by Lowman S. Henry | May 02, 2017

It is likely that if you stopped ten people on any street corner in Penn’s Woods and asked them the name of our state’s lieutenant governor at least nine would be unable to answer the question. That is because Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor is rarely in the news – and when he or she is the news is usually bad.

That is because aside from presiding over the state senate the Pennsylvania constitution gives the lieutenant governor few official duties except for the "heartbeat away" scenario waiting for the big guy to, well, die. Fortunately that hasn’t happened in recent years, but two lieutenant governors were called upon to sit in the big chair.

The most prominent example is former Governor Mark Schweiker who became governor when Tom Ridge resigned to answer President George W. Bush’s call for him to head the then-Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Schweiker served with distinction, gaining national acclaim for leading the team that rescued coal miners trapped in a mine deep beneath Somerset County.

Lieutenant Governor Mark Singel became acting governor for an extended period of time when Governor Bob Casey underwent a multiple organ transplant. Casey eventually recovered and resumed his duties. Singel too rose to the occasion and kept the commonwealth on an even keel during the boss’ absence.

Sometimes governors have given significant responsibilities to their lieutenant governor in addition to those proscribed by the constitution. Schweiker coordinated emergency services; training that was invaluable when the mine disaster struck. And, former Governor Tom Corbett tasked then Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley with a wide range of policy development projects.

But the road for many second bananas has been bumpy. Governor Ed Rendell gave then Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll few major duties, and the current lieutenant governor – his name is Mike Stack by the way – likewise has failed to become a member of the governor’s inner circle.

Much of this can be attributed to the process by which lieutenant governors are elected in Pennsylvania. Candidates for the post must compete in their own primary and are nominated separate from the governor. Then, in the General Election, voters cast but one ballot for governor and lieutenant governor combined.

This has resulted in some odd parings, especially for Democrats who tend to have shotgun marriages while Republicans traditionally have arranged marriages. The most infamous case of a shotgun marriage came in 1978 when former Pittsburgh Mayor Peter Flaherty was nominated by Democrats for governor. He defeated future Governor Bob Casey in a hotly contested primary. But another Bob Casey, he an Allegheny County biology teacher, won the nomination for lieutenant governor. The mismatch contributed to their General Election defeat at the hands of Dick Thornburgh.

Republicans have been more orderly in the selection of lieutenant governors, largely due to an effective endorsement process. This has resulted in less friction between the state’s two top office holders once they form an administration and given the eventual winners significant roles in governing.

We may now be witnessing yet another bizarre twist in the history of Pennsylvania lieutenant governors. Following the tradition of only making news when something goes wrong Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack has generated headlines due to an investigation by the state Inspector General into how he and his wife have treated their state police detail and household staff. Early reports suggest they have been, shall we say, difficult. Stack held a mea culpa news conference which by all accounts did not go well. Days later, Governor Wolf suspended Stack’s state police protection.

Given Governor Wolf’s actions it would appear a palace coup is underway. Stack, then a state senator, was nominated separately from Wolf and the two never bonded as a ticket. Stack has been mostly invisible as lieutenant governor and would now appear to be a political liability as Wolf approaches what promises to be a difficult re-election campaign.

Wolf defenders say Stack’s action offends the governor’s sense of decency. Political analysts see a Philadelphian on the ticket harming the governor’s re-election chances. A bit of both scenarios likely is at play, but one thing is certain – Stack would not be in his current defensive position without the governor’s involvement.

All this has given rise to questions about whether or not Pennsylvania even needs a lieutenant governor and the costs associated with the office. A good debate can be had over that, but one thing is for certain: we will elect a lieutenant governor next year and the campaign promises to be as interesting as an episode of House of Cards.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])

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