Rob Christensen

What’s an NC lieutenant governor worth?

Vice President John Nance Garner once remarked that the vice presidency wasn’t worth a warm bucket of spit, or words to that effect.

So what does that make the lieutenant governorship of North Carolina worth?

An effort to increase the value of the lieutenant governorship, or least make it more relevant, went down in flames last week.

State Rep. Bert Jones, a Republican from Reidsville, introduced a bill to have the governor and lieutenant governor run as a team ticket, just like the president and vice president. That way the lieutenant governor would be a member of the same party as the governor, would be part of his administration, and would likely be given important tasks to accomplish.

Right now, lieutenant governors run separately from governor.

The measure received a majority of votes, 60-58, last week in the House, but fell short of the three-fifths majority needed to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. It is not the first time such a measure was introduced and failed.

What to do with the lieutenant governor has probably been discussed since the office was created in 1868.

The lieutenant governor has two major roles: presiding over the Senate and the task of hanging around in case the governor should die or leave the state.

Gov. William Umstead (1953-54) famously kept his lieutenant governor, Luther Hodges, frozen out of any discussions, treating him as a virtual nonperson. Umstead, who suffered a heart attack two days after taking office, apparently saw Hodges as a sign of his own mortality. Hodges (1954-61) is the only accidental governor in recent years.

Until 1970, the lieutenant governor’s job was a part-time office with a secretary – just like that of a state legislator. It closed up shop when the legislature went home and the lieutenant governor went back to a day job. In 1973, under Democrat Jim Hunt, the office became a full-time job with its own staff.

Being lieutenant governor used to be a powerful position, because he was leader of the state Senate – appointing committees and controlling the flow of legislation.

But when Jim Gardner was elected the state’s first Republican lieutenant governor in 1988, the Democratic-controlled Senate stripped the office of its real power and never gave it back, even when Democrats were elected lieutenant governor.

That left the lieutenant governor as little more than a figurehead, presiding over the Senate, occasionally breaking a tie vote. The president pro tem in the Senate is the leader with power.

The lieutenant governor’s office used to be considered a political dead end.

Bob Scott recalls that after exploring a gubernatorial bid in 1964 and deciding against it, he met with key advisors to decide what he should run for. Someone suggested lieutenant governor.

“Who cares about lieutenant governor?” Scott recalled Ben Roney, his veteran political operative, telling him. “That is just putting out to pasture somebody who has done an honorable job in the state Senate or in the House. Nobody cares about that.’’

But then Scott and Roney began rethinking the idea and deciding it just might be a good springboard to the Executive Mansion.

Scott started a trend. Scott was the first of nine consecutive lieutenant governors to use the office to run for governor. But it has been an imperfect platform. Only three of the nine became governor – Scott in 1968, Jim Hunt in 1976, and Bev Perdue in 2008. Six lost their bids to move up – Pat Taylor (1972), Jimmy Green (1984), Bob Jordan (1988), Jim Gardner (1972), Dennis Wicker (2002) and Walter Dalton (2012).

That is in keeping with national trends, in which 31 percent of lieutenant governors have become governors since the early ’90s, according to Governing magazine.

In North Carolina, lieutenant governors on good terms with the governor – and members of the same party – end up with some tasks.

Sometimes, a lieutenant governor acts as opposition leader, such as when Democrat Bob Jordan was in office alongside Republican Gov. Jim Martin – and when Hunt was opposition leader to Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser.

Sometimes lieutenant governors and governors are basically rivals, representing different factions within the party, which was the case of Hunt and Green.

The current lieutenant governor, Dan Forest, has had some assignments from Gov. Pat McCrory, such as chairing the Governor’s eLearning Commission and the Energy Policy Council.

It is also presumed that Forest, like his predecessors, is interested in running for governor. He has traveled widely across the state and championed issues important to his key constituency – social and religious conservatives – such as opposition to Common Core education reforms and support for the Religious Freedom Expression Act, which is part of the political backlash against same-sex marriages.

Today, only 17 states elect their governors and lieutenant governors separately like North Carolina. Given the lieutenant governor’s lack of power, it makes sense for him or her to run as part of a ticket and become part of the administration.

Christensen: 919-829-4532;

Twitter: @oldpolhack

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