Raleigh, N.C. — For many voters, the office of lieutenant governor represents a nebulous list of duties, and not something to worry about unless the governor dies.
The North Carolina State Constitution seems to enforce this apathy. While it offers five ways the lieutenant governor can succeed a governor, there isn’t much else offered for a job description except, “He shall perform such additional duties as the General Assembly or the Governor may assign to him.”
In North Carolina and 17 other states, the lieutenant governor is elected on a separate ballot from the governor, making it possible for the two people to be of different political party affiliations. It’s not common; the most recent example was from 1985 to 1989.
For most voters, the vote for lieutenant governor is the vote for a backup. Still, if you dig a little deeper, it turns out the role isn’t just that of an understudy.
The job of lieutenant governor was created in the 1868 state Constitution, but it didn’t include provisions for the lieutenant governor until 1968.
Until then, it was a part-time job whose main function (other than succession) was to preside over the Senate, according to John Sanders, who was a member of the commission that wrote the most recent revision to the state Constitution.
“It was not expected to be a full-time office in Raleigh,” Sanders said.
The job was given a full-time status in the 1970s with a salary and a full-time staff. Still, the job responsibilities didn’t change much, Sanders said.
“There’s not much that can be done by sheer will of the lieutenant governor,” Sanders said. “It’s just not meant to be a very active office.”
Aside from filling in for the governor, the lieutenant governor’s main other duty is to preside over sessions of the Senate. But even that has grown vague over the years.
The lieutenant governor used to appoint members of Senate committees and guide legislation. But those rules have changed, and such responsibility now lies with the Senate’s President pro tem. Today, the lieutenant governor votes in the Senate only if there is a tie.
“The office used to be much more significant politically and in terms of power than it is now,” Sanders said. “The office in the Senate is more ornamental than functional.”
Sanders said the office used to be a prestigious role for those who’d already served in other capacities.
“It used to be a job that people who have served several terms in the legislature would seek as a sort of culminating achievement of their political career,” he said.
Due to the office changes, the job is now often used as a launchpad for those seeking the governor’s seat. Many have run, but not all successfully. Before election as governor, Beverly Perdue served as lieutenant governor.
Boards and commissions
Aside from succession and the Senate, the lieutenant governor serves as chair of several boards, commissions, committees and task forces in the state, including the State Board of Education.
Tom Walsch, director of communications for the lieutenant governor’s office, said because of service on these boards, the lieutenant governor has tremendous influence over state policy.
For example, the lieutenant governor has delivered comprehensive reports about transportation needs and infrastructure in North Carolina, managing discussions, talking to leaders in both government and private business and deciphering it all to figure out the needs.
It may not make news headlines, Walsch said, “but you need someone that understands on a policy level what’s at stake and how to get us where we need to be … it can lead to some pretty important investments and some pretty important decisions.”
Walsch also said the office can operate as a platform for the person in it.
“Anyone who would hold the office of lieutenant governor would have the opportunity to make those types a decisions outside the realm of what the job calls for,” he said.
Of course, that’s up to the person in the office, leaving the role open to the interpretation. Effectively, it is what you make it, Walsch said.
So with all that, how do you choose when marking the ballot? Most people choose by political party, based on the duties of succession. But for independent and split-ticket voters, it’s a tougher choice.
“So long as he’s stayed out of the news … you’re not going to find much negative character,” Sanders said. “So you judge on the basis of whatever you can find out about them.”
A noteworthy succession
The most noteworthy succession in modern time was after the 1952 election. Gov. William Umstead took office in 1953, but became ill at the inauguration. He was bedridden for much of the next year and then died. Luther Hodges succeeded him, then successfully ran for his own term as governor. At that time, governors could only serve one term, giving him the record at the time for longest gubernatorial service.
Story and photo courtesy of Raleigh Public Record.