At long-closed lieutenant governor’s office, line is forming

From left, candidates for Delaware’s next lieutenant governor, Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, ex-Sussex County Register of Wills Greg Fuller; Rehoboth Beach commissioner Kathy McGuiness; Kent County Levy Court vice-president Brad Eaby; Wilmington city councilwoman Sherry Dorsey Walker and New Castle County Register of Wills Ciro Poppiti III. (Delaware State News file photo)

From left, candidates for Delaware’s next lieutenant governor, Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, ex-Sussex County Register of Wills Greg Fuller; Rehoboth Beach commissioner Kathy McGuiness; Kent County Levy Court vice-president Brad Eaby; Wilmington city councilwoman Sherry Dorsey Walker and New Castle County Register of Wills Ciro Poppiti III. (Delaware State News file photo)

DOVER — The lieutenant governor’s office has been vacant for more than 18 months since Matt Denn moved to attorney general, and so far, no crises have popped up.

In fact, things seem to be operating as usual, with just a few small changes, raising the question of whether Delaware would be better off eliminating the office and saving $610,000.

Matt Denn

Matt Denn

Mr. Denn, a Democrat who was elected to the office in 2008 and re-elected four years later before winning the attorney general’s seat in 2014, believes the lieutenant governor is needed.

“If the right person is doing the job, it is a platform from which some pretty positive things can happen for the state,” he said.

In 2008, he campaigned on various children’s issues, such as improving schools, providing more care for neglected or abused children and promoting healthier living. In the office, he collaborated with cabinet secretaries and state lawmakers to push initiatives related to the priorities.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, agreed the office is valuable, saying in an email the collaborative effort between the governor and Mr. Denn was “integral in helping the administration accomplish some key priorities,” such as “a tenfold expansion on the number of mental health counselors in middle schools, increasing state support for home visit programs for infants and increasing support for after-school and summer programs.”

This year, six Democrats and one Republican are running for the seat.

ltgov2At a debate for the Democrats earlier this month, the candidates were asked if the office is needed. Not surprisingly, all said yes.

With the primary 23 days away, the clock is ticking for the half-dozen Democrats looking to sway voters and differentiate themselves from their opponents. Each of the six brings different experiences and strengths, and five of them have won at least a local election.

Wilmington Councilwoman Sherry Dorsey Walker could benefit from a contentious Wilmington mayoral primary that figures to drive turnout in the city, while New Castle County Register of Wills Ciro Poppiti is the sole candidate to have won a countywide race. Middletown-area Sen. Bethany Hall-Long is the only candidate to hold a seat in the General Assembly, something she has done since 2002.

Kent County Levy Court Commissioner Brad Eaby has Delaware’s middle county all to himself, potentially giving him a solid bloc of votes. Down in Sussex, Kathy McGuiness has pulled in a quarter-million dollars since forming a committee to raise money in May 2015, and Greg Fuller is confident his grassroots campaigning and commitment to service will make him the nominee.

In the view of Delaware State University political science professor Sam Hoff, it’s a “really interesting and eclectic mixture of candidates from all three counties.”

He singled out Sen. Hall-Long’s experience, Mr. Poppiti’s county-wide victories and Ms. Dorsey Walker’s Wilmington connection as factors that could
allow each of the three to stand out.

Based on fundraising, Sen. Hall-Long and Ms. McGuiness are in the lead, and well ahead of Mr. Eaby, Mr. Fuller and Ms. Dorsey Walker. Of course, money is not everything, and with three weeks remaining before the primary, there is still time enough for change.

Duties

The state’s No. 2 executive has only three constitutional duties: overseeing the Senate, serving on the Board of Pardons and, of course, taking over for the governor in the event he or she dies, leaves the office or becomes unable to fulfill the duties.

For that, the lieutenant governor is paid $80,239 annually.

Although succeeding his or her superior may technically be the lieutenant governor’s most important duty, no governor has died or been forced to leave the office in the 116 years the state has had a lieutenant governor.

Three times, Delaware governors have resigned a few weeks before their terms expired to take posts in Congress, meaning the lieutenant governor has moved over to the top job on those occasions. Most recently, Lt. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner filled in for Tom Carper, who won election to the Senate and so left his job as governor in January 2001 early.

The lieutenant governor had also been elected as governor that year, so the only practical differences were her taking over shortly before she was scheduled to be officially inaugurated and the lieutenant governor’s office sitting vacant for 13 days.

Lawmakers apparently did not consider a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office when they drafted the 1897 constitution that created the office. Because the three instances where the lieutenant governor moved up to fill the governor’s office lasted no more than 19 days each, the issue never became a problem until 2014, when Mr. Denn announced he planned to run for attorney general.

The General Assembly failed to approve a method for filling the seat due to partisanship, and so the seat has sat empty since January 2015.

With no lieutenant governor, the unelected secretary of state is next in the line of succession in the event the governor’s office becomes empty, followed by the attorney general, president pro tempore of the Senate and speaker of the House.

The lieutenant governor’s importance has increased in recent decades, said Dr. Hoff, noting several of the officeholders have won election to the top office.

Two of the past six officeholders went on to become two-term governors, and John Carney, who served in the office from 2001 to 2009, has a chance to win his first term as governor this year.

Dating back to the 1945, six of 14 lieutenant governors have served as governor at least for a few weeks.

“The image of the office, as someone once said of the vice president, as a bucket of warm spit might have been the case from 1901 to 1945 but after that the image as a sort of ‘get in, here pay your dues and move on to other office’ is I think accurate in a lot of ways,” Dr. Hoff said.

The lieutenant governor’s most time-consuming duty is presiding over the Senate, a duty that generally is simple but at times can require a ruling on certain issues, such as whether a particular line of questioning or discussion on the Senate floor is irrelevant to the legislation at hand.

The officeholder bears the responsibility for casting a tie-breaking vote, although Mr. Denn never had to do so in his six years.

In the absence of a lieutenant governor, the duty of running the chamber passed to President Pro Tempore Patricia Blevins, who has delegated it to other members of the Democratic majority.

A few times a year, the lieutenant governor also hears petitions from former offenders seeking pardons. As chair of the five-member Board of Pardons, he or she plays a vital role in whether the group will recommend the governor forgive the petitioner’s crime.

“In many cases, the recommendations the board makes are life-changing,” Mr. Denn said, noting many offenders struggle to find jobs because of the stain on their records.

As chairman of the board, he heard several high-profile petitions, including a 2012 request from convicted killer Robert Gattis to have his death sentence commuted to life in prison.

Mr. Denn was one of the four who voted to recommend commutation, which Gov. Markell granted.

The former lieutenant governor said he tried to respect the concerns of victims and their families when overseeing hearings, attempting to minimize the impact the experience might have on people who testified.

Unlike in some states, the governor and lieutenant governor do not run on the same ticket, creating the possibility of voters electing people of different parties to the offices. That has happened on multiple occasions, most recently in 1984 when Republican Mike Castle won the governor’s race but Democrat S.B. Woo was elected lieutenant governor.

La Mar T. Gunn

La Mar T. Gunn

While voter registration strongly favors the Democratic Party, Dr. Hoff said he thinks Republican La Mar Gunn has a chance at the lieutenant governor’s office, citing the public attention he receives as president of the Central Delaware National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Additionally, he believes Mr. Gunn could garner some “sympathy” votes owing to his two-vote loss in the 2014 Kent County recorder of deeds race.

Mr. Denn said he has spoken to “most, if not all” of the candidates this year and advised them to set a narrow focus on key goals. Developing a defined list of priorities, he said, helps voters and officials know where candidates stand and, once in office, gives the victor a greater chance of accomplishing those goals.

Personal relationships also matter.

As chief legal counsel for Gov. Minner and then insurance commissioner, Mr. Denn had already known Gov. Markell, who served as treasurer for 10 years before being elected governor.

“To some degree, how successful you can be in the lieutenant governor’s office depends upon the quality of your relationship with the governor and the governor’s staff and cabinet,” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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