Oh, dear. We’re going to have a race for lieutenant governor.
Worse — counting the Democratic primary there will be two races for lieutenant governor, which in a better world would be three more than filling the office should require.
Within an hour or so of one another, John Burkhalter and Dianne Curry, both of Little Rock, announced they would seek the Democratic nomination. Burkhalter, a state highway commissioner, had contemplated a race to succeed his term-limited patron, Gov. Beebe. Curry, long a member of the Little Rock school board, would be the first African-American to assume statewide office.
Incumbent Republican Mark Darr, who keeps floating trial balloons for other positions, may opt to run for a second term.
That the office exists as structured is usually blamed on the authors of Arkansas’ 1874 Constitution. Wrong. However else they may have screwed up the executive branch, they saw no need for a lieutenant governor, proving they were smarter than commonly imagined. Forty years passed before voters created the office, if only by a margin of 360 votes of 91,000 cast, proving Arkansans of 1914 were almost smarter than commonly imagined. But not until 1927 was the state’s first lieutenant governor chosen, owing to some parliamentary confusion, or perhaps calumny, proving that Arkansas will be Arkansas.
Seven of the 50 states make do somehow without a lieutenant governor. Of the 43 that find one necessary, more than half elect him or her on the same gubernatorial ticket. It would not do, these states reckon, to have a Number One and a Number Two of different political parties; better the advantage of having a Number Two presumably simpatico with Number One’s politics and legislative agenda, and who would assume such responsibilities as Number One assigns. And, naturally, be prepared to step up should Number One, for whatever reason and in whatever sense, depart.
Depart — an important word in Arkansas governance. The same Constitution that dilutes executive power stipulates that the chief executive loses his when he crosses the state line. So, for example, should Governor Beebe attend a conference in Texarkana and accept a luncheon invitation just across Stateline Avenue, Lieutenant Governor Mark Darr becomes Governor Darr, and remains so until Mr. Beebe swallows the last of his iced tea and crosses back into Arkansas.
That worrisome constitutional quirk thus enabled Darr, a Republican, to grandstand during the legislative session, signing a gun bill that Mr. Beebe, a Democrat, had intended to let become law without his signature. A minor bit of mischief, and more than a little annoying to Mr. Beebe, but not the first of its kind — though almost certainly the first with a partisan edge. Darr’s predecessor, Bill Halter, a Democrat, infuriated Mr. Beebe (and confounded his economic development director) with solo act industrial development campaigns domestic and foreign. Four decades earlier two other Democrats, Gov. Dale Bumpers and Lt. Gov. Bob Riley, butted heads when the former, out of state (and consequently out of power), learned that the latter had stymied one or another of his directives.
(When both governor and lieutenant governor are out of state, yet another provision of the Constitution enthrones the state Senate president pro tempore. One granted a pardon to a drug dealer, another made appointments to state commissions, and fired the elected governor’s chief of staff. All involved were Democrats).
Oh, for the days of Nathan Gordon, the World War II Medal of Honor winner, who was lieutenant governor for 20 years, until 1967. Gordon distinguished himself and the office by doing nothing with it save its sole, constitutionally-specified role: presiding over the Senate and breaking the quite rare tie vote. When legislative sessions ended, Gordon resumed his law practice at Morrilton, not to be seen nor heard from again until the next General Assembly.
In the years since, almost invariably and almost always from political ambition, Arkansas’s lieutenant governors have sought to use the office as a stepping stone. They form commissions to study this or that. As often they campaign for the job promising to undertake missions that it in no way empowers them to do, such as repealing Obamacare (Darr) or job creation (Burkhalter and Curry).
It would be eminently more sensible for gubernatorial nominees to choose their prospective lieutenant governors, a la the federal presidential-vice presidential model. Such a coordinated executive team would keep Number Two on the reservation and out of Number One’s hair. But the change would require amending the Constitution, always problematic in a state perpetually suspicious of the political class.
Would that a lieutenant governor (and candidates for which office) embrace the attitude the Constitution anticipates: Get up, read the paper, see if the governor is dead; if not, go back to sleep.
• • •
Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.