LLOYD GRAY: Lt. governor still a potent power center

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Years ago, the veteran Mississippi politico Brad Dye figured out that there was real power to be had in the lieutenant governor’s office if you were willing to stay there long enough to accumulate it.
Prior to Dye’s election in 1979, and his three terms in the office that followed, lieutenant governor was a place to land for four years while you waited to run for governor, usually unsuccessfully. Charles Sullivan, William Winter and Evelyn Gandy all tried and failed in the 1970s to make the jump to governor after a single term as lieutenant governor.
Dye made it known he intended to remain in the office, and so as presiding officer and chief dispenser of legislative power and authority in the state Senate, he accumulated quite a lot of his own. But he eventually wore out his welcome with the voters, and they turned him out after three terms and 12 years. Then the next year they approved a constitutional amendment limiting lieutenant governors to two consecutive terms.
So now the office is back to being a jumping off point for gubernatorial races, as with one-term Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, the front-runner in the 2011 governor’s race. A warning flag for Bryant is that Sullivan, Winter and Gandy were all front-runners, too, and fell victim to late surges by initially lesser known challengers. More recent history is better for Bryant: In 1999, Ronnie Musgrove won a close governor’s election after one term as lieutenant governor.
Amy Tuck was the lieutenant governor for eight years between Musgrove and Bryant, but was term-limited when Haley Barbour still had four years to go as governor. In Tuck’s second term the circumstances were unique with Barbour, the most powerful governor in modern state history, shattering all the theories about how the Mississippi Constitution made the governor mostly a figurehead. Tuck, having switched to the Republican Party, was constricted as few of her predecessors had been as Barbour moved to control the Senate, and Bryant has had to deal with the same dynamic.
No matter who the next governor is – Bryant or any of the other candidates – we’re likely to see a return to a more normal balance of power in state government, which means a pendulum swing back to the lieutenant governor’s office.
All this history is to make the point that although voters don’t always pay a lot of attention to it, the lieutenant governor’s office is worthy of more notice than it gets. Whoever is elected this year to replace Bryant can either wield considerable power for eight years, if he and the voters choose, and eventually be in a good position to take a stab at the governorship.
As of last week, this year’s race for lieutenant governor is pretty much set. State Treasurer Tate Reeves formally announced his long-anticipated candidacy in a statewide tour. Veteran state senator and Senate President Pro Tem Billy Hewes of Gulfport had kicked off his campaign earlier.
Both are Republicans. It’s unlikely that any Democratic candidate who emerges at this late stage will be able to compete with either Reeves or Hewes in the general election. We are quickly reverting in many statewide races to what once was said about the Democratic primary: That winning the Republican primary is “tantamount to election.”
Reeves and Hewes offer distinctly different backgrounds, but neither wasted much time in his youth before seeking public office. Reeves, 36, had a background in finance when at the age of 28 he sought and won the treasurer’s office. The Florence (just south of Jackson) native is nearing the end of his second term.
Hewes, meanwhile, is a 49-year-old veteran of 20 years in the Senate. He’s already running on his experience, saying that it’s not a time for “on the job training.”
Reeves would be a rare lieutenant governor – there have been none in 40 years – to serve without previous legislative experience. But he’s well connected in Republican and business circles and is intentionally styling himself as a “watchdog” legislative outsider.
If a Republican is elected governor, which is likely, either of these men, if they have gubernatorial ambitions, will have to keep them in check for eight years. But both Reeves and Hewes have plenty of time, politically speaking.
In the meantime, the occupant of the lieutenant governor’s office will have plenty of opportunity to steer a significant share of the power in state government his way. That alone should be enough to get us to pay attention.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.