Oregon parents know they’ll have to, at some point, explain to their children how things work in other places. Sales tax. Self-serve gas. Beaches that aren’t technically public highways open to all.
Usually, we try to save these hard truths about Not Oregon for when we think our children are ready for them. But every now and then a story takes over the national news and screws up parents’ best-laid plans. That’s what happened recently when, some 3,000 miles to east, Andrew Cuomo announced his resignation as governor of New York, and we were introduced to his soon-to-be successor, Kathy Hochul, the state’s lieutenant governor.
“M-m-mommy,” thousands of confused Oregon children stumbled over their words as they tried to repeat the strange phrase they’d just heard, “what’s a lootennit governor?”
With Hochul taking office today, it seemed like a time to explain all.
Most states have a lieutenant governor. But in Oregon, along with Wyoming and Arizona, there is no lieutenant governor and the secretary of state is tapped as successor should the governor die, become incapacitated, or resign—as happened in 2015 when John Kitzhaber resigned and Kate Brown assumed office.
This was the order of succession in Oregon’s original constitution, but after a governor died in 1919 the secretary of state not only assumed that new office but kept his old job, drawing two paychecks and setting off lawsuits over how long he would serve (to the end of the governor’s term or the earlier end of the secretary of state’s term). That's why voters in 1920 switched the successor to the president of the state senate. In 1972, voters passed a ballot measure that switched it back to the secretary of state and removed the annoying rule that the successor assume temporary office every time the governor leaves the state. To succeed the governor, though, the secretary of state must have been elected. An appointed secretary of state, such as Bev Clarno, named to the post after Dennis Richardson died while in office in 2019, would be skipped over in favor of the next in line, the state treasurer, preventing a Gerald Ford–type succession. (Oregon’s senate president and speaker of the house are next, after the treasurer.)
West Virginia and Tennessee don’t elect a lieutenant governor but give the title (and the front spot in the line of succession) to the state senate’s president or speaker. Maine and New Hampshire don’t have an LG, either, and it’s a senate leader who becomes governor if anything happens.
New Jersey, our partner in weirdness when it comes to full-serve gas, used to be an oddball on the LG front, too, but the state passed a constitutional amendment in 2005 to create the office and avoid the flurry of acting governors that followed Christine Todd Whitman’s departure to become EPA secretary.
While that may happen someday in Oregon—every now and then someone in the legislature tries to advance the idea, most recently then-state rep Richardson in 2011—we are most definitely not New Jersey, which had only one statewide executive elected office (governor) and now has two. In Oregon, gubernatorial hopefuls have plenty of other offices to use as a stepping-stone: we elect a secretary of state, attorney general, state treasurer, and labor commissioner. We used to elect a state schools superintendent, too, but that post is now an appointed one.
A 1949 Oregonian editorial argued against the establishment of a “fifth-wheel position … which inevitably would be filled by a professional campaigner not of gubernatorial timber and not necessarily sharing the political views of the governor.” When Brown assumed office in 2015, a Boston Globe editorial suggested it could be a sign for the beginning of the end for what it called “the appendix” of many a state capitol: “lieutenant governors in other states must be hoping Brown turns out to be a disaster, so that nobody gets any ideas about eliminating their paycheck … if Oregon manages to survive its transition without sliding into the Pacific, it would provide a standing rebuke to the idea that states need to keep a spare politician on ice in case of emergency.”
In 26 states, the governor and lieutenant governor are elected on the same ticket and are thus of the same party and (supposedly) ready to work together. In some states, a gubernatorial candidate simply names the running mate, while other states have a separate primary or have the political party nominate the running mate. Where the governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately (as is the case in a swath of the South from Texas to Georgia, but also for all of Oregon’s neighbors: Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and California), they might be from different parties, which can make it hard to form a joint to-do list. It can also stop a governor from jumping ship to run for national office: North Carolina Democrats, for example, don’t want their governor to run for Senate next year and leave the office to the lieutenant governor, a Republican climate change denier who has written that homosexuality will bring about the end of “civilization as we know it.”
Just over half of US states had a lieutenant governor as part of their workings upon statehood. Several states in the old Confederacy added the position as part of a post-Civil War constitutional rewrite—many of the new state constitutions were based on those of other states that had the office. Some of those Southern states dropped the position after Reconstruction, only to add it again later.
As Kochul takes office and we watch New York's system at work, Oregon still seems likely to stay on its own track. Kate Brown took over from Kitzhaber and we did not slide into the Pacific. That slide may still take place for other reasons, but it remains extremely unlikely that our current political transition system will be the cause.