Normally, primary contests for lieutenant governor are quiet affairs, given little thought by voters and not much more by party leaders.
It’s not that candidates don’t lust after the nomination; six have filed petitions for the May 20 Democratic primary.
But the office itself comes with few official demands, little or no power and no independent political base. It does pay pretty well. The lieutenant governor receives almost $160,000 annually, and housing is first class.
Officially, the lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate, a task that takes an average of one day a week, and chairs the Pardons Board. Some lieutenant governors have been assigned the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency portfolio.
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If the governor is temporarily incapacitated, the lieutenant governor may “act” as governor; if the governor dies or leaves office, the lieutenant governor assumes the office of governor.
But gubernatorial vacancies have been rare in modern history — only Lt. Gov. Mark Schweiker succeeded when Gov. Tom Ridge left in late 2001 to become Homeland Security Adviser to President George W. Bush.
More typically, it’s a low-profile, watching-the-clock sort of job. Certainly it doesn’t come with many of the traditional perks that ambitious politicians seek — a large staff, power and high visibility.
So, the wide appeal of the office is somewhat paradoxical.
One possible explanation is that it’s like the lottery. Running for the office is something of a crap-shoot. Having a familiar name, the right geography or a powerful political endorsement is more important in winning than one’s policies or experiences.
Then there’s the aura of the office. A cliche it may be, but the lieutenant governor is but a “heartbeat” away from being governor — or, to quote John Adams describing the vice presidency, “In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.”
Beyond this, the office has led to several future gubernatorial nominations. Although only two recent lieutenant governors have actually served as either acting governor or as governor, several former lieutenant governors have sought the top post.
Since the mid-1960s, five incumbent lieutenant governors have made serious runs for governor — in 1966, 1970, 1978, 1986 and 1994, and a sixth (Schweiker) certainly could have chosen to do so in 2002. Their respective political parties nominated four of the five who ran.
Future opportunities notwithstanding, most party primary candidates for lieutenant governor generate little notice or controversy. In truth, their policy positions matter not a whit after the election. The successful nominee soon adopts the positions of the gubernatorial nominee.
Nor do they have much influence on the outcome of the gubernatorial election. Occasionally it has mattered who a party nominated, but not much and not often.
This year may be different. One of the Democratic candidates brings with him the potential to drive much of the debate in the gubernatorial campaign.
That’s because among the six Democrats running is Jay Paterno, a former Penn State football coach and son of legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno.
Jay Paterno has never held a governmental office — appointive or elective. Nevertheless, if he wins, his presence on the ticket would inevitably keep the controversial Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case before the public and be a factor in the campaign.
The impact of the Sandusky case on the 2014 gubernatorial election isn’t yet clear. What is clear, however, is that it will be an issue that resonates with many voters.
The Paterno family lawsuit against the NCAA and Penn State, if it goes forward, will exacerbate the already raw emotions between supporters and opponents of the controversial NCAA sanctions.
Kathleen Kane raised related issues during her attorney general campaign in 2012, suggesting that then-Attorney General Tom Corbett improperly prolonged the case’s investigation while he sought the governorship.
Most political observers think Kane’s use of the issue aided her in piling up a huge electoral majority.
Adding to the electoral saliency of the case, sometime later this year Kane is expected to release the long-awaited report by a special deputy assigned to investigate Corbett’s handling of the Sandusky prosecution.
Finally, the impending trial of three former top Penn State administrators is expected to keep the case front and center during the election year.
The fallout from the Sandusky scandal will be an inevitable backdrop to the 2014 gubernatorial election; with Paterno in the race it could be decisive.
There is a vital caveat to be noted: There is no certainty Paterno will win the Democratic nomination in a field of six. Some observers have described his performance as lackluster in early campaigning, and his nominating petitions are being challenged.
Nevertheless, if Paterno does win, it could turn state history on its head. Historically, the candidates for lieutenant governor in Pennsylvania have rarely mattered to the outcome of a gubernatorial election.
Election year 2014 could be a year that it does matter — a lot.