The vacancy in Florida’s office of lieutenant governor has caused some to question why we have a lieutenant governor. The answer can be found by looking back at history.
Following the Civil War, Florida adopted what is known as the “Reconstruction” or “Carpetbag” Constitution in 1868. Seventeen years later, the voters called for a Constitutional Convention to reverse the political decisions embedded in that Constitution. A new one was adopted in 1885.
The changes to the 1885 Constitution reflected a clear effort by the voters to take back control of the state government. The new Constitution reduced the salaries of the governor, cabinet and judges, made the governor ineligible for re-election and abolished the office of lieutenant governor.
The absence of a lieutenant governor had little impact on state government over the next 60 years. However, after Gov. Dan McCarty took office in January 1953, it became a very big issue. Only weeks after taking office, McCarty suffered a heart attack.
Many began to raise the question of succession should the office of governor become vacant. The Florida Democratic Executive Committee went so far as to propose an amendment to the Constitution to reinstate the office of lieutenant governor. When McCarty died in September 1953, the need for a line of succession became clear.
The governor’s death led to political turmoil in Tallahassee. Ultimately, the President of the Senate, Charley Johns, took over as governor. However, after his claim to the office was challenged, the state Supreme Court ruled that he was only “Acting Governor” until an election could be held to fill out the remainder of McCarty’s term.
Johns then ran for governor but was defeated in the Democratic primary runoff by Leroy Collins. Interestingly, the Republican candidate for governor, J. Tom Watson, died before the election and the Republicans did not offer another candidate. Collins was elected and was re-elected to a full term in 1956.
In 1965 the Legislature established a constitutional revision commission. It delivered recommendations to the Legislature that were revised by the lawmakers. With the memory of McCarty’s death in mind, an amendment restoring the office of lieutenant governor was one of many changes to the Constitution ultimately approved by the voters.
The amended Constitution was approved in the middle of Gov. Claude Kirk’s term and he appointed the first lieutenant governor since Reconstruction — Ray C. Osborne. Since then, there have been nine elected lieutenant governors, two of whom succeeded to the office of governor.
History teaches us that having a lieutenant governor calms the political waters in the event of a vacancy in the governor’s office. The position creates a clear line of succession and places someone in office that is not only from the same administration as the governor, but was actually elected by the people of Florida.