Opinion: Race for Virginia’s thankless No. 2 job draws a crowd

Gordon C. Morse, The Virginian-Pilot

And then there were 12.

Those are just the Democrats, too. The Republicans add another four.

Sixteen candidates, as of this date, have declared themselves available for election to the august office of Virginia lieutenant governor.

Must be one heck of a job, huh? Lots of perks? Lots of power?

Try this: It’s the job where you spend four years in the on-deck circle, bidding your time, hoping someone doesn’t hop out of the stands and run to the plate before you make your big move.

When The Virginian-Pilot interviewed candidates for statewide office in 1985, I asked then-state Sen. Doug Wilder about his interest in being lieutenant governor. He smiled and said, “I would like to see, first of all, the lieutenant governor to be a voice for all the people.”

Ah, yes — the more the merrier. Wilder proved very adept at the job.

When Chuck Robb won election to be lieutenant governor in 1977, the Senate leadership — all Democrats, mind you — heard that he wanted better office space.

There was a little room tucked over on the north wall, just off the Senate floor, that had been traditionally used by the lieutenant governor — but c’mon.

Not a problem, thought Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews of Hampton. We have just the thing for you: the Bell Tower.

And that’s where they stuck Robb, in the small, three-floor brick curiosity, circa 1824, that sits in the southwest corner of Capitol Square. The records indicate that the Bell Tower once served either as a guardhouse or a signal tower for emergencies.

Robb sucked it up and proceeded to do what all new Virginia lieutenant governors do: Quickly get command of the Senate rules and procedures, so you don’t make a fool of yourself while presiding over the body during legislative sessions.

That is the lieutenant governor’s principle constitutional obligation. You serve as president of the Senate and play legislative traffic cop for the membership.

And one other thing: Be ready to occupy the role of chief executive should the governor of the commonwealth keel over.

The modern office of lieutenant governor — it has colonial origins — emerged in 1851 and has generally attracted an able collection of personalities to serve in it.

Able, but occasionally suspect.

That was the situation when populist Henry Howell won a special election to the state’s No. 2 job, following the untimely death of Lt. Gov. J. Sargeant Reynolds in June 1971. Howell had been stiffly critical of the ruling powers while serving in the Senate and had won his new post as an independent.

So, before the 1972 legislative session even began, the majority Senate Democratic Caucus cut Howell off at the pass and stripped him of a traditional privilege to appoint members to study commissions.

Sen. Andrews leaned back in his chair, as he often did in those days, chortling a bit.

Perhaps the one occasion in the modern era when the job of lieutenant governor got seriously interesting occurred on March 28, 1913. A sensational episode of murder and mayhem was about to climax with the electrocution of two convicted Carroll County men, Floyd Allen and his younger son, Claude Allen.

The two of them, along with other family members, had shot up the Hillsville Courthouse the previous year, killing the judge, the commonwealth attorney, the sheriff, a juror and a woman by-stander.

The event “shocked the civilized world,” said the newspapers, but not sufficiently for public opinion to slide around and start supporting the Allens. (Long story.)

But the day before the execution, Gov. William Hodges Mann (who had resisted pressure to intervene) took a train to Philadelphia, intending the next day to reach Trenton, New Jersey to give a speech.

Ah hah, thought Floyd and Claude sympathizers. With the governor out of the state, doesn’t that leave Lt. Gov. James Taylor Ellyson in charge?

The answer was a simple “no,” but Ellyson appears to have momentarily warmed to the notion that he might commute the sentences and halt the executions.

Reached by his son at 2:55 in the morning, Gov. Mann grabbed the first train south, wiring from Alexandria at 8 a.m. that he was back within the commonwealth. The executions went forward.

Failing such extraordinary circumstances, the sitting lieutenant governor more generally seeks to accumulate good will and position himself/herself for a run at being elected governor.

That it occasionally works out as planned explains why a small mob of people have stepped forward to run.

After writing editorials for the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co., the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is gordonmorse@msn.com.