When Gavin Newsom was the lieutenant governor of California in 2013, he joked about his duties with late-night host Jimmy Kimmel: “You wake up every morning, you read the paper looking for obituaries for the governor’s name. That’s pretty much it.”
Newsom was known for poking fun at his own post. While a Los Angeles Times reporter shadowed Newsom, a woman recognized him and asked him to pose for a picture with her son. “What’s a lieutenant governor?” the boy asked. “I ask myself that every day,” Newsom responded.
Newsom, who is now running for governor of California, said recently that he regretted his dismissive comments about his own role.
But he’s not the only one to take a crack at the job. “I think there is something of a joke that lieutenant governors just wait around and see if something happens to the governor, in which case they would become governor,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Now, a coalition of Democratic lieutenant governors is trying to turn that reputation around, forming a national organization to advocate for their political goals: the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association. Broadly, the group’s mission is to back liberal candidates seeking election to the post and then support their members as they promote progressive ideals.
“Our focus is electing more Democrats to lieutenant governors all around the nation,” said Justin Fairfax, the first chairman of the DLGA and the current lieutenant governor of Virginia. “We’re going to provide support to candidates in terms of staffing and research and polling and other on-the-ground partnerships to support them in their elections.”
Right now, there are only 14 Democratic lieutenant governors in states and one in a U.S. territory. That’s a substantial minority out of the 45 states that host the office (five states do not have the position at all). “We want to increase those numbers,” said Fairfax.
Republicans, on the other hand, have 31 lieutenant governors in office. They already created their own equivalent organization, the Republican Lieutenant Governors Association, in 2002.
“The conventional wisdom is that Republicans have done a better job at understanding, in recent times, the importance of down-ballot races, the importance of state level offices and getting people elected to those offices and thus influencing public policy at the state level — which in turn has influenced it at the national level to some degree, and has also created a very strong bench of Republican office holders to run for other offices,” said Skelley.
Fairfax noticed that disparity during his recent 2017 election. He recalled how Republican organizations, including the Republican Lieutenant Governors Association, were able to pour money and other resources into his opponent’s campaign. “Fortunately, our message and the energy really carried the day,” he said. “But it did highlight that there needed to be a resource on our side to support candidates who are running, to make sure that they have what they needed to amplify their message, to re-promote the number of voters, and ultimately to win.”
A similar Democratic lieutenant governors organization had existed years ago but went completely dormant — until a seedling of the idea to recreate it arose during recent conversations between leaders.
Montana’s Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, the chair of the bipartisan National Lieutenant Governors Association, is on the executive committee for the DLGA. “As I got more involved in the National Lieutenant Governors Association, I was kind of seeing our counterparts on the Republican side, and they had a very active Republican association … and I just thought why are Democrats not doing that,” he said. “We needed to reorganize this and breathe some life into this and see if we could help make a difference in future elections.”
This election cycle, there are 30 states holding lieutenant governor contests. In 20 of those states, the lieutenant governors and governors are paired as a single ticket; in the remaining 10, the battle for lieutenant governor is separate. The DLGA will help Democratic candidates in both types of races.
Although though the organization is new, the DLGA has already hit the ground running ahead of the November elections.
“We’ve already started, we are engaged with a lot of our campaigns, and we’re looking to connect with all of them,” said Roshan Patel, the Executive Director of the DLGA who was formerly the finance director of the Democratic Governors Association. They’ll reach out to even more candidates once the remaining states hold primaries to determine their Democratic nominees.
The DLGA also hopes to support lieutenant governors once elected. “We really want to be there to support current and future leaders,” said Bethany Hall-Long, the lieutenant governor of Delaware and a member of the DLGA executive committee. “And I think it’s important that we would be able to be an organization that would be a resource to provide policy advice and to assist other democrats with resources as they are serving in office…”.
In office, however, lieutenant governors inhabit a gray space in local politics, where their duties depend largely on the state they serve and the governor to whom they report.
“The duties vary extremely from state to state,” said Mick Bullock, the director of public affairs for the National Conference of State Legislatures, who formerly served as communications director for Mississippi lieutenant governor (and later governor) Phil Bryant. “You’ve got the lieutenant governor in Louisiana, who is in charge of the tourism commission… whereas just next door, for us in Mississippi, the lieutenant governor is the presiding officer, or the president, of the Senate.” In Texas, he added, many people would say that the lieutenant governor is more powerful than the governor because of the position’s significant legislative responsibilities.
In some states, he says, the responsibilities of the lieutenant governor are formalized in the state constitution. In others, they are dictated by the rules of the state senate. Often, their job just depends on what tasks the current governor is willing to delegate.
“In a lot of cases, the lieutenant governor doesn’t even have a very clear role,” Skelley said.
Lieutenant governors, Skelley explained, are in an unusual position because they are “a step away from being governor” but also “don’t have many assigned duties in a lot of states.”
Referencing a famous quote from former Vice President John Nance Garner, Skelley said, “I do think there is some truth to the idea that the lieutenant governorship, at least in a lot of states, is not worth a ‘warm bucket of spit,’ if spit is what John Nance Garner said.”
However, he also noted that if the governor steps down, resigns during a scandal, or is appointed to another post, the lieutenant governor will immediately assume the highest political office in the state.
And, the position can lay the groundwork for future career advancement. “Because of the nature of their position, they do have the opportunity to build up name recognition, so if they want to run in their own right in the future, they can sometimes have the necessary support to be successful,” Skelley said.
The DLGA thinks that investing in Democratic lieutenant governors is important. Fairfax explained that lieutenant governors can cast tie-breaking votes in the state senate, sit on boards and commissions that shape public policy, or advocate for ideas from their platform.
“You really do have LGs that have broad portfolios that have significant input, impact on the most pressing policy issues of our time,” he said. “At a time when federal level has produced nothing really but stagnation and infighting, the state is taking the lead on policy.”
And, they can build a pipeline of future Democratic leadership. “Because I think we have that reputation… I think we always are eager to point out that, look, if you’re a Democrat and you know the names John Kerry or Howard Dean or Tim Kaine, then you are well aware of lieutenant governors,” said Cyrus Habib, the lieutenant governor of Washington. “Because all of them at one point were lieutenant governors and that was a critical step for them to get to where they eventually ended up.”
“So it matters,” he said. “Making investments early in these campaigns is important.”