(Editor’s Note: Recently, I posted an article that revisited the California Constitution Revision Commission’s recommendation that the Governor and Lt. Governor run as a ticket. Garry South, then Chief of Staff to Lt. Governor Gray Davis, testified in front of the commission raising questions about that notion in December 1995. His commission testimony is re-printed here.)
As you might suspect, I would like to direct my remarks to the Commission’s specific recommendations dealing with the office of lieutenant governor. These include requiring the governor and lieutenant governor to run as a ticket and removing the “acting governor” provision from Article V, Section 10 of the California Constitution.
Let me note at the outset that my purpose is not necessarily
to either support or oppose these particular recommendations. Rather, I hope to provide some historical, political and practical perspectives for the Commission’s consideration.
I believe four fundamental questions must be asked about the changes you have proposed. First, are they necessary? Second, is there public demand or support for these changes? Third, if enacted, would they accomplish their stated purpose? And fourth, are there other ways short of constitutional amendment to deal with the complex and sometimes conflicted relationship between a state’s two top officeholders?
Let me begin by focusing on the question of need. In all candor, it is clear that two principal developments have informed the current debate about the role — and even the continued existence — of California’s lieutenant governor. The first was
Lt. Gov. Mike Curb’s notorious mischief-making a decade and a half ago. The second was Gov. Pete Wilson’s run for president this year and the complication of his having a Democratic lieutenant governor. Both demand some historical context.
Californians who witnessed these situations might be forgiven for holding the view that such high-profile conflicts have been a regular feature of the State’s political system over the years. And given the national media coverage generated by both episodes, they also might be excused for thinking that the circumstances of an acting governor are unique to California.
It therefore might surprise many Californians to know that Mike Curb’s election in 1978 was the first time in the 20th century that a governor and lieutenant governor of different political parties had been elected in California.
It might also surprise them — and perhaps even the members of this Commission — that in its unanimous 1979 opinion upholding the constitutional powers of an acting governor, the California Supreme Court noted that just since 1964 there had been more than 1,400 instances of a California lieutenant governor taking action in the absence of the governor. These included signing and vetoing bills, issuing executive orders and pardons, and making appointments.
In terms of historical perspective, it is important to recall that Curb’s supposed breaches of political etiquette consisted largely of two major acts, both of them ultimately reversed or invalidated. One was an attempted appointment to the Court of Appeal, the other the issuance of an executive order dealing with clean-air standards.
Though the Supreme Court ruled that Curb acted within his powers in making the judicial appointment, it also sustained Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to withdraw the appointment upon his return to the State. The executive order in question was found to be invalid due to technical problems with its language. Later in 1979, the procedure for nominating judges was changed so as to effectively preclude the possibility of an acting governor successfully making such an appointment.
In addition, it might surprise many Californians to learn that conferring upon the lieutenant governor the power to act in the absence of the governor is hardly unique to California. Thirty-four states currently have constitutional or statutory provisions so empowering a lieutenant governor.
A few require a specific delegation of authority from the governor or become effective only after the governor is absent from the state for a specified period of time. Several others confer such power only in emergency situations. But a majority of states clearly recognize the need for — and propriety of – a lieutenant governor’s exercise of gubernatorial powers in certain situations.
With respect to the current debate, I find it interesting that Gov. Wilson himself was one of the first this year to publicly broach the idea of requiring the governor and lieutenant governor to run as a ticket. A February 18 Sacramento Bee story about his appearance at a YMCA function was headlined “Wilson urges 1-party ticket for governor, lieutenant governor.”
In the same article, the Governor is also quoted as floating the unprecedented idea of requiring a special election to fill a gubernatorial vacancy — and even suggesting abolishing the office of lieutenant governor altogether. The former, as we all remember, eventually became a formal proposal designed to deal with what became known as the Governor’s “Gray Davis problem.”
In explaining and defending these various attacks on the independence and role of the lieutenant governor, some of the Governor’s staff posited the notion that the voters really did not understand what they were doing when they reelected a Republican governor while also electing a Democratic lieutenant governor in 1994.
But not even fellow Republican Bruce Herschensohn could buy that rationalization. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece last June, Herschensohn wrote:
“I campaigned against Davis, but … when the people of California voted last November, they knew that the lieutenant governor’s prime duty is to take over the governor’s responsibilities if that office becomes vacant. The people made a decision for a Republican, Pete Wilson, to be governor of the state and a Democrat, Gray Davis, to be lieutenant governor.”
Herschensohn’s interpretation is corroborated by focus groups we conducted after the election. Many participants were voters who had split their ticket, saying they did so because they wanted “Davis to keep Pete honest,” or desired “Wilson and. Davis to keep an eye on each other.”
In all frankness, the so-called “Gray Davis problem” was not a problem for either the people or the State of California. Rather, it was a problem only for Gov. Wilson.
The Commission must therefore seriously weigh whether a handful of actions by one lieutenant governor 15 years ago, and the presidential ambitions of a governor this year — or in any future year, for that matter are sufficient cause to radically alter the relationship between the governor and lieutenant governor and deny the voters a separate choice in these offices.
The second question I believe the Commission must consider is whether there is any demand or even support among the voting public of California for the idea of requiring the governor and lieutenant governor to run together.
The proposal for a single-ticket approach is hardly new to California. Then Assemblyman Bill Lockyer advanced the idea in the late 1970s, partially in response to Curb’s perceived overreaching. It was also floated in the mid-1980s by former State Sen. Barry Keene, who had served as legal counsel to the last Constitution Revision Commission in the 1960s. Again in 1989, Gov. Deukmejian, claiming he had ruled himself out as a possible running mate of President Bush because he had a Democratic lieutenant governor, proposed requiring the two to run as a ticket.
Yet each time the notion has surfaced, public opinion surveys have consistently registered surprisingly solid opposition. A 1985 Field Poll found voters opposed to the idea by a 57-37 percent margin. Again in 1989, Field came up with an almost identical level of opposition, 57-38. And in March of this year, in the heat of the debate over Wilson’s presidential campaign, Field discovered little variance from those previous surveys, with voters still opposed by a margin of 58-36.
Even in Gov. Wilson’s conservative home county, an April 1995 San Diego Union Tribune survey found voters there opposed to the idea by a margin of 47-43 percent.
In a release accompanying its March poll results, Field attributed these findings to “the public’s more generalized desire to have political power divided.” Previous surveys, the organization noted, have shown that “the public is not discomfited, but rather reassured, by having a governor of one party and a legislature controlled by the other.”
And voters in recent times have certainly shown no reluctance in acting on those sentiments. For the last 12 years we have had a Legislature controlled by one party and a governor of a different party. And as every observer of political history knows, California voters have elected a governor and lieutenant governor of different parties in each of the State’s five most recent statewide elections.
One possible explanation for this latter voting behavior is Californians’ undeniably dim view of having high-ranking State officials forced on them via appointment by the governor. Several salient examples come to mind.
In 1964, Gov. Pat Brown appointed Pierre Salinger to replace the deceased U.S. Sen. Clair Engle. Despite Salinger’s high national profile as President Kennedy’s former press secretary, and the fact that he had already won the Senate Democratic primary in June, he was defeated in November by retired actor George Murphy.
In 1974, Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed State Sen. John L. Harmer as lieutenant governor, replacing Ed Reinecke, who resigned after being convicted of perjury. Though he also had already won the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor that June, Harmer was defeated by State Sen. Mervyn Dymally in November.
In 1989, Gov. George Deukmejian appointed his finance director, Thomas Hayes, as State treasurer to replace Jesse Unruh, who had died. In 1990, Hayes was defeated by Kathleen Brown in her first run for statewide office.
In 1991, Gov. Wilson appointed State Sen. John Seymour to the U.S. Senate seat Wilson had vacated. Just a year and a half later, Seymour was handily defeated in the General Election by Dianne Feinstein.
Although difficult to prove empirically, I also believe that the passage of Proposition 103 — and its establishment of an elected State insurance commissioner — in 1988 was helped along by the perception that a gubernatorially appointed commissioner was approving rate increases at an alarming pace and without any effective recourse by the public.
And make no mistake, whether a gubernatorial candidate handpicks a running mate at filing, or has one glued to him or her after the primary as a sort of two-for-one sale, General Election voters generally perceive either as tantamount to appointment.
The third question the Commission must consider is whether the proposed changes, if enacted, would accomplish the stated purpose — namely, ensuring a more cooperative “team” spirit between the governor and lieutenant governor.
Granted, a definitive answer to this question is probably impossible. But I would caution you that attempts in other states to redefine this relationship through constitutional change have often ended up as exhibit “A” in demonstrating the law of unintended consequences. Let me give you just two examples from my own personal experience that clearly demonstrate this point.
In my home state of Montana, the governor and lieutenant governor were historically elected separately. In 1968, the Republican lieutenant governor unsuccessfully challenged the sitting governor for the GOP nomination — an act widely considered the height of political audacity, if not downright treachery. Mainly as a result, a constitutional convention in 1972 proposed, and the voters passed, an amended Constitution that required the two to run as a ticket beginning in 1976.
That year, incumbent Democratic Gov. Thomas L. Judge –himself a former lieutenant governor — hoped to avoid a similar challenge from his understudy. He picked as his running mate the director of the Department of State Lands, an obscure appointee with no obvious political base of his own. Once elected, however, the relationship between the two deteriorated steadily. And in 1980 the lieutenant governor ran against Gov. Judge and beat him decisively in the Democratic primary.
So much for the theory that running as a ticket thwarts political rivalry between a state’s two top officeholders.
In the late 1980s, I served as communications director to Gov. Richard F. Celeste of Ohio. Celeste, a Democrat, himself had served as lieutenant governor from 1975-79 under Republican Gov. James Rhodes. Celeste complained that during his entire four-year term he never had a single meeting or phone conversation with the governor. Partially as a result, Ohio’s Constitution was changed to require the governor and lieutenant governor to run as a team beginning in 1982.
Celeste’s first lieutenant governor died in office halfway through his first term. Running for reelection in 1986, Celeste chose as his running mate a former mayor of Dayton and a respected state representative. But once his function as a ticket-balancer had been served, no one could have been more thoroughly ignored or less frequently called upon. Except for a brief stint as acting director of the Department of Development at the end of the governor’s second term, the lieutenant governor left office in 1991 largely irrelevant and forgotten. He was even defeated handily two years later in a run for municipal court judge in his hometown of Dayton.
Here at home, former Gov. Earl Warren confessed in his 1977 autobiography that he hid bills in a safe deposit box during out of- state trips so that his lieutenant governor — also a
Republican, I would add — could not sign them in his absence.
In 1916, Gov. Hiram Johnson delayed taking his seat in the U.S. Senate for weeks due to his mistrust of his lieutenant governor — a man he himself had appointed to the office after the death of the previous occupant.
It is also germane to note that during the past decade two sitting lieutenant governors of other states resigned, giving as the reason the fact that the governors of their own party under which they served would not assign them any meaningful role in state government.
So much for the theory that having a governor and lieutenant governor of the same party necessarily leads to a cooperative, productive relationship.
The fourth — and perhaps most important — question the Commission must address is: Are there other ways short of constitutional change to deal with the relationship between the governor and lieutenant governor?
I would submit that the answer is yes — and it lies with the electorate itself. Over the years, California voters have demonstrated no hesitation in punishing lieutenant governors who either failed to act when they should have or acted when they should not have. And the voters have been equal opportunity unemployers.
In 1965, Democratic Lt. Gov. Glenn Anderson, standing in when Gov. Pat Brown was out of state, was widely perceived as indecisive and hesitant when he delayed calling out the National Guard during the Watts riots. The next year, he was soundly defeated in the General Election by Robert Finch.
In 1979, Republican Lt. Gov. Curb was perceived as acting when there was no compelling need to do so. Voters availed themselves of not one, but two opportunities to express their sentiments about Curb’s behavior. The first was in 1982, when Republican primary voters refused to nominate him for governor. The second was in 1986 when voters in the General Election refused to return him to the lieutenant governor’s office.
But voters have also shown they will recognize and reward a lieutenant governor for acting when he should and resisting the temptation to act when he should not. Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy was widely viewed as comporting himself with dignity, restraint and statesmanship while serving under two consecutive Republican governors. He drew plaudits especially for providing leadership and a reassuring presence in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, during which Gov. Deukmejian was in Greece.
And as we all know, voters reelected McCarthy not once, but twice.
If there ever was a perfect opportunity — even perhaps a perfectly understandable rationale — for a lieutenant governor to make mischief, it was during the more than 100 days Gov. Wilson has been out of the State so far this year. Literally from Day One, numerous provocations were inexplicably directed our way from the Governor’s Office, including the now-infamous attempt to evict the Lieutenant Governor from his Capitol office.
As a constitutional officer duly elected in his own right, Lt. Gov. Davis has been an independent voice able to support the Governor when he thought he was right — and oppose him when he thought he was wrong.
For example, he has supported the Governor’s demands for more federal reimbursement for costs associated with illegal immigrants along with several of his proposals to improve California’s business and regulatory climate. He has openly disagreed with the Governor on implementation of the “motor voter” law, the repeal of affirmative action at the University of California, the necessity for student fee increases at our public colleges and universities, and the acceptance of federal Goals 2000 education-reform funds, among others.
But he also publicly pledged that he would not go out of his way to embarrass the Governor or make his life miserable, even when he was out of State campaigning for president. And I submit that fair-minded and objective observers will agree that he has served responsibly and with restraint during the almost one-third of the year that he has been acting governor.
All of which serves to make my final point. It has been said that you cannot legislate morality. In a similar vein, I believe it is highly questionable whether you can constitutionally predispose or dictate the exact nature of the relationship between a governor and a lieutenant governor –regardless of their respective political party affiliations.
As the California Law Review observed in its analysis of the Supreme Court’s 1979 Brown v. Curb decision: “There is no guarantee that a lieutenant governor who is from the same political party as the governor might not pursue his own policies to the detriment of the governor’s.”
Ultimately, it is the character, integrity and motivation of the two officeholders themselves that will determine the kind of relationship they develop — and the type of leadership the State will have as a result.
The larger question about this relationship is not whether a particular governor’s interests are being served, but rather whether the general public’s interests are being served. And I
submit to the Commission that the voters themselves are almost always the best arbiters in making that determination.