Mischief and mismatches at the top
Published April 15, 2021
By Gary Pearce
My blog/newspaper column this week about Governor Roy Cooper and Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson raised a question: Why are our two top officials, unlike the President and Vice President, elected separately?
It’s the unintended consequence of three constitutional amendments – one after the Civil War and two that came a century later, in the 1970s.
Before the Civil War, North Carolina didn’t have a lieutenant governor. Somehow we got by.
The office was created by the state Constitutional Convention of 1868. North Carolina, like other Confederate states, was required to rewrite its constitution before being re-admitted to the Union.
The rewrite was modeled after the constitution of Ohio and other northern states. It abolished slavery and gave Blacks (men only, of course) the right to vote.
The revision provided for a lieutenant governor, to be popularly elected along with the governor every four years. The lieutenant governor was made president of the Senate and first in line to succeed the governor.
Over the years, many states moved away from the separate election of governor and lieutenant governor and put them on the same ticket. Today, 26 states do it that way; 17 (as best I can tell), do it like North Carolina, including several Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia.
For many years, two things kept North Carolina’s governors and lieutenant governors from fighting: both could serve only one term, and the lieutenant governor was a parttime office, serving only during short (in those days) legislative sessions.
Then North Carolina rewrote its constitution in 1971. John V. Orth wrote in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina:
“The North Carolina Constitution of 1971 clarified the purpose and operations of state government. Ambiguities and sections seemingly in conflict with the U.S. Constitution were either dropped or rewritten. The document consolidated the governor’s duties and powers, expanded the Council of State, and increased the office’s budgetary authority. It required the General Assembly to reduce the more than 300 state administrative departments to 25 principal departments and authorized the governor to organize them subject to legislative approval. It provided that extra sessions of the legislature be convened by action of three-fifths of its members rather than by the governor alone. And it revised portions of the previous constitution dealing with state and local finance.”
The revision also made the lieutenant governor a full-time office, with a staff. The first person to take advantage was Jim Hunt, who was elected lieutenant governor in 1972.
That was the year North Carolina elected the first Republican governor of the 20th Century, Jim Holshouser. Hunt was not only the first fulltime lieutenant governor, but also the top elected Democrat.
Hunt and Holshouser generally got along, though. Holshouser was a moderate mountain Republican; he and Hunt both supported statewide kindergartens and teacher pay raises.
Governors Hunt and Holshouser and families, 1977 Inaugural
They worked together to stop Democratic legislators’ efforts to strip away the governor’s powers. Hunt, after all, had plans to use those powers himself in four years.
After Hunt was elected governor in 1976, he made the other constitutional change that changed the relationship between the two offices. He pushed through succession, a constitutional amendment allowing both governors and lieutenant governors to run for a second term.
That’s where we are today.
There have been efforts to jointly elect the governor and lieutenant governor; the most recent was in 2015. But the change requires a constitutional amendment, and the idea didn’t get the three-fifths majority necessary in the House.
“The lieutenant governor is a heartbeat away from the governor’s mansion,” said Rep. Bert Jones, a Republican from Reidsville who sponsored the bill. “Those two should be working together and they should be doing so in such a way that, Lord forbid, if something were to happen to the governor, the lieutenant governor makes a smooth transition into that office.”
But Rep. Larry Pittman, a Republican from Concord, argued, “Part of the reason for having an independent lieutenant governor, even if they’re the same party, is to limit the power of the governor, the influence and the control that he might exercise over the Senate through someone who was maybe, for lack of a better word, his lackey.”
The way our ship of state is designed today, the lieutenant governor is more likely to be a loose cannon on deck than a lackey.