Rodney Dangerfield, a popular American comedian best known for his iconic catchphrase: “I don’t get no respect,” was never lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, but he would have been right at home — the lieutenant governor’s office doesn’t get much respect, either. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of state officialdom.
This dubious distinction was vividly on display recently when two state Senate committees voted to eliminate the office without any public debate or even a committee hearing. Imagine a group of U.S. senators huddling together, and then voting to eliminate the vice presidency of the United States without public debate or discussion. That’s pretty much what happened in Pennsylvania’s Senate.
True, the Senate vote isn’t final. It’s technically a proposal to amend the state Constitution requiring passage by two consecutive sessions of the legislature and a statewide referendum vote. Ultimately, the voters would get to decide.
But the semi-secret Senate vote already taken shows just how little Harrisburg politicians regard the office of lieutenant governor — and more to the point, how little they care or understand the office’s political, historical and governmental role.
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Some background: All but five states have the office. Most give their lieutenant governors some mix of constitutional and statutory responsibility. In Pennsylvania, the lieutenant governor legally presides over the state Senate, chairs the board of pardons and coordinates the activities of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. In many administrations they receive additional responsibilities from the governor, often, significant responsibilities.
Probably the most powerful lieutenant governor in modern history was Ernie Kline in the 1970s. Kline handled labor relations in the Shapp administration and was a crucial adviser on many matters. In the 1980s, Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton served under Dick Thornburgh and handled the energy portfolio at a crucial time in the economic transition in the state. Mark Singel, lieutenant governor in the 1990s, actually took over the governorship when Gov. Bob Casey was hospitalized for a double organ transplant, while Lt. Gov. Mark Schweiker in 2001 became governor when Tom Ridge left the office to accept President Bush’s appointment as U.S. Homeland Security secretary. The current lieutenant governor, Jim Cawley, has had a variety of special assignments, including heading the Marcellus Shale Task Force and leading the charge for liquor privatization.
Lieutenant governors in modern times also have become politically prominent, analogous to the increased status accorded to modern vice presidents. Since the mid 1960s five incumbent lieutenant governors have made serious runs for governor and a sixth (Mark Schweiker) could have chosen to do so. Of the five who ran four were nominated for governor by their respective parties.
But the governmental and political importance of the office is only one reason for keeping it. The office also insures an orderly succession and continuity in the executive branch in the event an elected governor dies, resigns or is unable to serve. Cliché though it may be, the lieutenant governor is but a heartbeat away from the governorship.
Without a lieutenant governor the replacement for an incapacitated governor would be the president pro tempore of the Senate. In the past, that often would have meant a replacement governor of the opposite party. There is hardly a worse outcome in a democracy than voters electing a governor from one party, only to see him or her replaced with a governor from the other party. Yet, this nightmare scenario is not only possible without a lieutenant governor; it is likely.
To argue that the office of lieutenant governor is important is not to argue it is also perfect. In particular, the office’s nominating process is deeply flawed. Under existing law, Republican and Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are nominated separately, but must then run together in the general elections. Much better would be a system that required gubernatorial nominees to name their own running mates — much as presidential nominees now do.
This would replace the present crazy system in which governor and lieutenant governor nominees are merged “shotgun wedding” style into a party ticket only after primaries are over. Alternately, we could simply require candidates for governor and lieutenant governor to run as a team in the primary, as they do now in general elections.
Either option is better than the electoral circus now used in which voters know little about the candidates for lieutenant governor, and nothing at all about what those candidates might do, if events thrust them into the governor’s chair.
It is time to recognize that Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governorship is now a vital office — one that has undergone a transformation, from a job once considered marginal to a job analogous to the national vice-presidency.
So, yes, let’s change what is wrong with the way we select lieutenant governors, but polish it, not abolish it.
Pennsylvania needs a lieutenant governor. It also needs elected officials in Harrisburg who understand why.