Decades ago, a clever person – precisely who is obscure – said the California lieutenant governor’s job is to wake up in the morning, check the newspapers to be sure the governor is still alive and then find a service club to address for a free lunch.
That’s not exactly accurate, but it captures the reality that the lieutenant governor has few, if any, substantive duties unless a governor dies or resigns – something that hasn’t happened since Goodwin Knight became governor after Earl Warren’s appointment as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953.
Technically, the “light governor,” as the office is often called, assumes full powers of the governor whenever the latter leaves the state but does nothing the governor wouldn’t want done. The one exception occurred four decades ago when a Republican lieutenant governor, Mike Curb, tried to appoint a batch of judges when Democrat Jerry Brown was out of state. It backfired, and Curb’s subsequent bid for the governorship failed miserably.
The job has not been a powerful propellant into higher office. Gray Davis is the only one in recent history to be elected governor and he later became the only governor to be recalled.
Others have had that ambition. When Ronald Reagan was governor and his lieutenant governor resigned, he chose a little known congressman, Ed Reinecke, to fill the vacancy, hoping Reinecke would succeed him. But Reinecke became enmeshed in the Watergate scandal and was forced to resign.
In his effort to boost Reinecke’s standing, Reagan had created a Commission for Economic Development for him to chair. It never did much but continues to this day, still not doing much other than giving the lieutenant governor a title.
The current lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom, has maximized the office’s scant ability to garner attention – after publicly complaining about its lack of authority – and is the leading candidate to succeed Brown, so he might break the jinx. That brings us to the 11 men and women running to succeed Newsom.
For months, Ed Hernandez, a Democratic state senator and optometrist from Azusa, seemed to have it sewed up. But just before the filing deadline, two viable Democrats, both former Obama administration ambassadors, jumped in.
Eleni Kounalakis (former ambassador to Hungary) came in with heavyweight endorsements and financial backing from her father, Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos. The other, Jeff Bleich (former ambassador to Australia), is winning support from Bay Area contributors, particularly fellow lawyers.
There are eight others on the June primary ballot, including a Republican, Cole Harris, who has dumped about $2 million into his campaign but doesn’t have a statement in the official voter handbook. At the moment, it appears to be a three-way contest allowing the top-two to qualify for the November election.
The three leading Democrats, plus independent Gayle McLaughlin and Republican Lydia Ortega, debated Tuesday in Sacramento. They had their differences, but all advocated, even promised, policy changes that the lieutenant governor is fundamentally powerless to influence.
One of the 11 will claim the office in November and, as the old quip suggests, the winner’s main job will be to wait in the wings for a chance to go on stage.
Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public-interest journalism organization. Go to calmatters.org/commentary.