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The Boston Globe

Opinion

The Podium

The case for a lieutenant governor

When Lt. Gov. Tim Murray left office on Sunday, there was no constitutional crisis. In fact, there was no constitutional action at all.

Even though the lieutenant governor’s office has been vacated several times in recent memory, many were caught off guard to learn that the Massachusetts Constitution provides no mechanism to replace a lieutenant governor who leaves office before the end of his or her term. Realizing Gov. Deval Patrick will spend his final 19 months in office without a number two prompted a reasonable question: If it is not essential to replace a lieutenant governor, why have one at all?

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As someone seeking election as lieutenant governor next year, I believe not only is it a job worth having but that it is a position critical to the proper functioning of state government.

In authoring the Massachusetts Constitution, John Adams laid the foundation for the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights and our entire system of government. One thing he didn’t do was to endow the lieutenant governor with a very specific portfolio. The state’s number two has but two articulated constitutional responsibilities:1) perform the duties of the governor in his absence; and, 2) serve as a member of the Governor’s Council and preside over its meetings in the absence of the governor.

But the job of lieutenant governor isn’t derived from the Constitution. Recent history has shown the principal sources of a lieutenant governor’s authority to be the will of the governor and the initiative of the individual in the job. Those partnerships have prompted some great successes for Massachusetts.

Under two Democrats, Thomas O’Neill III became the point person on federal-state relations, a duty carried on by John Kerry. Paul Cellucci was an invaluable partner to Republican Gov. William Weld, providing a needed attention to detail and tending to local and legislative relations.

Jane Swift represented well her beloved Western Massachusetts and other oft-neglected regions of the Commonwealth — not to mention the perspectives of a woman in a senior State House position. And Murray set the bar even higher, serving as Patrick’s right hand for local officials and spearheading key initiatives on veterans’ services, homelessness, STEM education, rail expansion, and other critical priorities.

I believe the lack of explicit constitutional duties makes the position one of the most potentially dynamic and effective positions in state government. An experienced and resourceful lieutenant governor is in a unique position to address pressing needs, keep long-term priorities on track amidst daily crises and distractions, and coordinate with other levels of government – both locally and in Washington.

I see enormous potential for the office as an ombudsman for state government, not just for local officials but also for businesses and citizens finding difficulty navigating state bureaucracy or complicated regulations. And as someone with extensive private and public sector managerial experience in addition to serving in local elected office, I will advocate for using the office to help make our economy more competitive and create broader opportunities for all by making government work more effectively to solve problems, not create new or bigger ones.

The essence of the position, however, is what Adams first envisioned. The presence of a lieutenant governor ensures the continuity of power should the governor leave office, thereby respecting and fulfilling the voters’ wishes in a way that promoting another constitutional officer as acting governor does not.

It has been said jokingly that the only real job of the vice president is to inquire daily on the heath of the president. The number two in any government will always be subject to some kidding from the cheap seats, deserved or not.

But those who say the Commonwealth’s number two office serves no purpose misunderstand the critical role a lieutenant governor, like the vice president, plays in proper and effective governance in today’s fast-moving and complex world. This debate may signal, rather, that it is time to address the constitutional quirk that leaves Massachusetts without a duly elected lieutenant in times like these and provide for a new, quick and suitable replacement process.

Given the development and importance of the office, I like to think John Adams would agree.

Steve Kerrigan is a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.
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