Despite its historic nature, the contest to become New Jersey’s first lieutenant governor has yet to generate much statewide attention from the general citizenry.
What we have heard – from Trenton insiders and in State House news reports – have been the names of potential candidates whose qualifications appear to have more to do with their value to balance a ticket than with their ability to step in and run the state effectively.
Based upon the experiences of other states, this is not surprising. A 2006 study published in the Newspaper Research Journal found that lieutenant governor candidates have historically been chosen to balance tickets along geographic, philosophical, gender, racial, ethnic and religious lines.
There is nothing wrong with a balanced ticket, but the determining factors in choosing a lieutenant governor should be that person’s ability to lead the state, not his or her race or gender. From this perspective, although he is unlikely to be on the ballot, Senate President Richard Codey has the best credentials. After all, he has stepped in to run the state for significant periods of time on two occasions in the past five years.
The only other individuals who can boast such credentials are the state’s actual former governors. Perhaps making one of them lieutenant governor wouldn’t be such a bad idea, especially when one considers that many of the nation’s lieutenant governors spend much of their time taking part in ceremonial activities.
Lest there be any doubt, just take a look at the news section of the National Lieutenant Governors Association website. You’ll find some lieutenant governors who are involved in critical state activities, but the news pages (and keep in mind, these are the highlights) also contain items such as these that were posted for March 2009:
- Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter questions proposed salary of lottery director.
- Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder announces addition of Lance Armstrong team to Missouri bicycle race.
- Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu announces formation of cultural district.
- Hawaii Lieutenant. Governor James R. “Duke” Aiona praises benefits of Pro Bowl.
- Rhode Island Lieutenant. Governor Elizabeth Roberts unveils new website on insurance.
Idaho Lieutenant Governor Brad Little put his job into perspective when he reflected upon meeting the Swiss ambassador during a Special Olympics event. “What the hell do I know about meeting with an ambassador?” he told The Idaho Statesman.
In New Jersey, whoever wins the Governor’s race will have the option of designating the lieutenant governor as the head of a state department or agency. But there is a good chance we may not learn much about the lieutenant governor candidates’ ability to serve in leadership positions.
The Newspaper Research Journal article found that news organizations provided little coverage for the number two slots in state government. The authors, Eric Freedman and Daniel Thai, conducted a content analysis of news stories published between Labor Day and Election Day 2002 about the open lieutenant governor races in seven states. Out of 242 stories, lieutenant governor candidates were included in only 24. Two major dailies — the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Topeka Capital-Journal – failed to mention the candidates in a single story.
“It is no exaggeration to say that most candidates for lieutenant governor were barely blips on the radar, if at all, in capital city newspapers during prime campaign season,” Freedman and Thai concluded.
New Jersey decided to establish a lieutenant governor’s position after two governors – Christine Todd Whitman and James E. McGreevey – left before their terms were over, leaving the Senate President to serve as acting governor (while retaining the Senate President post).
The situation raised concern about the separation of branches of government and the amount of power it placed in one individual’s hands. But the truth is New Jersey emerged from both situations no worse for the wear. And how likely is it that another governor may leave office with a significant amount of time left on his or her term (especially now that the rumors of Governor Corzine heading to the Obama Administration appear to be behind us)?
Ironically, New Jersey is creating a lieutenant governor at a time when other states have been making noise – in some cases for several years — about eliminating the position because they find it difficult to justify at a time when budgets are tightening:
- “Do we need a lieutenant governor? Better yet, can you name the present lieutenant governor and what he does?” the Herald-News of Joliet, Illinois, asked in a 1998 editorial urging elimination of the job.
- “In an era of downsizing I think we could do without. I see this as a cost-saving move,” Sheldon Wasserman, a state legislator in Wisconsin, explained to the Capital Times in Madison when he introduced a resolution to eliminate the job in 2003.
- In Rhode Island in 2006, Robert J. Healey Jr. ran for lieutenant governor on a platform that included a promise to abolish the position. “Nobody can say with a straight face that this office has a function,” he told The Newport Daily News.
- More recently, in February of this year, The Orlando Sentinel reported that over a period of 22 months, Florida Lieutenant Governor Jeff Kottkamp had nothing scheduled on 60 weekdays, the equivalent of 12 workweeks.
- In March, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters wrote that “The lieutenant governor’s office may be the state’s most pointless governmental appendage.”
Perhaps Walters’ comments were inspired by California Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, whose daily schedule has at times included coaxing a frog at the Annual Frog Jumping Contest at the state capitol. In keeping with a job that calls for playing second fiddle, the contest was only a prelude to a bigger event — the frog jumping contest at the Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee that took place later in the year.
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