Lt. Governor: Relic or Relevant?

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

Much has been written and said about what kind of a governor Tom Corbett will be. He is, without any doubt, the polar opposite of former Governor Ed Rendell in both style and substance. But little has been said of the man who will stand, as the saying goes, a heartbeat away from the governorship: Pennsylvania’s new Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley.

The role Lt. Governor Cawley plays in the new Corbett Administration should be closely watched. Recent circumstances have thrust lieutenant governors into the spotlight. Lt. Governor Mark Singel became acting governor when Governor Bob Casey underwent a multiple organ transplant. Lt. Governor Mark Schweiker became Governor Schweiker when Tom Ridge was called to Washington by President George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Unusual and unforeseen circumstances often present themselves and it is important for Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor to be ready to lead. The office has few constitutionally defined powers. Aside from serving as President of the Senate, the role of the lieutenant governor is largely determined by the governor with whom he serves. A look back at recent administrations illustrates the wide latitude Governor Corbett and Lt. Governor Cawley will have in defining their relationship.

The man Cawley succeeded in office, Lt. Governor Joseph Scarnati is yet another example of how the unexpected can occur. Scarnati ascended to the number two post in state government upon the death of Lt. Governor Catherine Baker Knoll. As the President Pro Tempore of the state senate, Scarnati was constitutionally next in line. He did not, however, give up his senate seat and continued to function in that role while the office of lieutenant governor was essentially shut down.

This situation has given rise to questions as to whether the office is even needed. So the role the new lieutenant governor plays and his success in the job could go a long way toward determining whether or not the office itself survives.

As lieutenant governor, Mrs. Knoll played a largely ceremonial role. She was given no portfolio of substance by Ed Rendell. There was even talk she would be dropped from the ticket when Rendell ran for re-election in 2006, but Knoll retained enough political clout to remain in the job. Known more for her frequent verbal miscues, when Knoll made headlines it usually wasn’t for a good reason.

Adding to the string of non-substantial lieutenant governorships is the man Mrs. Knoll replaced, Robert Jubelier. As with Scarnati, Mr. Jubelier occupied the lieutenant governorship only because as President Pro Tempore of the state senate he ascended to the office when Mark Schweiker became governor. He too served merely as a place holder.

Mark Schweiker’s experience was different. Governor Ridge assigned him the state’s emergency management portfolio. As a former Bucks County Commissioner, Schweiker was knowledgeable in the field and became a familiar face to Pennsylvanians during snow storms and other weather emergencies. That experience came in handy when, as governor, he personally led the effort to successfully rescue miners trapped in the Que Creek mine near Somerset. He left office something of a national hero.

As mentioned Schweiker’s predecessor, Mark Singel became acting governor. Single began his service in the number two slot as a full partner with Casey. But the two parted company on some important issues, notably abortion, and aside from his tenure as acting governor, Singel was largely marginalized by the time Casey left office.

One of the most successful partnerships in recent history was that between Governor Dick Thornburgh and his lieutenant governor, Bill Scranton. Scranton was at Thornburgh’s side during the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. He functioned effectively in the office and was nominated by the Republican Party to succeed Thornburgh. He fell short of that goal in one of the closest gubernatorial elections in state history.

Thus the models from which Tom Corbett and Jim Cawley have to choose are many and varied. The duo comes into office clearly on good terms and obviously comfortable with one another. Like Schweiker, Cawley arrives in the lieutenant governor’s office having served as a Bucks County Commissioner. Thus his experience in government is hands-on, not ceremonial.

My bet is the Corbett-Cawley relationship will follow the models set by Tom Ridge and Dick Thornburgh. After a succession of inert lieutenant governorships, look for the office to be revived and become an effective part of state government. Of course if it doesn’t, Jim Cawley could be the last lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)

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