Checking Actuarial Tables

Posted March 2, 2004 at 6:19pm

There’s an old joke in Massachusetts politics about the woman who had two sons; one went to sea and one became lieutenant governor.

Neither was ever heard from again.

If, as John Nance Garner — one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice presidents — once said, the vice presidency “isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit,” you have to wonder sometimes about being lieutenant governor.

According to the National Lieutenant Governors Association’s own Web site: “Most state constitutions do not prescribe detailed duties for the office. This allows governors and lieutenant governors to exercise flexibility in integrating the office into the administration.”

Put another way, lieutenant governors usually don’t have much to do unless the governors they serve give them some meaty chores.

“Each morning, you are required under the constitution to go to the refrigerator, get a glass of orange juice, go to the front porch, pick up the local paper, see if the governor is still alive, and if he is, go back to bed,” said Michael Goldman, a veteran Democratic consultant in Massachusetts. “The only question you ever ask is, ‘Did the governor get hit by a bus?’”

But these are heady times for lieutenant governors, and the tenure of one ex-LG in particular is bound to get extra attention during the next eight months.

That’s because Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), who served as lieutenant governor of the Bay State in 1983 and 1984, is well on his way to sewing up the Democratic presidential nomination. And if he’s elected, he would become only the second former lieutenant governor in history to ascend to the White House.

The first? Calvin Coolidge, also from Massachusetts — belying the state’s old joke. He went on to become governor, then vice president, then moved into the White House in 1923 when President Warren G. Harding died.

For LGs everywhere (especially Democrats), Kerry’s success has been a point of pride — and hope.

“It certainly is of great interest to lieutenant governors,” said Julia Hurst, director of the NGLA, which is based in Lexington, Ky. “It demonstrates the importance of the office and the promise of the office.”

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who recently dropped out of the presidential race, is also a former LG. It is perhaps no coincidence that when New Mexico Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (D) was deliberating whom to endorse in the presidential contest, the decision was between Kerry and Dean (she ultimately went with Kerry).

But just as Kerry hopes to make history by becoming the second lieutenant governor — and first Democratic LG — to make it to the White House, Republicans will be sure to be combing through history to see if there’s anything from Kerry’s time as Massachusetts’ No. 2 that they can use against him. It’s easy to see why: The Massachusetts governor at the time was Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee and a favorite Republican punching bag over the past 16 years. (Although a New York Times article recently quoted a Republican operative calling Dukakis more “mainstream” than Kerry.)

There are a few things to know about the Dukakis-Kerry administration, however. First, theirs was a shotgun wedding. And, second, the marriage was short-lived.

Under Massachusetts law, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor compete separately for their party’s nominations. Only after the primaries are they joined together as a ticket, with the gubernatorial candidate then responsible for his or her running mate’s fate.

In 1982, Dukakis was attempting a political comeback, seeking the Democratic nomination against the man who had ousted him in a 1978 primary: then-Gov. Edward King.

The lieutenant governor that year had announced his intention to vacate the office. Tom O’Neill (D) — son of the legendary former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) — who had served under both Dukakis and King, was not seeking a third term.

In his primary race for lieutenant governor, Kerry, who until several months before the election had been a high-profile prosecutor, squared off against two state legislators and one ex-lawmaker, plus Evelyn Murphy, a former state environmental affairs secretary.

At a state party convention that preceded the primary, Kerry was so flexible in the bitter Dukakis-King rematch that he distributed campaign buttons that said, “King/Kerry” and “Dukakis/Kerry,” while some of his opponents took sides in the gubernatorial race.

Kerry wound up beating second-place finisher Murphy by 40,000 votes out of 1.1 million cast in the primary. In the general election, the Dukakis-Kerry ticket cruised to victory.

According to Goldman, a former top aide to Dukakis, Kerry and the former governor came to politics from two different places. Dukakis was a former state legislator and one-time nominee for lieutenant governor. He was the kind of guy who would show up at party functions and know everybody there. Kerry, on the other hand, was a national celebrity who had not toiled in the vineyards of party politics.

“Over the years I think they developed a pretty nice relationship,” Goldman said.

A June 2003 Boston Globe article stated that Dukakis put Kerry in charge of federal relations — a task that O’Neill had performed previously, for obvious reasons. Kerry also made himself an expert on acid rain, the newspaper said.

Goldman said everyone assumed that Kerry was biding his time until 1986, when he was expected to run for state attorney general.

But when another political opportunity knocked sooner, Kerry quickly answered. Just one year into Kerry’s term as lieutenant governor, then-Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) surprised everyone by announcing that he would not seek a second term in 1984. Kerry jumped in the Senate race, and the rest is history.

Massachusetts — and Dukakis — lived through 1985 and 1986 without a lieutenant governor. In 1986, Murphy, who had lost to Kerry four years earlier, was elected lieutenant governor. If Dukakis had succeeded in his 1988 bid for the White House, Murphy would have become the state’s first female governor.

Instead, they served unhappily together until the end of 1990. According to a May 2002 Boston magazine, the Dukakis-Murphy pairing was so “disastrous” that the two still do not speak to each other.

As for the Kerry-Dukakis relationship, Goldman said that if Republicans try to attack Kerry for being Dukakis’ lieutenant governor, he can always respond that they were not that close — and that the office wasn’t that significant.

“I can’t believe the [Kerry] campaign hasn’t chosen to get this out there,” he said. “It’s kind of funny.”