Running For Lieutenant Governor Is A Risky Business

Aug 29, 2013

Though he hasn't decided who to support in the Republican primary race for governor, Niles Township committeeman Joe Hendrick is happy to pose with one of the candidates, Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) at GOP Day at the state fair. Four years ago when he was Republicans' nominee for governor, Brady didn't have any say in who his running mate would be; for the first time this election gubernatorial candidates get to choose a lieutenant governor, before the primary.
Credit Amanda Vinicky

   For the first time, candidates for governor in Illinois will choose their second in command. They used to get stuck with whomever primary voters choose for lieutenant governor -- whether the two got along or not. It's an opportunity for candidates to find a running mate they work well with, or perhaps someone to balance out the ticket. Still, the new selection process might have unintended consequences.


For a role that's widely thought of as so irrelevant, even candidates for the position periodically suggest eliminating it, elections for lieutenant governor have wreaked a lot of havoc in Illinois politics. Take the scenario that led to this new method of selecting someone for the role.

In 2010, with party leaders' attention elsewhere, a wealthy pawn broker and political newcomer named Scott Lee Cohen beat out four Democratic legislators in the race for lieutenant governor. "And I focused on that position because I felt it was the right office to allow me to bring in my business experience, and to be honest my life experience," Cohen said after the primary, when word had spread that Cohen had once been arrested for domestic abuse, creating an outrage.

It looked like Cohen could drag down the Democrats' gubernatorial nominee, incumbent Pat Quinn. Democratic leaders pressured Cohen to step down. It worked out for Quinn; he basically got to handpick Sheila Simon as a running mate. But it was a big enough scare that in 2011, the General Assembly changed the process.

"That's why it is difficult for House members in the legislature to give up their seats in order to run for a post where they could lose at two gates on the running course." - Jim Nowlan

Starting with the upcoming election, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor must run as a team-- in the primary, as well as in the general election. It's left voters like Niles Township Republican Committeeman Joe Hendrick wondering: "Who's the lieutenant governor candidates?"

The shirt he was wearing at Republican Day at the State Fair was visual proof of his status as an undecided voter. It was covered in stickers - including one for each of the four Republicans running for governor. Hendrick says whom each of the candidates chooses for a running mate might help him make up his mind. "I don't know that it would matter, but it could matter,” he says. "Either positive or negative, I mean if they put out someone that balances them but ... is .... extremely one way, then I might not be enthusiastic about that candidate."

On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Simon chose to run for another office rather than stay on with Quinn. The Governor's not ready to say who'll replace her, only saying earlier this month that "there are a lot of good people out there, we're working on that.” Democratic challenger Bill Daley, a former U.S. Commerce Secretary, is also reportedly still searching. Republican candidates are beginning to make their declarations.

There are campaign insiders who admit that it hasn't been easy finding a credible, experienced politician willing to pair up with a candidate who isn't even assured of getting out of the primary, but none of the candidates profess to having trouble, including Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington). As the GOP's nominee for governor in 2010, Brady was matched with Jason Plummer, then a relatively unknown, 29-year-old lumber company heir. Political strategists say Plummer didn't help Brady win. Brady says while Plummer was a great candidate, he’s excited about the opportunity to run as a team. “This gives you an option to be ideologically on the same path,” Brady says. He says he sees no downside to this new method.

But Jim Nowlan says he does. Nowlan's now a member of the state's Executive Ethics Commission, but in 1972 he was a 28-year-old legislator, and the Republican's nominee for lieutenant governor. "And I was clearly not the first choice of incumbent Gov. Dick Ogilvie, but he was had enacted the income tax and was not particularly popular," he says. Nowlan says Ogilvie's initial choices had turned him down. They feared they'd be paired with a likely loser, ending - or at least putting a dent in - their political careers. They predicted correctly - Ogilvie and Nowlan lost. Nowlan says it's an indicator of what may be happening behind-the-scenes as candidates for governor court potential running mates for 2014.

"It creates some challenges for the governor candidates because prospective running mates will look at the prospects and say 'Gee, I could lose in the primary with you,' " he says. Whereas before, it was up to a lieutenant governor to win or lose a primary on his or her own; after that, there was a 50/50 shot at winning.

But now candidates for that post will be tied, for better or for worse, to a gubernatorial candidate from the onset. The ’14 field is crowded -- there's a six-way race for Governor. "That's why it is difficult for House members in the legislature to give up their seats in order to run for a post where they could lose at two gates on the running course." Nowlan says it's a great opportunity for some up-and-comers, but they're also taking a big risk. And even if they do win, this new method of match-making means there'll be a tighter link between governors and their number twos in the future.

A lieutenant governor's sole, constitutional responsibility is to be on standby to take over -which is exactly how Pat Quinn came to be governor, following Rod Blagojevich's ouster. Though Quinn stood by Blagojevich until nearly the end, it was well known the two weren't close. That saved Quinn during the 2010 campaign. He was able to overcome accusations he'd been part of Blagojevich's schemes. From here on out, lieutenant governors won't be able to make that excuse.