Friday, March 14, 2008

To the Top of the Greasy Pole, the Hard Way (Forgive the Double Entendres)

One of the most significant American contributions to constitutionalism was the creation of the vice-president, a governmental position with almost no assigned duties, whose main function is to simply stand and wait, next in line to the chief executive, ready to step up should the president be unable to continue to serve. As far as I know no other country had a similar institution before 1787. Monarchies, with a firm order of succession, do not require it, and neither do parliamentary democracies, which elect governments, not individuals, and the ruling party can address a crisis with the office and person of prime minister simply by means of a party caucus. The US constitution had no such option, and to avoid circumscribing the role of the president, left the position of vice president as a position as a nullity, without any clear responsibilities.

State governments had similar problems, and created, to serve with governors, the empty position of lieutenant-governor, with the title a reminder of the military origins of the position of governor. If anything, the position of lieutenant-governor in New York State has been more of a dead-end position than the federal vice-president. Over the last half century, the vice-president has become more significant, with numerous vice presidents either becoming president (Nixon, Johnson, Ford, George H. W. Bush), running for president (Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale), or being recognized as substantial power brokers while in office (Al Gore, Dick Cheney.) Nothing similar has happened for New York State’s lieutenant-governor, and most of the recent occupants of the office have been mired in near total obscurity or had little or no influence on state policy (George DeLuca, Mary Ann Krupsack, Betsy McCaughey Ross, Alfred DelBello, Stan Lundine, Mary Donahue. ) The two exceptions are Malcolm Wilson, Rockefeller’s long term lieutenant-governor, who succeeded him in 1973, and Mario Cuomo. But there seems to be little indication that the position had undergone an upgrade, and that lieutenant-governors have been tasked with greater responsibility.

Much of the same-old seemed to have happening with David Patterson, who has been almost completely out of the news since taking office last January. It was never quite clear why he agreed to take the position. Perhaps he was tired of the powerlessness that comes with being minority leader in a body in which the minority is granted few if any rights or privileges, or perhaps, as some have speculated, he was gambling that Hillary Clinton gets elected president, and that Spitzer would have named him to the senate. If that was the gamble, it paid off, somewhat differently but certainly more spectacularly than Patterson ever could have imagined.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened in any of our recent governors had gone through as spectacular a crack-up as befell Eliot Spitzer. We might, very plausibly, have had the first woman governor of New York State. Or, since, the position of lieutenant-governor is often used to balance the upstate/downstate divide, we might have had the true first upstate governor since 1922, with a governor from Amsterdam [Krupsack], Jamestown [Lundine], or Troy [Donahue.] ( This is assuming that Westchester, even the northern Westchester city of Peekskill, really ought to be considered downstate.) But Spitzer broke with the recent pattern of female and upstate lieutenant-governors. Instead we have the first African American governor in the state’s history, and by the luck of the draw, the best prepared governors in terms of prior legislative experience in state government, since Al Smith. All New Yorkers wish David Patterson the best.

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