Stateline Story

Lt. Govs Have Pathway to Top

  • December 08, 2006
  • By Philip Ewing
Three governors and one governor-elect who will take the oath of office in January have served as lieutenant governors. That's in addition to four sitting governors who also held the position.

Politicians who aspire to be elected governor might well consider these statistics and the findings of a new report, which translate into this simple strategy: Become lieutenant governor first.

Lieutenant governors were more likely than any other officeholders to ascend to a governorship from 1980 to 2006, according to a study released Dec. 5 by the Florence, Ky.-based National Lieutenant Governors Association (NLGA). During that time period, about 25 percent of lieutenant governors became governor, whereas about 1 percent of state lawmakers became governor, the report said.

Researchers concluded that "the assumption can be made" that lieutenant governors " have the greatest success rate to become governor of any other elected office." The report noted, however, that there is no statistical formula or set probability for advancing from one office to the next.

Serving as lieutenant governor didn't necessarily help get the top job in the 2006 elections.

Four sitting lieutenant governors ran for governor in 2006 and lost - Charlie Fogarty of Rhode Island ; Lucy Baxley of Alabama ; and Mark Taylor of Georgia, all Democrats. Republican Kerry Healey of Massachusetts also ran and lost.

But three incumbent governors re-elected last month assumed office as lieutenant governors - Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell; Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman; and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, all Republicans. Idaho Gov.-elect C.L. "Butch" Otter, another Republican, now serves in the U.S. Congress but before that had been Idaho 's longest-serving lieutenant governor.

Idaho stood out in this year's midterm elections because its current governor, Republican Jim Risch, ran for lieutenant governor rather than seek re-election for the state's top job. Risch stepped into the governorship last May when former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was tapped to become the U.S. secretary of the interior. At the time, Risch was serving as the state's lieutenant governor.

Rather than create discord within the state Republican Party, Risch deferred to Otter, who already had been selected as the party's gubernatorial candidate. Otter won the top job, and Risch was elected to his old, part-time job as lieutenant governor with its salary of $27, 820.

Notwithstanding this year's results, lieutenant governors have history on their side. Since 1900, almost one in four governors has been a lieutenant governor at some point before being a governor, according to the NLGA.

"It's not surprising," said Keon S. Chi, a senior fellow with the Council of State Governments in Lexington , Ky. Because taking over for a governor is the main duty for every lieutenant governor, just holding the office gives politicians a good chance to advance, he said.

The study tracked every office held by each governor in the past 26 years, compiling 25 varieties of elective positions, from U.S. senator to county judge, as part of its mission to examine the office of lieutenant governor, said Julia Hurst, NLGA executive director. She said she hopes it will spur new inquiry into what can be a dimly understood and poorly regarded public office.

No matter their other responsibilities, all lieutenant governors share one basic job: They take over the state if the governor dies, becomes incapacitated or leaves office for some reason. Texas' Perry moved up when his old boss, then-Gov. George W. Bush, won the presidency in 2000. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a term-limited Republican who leaves office next month, became governor in 1996 after former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, a Democrat, resigned after he was convicted of charges as part of the Whitewater scandal.

Occasionally, being in the post can help set a milestone. Ohio Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister, a Republican, became that state's first woman governor when she took over for two weeks after former Gov. George Voinovich (R) left to join the U.S. Senate and before current Gov. Bob Taft (R) was inaugurated.

Each state assigns its own set of duties to its lieutenant governor. Some of them serve as presidents of their state senates and cast tiebreaking votes, some of them run state agencies and some just do work that interests them. Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, is spearheading a project to dredge mud from the bottom of Illinois' rivers to help rebuild wetlands in Louisiana's Mississippi Delta.

Still, lieutenant governors get mocked for having light workloads or because they seem to be cooling their heels waiting to run for a higher office. Humorist Dave Barry once wrote that being lieutenant governor meant you were "pretty much free to lounge around and do crossword puzzles until retirement."

But they no longer deserve that bad rap, Hurst said.

"In the last four to five years, I think you've seen a distinct trend in lieutenant governors becoming very visible and incredibly active in the day-to-day governance of their states," she said.

Many governors relied heavily on their lieutenants after the states faced budget crunches earlier in the decade, Hurst said, and also when they first had to confront homeland security issues after the 2001 terrorist attack. Using lieutenant governors to tackle those comparatively new problems was a "natural next step," she explained.

Chi agreed that more lieutenant governors have been playing more visible roles in recent years, but said he thought the degree of their prominence varies widely among the states. In states such as Indiana and Minnesota , the lieutenant governors play a "dual role" as both the governor's next-in-line and the head of big cabinet departments, he said. In others, they serve in a ceremonial capacity and are often simply waiting for the opportunity to serve as governor, he said.

Forty-two states now have a lieutenant governor; New Jersey will elect its first in 2009.

In 24 states lieutenant governors run on the same ticket as governors, but in 18 states they run independently. Of the eight states with no lieutenant governor, Maine , New Hampshire , Tennessee and West Virginia put the presidents of their state senates first in line to succeed the governor. In Arizona , Oregon and Wyoming , the secretary of state is responsible for taking over.