Guest Opinion: If It's Broke, Let's Fix It
If it’s broke, let’s fix it. That’s what Montanans need to do with our dysfunctional office of Lt. Governor.
The dysfunction dates back for at least a half-century. After serving as Governor in the nineteen fifty’s, Republican Hugo Aronson once commented in my presence that he rarely left the state because of his deep distrust for his Lt. Governor, Democrat Paul Cannon.
In the 1960’s the relationship was probably even worse between fellow Republicans Governor Tim Babcock and Lt. Governor Ted James. Babcock was out of state when a car crash killed Public Service Commissioner Jack Holmes. Without waiting for Babcock’s return, James quickly appointed his political ally and Great Falls hometown friend, Ernie Steele, to the vacancy on the PSC created by Holmes’ death. Babcock was furious, and the animosity that grew between them resulted in James and Babcock locking horns in a bitter Republican primary contest for Governor in 1968.
Attempting to create a more functional relationship between Governors and Lt. Governors, the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention changed the State Constitution to require candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor run as a team, as national candidates for President and Vice President do. (That hasn’t always been an ideal arrangement either. Lyndon Johnson described his role as Vice President in the Camelot time of the Kennedy administration as “the banjo part in the halleluiah chorus.”)
In 1976 when Montana’s partnership provision was first implemented, Governor Tom Judge chose former legislator and state Lands Commissioner Ted Schwinden as his running mate. Judge gave Schwinden some real responsibility, but no trust relationship resulted. Judge and Schwinden ended up squaring off against each other the first chance they got, in the primary election of 1980.
Lt. Governor George Turman, resigned before the end of Schwinden’s administration, as did Lt. Governor Allen Kolstad in the succeeding administration of Governor Stan Stephens. Lt. Governor Denny Rehberg left in the middle of the Racicot administration to run for U.S. Senator. Lt. Governor Karl Ohs made no secret of his disdain for his boring and unfulfilling job and confided to me his intention not to be a candidate for the office again.
Now, Lt. Governor Angela McLean has resigned, reportedly because a personality conflict with Gov. Steve Bullock resulted in the Governor giving the capable and energetic McLean nothing to do.
People with ambition and ability hate being benched. People who become Lt. Governor, like McLean, are usually ambitious and capable people. Why waste their productive potential because a Governor may either not recognize it, or be uncomfortable with it for some reason?
Montanans know that Lt. Governors running independently of the Governor have been problematic for our state, at least since the era of Aronson, and the attempt to force them to be loyal teammates hasn’t worked either.
Lt. Governors should serve in a real job. Many do, including neighboring Lt. Governors of Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, Alaska, and Arizona. Whether called Secretary of State or Lt. Governor, those states elect one person to perform the defined duties of Secretary of State.
We should do the same thing. Montana taxpayers will be served by eliminating a useless and troublesome office and benefitted by giving a capable person a real job to do.
This reform can be accomplished only by amending our state constitution. That can happen by a citizen’s initiative in the 2016 general election or by a referendum to the people from the 2017 legislature, voted on in the election of 2018. Let’s recognize it’s broke, and let’s fix it.
Bob Brown is a former MT Secretary of State and State Senate President.