TRENTON, N.J. -- New Jersey survived more than two centuries without a lieutenant governor's office, but that may change in November.
After seeing the past two governors resign before their terms ended - Christine Todd Whitman (R) left to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 and James E. McGreevey (D) quit in 2004 after revealing he was gay and facing a possible harassment suit - the Legislature has put a referendum before voters to amend the state Constitution to create an Office of Lieutenant Governor.
The lieutenant governor question on the Nov. 8 ballot has been virtually forgotten because of the fierce battle for governor being waged by businessman Douglas Forrester (R) and U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine (D).
No public polling has been done on the ballot measure, but three polls taken between August 2004 and January by Quinnipiac University found 73 percent to 74 percent of voters considered the office a "good idea."
If those numbers hold next month, New Jersey in 2009 would join 45 other states in electing a statewide official to fill a vacancy in the governor's office. In 42 states , that role is filled by a lieutenant governor, while in Arizona, Oregon and Wyoming, it's the secretary of state.
Along with New Jersey, the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Tennessee and West Virginia elevate a presiding legislator when a governor dies or leaves office. But New Jersey is unique in requiring that its Senate president continue to serve in the Legislature even after becoming acting governor.
It's the equivalent of giving steroids to what was already one of the most powerful governor's offices in the nation. As the only official elected statewide besides U.S. senators, New Jersey's governor has the power to appoint people who in other states are elected, including judges, county prosecutors, and the attorney general.
As Senate president and acting governor for the past 11 months, Richard J. Codey (D) has been able to submit nominations to the Senate, schedule a voting session, and then vote for them. He also has sponsored bills that he later signed.
Before the departures of Whitman and McGreevey, the succession clause had been activated only three times for an extended period, most notably in 1913 when Woodrow Wilson left Trenton a year early to become president of the United States. But having it happen twice in less than four years made the public aware of how unusual it was, and led to criticism from government reform groups and newspaper editorial boards that the process violated the principle of the separating executive and legislative powers.
A glitch in the calendar in 2002 also resulted in New Jersey having four different governors in one week. The first was Donald DiFrancesco, then Senate president, who took over after Whitman's resignation. But because he hadn't run for re-election to the Senate, that term expired and he had to step down as acting governor a week before McGreevey's inauguration.
DiFrancesco would normally have been replaced by the new Senate president, but the 2001 election produced a 20-20 political split in the upper house, so there were two Senate presidents. The two, Codey and John O. Bennett (R), negotiated a power-sharing agreement that included each serving as acting governor for 3.5 days until McGreevey was sworn in.
In his brief stint, Bennett signed bills, issued pardons and even moved into the governor's mansion, where he held official and private parties. His wife sent out press releases under the letterhead of the "Office of the Acting First Lady." The ridicule this sparked in the press began the ball rolling for constitutional change.
The measure that finally made it to the ballot this year largely follows the federal method for picking a vice president by having the lieutenant chosen by the gubernatorial nominee after the primary. The two candidates would run as a ticket, so there could not be a governor from one party and a lieutenant from another as is possible in 18 other states. Virginia, for example, the only other state to elect a new governor next month, is one of those 18 states and will vote separately for a new lieutenant governor as well.
One controversial departure from the federal model says that if a lieutenant does become New Jersey's governor, he or she will serve only until the next November, when there will be a new vote to pick a governor and lieutenant for the remainder of that term.
Assembly Speaker Albio Sires (D), a key sponsor of the proposal, said that limiting the term of a lieutenant who fills a gubernatorial vacancy is good for voters. But several advocates see this limitation on the lieutenant as an insult, especially because the lieutenant's post is being sold as a vehicle for more women and minorities to break onto the white-male-dominated stage of statewide politics.
The issue was a factor in the state League of Women Voters' hesitation before endorsing the ballot question.
"It makes for a very weak office," said Danzey Burnham, state League president. "There are definitely pros and cons to the ballot issue, but the primary reason the League ended up taking a position in support of it is because it preserves the separation of powers."
The League also had history to contend with. At a 1947 convention where New Jersey's Constitution was rewritten, the League had pushed for creation of a lieutenant governor's post. The proposal was defeated in committee by a 6-3 vote, however, and four of the votes against it came from state senators serving as convention delegates.
Senators' reluctance to give up the possibility of some day moving up to "the front office" by being in the right seat at the right time continued to doom proposals for creating a lieutenant governor's post. In the end, it took measurable public support for the issue and some hardball politics by Sires in dealings with Codey to get the issue before the voters
Herb Jackson is a senior writer for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.).