Updated Dec. 18 with the latest developments.
With just days left to file to run in the 2020 election, one statewide office has enough candidates for a basketball game. So far, 14 people are running for lieutenant governor.
Incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican, is running for governor and couldn’t seek another term anyway, because there’s a two-term limit.
It’s a crowded candidate field among both parties for an office that doesn’t come with as much power as people might think.
It does come with a six-figure salary — the same pay as eight other executive-branch positions that are likewise elected statewide and separately from the governor, collectively known as the Council of State. The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate but doesn’t make committee appointments or present bills. And while many seek the office because they have higher aspirations beyond it, there’s no guarantee the lieutenant governor’s office is the way to get there.
But it can be.
It was for former Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, who served first as lieutenant governor. The word “lieutenant” means “place-holding.” The lieutenant governor is there in case the governor is unable to carry out his or her duties. And the lieutenant governor can vote in the Senate — but only to break a tie.
After Perdue took office as lieutenant governor in 2001, she quickly found that it was much different than her previous role in the General Assembly as a head of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which controls the budget.
“I moved to the lieutenant governor’s office and overnight, I realized I had lost everything I had been able to build in a 10-15 year career in the legislature. And someone came in my office and said, ‘Yeah, Bev, that’s what this role is,’” Perdue said in a phone interview with The News & Observer. “You have no control, and you might as well admit that going into it. The day I went into the office was the day I realized who I was in the legislature was not who I could be in the executive branch.”
Leaving the legislature to run for higher office can mean risking a comfortable seat. Three of the current lieutenant governor candidates now serve as state lawmakers. If you’re not a risk-taker, you don’t belong in politics — or business or education, either, Perdue said.
She was also told that it was the “kiss of death” to try to become governor after being lieutenant governor.
She served two terms — the limit — as lieutenant governor before winning the gubernatorial race in 2008, then serving one term.
Who’s running for lieutenant governor
As of Wednesday, two days before the deadline to file for office, 14 candidates have filed for the race and State Superintendent Mark Johnson announced he would file on Wednesday.
▪ N.C. Rep. Chaz Beasley of Charlotte;
▪ N.C. Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley of Raleigh;
▪ Ron Newton of Durham;
▪ Allen Thomas, a Hoke County commissioner;
▪ Bill Toole, a Charlotte lawyer;
▪ Sen. Terry Van Duyn of Asheville.
▪ Buddy Bengel, a New Bern businessman;
▪ Deborah Cochran, former mayor of Mount Airy;
▪ Former U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers;
▪ Greg Gebhardt, a National Guard soldier;
▪ Mark Johnson, state superintendent;
▪ John T. Ritter, a West End attorney;
▪ Mark Robinson of Greensboro;
▪ Former N.C. Rep. Scott Stone of Mecklenburg County;
▪ N.C. Sen. Andy Wells of Hickory.
Why run now?
Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the conservative-leaning John Locke Foundation, said the current candidates may have been planning runs for years, given Forest’s term limit.
“Plus I think there is a sense among people in both parties that 2020 could be a good year for their party,” Kokai said. Given the general election includes the president, governor and a U.S. Senate seat, a win for others on the ballot could also mean a win for the lieutenant-governor candidates in the same party.
With six or more candidates in each party’s primary, a base of local support could give an advantage to a candidate from a large county, Kokai said.
Being lieutenant governor gives the office holder statewide name recognition, which could help them win a gubernatorial or federal race, he said.
“I think that it’s pretty clear that people who run for lieutenant governor anticipate one day running for governor,” Former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker said in a phone interview with the N&O. “... I think that’s fairly clear in the minds of voters, that the person selected as lieutenant governor, if the unspeakable happens, they stand in the shoes of the governor.”
Unlike the president and vice president, the governor and lieutenant governor do not run as a joint ticket — which means sometimes they are from different parties, like Forest and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Cooper was attorney general before becoming governor. Now Forest is running against him for governor in 2020. State Rep. Holly Grange is also running in the Republican primary against Forest.
Wicker said the crowded candidate field reflects that Forest is leaving office and that with the governor’s two-term limit, if Cooper wins re-election, he’ll have only one term left.
That opportunity means “they put their quarter in, and they take their chances,” Wicker said.
What it’s like to be the LG
In the North Carolina Constitution, the lieutenant governor’s role is defined as president of the Senate, but as having no vote unless it is to break a tie among the 50 senators. Tie-breaking votes are rare, but could become more common if the Senate is split evenly along party lines after the 2020 election.
Like the rest of the Council of State, the lieutenant governor’s office is also getting a raise, passed earlier this year by the General Assembly. When the next lieutenant governor takes office, her or his salary will be $136,699, which is the same as the other Council of State members. The governor makes about $20,000 more a year.
The lieutenant governor also serves on the State Board of Education, N.C. Board of Community Colleges, State Economic Development Board and the Military Affairs Commission.
Depending on who the governor is, and who holds the Senate majority, a lieutenant governor could be in a position to move his or her priorities forward.
“There were a number of things [former Republican Gov.] Pat McCrory put on Forest’s plate,” Kokai said about Forest’s first term, when the lieutenant governor and governor were in the same party. “Cooper won’t even tell Forest when he’s leaving the state.”
For Perdue, to be able to choose priorities to focus on and having four years to work on them is a “gift.”
“I loved the fact that I could do what I set out to do. There was nobody to stop me, and I really didn’t have a boss. I used to tell Gov. [Mike] Easley “I might be your lieutenant governor, but I’m not your underling.’ We used to laugh about it. ... It was a cool job,” she said.
Wicker, a Democrat, served from 1993 to 2001, under Gov. Jim Hunt. He had office space in the Hawkins-Hartness House on Blount Street a few doors down from the Executive Mansion, as well as at the Legislative Building and the Capitol. The interior of the circa 1882 Hawkins-Hartness House was renovated under Forest, and the exterior is currently under renovation.
What attracted Wicker most to the job, he said, was his love of the legislative process.
“I felt like it would be a good learning tool if I did seek the governor’s office, which I did. It allowed you a lot of options for how you use the office. You could be an activist lieutenant governor or sat there and waited for the clock to run out [on the governor’s term] and run for governor, or a little bit of both,” Wicker said.
It’s not just a waiting station for higher office, said Wicker, who lost the gubernatorial primary to Easley.
“It can be a force. It’s not a dominant force, but it’s a force,” he said.
Former Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton said the office should be about serving the people, not just as a stepping stone for higher office. Dalton, a Democrat, said in a phone interview with the N&O that he had more of a direct line to making things happen when he was an Appropriations Committee chair in the General Assembly than as lieutenant governor.
Dalton served from 2009 to 2013, when Perdue was governor. He ran for governor in 2013, losing to McCrory.
Dalton’s advice to the next lieutenant governor is to travel the state and listen to what the people want, then decide how best to help them.
“People perhaps overestimate the control or the power of the lieutenant governor, but it does give you somewhat of a bully pulpit. It’s not a megaphone but it’s a small microphone,” he said. “It’s really what you make it.”
The deadline to file for office is Dec. 20. The primary is March 3. All 170 seats in the General Assembly are also up for election in 2020.
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