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Martin Dyckman: Scott needs to fill vacant Lieutenant Governor position

Florida has managed without a lieutenant governor for fully half a year since Gov. Rick Scott demanded Jennifer Carroll’s resignation. Nobody seems to care, apart from the media and those individuals who, against all reason, covet the job. Others may conclude that the office might as well be abolished.

But that would be wrong.  There needs to be a proper succession in the event of a governor’s death, disability, impeachment and removal, or resignation for any other reason.

The law provides that if the lieutenant governor’s office is vacant, the attorney general succeeds a departed governor. The chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner complete the line of succession. This presumably would remain the case if the lieutenant governor’s position were abolished.

This presumably would remain the law if the lieutenant governor’s office were abolished.

The problem with it is that the Cabinet officers are elected separately. There’s no guarantee that they will share the governor’s goals and priorities, or even that they will belong to the same political party. The kind of administration Floridians thought they were electing could be rudely replaced, in an instant, without an intervening election.

That’s what happened in 1953, when Gov. Dan McCarty died after only eight months in office. The constitution at the time, a relic of Florida’s post-Reconstruction period, provided for the Senate president to be acting governor.

And so Charley Johns of rural Starke, who had been elected by only a handful of voters in one of the least populous districts in Florida’s grotesquely mal-apportioned legislature, suddenly found himself in the governor’s mansion.

Johns was as different as anyone could be from McCarty, the man all Florida had elected. He suspended McCarty’s major appointees and plunged into the pork barrel to grease the way for winning the governor’s office in his own right.

Fortunately for Florida, there was no legislative session in 1954 for him to devise even more mischief. Even more fortunately, Johns lost to LeRoy Collins in the ensuing Democratic primary to serve the last two years of McCarty’s term.

Johns returned to the Senate, where he led a McCarthy-style witch- hunt against imaginary communists, civil rights leaders, and homosexuals. He voted for an arch-segregationist school-closing bill that Collins vetoed.

From that history, the drafters of the 1968 Constitution concluded that there should be a lieutenant governor elected with the governor statewide. They did not want the lieutenant governor to be independently elected, as in some other states, or to preside over the Senate even symbolically. He (or she) was to be a member of the governor’s administration, not some lone wolf.

So that the lieutenant governor might have more work to do than just monitor the governor’s health, the constitution allowed “such other duties as may be prescribed by law.” Lieutenant governors may be appointed to head executive departments without Senate confirmation.

Not all the governors have put their lieutenants to such useful work. Running mates have been selected less often for their ability to run a department than for their appeal — real or imagined — to balance a ticket.

But the answer to a governor who wastes the public money on an idle lieutenant governor is to hold the governor responsible. It is not to abolish the only office that can assure continuity if something happens to a governor.

The law could be changed, of course, to provide a salary and expenses only when the lieutenant governor heads a department. This is worth considering.

Reubin Askew’s second lieutenant governor, Jim Williams, an accomplished state senator, performed brilliantly as secretary of administration, in charge of budgeting and personnel. (Askew’s first lieutenant, Tom Adams, had been a disaster who was dropped from the ticket, ran against Askew, and lost.)

Buddy MacKay was indispensable to Lawton Chiles as his chief trouble-shooter and ran the state’s largest department for a time. Like Askew and Williams, Chiles and MacKay were truly a team.

But both Williams and MacKay were defeated when they ran for governor in their own right. MacKay then served the last three weeks of Chiles’s term after his sudden death from a heart attack. In modern times, the only other lieutenant governor who made it to the boss’ office was Wayne Mixson, who held it for all of four days in 1987 after Bob Graham resigned to take his seat in the U.S. Senate.

In fact, the office has been a way station to no other elected office. Frank Brogan, Jeb Bush’s first lieutenant governor, quit after their re-election to become a university president. It was widely seen as a step up.

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