BOISE – More lieutenant governors are stepping into their states’ top spots this year than at any time in recent history, prompting renewed attention on who holds these rather obscure jobs and whether they’re ready to govern.
Idaho’s Brad Little says Gov. Butch Otter is training him as his “B team,” involving him in Cabinet meetings and keeping him up to date so he’s prepared in the event he needs to take the reins. If a lieutenant governor hasn’t been involved and suddenly becomes governor, he said, “I don’t think the state would be well-served.”
Washington’s Brad Owen, who has focused on youth programs and international trade while in office, says it’d be “exciting” to become governor if he didn’t have to run because campaigns are so nasty. There’s been some talk that Gov. Chris Gregoire might get an administration post, so Owen’s thought about it.
“Well, you know, if called on I shall serve,” he said.
Once lieutenants take over for departing governors in Alaska, where Gov. Sarah Palin recently announced her resignation, and Utah, where Gov. Jon Huntsman has been nominated to serve as the U.S. ambassador to China, there will have been five successions this year – joining those in Illinois and Kansas, as well as Arizona, which has no lieutenant govenor, making the secretary of state next in line – and 20 since 2000.
“The ever-increasing impact of the office of lieutenant governor on the leadership of the nation in the states is renewing interest in the office of lieutenant governor,” said Julia Hurst, director of the National Lieutenant Governors Association.
Little, who’s fairly new on the job, having been appointed by Otter in January, said, “It’s kind of important that you know what’s going on, in case something happens.” But he added, “I think I’m pretty safe.”
Under Idaho law, beyond presiding over the state Senate and filling in when the governor’s gone, the lieutenant governor’s duties are assigned by the governor.
Otter has treated Little as something of an understudy, asking his advice and generally keeping him involved. He’s also placed him in charge of screening and recommending appointees for all state boards and commissions and handling some trade issues.
“The governor was in my office twice today,” Little said. “He comes in and asks me, ‘What do you think about this, what do you think about that?’ ”
In Washington, the lieutenant governor’s duties, beyond presiding over the Senate, subbing for an absent governor and serving on certain boards, are up to him.
“I’m not beholden to the governor for any of the policies or things that I do. I can establish my own agenda,” Owen said. “Like any political office, you have things you care about more, things you focus on. You establish kind of a program in that area. The office gives you basically the soapbox to be able to address those sorts of things. For us, it’s kids and communities and international relations.”
Both state’s lieutenant governors receive foreign trade delegations. “I just had a group of folks from Spain that I met with today,” Owen said, “and after that a group from China.”
Little “just had the consul general from Bangladesh in here. They’re actually a pretty significant buyer of peas and lentils out of the Palouse country.”
While Owen works full time and is paid $93,948, Little’s job is supposed to be part time, paying only $29,515. “It’s over three-quarters time, I’ll guarantee you that,” he said, saying he’s fortunate that a son returned home to help with the family ranch.
Owen said, “You don’t have to be totally on top of every single issue that is out there, but you need to be aware of what is going on and have a basic understanding, and of course, know where to go and who to talk to.”
He added, “Since I’ve been in office, there have been lieutenant governors move up because of airplane crash, appointment, scandal, you name it, and it’s happened, seems like, more now than ever. It’s something that you know when you take the job, that you need to be prepared for.”
Owen, who also served under former Gov. Gary Locke, said that Gregoire “is more inclined to inform me of things that are going on or ask me to assist her if she can’t be somewhere, although I did that for the other governor as well.”
Owen said he’s not surprised when Gregoire is talked about for possible administration appointments. “Her relationship is very good with President Obama,” he said.
If she were to leave and he were to ascend to the office, he said, “You know, it’s an exciting concept when you’re a political animal – it’s kind of like (getting) a platinum record if you’re a singer. … The nice thing about it is I wouldn’t have to run for it, because that’s pretty brutal.”
“But,” he added, “I tell you what, I don’t count my chickens before they hatch.”
Owen said he thought about running for governor many years ago, but isn’t so interested now – although a succession could change that.
“The campaigns have become so disgusting and the people that run them and that are advocates are so unethical and rotten in the campaigns that they’ve run, that I’m not sure I’d want to go through that,” he said. “I believe that is going to continue to discourage people from running for office, as rotten as they get.”