If running for governor in Louisiana is tough, competing for the lieutenant governor’s post is a truly thankless job.
While the title is impressive, the state’s No. 2 official plays no formal part in developing or implementing major policies. Louisiana’s Governor’s Office is famously powerful, but the lieutenant governor, whose office oversees culture, recreation and tourism, occupies a distinctly limited niche.
You could compare the job to the vice presidency, but the analogy’s imperfect. Vice presidents are members of the administration, and while jokes about the position’s irrelevance persist, recent presidents have relied heavily upon their veeps for guidance. Dick Cheney, for example, was certainly a player in the Bush White House, and Joe Biden has become a visible and popular partner to President Barack Obama.
That hasn’t been the case with lieutenant governors in Louisiana, even when governors and lieutenant governors have shared political affiliation.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, both Republicans, don’t bother hiding their mutual disdain. Dardenne even launched an online petition to call on Jindal to reimburse the state for the cost of his security detail’s travel while he’s out campaigning for president.
Things weren’t so toxic when Kathleen Blanco was governor and fellow Democrat Mitch Landrieu was lieutenant governor, but there were times when Landrieu’s ambitions caused Blanco to guard her turf. When both were preparing to run for the first time in 2003, Landrieu pitched himself as a sort of a roving economic development czar for the state. Blanco, who was just coming off two terms as lieutenant governor herself, said the job carried plenty of responsibility as it was.
“When I’m governor, I’m going to run the department of economic development,” she said back then.
Yet despite the relatively small stakes, one reason to pay attention is that the Lieutenant Governor’s Office is a high-profile launching pad, one that in recent years has produced one governor, one big-city mayor and a major gubernatorial candidate.
All three managed to build credentials from the office. Blanco was an energetic promoter who built a network of support around the state. Landrieu zeroed in on the so-called “cultural economy” and launched a bottom-up budgeting process — budgeting for outcomes, the wonks call it — that he brought with him to New Orleans City Hall. Dardenne has used the post to show off his ability to administer efficiently during tough times — and frequently touts his decision to do the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism secretary’s job himself.
The other reason, of course, is that the lieutenant governor’s most important duty is to be ready to step up if necessary.
You wouldn’t know that from the campaign, which has been notably bloodless. The candidates — state Sen. Elbert Guillory, East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden, former Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and Jefferson Parish President John Young — all promise to promote and expand tourism around the state. All have focused on their credentials and experience in other offices.
The three Republicans in the race have been pitching an expansive view of the job. Guillory wants to use it as a bully pulpit on education and social issues, and vows that he won’t be left on the “back burner.” Nungesser envisions doing some heavy lifting for the governor “as long as he does the right thing” and says he’d avoid turf issues by not seeking credit. Like Landrieu before him, Young says he’d like to take on some economic development duties, even as he concedes that they’re in the administration’s and Legislature’s purview. Only Holden, the lone Democrat, says his main focus would be to “get out there and sell and promote Louisiana.”
Unlike the gubernatorial candidates, these four have had little opportunity to weigh in on the big issues the next governor will face, from fixing the structural budget deficit to funding for higher education and roads, to deciding which tax exemptions should be saved or slashed. You could argue that’s perfectly appropriate, because focusing on those issues would wrongly signal to voters that there’s something the lieutenant governor can do about them.
On the other hand, one day any of them just might. And that, in retrospect, would make next week’s lieutenant governor’s election the most important race that nobody cared about, until it was too late.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.