Mason Experts Explain Role of Virginia Lieutenant Governor

Posted: September 23, 2013 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: September 24, 2013 at 6:49 am

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By Buzz McClain


Robert McGrath. Creative Services photo

In the coming weeks they’ll spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their election campaigns, trying to earn votes for a part-time job that pays $36,000 a year. But when they take the stage at George Mason University’s Founders Hall Tuesday night for their first debate, E.W. Jackson (R) and Ralph Northam (D) will make it clear they really want the office of the lieutenant governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

But why? Why is the position of lieutenant governor important? What does the job entail? And why do they bother campaigning individually when they’re on the same party ticket as the governor and attorney general who are also up for election?

George Mason professor of public and international affairs Robert McGrath has the answers. He explains that Virginia is one of the few states that have separate elections for the top three statewide offices, so it’s possible, and it’s happened, that the governor could be a Republican and the lieutenant governor could be a Democrat, or vice versa.

As for the job description, the lieutenant governor presides over the state senate and helps the governor with special projects and initiatives. And since the lieutenant governor manages the senate, he gets to break tied votes in the chamber.

Toni-Michelle Travis. Creative Services photo

Toni-Michelle Travis. Creative Services photo

“Lieutenant Governor [William T.] Bolling has regularly made important tie-breaking votes,” says McGrath. “LGs in Virginia regularly seem to break dozens of tie votes. Bolling has emphasized that he tries to break ties only on procedural matters, but these often have important policy consequences, especially with respect to the budget.”

And if tie breaking wasn’t perk enough for a politically ambitious public servant, here’s another that comes with the office: “Since Virginia governors cannot serve two consecutive terms,” says McGrath, “getting elected LG means you are essentially already running for governor, especially when the attorney general is of the opposite party.

“Also, LGs can be reelected consecutively and can have a more persistent role in state politics than governors, who tend to enter national politics after leaving Richmond. LGs tend to be less important actors in states that allow gubernatorial reelection.”

Virginia is indeed different when it comes to top elected officials.

“Virginia operates on what is called an ‘escalator’ system—you step up,” says Mason government and politics professor Toni-Michelle Travis, editor of the “Almanac of Virginia Politics.” “You have to do your time in the party — in the state house, then either lieutenant governor or attorney general, then governor, and then congressman or U.S. senator.”

Travis points out that this isn’t always the case, particularly in modern times: former governors Mark Warner, Tim Kaine and Charles Robb, who is now a distinguished visiting professor of law and public policy at Mason, never served in the state house.

But they had name recognition, something Jackson and Northam are anxious to acquire in the last few weeks of the election cycle.

Jackson and Northam square off in a live debate Tuesday, September 24, at Mason’s Arlington Campus in Founders Hall Auditorium. The candidates will focus on “The Fiscal Future of Virginia.” This is the first debate between the candidates and will be the only one held in Northern Virginia. The 90-minute debate begins at 7 p.m. and is hosted by Mason’s School of Public Policy and the State and Local Government Leadership Center, with assistance by student volunteer organization Mason Votes. WUSA-TV Virginia reporter Peggy Fox will moderate. Seats are no longer available for the debate, but it will be live streamed via WUSA-TV and Mason Cable Network.



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