Posted: April 29, 2014


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

When Mike Castle was the Republican lieutenant governor, Delaware Today magazine once ran his picture on the cover with the caption, Is this man useless?

Castle himself was not. He went on to be elected governor for two terms and congressman for nine terms, a state record. But the office?

The lieutenant governor is the afterthought of politics.

Delaware did not even have one until the current constitution was adopted in 1897, and the delegates at the constitutional convention decided if the office ever became vacant, the state should just go ahead and leave it that way.

As one of the delegates said, "I do not see that there is a particle of necessity for the election of a lieutenant governor in case of the office becoming vacant."

For the last 117 years, it did not seem to matter, but it might now.

Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor, has filed for attorney general, the office Beau Biden is relinquishing in favor of a campaign to become the Democratic governor in 2016. At the moment, Denn's odds could not be better.

Kathy Jennings, the state prosecutor, took a look at running against Denn in a Democratic primary, but she decided against it and endorsed him, instead. The Republicans have been courting Colm Connolly, the former U.S. attorney, for nearly two weeks, but he has yet to say yes.

Denn is midway through his second term as lieutenant governor. It means the office could be vacant for two years.

The legislature could fix it with a constitutional amendment, but should it bother? After all, the delegates at the constitutional convention had just shrugged.

Sure, the delegates put the lieutenant governor in line to succeed the governor, but the line also goes onward, running these days through the secretary of state, the attorney general, the Senate president pro tem and the House speaker.

In addition, the delegates decided the Board of Pardons, normally five members, could function fine without a lieutenant governor, and so could the Senate, where the lieutenant governor presides but only votes to break a tie.

In the end, the delegates figured they would follow the vice presidential model, which at the time left a vacancy unfilled.

(This would change with the 25th Amendment, adopted in 1967 in the aftermath of John Kennedy's assassination, to have the president appoint a new vice president, confirmed by the entire Congress. It happened when Richard Nixon appointed Gerald Ford to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew, and again when Ford replaced the disgraced Nixon and appointed Nelson Rockeller.)

The delegate who drove the debate was William Spruance, a Republican lawyer, later a judge, with a Harvard law degree. Here is some of the discussion from the official record called "Debates and Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of the State of Delaware."

Joshua Ellegood: Under this as it now stands, if the lieutenant governor was to die, you would be virtually without one, wouldn't you?

William Spruance: Yes, that is the idea. . . .

Andrew Johnson: I cannot see any good reason why a lieutenant governor should not be elected in case of the succession of the lieutenant governor to the governorship. . . .

Spruance: I do not think that is practical or desirable. It is not done for the vice president of the United States. . . . I do not see that there is a particle of necessity for the election of a lieutenant governor in case of the office becoming vacant.

The office actually has been empty three times, not that people noticed it much, because it was so short. In each case, a governor was elected to the Congress, and the lieutenant governor stepped up -- Dave Buckson in 1960 for 19 days, Dale Wolf for 20 days in 1992 and Ruth Ann Minner for 13 days in 2001 before she began her own term.

The General Assembly has a choice. It could leave the situation as is, or it could set up a succession in a number of ways, such as a special election or a gubernatorial appointment, perhaps by following the modern vice presidential model with confirmation by the entire legislature.

Mike Castle, who has looked at the office as a governor and a lieutenant governor, thinks something should be done. He would not mind the vice presidential model -- "approval by both houses gives it affirmation it otherwise might not have" -- but does not think much of holding a special election.

"It's the lieutenant governor, for God's sake," Castle said.

Gary Simpson, the Senate's Republican minority leader, is inclined to go with a special election, if the office would be vacant for a long time, say, a year or more. He argues a special election is the only way to preserve the voters' right to choose a governor of one party and a lieutenant governor of the other, as the constitution currently provides by requiring them to be elected separately.

Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker, is not necessarily persuaded any change is wise.

"What's the downside? It takes the Board of Pardons down to four. Is that critical? It could be. Then you have the Senate. Patti Blevins or her designee could sit," Schwartzkopf said.

"No one is presuming that Matt Denn is going to win, but if he does, we have to be prepared. I'm not real crazy about doing a special election. You'd be doing a special election right after an election. People don't like special elections, and they're expensive."

Schwartzkopf is right about the expense. "For a special election, I'm looking at a million dollars, maybe a little less," said Elaine Manlove, the election commissioner.

Whatever happens, it is probably safe to think the legislature will lean toward finding a way to fill the office. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and the lure of an open statewide office could easily have 62 out of 62 legislators envisioning themselves moving into it.

One person is definitely out of the mix, though. It is Mike Castle, who declared, "I am not running for lieutenant governor ever again."