Stateline Story

Lieutenant Governor: Not Quite a Fifth Wheel

Lucy Baxley and Charles J. Fogarty are gubernatorial candidates who hope history is on their side. The two currently serve as lieutenant governors in Alabama and Rhode Island, respectively, and are running for their states' top executive spots, but they are not seeking to succeed their bosses, they are trying to oust them from office.

Nearly one in four governors in the past 25 years was once lieutenant governor, according to a new study from the National Lieutenant Governors Association (NLGA). While the study does not indicate how often the No. 2 goes up against a sitting governor, the situation is not all that unusual.

NLGA Executive Director Julia Hurst said that during big election years, typically two lieutenant governors challenge incumbents — more than those who run for open seats.

That may come as a surprise to some voters who view the lieutenant governor as the governor's partner , not a potential foe. But in 18 states, voters elect the governor and lieutenant governor separately, which can lead to a split ticket.

In just under half of the states, the governor and lieutenant governor run as a team in the general election.

The remaining eight states (Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming) currently function without lieutenant governors although New Jersey voters will elect their first in 2009.

"I have found voters actually think the governor and lieutenant governor work together in the same office every day on the big issues. They don't understand that some lieutenant governors go a whole term barely seeing the governor in private," Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics in Charlottesville, told Stateline.org.

Sabato said lieutenant governor is a perfect platform for an ambitious politician. "The job tends to be part-time, which gives the occupant one real job: to run for governor."

That is precisely what five lieutenant governors are doing. Of the five current lieutenant governors vying for the top state executive office this fall, three are challenging incumbents and two hope to succeed their former bosses who are not running for new terms.

  • In Alabama and Rhode Island, Democratic Lt. Govs. Baxley and Fogarty will go up against Republican Govs. Bob Riley of Alabama and Donald Carcieri of Rhode Island. Both Riley and Carcieri are seeking second terms as governor.
  • In Georgia, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox are battling for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue. The Georgia primary is July 18.
  • In Massachusetts, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey became the Republican nominee after Gov. Mitt Romney announced he would not seek a second term, but she will have to wait until the Sept. 19 primary to see who her Democratic challenger is.
  • Nevada Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt is vying for the GOP nomination to succeed Gov. Kenny Guinn, but she has trailed Republicans U.S Rep. Jim Gibbons and state Sen. Bob Beers in recent polls. The Aug. 15 primary will determine who will be on the ballot. G uinn cannot run again because of term limits.

The new NGLA study features a state-by-state listing of governors 1980-2006 and notes whether they served as lieutenant governors. The survey found that V irginia , the only state that has one-term governorships, has the largest number of governors (four of eight) who once served as lieutenant governor. Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Montana and Ohio each having had three governors in last 25 years who once served as lieutenant governor.

Experts say that some voters don't really understand what the lieutenant governor does. In years past, a lieutenant governor, like the U.S. vice president, were seen as Rodney Dangerfield types who got little notice until or unless the governor had to unexpectedly step down.

"There are still jokes about it being the fifth wheel," said David Winder, political science professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia. But that is untrue, Winder said, adding that since the 1980s, lieutenant governors have become more active in state policy, making them viable candidates for the governor's office.

One reason for voter's confusion could be that the duties of the state's No. 2 job vary widely. For example, Indiana's lieutenant governor has 42 responsibilities listed in statute while the position in South Dakota is a part-time job, but the every lieutenant governor shares one duty in common: to be first in line of gubernatorial succession prepared to lead the state on a moment's notice, said NLGA's Hurst.

In recent years, governors have tapped their lieutenant governors with pet projects or important tasks, which put them more into the spotlight. Governors in Indiana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island have made their lieutenant governor the head of homeland security or emergency response, Hurst said.

In November 2005, New Jersey voters decided it was time to have a lieutenant governor after the state experienced two unusual successions in three years. Gov. Christine Whitman (R) left office to become administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 and the presiding officer of the New Jersey Senate, Democrat Donald DiFranceso took on her duties. Then in 2004, Gov. James McGreevey (D) quit after admitting to an extramarital affair with a man on the state's payroll, making Senate President, Richard Codey (D) acting governor until 2006.

But not everyone sees the lieutenant governor job as an important one. Robert J. Healey, Jr. wants to get elected lieutenant governor in Rhode Island so that he can eliminate the job. "Quite frankly, I find the idea of being the lieutenant governor repugnant. I wish to get elected to abolish the office," Healy said in a written statement announcing his candidacy from a sandy beach in Punta del Este, Uruguay. He chose that location he said because "it demonstrates that no matter where you are in the world, and no matter what you are doing, you can also be serving as Rhode Island's lieutenant governor at the same time.