California’s lieutenant governors rarely move up to the top job

by Garry South

May 21, 2018

San Francisco Chronicle

The office of California’s lieutenant governor is often referred to by the unflattering diminutive “lite gov.” But it can get even worse. When I was chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Gray Davis two decades ago, a group of fourth-graders came by our office in the state Capitol, across the hall from the governor’s office. Upon seeing the sign above the door that said “Office of the Lt. Governor,” one of the students innocently asked, “So who is the lunatic governor, anyway?”

Looking at the history of the office and its occupants, one could be excused from thinking someone with political ambitions would have to be crazy to run for the job. Despite its status as sort of a vice president of the state, it has more often ended up being a dead end — or a career ender — than a stepping stone to higher office. If Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom succeeds in his campaign for governor, he will have pulled off a rare feat indeed.

Since its founding in 1850, California has had 49 lieutenant governors. Eight have succeeded to the governorship by dint of the death or resignation of the governor under whom they served. But only two sitting lieutenant governors in 168 years have ever been elected governor in their own right.

The first to do it was Republican C.C. Young in 1926. Then it was then 72 more years until Davis did it. I’m quite familiar with that case, because I ran Davis’ campaign for governor in 1998.

A review of the sad electoral history of other lieutenant governors shows:

Lt. Gov. Glenn Anderson, a Democrat, lost his job in the Reagan sweep in 1966.

Lt. Gov. John Harmer, appointed by Reagan to replace a resigned predecessor, lost the general election in 1974, even though he was the official GOP nominee.

Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally, Harmer’s successor, was elected with Jerry Brown leading the Democratic ticket, then himself lost the post just four years later to first-time candidate and recording executive Mike Curb.

Lt. Gov. Curb caused all kinds of mischief when Brown was out of state campaigning for president in 1980. He was rewarded for his hijinks by losing the Republican primary race for governor in 1982. He came back four years later and ran again for lieutenant governor — and lost that race to incumbent Democrat Leo McCarthy.

Lt. Gov. McCarthy, a former speaker of the state Assembly, holds the record for longevity in the post — 12 years. During that time, McCarthy ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate — twice.

Lt. Gov. Davis stepped up in 1995, and we know how that story ended. But Davis’ lieutenant governor, former Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante, also proved to be a victim of the curse of the office.

Lt. Gov. Bustamante ran in the 2003 election that recalled Gov. Davis, but finished with only 31 percent of the vote, even though he was the only “name” Democrat on the ballot. Bustamante was then also defeated by a Republican in the 2006 race for state insurance commissioner — the only Democrat running statewide to lose other than the gubernatorial candidate, who was thoroughly terminated by the Governator.

California lieutenant governors have more often moved down. Just in the past 60 years, three second bananas have down-sized themselves by running for and being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives: Anderson in 1968; Dymally was elected and served 12 years in Congress after being defeated in 1978, even though Brown handily won re-election. Most recently, first-term Lt. Gov. John Garamendi gave up the seat mid-term in 2009 to run successfully for Congress.

Given this ill-starred political history of the “lunatic governors,” keep your eye on Newsom. If he wins in November, he will be only the third second-in-command in California history to be elected governor in his own right — and only the second Democrat. One for the California history books, to be sure.

Garry South is a veteran Democratic political strategist.