MARCH 10, 2010
ELECT LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR DIRECTLY
By JOSHUA SPIVAK
Thanks to the scandals enveloping Gov. Paterson, for the second time in two years, New York faces the possibility, remote though it may be, of a lieutenant governor stepping up to the top spot. While the current occupant, Richard Ravitch, is widely praised, he was not elected to the job.
That fact may actually be his saving grace. Looking over the recent history of New York's lieutenant governors — who are elected as an appendage to the governors at the top of the ticket — it's clear that they are generally the last people we want in high office.
This is an opportunity for the state to rethink the position and actually turn the job into a useful one. There is one simple way to do that: Follow 18 other states and split the ticket, allowing voters to directly elect lieutenant governors in the general election, rather than getting a lieutenant governor who is, in effect, handpicked by the governor to appease a particular interest group.
The electoral system is not perfect, but it is clearly more likely to weed out incompetents and produce a serious, battle-tested leader waiting in the wings in case the governor departs.
Even without any real power, the position is certain to draw a better class of candidates. Why? Due to "the three-men-in-a-room" nature of Albany politics, the Legislature is not an appealing spot for politicians looking to get ahead. But a statewide platform like the lieutenant governor post would give pols the stronger name recognition helpful for a run for higher office.
There's no vetting like the full-fledged scrutiny of a statewide election in which voters have to choose between a candidate and his or her rivals, head to head.
The lieutenant governors elected under this system would be better suited to step up to the top job.
A recent study I conducted of lieutenant governors in other states proves this to be true. Split-ticket lieutenant governors are more likely to go on to win election to a higher office, either governor, U.S. senator or the House of Representatives, than the lieutenant governors in the 23 states that use a same-ticket approach.
New York's own history with lieutenant governors illustrates the problem. The last one to succeed in winning any elective office was Mario Cuomo in 1982. Before Cuomo, we have to go all the way back to Herbert Lehman in 1932. In the intervening years, only two others ever even earned a nomination for another important race.
There is another big potential benefit to letting the lieutenant governor run — and hold office — on his own terms. A directly elected lieutenant governor would have the potential to shake up Albany. Even with little official power, he or she would have good reason to separate themselves from the established powers in Albany and serve as an ombudsman.
There would be one big loser in this change: the governor. Governors will lose the opportunity to blatantly pander to a perceived interest group with their pick, and they will lose a partner in governing.
Directly elected lieutenant governors, almost all of whom will no doubt aspire to be governor someday, will threaten to take time and attention away from the man or woman in the top job. And, of course, if a lieutenant governor is from the other party, the governor is constrained in the ability to jump at another race or job offer — such as joining the President's cabinet, for instance. In that event, the governor would face the wrath of party compatriots for turning over power to the other side. In fact, New York used to have a separately elected lieutenant governor, but for those exact reasons, Gov. Thomas Dewey pushed to change the law in 1953.
But these are problems for the governors, not the public. After all, voters would be the ones who decided to split their tickets.
The travails of David Paterson and his predecessors illustrate the dangers of not properly vetting a lieutenant governor before giving him this critical understudy role. New Yorkers should learn their lesson now, before still more damage is done.
Governors cannot be trusted to choose their possible replacement. It's time that the people reclaim that role. New York needs a separately elected lieutenant governor.
Joshua Spivak, a lawyer and public relations executive, is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College.