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SCOT LEHIGH

Why do we even need a lieutenant governor?

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

With Charlie Baker, the GOP’s likely gubernatorial nominee, embracing former state Representative Karyn Polito as his running mate, this question arises: Why would any self-respecting person want to be lieutenant governor? Or, since we’re on the subject of useless jobs, a Governor’s Councilor?

To put a twist on Groucho Marx’s quip that he wouldn’t join any club that would have him as a member, how can a voter take seriously anyone who aspires to these pointless posts?

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Baker is obviously playing the political and fundraising angles here. But I’d think more of him if he simply declared that, rather than choosing an informal ticketmate, he would try to amend the state constitution to eliminate the LG’s office and, for that matter, the Governor’s Council, too.

The only time in recent memory that a lieutenant governor has shown him or herself to be truly and unmistakably useful was during the Bill Weld-Paul Cellucci years, a period that stands out because it was so rare. More often, you get a constitutional number two who is consigned to peripheral or make-work tasks — or to extended thumb-twiddling.

One of the office’s only enduring contributions is comic relief. Take, for example, the relationship between liberal lieutenant governor Tom O’Neill and conservative governor Ed King. When, a year into their odd-couple term, a frustrated O’Neill announced he was breaking with King, King responded, in uncertain Latin, “Who cares?”

Evelyn Murphy remade herself as Michael Dukakis’s political clone and got elected as his second banana, only to see a cratering economy write this headline: Duke stock drops like rock. That climate change left Murphy, a 1990 gubernatorial candidate, desperately seeking an identity divorce. A fuming Dukakis was forced to delay a foreign trip after learning that Murphy planned to issue some I’m-not-like-Mike executive orders once he was airborne.

The only honest reason anyone aspires to be lieutenant governor is ambition: Some see it as a springboard to a better office. But unless the governor resigns and bequeaths an LG the Corner Office, it’s usually a dive into a drained pool.

John Kerry, who assumed the LG’s office in 1983 and was off and running for the US Senate a year later, is a notable exception. But consider the others. O’Neill, who served as both Dukakis’s and King’s number two, didn’t even make the ballot when he ran for governor in 1982. Murphy dropped out of the 1990 gubernatorial race. Swift bailed out of a planned run in 2002. Kerry Healey, Mitt Romney’s number two, lost her 2006 gubernatorial bid in a landslide. His unlikely gubernatorial hopes scuttled by stupidity, Tim Murray resigned to become head of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.

But absent a lieutenant governor, what would happen if a governor resigned or, heaven forfend, shuffled off this mortal coil? Simple: The secretary of state would take his place. In the case of Bill Galvin, you’d get a highly competent executive. Moreover, a secretary of state’s possible elevation could make voters consider candidates for that office more carefully.

Ah, but without a lieutenant governor, who would chair the Governor’s Council? Sorry, that question is a set-up. In a more rational political world, no one, because those eight posts, too, would be eliminated. Stripped of almost all its important functions, that vestigial body has deteriorated into a clown show. Confirming judges, the only real responsibility that remains, would be better left to the state Senate.

Dukakis once proposed amending the state constitution to nix the council, a cause state Senator Brian Joyce has taken up. “Somehow 48 other states do without a Governor’s Council, and I am sure we could as well,” Joyce says. He’s right.

We likely won’t see any gubernatorial candidate speak as frankly about the lieutenant governor’s post. But if one did, he or she would win big points for candor — and probably some votes as well.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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