Columns » Warwick Sabin

Sound of the second fiddle

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When John Adams was vice president in 1793, he wrote to his wife, Abigail, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived …. ”

John Nance Garner, vice president from 1933 to 1941, once said simply, “The vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss.” (He was from Texas.)

Clearly not much had changed in almost 150 years, and that’s because the office of vice president was never meant to be powerful or important. In the U.S. Constitution, the vice president’s only duty is to preside over the Senate. Other than that, he or she is there only to step in if the president is removed from office or otherwise incapacitated.

Arkansas replicated that arrangement in its state Constitution. The lieutenant governor has no responsibilities besides presiding over the Senate and assuming the role of governor if necessary. The state didn’t even have a lieutenant governor until 1926.

But whereas no one publicly aspires to be vice president, in Arkansas there are people who actually run for lieutenant governor. They travel the state, give speeches, pay a filing fee and spend money on campaign materials and advertisements — all to beg for the chance to play a ceremonial role in a legislature that meets once every two years.

Of course, there is always the outside chance that the lieutenant governor will ascend to the governor’s seat. Bill Halter alluded to that possibility last week, when he announced he was dropping out of the governor’s race to contend for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

Asked how his gubernatorial campaign platform would be applicable to the new office he is seeking, Halter noted that two recent Arkansas lieutenant governors had to move into the state’s highest office, so “it’s relevant that folks know where you stand on those issues.”

But seeing as Jim Guy Tucker became governor because Bill Clinton was elected president, and Mike Huckabee became governor because Tucker was convicted in an unusual investigation triggered by Clinton’s presidency, Halter is basing his logic on some pretty extraordinary circumstances.

In fact, looking back at the list of the state’s lieutenant governors, only one other person assumed the governor’s role for more than a few days at a time, and that was following Gov. John Ellis Martineau’s resignation back in 1928.

This isn’t meant to be some kind of clever history lesson, though. It’s the lead-in to a question: Why are so many people running for lieutenant governor this year?

After all, there are only two candidates for governor, the most powerful job in state government. But eight people intend to file for their party’s nomination for lieutenant governor, and most are what could be referred to as serious, experienced politicians. They include two state senators, three current and former state representatives, and one former U.S. attorney.

If you ask one of them why they want to get elected to a position that has no governing authority, they’ll respond by outlining their sets of broad goals and specific policy prescriptions that they’ll never have the power to implement.

It used to be that energetic, ambitious Arkansas politicos fought for posts that carry significant responsibilities, like the other constitutional offices and U.S. Congress. But this year’s dynamics have closed off most of those options. The state’s congressional delegation has the strength of incumbency, the gubernatorial race has been a party-orchestrated ballet, and the competition for attorney general took shape quickly and is restricted to lawyers. Compounding all of these factors is the supply and flow of campaign dollars, which helps to explain the advantage of congressional incumbency, the parties’ interest in orchestration and the territory claimed in the attorney general’s race.

Then again, maybe these candidates for lieutenant governor really believe they can be influential. After all, the vice presidency has been growing in clout over the last 50 years, and the last few men to serve in that office have been increasingly more prominent and have exercised more authority than ever before.

A similar evolution has been occurring in Arkansas during the last 15 years, and there are indications that it will continue. Gubernatorial candidate Mike Beebe this week told the Political Animals Club that if he is elected, he would offer the lieutenant governor a significant role in formulating public policy and as “an ambassador for the state.” Assuming they could work well together, Beebe thinks his understudy could be “a major participant in a form or fashion we’ve never seen before.”

That’s music to the ears of the men who long to play second fiddle.

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