No lieutenant governor needed in Garden State

By Neil E. Weisfeld

(published in the Times of Trenton, October 18, 2005)

“It's more democratic,” say backers of the state referendum to create the post of lieutenant governor instead of having the Senate president take over when the governorship is vacant. Even the normally sage commentator Jon Shure recently advanced this contention in a Times op/ed (“ New Jersey needs a lieutenant governor,” Oct. 18).

The lieutenant governor would be chosen by one person, the candidate for governor. No one really votes for the U.S. vice-president, and no one would really vote for the lieutenant governor. Dick Cheney was chosen by one man, George W. Bush—or perhaps two, since Cheney headed the search team for Bush's running mate and selected himself.

By contrast, Richard J. Codey became governor after serving 31 years in the Legislature, most of it as a senator, and after being elected to the Senate presidency by his elected Senate colleagues. Donald T. DiFrancesco had a similar record. Both Codey and DiFrancesco have performed quite adequately as governor, and perhaps far better than that.

Shure and others further claim the acting governor shouldn't also head the Senate. This is an excessively purist view. In Britain and other parliamentary democracies, the prime minister heads both the government and his or her party in parliament. Surely this proven method is good enough for New Jersey to use during brief periods of acting governorships.

A truly democratic solution would involve a special election if the governor leaves office with more than, say, one year left in the term. Since several Democrats and several Republicans probably would run in the special election, the ballot should contain an instant run-off. This mechanism allows voters to rank the candidates; if no candidate obtains a majority on the first ballot, voters' second choices are added to first choices on an automatic second ballot, and so on, until one candidate gets a majority. Before the special election, or during a brief vacancy, the Senate president could serve.

If the referendum is adopted, what criteria would candidates for governor use in choosing a running mate? The main criterion probably would be that the lieutenant governor in some way “balances the ticket”— geographically, ideologically, ethnically, religiously—and thereby increases the candidate's chances for election. Some nominees for governor might even choose an opponent whom they defeated in the primary. Unlike mutual respect and a good working relationship, ticket-balancing is not likely to result in a smooth-running team once the ticket is elected.

There's a particular problem with injecting an elected lieutenant governor into the New Jersey scene. Other states with a lieutenant governor also elect their attorney general, so that at least two elected state officers are in a position to run for governor later. Here, the governor would continue to appoint the attorney general. This would leave the lieutenant governor as the heir apparent, just as the vice-president usually is heir apparent to the presidency. During the last half century, seven of the ten previous vice-presidents went on to capture their party's presidential nomination. If this trend applies to New Jersey , we will place in the governor's hands great power in selecting his or her successor. This is the antithesis of democracy.

Admittedly, our politicians tend to support the lieutenant governor proposal. Maybe this should not come as a great surprise, since the proposal would open an additional opportunity for politicians to win statewide office.

Particularly strong support for the lieutenant governor proposal comes from minority and women's groups. They apparently see the lieutenant governorship as a relatively easy way to put a member of a racial minority or a woman in line for the governorship. It's true that party leaders ought to be nominating, and we voters ought to be electing, more African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and women to office. Let's choose them on their merits.

The Garden State doesn't need to grow lieutenant governors. New Jersey voters would be wise to vote no on the lieutenant governor referendum in the Nov. 8 election.

656 words

Neil Weisfeld is a principal of the consulting firm NEW Associates, LLC, Princeton.

Neil Weisfeld
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