By John Celock
Delaware’s lieutenant governor is not an exceptionally powerful office on paper and its official duties leave a lot of time for the incumbent to find other things to do.
This year seven candidates are seeking the lieutenant governorship – traditionally a platform to seeking the governorship – each with varying platforms showing the very ill-defined nature of the job. The lieutenant governor’s only official duties are to succeed the governor in the event of a vacancy, preside over the state Senate and to chair the monthly meetings of the Board of Pardons. All other duties have been created by incumbents or been assigned by the governor thus leading to the very disparate nature of this year’s race.
The official duties of the job are also fairly low key. The Senate is only in session half the year and senators can fill in as presiding officer. The lieutenant governor does cast a tie-breaking vote but rarely does the 21 member Senate have a tie. In terms of succeeding to the governorship, only three lieutenant governors have had to succeed since the office was created in 1901. Two of those lieutenant governors – Republican David Buckson in 1960 and Republican Dale Wolf in 1992 – also can measure their governorships in weeks rather than years. Buckson served 18 days after Gov. J. Caleb Boggs (R) stepped down to assume a U.S. Senate seat and Wolf served 20 days after Gov. Mike Castle (R) stepped down to assume a congressional seat. The third, Democrat Ruth Ann Minner, succeeded Gov. Tom Carper (D) for 13 days in 2001, when Carper stepped down to become a senator, but Minner had already been elected to a full term in the governorship the previous November and was governor-elect at the time of her succession.
The last time a Delaware governor succeeded to office for a term of more than three weeks was when Gov. William Watson, previously the Senate speaker, succeeded Gov. Joshua Marvil in 1895 after Marvil’s death.
Delaware lieutenant governors have had a better shot in running for the governorship, helped in part by having run statewide on their own for the lieutenant governorship and holding an office that gave them plenty of time to meet people around the state. Minner in 2000, Castle in 1984 and former Gov. Sherman Tribbitt in 1972 were all incumbent or former lieutenant governors when they were first elected. U.S. Rep. John Carney, the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee this year, sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination unsuccessfully in 2008 after two terms as lieutenant governor under Minner. State Attorney General Matt Denn (D), was elected to the first of his two terms as lieutenant governor in 2008 and was planning a 2016 gubernatorial run, which he decided against after the late Attorney General Beau Biden (D) announced he would not seek a third term in his office in 2014 to run for governor this year. Denn then opted to seek the state’s chief prosecutorial post.
The six Democratic candidates – and one Republican candidate – this year are taking very different approaches to the post, which has been vacant since Denn stepped down in 2015. They are pushing different platforms and priorities, ranging from highlighting the constitutional duties of the office and pet projects, some of which would help an ambitious officeholder position themselves to run for higher office. When Denn held the job, he made children, youth and education his top priority, including working with Gov. Jack Markell (D) on those issues.
On the Democratic side you see the candidates talking about the ill-defined nature of the office, including the need to work closely with the governor and state lawmakers in order to accomplish much of anything in the job.
State Sen. Bethany Hall-Long has made economic development, health care and working with local governments her top concern. The platform follows her legislative record which has included chairing committees on health policy and local government and her professional background as a nursing professor.
Rehoboth Beach Commissioner Kathy McGuiness is also pushing economic development, including a focus on diversifying the state’s economy by creating jobs in cyber security and a new focus on shellfish, noting the state’s position between Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean lends itself to a bivalve hatchery. McGuiness, a pharmacist, wants to bring a pharmacy school to the state. She’s also called for expanding the Board of Pardons to include representatives of the state’s three counties and largest city, Wilmington. She has pushed her community involvement, where she headed a downtown business group in Rehoboth Beach and created a Fourth of July fireworks display in the tourist heavy community. McGuiness has also owned a pharmacy and women’s shoe store in Rehoboth Beach. On her website, McGuiness says that she called businesses to fill vacant store fronts, something she says she’ll do as lieutenant governor.
New Castle County Register of Wills Ciro Poppiti is pushing state government debt collection, seniors and Board of Pardons management. He says the state can narrow a budget debt by being more aggressive in collecting debts owed the state, noting his own work in bringing in $2.4 million in managing his current office. On his website, he outlined a plan to deal with more applications for pardons, by streamlining the board process and holding hearings around the state. He noted that he cleared a backlog of cases in his current post. Poppiti, a former child actor, said on his website that he wants to succeed outgoing First Lady Carla Markell as the state’s arts advocate. He also noted that in his current job overseeing probate in the state’s largest county, he has turned the office into an ombudsman for senior citizens.
Kent County Levy Court Vice President Brad Eaby is also pushing the Board of Pardons in his campaign, noting a desire to improve management of the board, including holding more hearings and providing automatic pardons for low level offenses. He is also citing his background in county government, where he has chaired the finance committee, saying he can help the governor on budget policy. Eaby has outlined a plan on his website to use the Board of Pardons to reduce crime statewide. He said that the board can educate state residents about its role and the consequences of being convicted of a crime and why those who were convicted seek pardons. He said this education effort can help reduce crime around the state. The pardons board screens applications for pardons and makes recommendations to the governor. Eaby is also calling the legalization of marijuana, noting that it can then be taxed to bring in revenue for the state.
Former Sussex County Register of Wills Greg Fuller has a platform centered not on policy but rather on listening. He told Delaware State News that he views the lieutenant governor’s role as one where he listens to Delaware residents and then tells the governor what he heard.
Wilmington Councilwoman Sherry Dorsey-Walker is outlining a platform that is heavy on increased support for education, criminal justice reform and environmental protection.
The presumptive Republican nominee, financial advisor La Mar Gunn, says on his website that “I will hold our legislators and administrators responsible for failed policies, failed education programs, and the extreme discomfort that modern life has visited upon our most valuable investment—People.” He also wrote that job creation and economic development are his top priorities, along with working on ending poverty in Delaware.
The diversity of platforms in the Delaware race is not totally unique nationally since in many states the lieutenant governorship is vaguely defined, allowing governors or lieutenant governors to define the post how they see fit. In addition the job nationally is different from state to state, with only the succession aspect bringing the posts together.
In Texas the lieutenant governor wields strong power as Senate president, a common trait shared with other southern states like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. In other states like New York, Virginia, California and Delaware the Senate presidency is largely a ceremonial duty.
In Louisiana, the lieutenant governor automatically runs the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, while in Indiana, the lieutenant governor automatically runs agencies focused on agriculture, economic development, housing, tourism, rural affairs and counterterrorism. New Jersey’s lieutenant governor has no official duties, with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) also being made secretary of state, putting her in charge of economic development, tourism, the arts and elections. Illinois’ lieutenant governor has statutory duties focused on rural affairs, downtowns, river coordination and the military economy with Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti (R), also being put in charge of local government policy. In Colorado, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne (D), a former health care executive and New York City Mayor’s Office of Operations director, was tasked to serve as the state’s chief operating officer, in addition to her statutory duties relating to Native Americans and aerospace, when she was appointed earlier this year.