent number one. As John Adams commented when he served as our first vice president, "I am nothing, but I may be everything."

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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