When Lieutenant Governors Leave, Some States Struggle to Fill the Position

It’s the second highest-ranking job in state government, and yet, no one seems to want it.
APRIL 2018

Michelle Fischbach, Minnesota’s lieutenant governor (for now) (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Sometimes you don’t want to give up your day job, even if you’ve been offered the second highest-ranking post in state government. Two states have had a difficult time filling vacancies for lieutenant governor this year.

In January, Shan Tsutsui, the lieutenant governor of Hawaii, left office to take a job with a communications firm. The post is supposed to be filled by the state Senate president, which is what Tsutsui was when he first got the job. But the current Senate president took a pass, as did the state House speaker. It was ultimately filled by Doug Chin. He resigned as state attorney general, while making it clear he would continue working at his real day job — running for Congress.

The situation has been more fraught in Minnesota. There, Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Al Franken, who stepped down last year amid allegations of sexual misconduct. In Minnesota, the Senate president is next in line for the lieutenant governorship. Michelle Fischbach had no choice but to take the job. She’s a Republican, while Dayton is a Democrat, so Dayton joked about staying healthy until his term ends after this fall’s election.

But that wasn’t the end of the story, or the partisan bickering. It turned out that Fischbach, even after becoming lieutenant governor, refused to give up her Senate seat. She had no interest in ending her legislative career to serve for a few months in a ceremonial post. Perhaps more important, Republicans have only a one-seat majority in the Senate. There’s absolutely no upside for the GOP in allowing the chamber to be tied until a Fischbach vacancy could be filled by a special election. “It is all about control of the Senate,” says David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University in St. Paul.

The question of whether Fischbach can hold two jobs at once has gone to the courts. There are possible precedents bolstering the argument on either side. But it’s clear that the state Supreme Court, which is likely to be the final arbiter of the matter, isn’t in any hurry to take up the case. The justices aren’t stepping in to resolve the question, instead letting it work its way through the lower courts. That means the question probably won’t be resolved until the legislative session is over.

Republicans say that until the session ends, they have every right to hold on to the disputed seat — and their tenuous majority. They offered to bring the Senate into special session to allow Democrats to pick a new Senate president of their choice, who would then have acceded to the lieutenant governor’s job. But the Democrats wouldn’t bite. They would much rather see Fischbach’s seat left open for the rest of the session. “They’re trying to play politics with this appointment,” complains Matt Pagano, executive director of the Minnesota Republican Party.

In some states, lieutenant governors have real power, exercising serious legislative authority, chairing interagency task forces or even running entire cabinet departments. In Minnesota, that isn’t the case. For Fischbach, aside from the court fight, being lieutenant governor hasn’t distracted from her work as a state senator at all. “There are no duties for the lieutenant governor,” Schultz says. “I mean zip.”