Life Support for Lieutenant Governor

In the last quarter-century, 24 lieutenant governors have been promoted to chief executives of their respective states, 14 on account of the career advancements of their predecessors (see Clinton, Bill, and Bush, George W.), 5 due to scandal-imposed resignations (see Blagojevich, Rod), and the other 5 death-related. Since statehood, 7 Illinois Lieutenant Governors, Pat Quinn included, were elevated for various reasons.

The modern office is a product of the revised 1970 state constitution when the Lieutenant Governor position was forever tied to the candidacy of the gubernatorial candidate atop the ticket, avoiding split ticket scenarios like the one in 1968 that paired Republican Governor Richard Ogilvie with a Democratic Lieutenant, the iconic Paul Simon. From this point forward, the two candidates ran as a team, though they (mostly) ran independent of one another in the party primary that set the ticket. Moreover, they forever divorced the Lieutenant Governor from his or her perch as President of the State Senate, removing the last vestiges of formal authority tied to the office. Here lays the crux of the current dilemma facing both parties in Illinois.

It is important to acknowledge that these problems are not unique to Illinois. Wisconsin State Senator Alan Lassee described the duties of Lieutenant Governor as "...sitting around, waiting for the current officeholder to pass on or leave town." Our federal system enables great variability across states, some allowing split tickets, others enabling gubernatorial candidates to select their own running mates, and a few doing away with the position altogether.

The powers associated with the seat span from Texas' elevation of the second-in-command to the co-equal of the chief executive, while others are left to languish in a spiral of pet projects and lost causes. While the vice presidency has risen in importance with the succession of accomplished and empowered number twos (Gore, Cheney, now Biden), most of their state counterparts occupy an office equivalent to what former Vice President John Nance Garner once said equated in worth to little more than a "bucket of warm spit." Some suggest that history substituted "spit" for an even more unsavory word.

The diminished profile of the Lieutenant Governor position in Illinois established, it should then come as little surprise that the race for the respective nominations of both parties drew little attention from the news media and voters alike until the fruits of our labors (of lack thereof) led to the elevation of two political neophytes, one with more than his share of personal baggage. The unsavory past of former Democratic nominee Scott Lee Cohen has been well-profiled elsewhere, eclipsing the victory of Republican nominee Jason Plummer, a 27-year old lumber company executive employed by his family's firm. Both candidates spent lavishly and thus bested arguably more qualified candidates in crowded fields.

Democratic State Representative Art Turner was endorsed by both major Chicago newspapers, while the Tribune picked Republican State Senator Matt Murphy, and the Sun-Times downstate Mayor Brad Cole. Murphy was Andy McKenna's running mate and was just eclipsed by Plummer at the finish line, while Turner probably split votes with rival State Senator Ricky Herndon, allowing Cohen to vault ahead by flaunting his credentials as a "small businessman" and job fair host.

The gubernatorial, U.S. Senate, and county board races gulped their share of print headlines and broadcast features, a reflection of their political power and statewide prominence. The news media industry in a large metropolitan region like Chicagoland simply lacks the resources to cover downballot races, most often because of the multitude of districts that cut across their readership and broadcast reach. The Lieutenant Governor's office, while claiming statewide scope, remains out of the limelight unless the Governor is indicted, imprisoned, or falls ill.

It took only a day before Cohen's triumph attracted its own share of the headlines and column inches. When it became clear that Governor Pat Quinn would be forced to run alongside an accused domestic-abusing, prostitute-attracting, steroid-using deadbeat dad, Cohen's exit from the race was all but inevitable. Speculation over and the scramble for his eventual replacement is the story this week, but the larger issue of the position's utility lingers in the snow-filled February air.

State Representative Lou Lang has proposed that gubernatorial candidates hereafter select their own running mates just as President Obama picked Vice President Biden and Senator John McCain selected former Governor Sarah Palin. State Representative Bill Mitchell takes reform one step further and kills the position altogether. His constitutional amendment would terminate the office by 2011, saving the state an estimated $2.5 million annually.

Before panic sets in amongst the electorate, five states already make do without the office (Oregon, Arizona, Wyoming, New Hampshire and Maine), and others are contemplating similar death knells, including Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who would make the Secretary in State his next-in-line successor. I should also note that Illinois has "survived" without a Number Two since last February.

In sum, the latest political crisis in Illinois is once more one of our own making. We can either A, reform the selection process through which we nominate lieutenant governors and/ or enhance the power of the position, or B, eliminate the office altogether. Otherwise, option C will continue to haunt us. Below the radar candidates will rise, their skeletons hidden in the closet until it is too late, battling for a meaningless office that rises to importance only because of its association with the candidacy of an elevated stripe that has a notorious track record for sending a series of placeholders to prison. Scott Lee Cohen and Jason Plummer thus stand as natural outgrowths of a disjointed and erroneously prioritized process.