OPINION

Everybody for lieutenant governor

Steve Brawner
Steve Brawner

What do you do if you’re an ambitious Republican, but Arkansas’ most desirable offices feature longtime incumbents running for reelection, or already have a seemingly unbeatable candidate, or in practice need you to be a lawyer?

Apparently, you run for lieutenant governor because so far it’s the most crowded and most interesting race in 2022.

The campaign became more interesting Monday with the candidate announcement of Washington County Judge Joseph Wood. He joined a Republican field that already included former Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Doyle Webb, state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, and Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe.

Each brings something notable to the campaign. Wood has a business background at Walmart and Home Depot and could become the state’s first African American statewide elected official. Webb was a state senator from Benton who was chairing the party when Arkansas flipped from Democratic dominance to Republican rule. Rapert is an outspoken social conservative who this year sponsored a law banning almost all abortions in Arkansas. Bledsoe offers a medical doctor’s perspective as the state is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The field could grow between now and the end of the filing period. Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, told me Monday he is considering joining the race.

The lieutenant governor is considered a part-time position. Its responsibilities include presiding over the Senate with a tie-breaking vote, and serving as governor if the elected governor dies, leaves office or is incapacitated. In years past, the lieutenant governor acted as governor when the governor left the state, but Arkansas voters removed that outdated duty in 2016.

Given the office’s lack of real power and relatively low pay (about $45,000), why do so many want the job? For one reason, it can be a stepping stone, though not a guaranteed one, to higher office. Former Lt. Governors Mike Huckabee and Jim Guy Tucker both became governor. Current Lt. Governor Tim Griffin had that same idea until … we’ll get to that in a second.

Second, the job is what you make of it. With few real duties, the lieutenant governor can travel the state giving speeches and generally making a name for himself or herself.

And finally, as noted earlier, it’s pretty much the best job left. Sen. John Boozman is running for re-election, as are apparently all of the state’s sitting congressmen. Gov. Asa Hutchinson is term-limited, but that door pretty much shut after Sarah Huckabee Sanders entered the race and then raised almost $5 million in a couple of months with the help of former President Donald Trump. Griffin dropped out of that race, while Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is still contesting it as a major underdog.

Now Griffin is running for attorney general, a step up from his current position but a step down from the job he really wanted as governor. You don’t have to be an attorney to be elected attorney general, but it would be difficult to do the job otherwise. So far, Griffin and Leon Jones, both attorneys, have announced they are seeking the Republican nomination.

I worked in the lieutenant governor’s office under Lt. Governor Win Rockefeller in the mid-2000s as communications director while Webb was chief of staff. My experience is, the office isn’t necessary and could be abolished. Its few duties could be split among other officials.

It could be made more meaningful by “yoking” the governor and the lieutenant governor, meaning they would be elected running on the same ticket like the president and vice president are. That way, the lieutenant governor could be a trusted part of the governor’s team and could be used like the vice president is used – to represent the governor at public events and to be assigned specific tasks like leading commissions and task forces.

As it is, the lieutenant governor and governor operate as separate entities, as Griffin and Hutchinson definitely do now.

Yoking the two would require a constitutional amendment, which would require people actually caring enough about the idea to fight for it. That probably won’t happen.

As for simply abolishing the office, don’t look for that to happen, either. Too many people want the job.

Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.