Women and Minnesota’s Lieutenant Governor: The tokenism of power


Why would anyone want to be lieutenant governor in Minnesota, let alone a woman who wants to have real political power and influence? Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon decision not to seek a second term on the DFL ticket with Mark Dayton should not have come as a surprise. Nor should Senator Katie Sieben’s decision not to want to leave the legislature and become Dayton’s running mate. What is a surprise is that Minnesota still has the office of Lieutenant Governor. Now is a terrific opportunity to ask the question whether the Minnesota Constitution should be amended to eliminate of the office of Lieutenant Governor?

Lieutenant Governors are a relic of the nineteenth century. In many ways they mimic the office of the US vice-presidency, but with less authority.

As weak as vice-presidents are, lieutenant governors are worse. For the most part their only task is gubernatorial succession or serving during incapacitation. Few states give them any powers, the exception being perhaps Texas where the lieutenant governor has the major powers of appointment. The positions are largely ceremonial, or perhaps no more than a source of political patronage. Better yet, the position of lieutenant governor is no more than a publicly subsidized campaigner for the governor. With few duties the lieutenant governor is free to travel the state on the pretext of official business to push the governor’s agenda. Lieutenant governors also make dandy surrogates to send to funerals. In sum, the constitutional duties of the lieutenant governor are to sit and wait for the governor to die, get sick, travel out of state, or be given something to do by the governor.

The hapless, powerless state of the lieutenant governor is also the case in Minnesota from its very first constitution. Article IV, Section 5 of the Minnesota Constitution is the sum of where the power of the lieutenant governor is described. Here the sole power is described in terms of succession to the governor. Additionally, until 1974 the governor and lieutenant governor were elected separately (that is still the case in 17 states).

More often than not lieutenant governors in Minnesota have been invisible positions, or when visible, a source of problems. In 1962 the separately elected DFL lieutenant governor Karl Rolvaag challenged the Republican governor Elmer Anderson in what would turn out to be the closest state-wide race in Minnesota history. In the end Rolvaag prevailed by 91 votes out of 1.3 million cast. Because of a prolonged recount, the new governor did not take office until March, 1963. In 1974 Rudy Perpich and Wendell Anderson were the first lieutenant governor and governor elected together as a ticket. But when in 1976 Walter Mondale resigned his US Senate seat to become vice-president Anderson resigned as governor so that he could become senator. Perpich then become governor. The scandal surrounding this move and possible deal with Perpich was so great that in 1978 DFLers were swept from office in the state.

Finally there is the case of Governor Tim Pawlenty and his lieutenant Carol Molnau. Ever since Perpich made Marlene Johnson his lieutenant governor in 1982, the tradition in this state has been for the DFL and GOP to nominate women for the number two slot. But while this may sound like progress for women, it is not. The lieutenant governor’s position is no more than a token position of power. Yet Pawlenty to his credit tried to change that, making Molnau the MNDOT commissioner too since as lieutenant governor she had nothing to do. Needless to say, with a bridge collapsing on her watch, her tenure in both positions is less than distinguished.

Given all of the above, is it any surprise that Prettner Solon is not seeking a second term or that Sieben does not want the job? Prior to being lieutenant governor Solon was a powerful legislator in her own right, involved in the policy process. She has largely been excluded from major policy work in the Dayton administration, indicating that she is not part of the governor’s inner circle. She was made Dayton’s running mate because of her Iron Range connections. It may have been her appearance on the ticket that pushed Dayton over the top, making her one of the few lieutenant governors who made a difference in the election. Prettner Solon was made lieutenant governor for political and not policy reasons once elected she has largely been ignored, as have all other lieutenant governors. Were Sieben to become Lieutenant Governor she too would experience a decrease in power and influence–being lieutenant governor is only the illusion of power, mere tokenism in the last generation for aspiring women of influence. Margaret Anderson was more powerful as Speaker of the House than any female lieutenant governor has been or ever will be.

So Prettner Solon stepping down really should be the occasion to ask does Minnesota need the position of lieutenant governor? Eight states do not have lieutenant governors, and there is no indication that these states have any gubernatorial succession problems (often the secretary of state is next in line of succession) or are better or worse governed as a result. There is little evidence that the lieutenant governor contributes to good government or policy making in Minnesota. Overall, Minnesotans should be asking why we are spending money for a position that produces or yields so little? And women should be asking why they continue to be given token political power?