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Lieutenant Governors Make Headlines — For All The Wrong Reasons

Lt. Gov. Mark Darr and his wife Kim give an interview at the Arkansas Capitol building on Monday. After weeks of pressure to step down from both sides of the aisle, Darr announced his resignation on Friday.
Danny Johnston
Lt. Gov. Mark Darr and his wife Kim give an interview at the Arkansas Capitol building on Monday. After weeks of pressure to step down from both sides of the aisle, Darr announced his resignation on Friday.

In the end, Mark Darr had to give in.

Darr, the Republican lieutenant governor of Arkansas, announced Friday that he will resign Feb 1. Earlier this month, he agreed to pay the state ethics commission $11,000 in fines for making personal use of campaign funds and receiving improper expense reimbursements from the state.

Darr called his errors "careless and lazy," but said they were not intentional violations of the law. In a series of interviews with Arkansas news outlets Tuesday, Darr said he would refuse to resign.

That triggered serious talk of impeachment. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe had called on Darr to resign, as did all the Republican members of the state's congressional delegation.

Darr isn't the only lieutenant governor to run into problems lately. Last year, the lieutenant governors of three other states — Florida, Massachusetts and Nebraska — all stepped down amidst scandal.

Last month, Ohio Democrats dropped from their ticket state Sen. Eric Kearney, their erstwhile pick for lieutenant governor this year, due to unpaid taxes.

On the Republican side, a Tea Party primary challenge against Ohio GOP Gov. John Kasich was dropped this month due to similar tax questions dogging putative lieutenant governor candidate Brenda Mack.

The office may not usually have much power, but some of its occupants do have the knack for getting themselves in trouble. There are several possible explanations for this.

Not Much To Do

The lieutenant governors of states such as Texas and Mississippi play a big role in running the legislature, but historically most lieutenant governors have had little to do.

When he announced his run for lieutenant governor of Rhode Island a few weeks ago, Cumberland Mayor Daniel J. McKee defensively insisted to reporters that the office is " relevant in a lot of ways."

Mary Taylor, Ohio's current lieutenant governor, also heads the state's insurance commission. Other recent LGs have talked about assuming cabinet duties in order to save the state a salary. Some have been given portfolios of real power by their governors, such as spearheading state homeland security efforts.

For the most part, though, the main job of a lieutenant governor is to be ready, just in case.

Jennifer Carroll resigned as Florida's lieutenant governor last March, due to questions about her ties to a charity undergoing a racketeering investigation. GOP Gov. Rick Scott hasn't bothered appointing a replacement in the 10 months since — and no one seems to want the job — but a progressive activist filed suit last week calling on him to do so.

"It's an office much like the vice presidency, where your sole purpose is to be there in various ceremonial roles and be available in the very bad situation of a gubernatorial departure," says Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark.

Lacking A Profile

Because the job generally lacks real power, lieutenant governors are not subject to as much scrutiny as candidates for the top job.

In 17 states, lieutenant governors are elected on their own, but in most places they're elected as part of a ticket. The gubernatorial candidate or his party makes the choice, often choosing someone who offers geographic, racial or gender balance.

"You don't have the same kind of vetting that might go on if a candidate were brought in independently and had to go through the entire process of meeting with voters and reporters," says Ed Feigenbaum, editor of the political newsletter Indiana Legislative Insight, who has worked with lieutenant governors in the past.

The lack of a profile or any real power can allow a lieutenant governor to get into mischief. It's easier for somebody "with a slightly checkered past to slip through the cracks," says Vladimir Kogan, a political scientist at Ohio State University.

"The general reality is that no one knows anything about these people," he says. "My guess is if you asked a typical voter to name any of the lieutenant governors, they wouldn't know who they were."

When Your Number Gets Called

Statewide officials other than governor may not get much publicity, but they certainly receive plenty of media attention when scandal breaks.

That's why Darr was feeling the heat. He was a pizza company owner with no prior political experience when he was elected as part of a Republican wave in 2010.

For years, Republicans have used complaints about Democratic corruption "as a pretty effective weapon," says Barth, the Hendrix political scientist.

They might have surrendered that moral high ground if Darr remained in office.
"A lot of Republicans who recognize that has been a winning message [were] putting pressure on him," Barth says.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.