By John David Dyche
The lieutenant governorship of Kentucky is a fairly insignificant political office. It really has only what power and influence the governor allows, but does offer the occupant some opportunities for advancement.
The lieutenant governor succeeds to the top spot if the governor dies or takes another office, as when Wendell Ford left the governorship for the U. S. Senate in 1974. The lieutenant governor can also use state resources to unofficially campaign for higher office.
Like his predecessors, Jerry Abramson, the current lieutenant governor and former mayor of Louisville, has crisscrossed the commonwealth handing out government checks and giving speeches. These perks have helped him gauge whether he can overcome the liability of being a Louisville liberal if he runs for governor in 2015.
The second spot also lets lieutenant governors get familiar with big issues facing the state. Abramson got a good education and positive statewide exposure by chairing a tax reform task force. Too bad his boss, Governor Steve Beshear, has undermined him by not getting behind its recommendations.
Since a 1992 constitutional amendment candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are elected as a slate. Before that they ran independently of each other, which meant that Kentucky could have a governor from one political party and a lieutenant governor from another.
This happened in 1967. Republican Louie Nunn became governor and Democrat Wendell Ford lieutenant governor.
In the old days the lieutenant governor also became acting governor when the governor left the state. That opened the door to political mischief even when both were from the same party.
In the 1930's, Lieutenant Governor Happy Chandler called a special legislative session while Governor Ruby Laffoon was away. In it, the General Assembly passed a primary election bill that helped Chandler beat Laffoon's hand-picked choice to succeed him.
In the 1970's, Lieutenant Governor Thelma Stovall purported to veto the General Assembly's purported repeal of its ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. This mess was only one of her multiple run-ins with Governor Julian Carroll.
So slating itself is not a bad idea, but it would be better if the law let slates form later. Currently, a candidate for governor must identify a running mate when filing for the office and before campaigning or raising money.
Under this system the candidates for governor who lose in their party's primary are ineligible for the lieutenant governorship. That often means that a party's two ablest and best candidates cannot team up on a ticket for the general election.
Early slating can also discourage good candidates from running for governor. Some savvy Democrats say that if not for the slating requirement there would have been other contenders in 2007 who could have co-opted critical fundraising sources that eventually backed Beshear.
The slating requirement almost cost Republican Ernie Fletcher his candidacy in 2003. Fletcher's slate mate Hunter Bates withdrew rather than appeal a court ruling that he did not meet constitutional residency requirements.
Bob Heleringer, the running mate of GOP primary rival (and now convicted murderer) Steve Nunn, sued to disqualify Fletcher on grounds that his initial filing was defective and the law did not allow him to replace Bates. The state Supreme Court ruled for Fletcher, but it was a close call on the law.
A better way of filling the second slot would be to let gubernatorial nominees pick running mates after the primaries. This is how it is done in presidential campaigns where nominees often tap one of their defeated rivals to run with them in the fall, promoting party unity in the process.
This sensible reform does not require a constitutional amendment, but only legislation. So there is time to make the change before the 2015 gubernatorial election.
The lieutenant governorship may be a politically impotent position, but it has the potential to be better. Fixing the slating process would help.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is email@example.com.