Second Fiddle: It does matter who is PA’s next lieutenant governor

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

Dramatic developments in races for the United States Senate and Pennsylvania Governor have dominated coverage of the 2010 elections in Penn’s Woods. But, a third statewide office will be on the ballot this year and it has drawn an unusually large field of contenders.

The job is that of Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor. And it is apparently a plum assignment. The lieutenant governor is paid $161,000 per year and full state benefits. He or she gets a mansion with a pool at Ft. Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, full state police protection, an ornate office in the center of the capitol and all the trappings of a top statewide official.

In exchange the lieutenant governor does, well, actually very little. The state constitution (a seldom read document) provides that the lieutenant governor serves as president of the state senate. That basically means standing at the podium and looking good while senators go about the real business of governing.

Aside from that, the lieutenant governor basically sits around and waits for the governor to die, to become incapacitated, or to leave office prematurely. That has actually happened quite a bit in recent years. Lieutenant Governor Mark Singel became acting governor when then Governor Robert P. Casey, Sr. had a multiple organ transplant. Then, in 2001, when Governor Tom Ridge was summoned to Washington to help secure the homeland, Lt. Governor Mark Schweiker became governor.

For his part, Schweiker actually made something of the lieutenant governor’s office. He was delegated the responsibility of overseeing emergency preparedness and became the official face of state government often wearing plaid shirts during major snowstorms. His successor, the late Catherine Baker Knoll, did not look good in plaid, so she discontinued the practice.

The current lieutenant governor, State Senator Joseph Scarnati, is something of an anomaly. He is the President Pro Tempore, the guy who actually presides over the state senate when the lieutenant governor is otherwise occupied. When Mrs. Knoll, a Democrat, passed away Senator Scarnati, a Republican ascended to the office.

Having a governor and a lieutenant governor of differing political parties is virtually unheard of in Pennsylvania. That is because while nominees for the two offices are selected separately in the primary, voters cast but one vote in the general election for governor and the lieutenant governor comes along as sort of a package deal. Thus, it is not possible for a governor and lieutenant governor of differing parties to be elected.

That state of normalcy will be restored this year when voters elect a new governor. But, before that happens voters of each party will get to determine in the May primary who will be their candidates for lieutenant governor. For Republicans the field is large and diverse, but few contenders have emerged on the Democratic side.

Depending on the day, there are over a dozen Republicans seeking the GOP nod for lieutenant governor. Campaigning with various degrees of seriousness are several state representatives, a couple of county commissioners and a former county executive, businessmen, reform activists, a city councilman, and even a minister.

At this point the Republican nomination appears to be wide open. Typically, the party’s endorsed candidate for governor picks a running mate. But sheer numbers make that hazardous this year as one happy camper would be overwhelmed by disappointed also-rans. The number of candidates virtually ensures a contested primary, so a pick from the top could ultimately be rejected by voters.

Meanwhile, far fewer Democrats have shown an interest in the office. Perhaps that is because the race for governor on the Democratic side of the ledger is less settled than it is for Republicans. The only serious candidate to emerge to date is former Philadelphia Controller Jonathan Saidel. Several others have floated trial balloons, but at this point the nomination appears Saidel’s to lose.

A flood of Republican candidates and a dearth of Democratic candidates only tend to make an obscure race even more so. Republican voters will have difficulty sorting through the field, while there is little interest on the Democratic side. With more fireworks expected in hotly contested U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races, the party nomination battles for lieutenant governor will be largely overlooked.

But they shouldn’t be. While the office in and of itself has no power and virtually no influence, lieutenant governors have been called upon to step into the top spot. And when they are, the circumstances are almost always bad. And the only real chance for voters to weigh in comes during the primary process. So, while it may be second fiddle, it is important to pay attention to who is standing next to Pennsylvania’s new governor on inauguration day.

(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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