By Dan Walters | CALmatters Columnist
Decades ago, a clever person — precisely who is somewhat obscure — quipped that the California lieutenant governor’s job is to wake up in the morning, check the newspapers to be sure the governor is still alive and then find a service club to address for a free lunch.
That’s not exactly accurate, but it captures the reality that the lieutenant governor has few, if any, substantive duties other than take over if a governor dies or resigns — something that hasn’t happened since Goodwin Knight became governor after Earl Warren’s appointment as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953.
Technically, the “light governor,” as the office is often called, also assumes full powers of governor whenever the latter leaves the state, but by custom doesn’t do anything that the governor wouldn’t want done.
The one exception, at least in living memory, occurred four decades ago when a Republican lieutenant governor, Mike Curb, tried to appoint a batch of judges when the Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, was out of state. But it backfired, and Curb’s subsequent bid for the governorship failed miserably.
As Curb’s failing campaign illustrates, the lieutenant governorship has not been a powerful propellant into higher office. Gray Davis is the only one in recent history who was elected governor and he later became the only governor to be recalled.
Others have had that ambition, certainly. For instance, when Ronald Reagan was governor and his lieutenant governor resigned, he chose a little known congressman, Ed Reinecke, to fill the vacancy, hoping that Reinecke would succeed him.
However, Reinecke became enmeshed in an aspect of the Watergate scandal and was forced to resign.
In his effort to boost Reinecke’s public standing, Reagan had created a Commission for Economic Development for him to chair. It never did much but continues to this day, still not doing much other than giving the lieutenant governor a title that sounds impressive and a few additional staff positions.
The current lieutenant governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, has maximized the office’s scant ability to garner public attention — after publicly complaining about its lack of authority — and is the leading candidate to succeed Brown, so he might break the jinx — which brings us to the 11 men and women who are running to succeed Newsom this year.
For months, Ed Hernandez, a Democratic state senator from Azusa and an optometrist in private life, seemed to have it sewed up, but before the filing deadline, two other seemingly viable Democrats, both of them former Obama administration ambassadors, jumped in.
One, Eleni Kounalakis (former ambassador to Hungary), came in with heavyweight political endorsers and financial backing from her father, wealthy Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos. The other, Jeff Bleich (former ambassador to Australia), is winning support from Bay Area contributors, particularly fellow lawyers.
There are eight other names on the June primary ballot, including a Republican, Cole Harris, who has dumped about $2 million into his campaign but hasn’t even placed a statement in the official voter handbook. At the moment, however, it appears to be a three-way contest for the top-two positions that will qualify for the November election.
The three leading Democrats, plus independent Gayle McLaughlin and Republican Lydia Ortega, debated Tuesday before the Sacramento Press Club, and while they had their differences, all advocated, even promised, policy changes that the lieutenant governor is fundamentally powerless to influence.
One of the 11 will claim the office next November and, as the old quip suggests, the winner’s main job will be to wait in the political wings, awaiting a chance to go on stage.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary