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Commentary: Should Illinois change how the lieutenant governor is selected?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 17, 2010 - Brad Cole's car spun a 360 on snow-slickened I-55 near Bloomington and banged into a median barrier as a semi barreled by. The Carbondale mayor then trekked on to a Springfield debate with five other men competing for a statewide post that virtually guarantees the occupant comparisons with the late Rodney Dangerfield, the comic who paid his bills by complaining he got no respect.

Many would question the sanity of the Republican candidates, not to mention the folks who dared winter's wrath to hear each dwell on all he could accomplish as Illinois' next lieutenant governor. But it is the rationality of how we select the officeholder, or even whether the office should exist, that begs scrutiny.

Those of us who advocate retaining the position envision it as the state's counterpart to the nation's vice presidency. The chances for smooth succession to a vacated helm should be enhanced if a governor has chosen the lieutenant governor and they have campaigned and governed as a team. But Illinois should align the state path to lieutenant governor with the national model or dump the office.

For decades now, presidential nominees have anointed their running mates with ratification by party convention delegates. That bodes well for a productive partnership and gives Americans insight into the judgment and earnestness of the presidential contenders.

Likewise, winners in gubernatorial primaries should have the responsibility and prerogative to designate their ballot companions - especially since the Illinois Constitution dictates candidates for the two offices rise or fall as political Siamese twins in the general election.

Instead our Democratic and Republican primary voters must choose among largely unknown aspirants for a post that could position one of them to serve with and suddenly succeed a chief executive with whom he may not be compatible.

Neither Gov. Pat Quinn nor his Democratic challenger, Dan Hynes, has indicated a favorite. On the Republican side, gubernatorial candidate Andy McKenna and State Sen. Matt Murphy are informally allied, but Murphy did not reference McKenna in the Springfield debate. Why alienate backers of a McKenna opponent?

So, we abide electoral shotgun marriages long after most of us rejected forced weddings as the default answer to surprise pregnancies. In 1972, Democratic primary voters nominated Dan Walker for governor and Neil Hartigan for lieutenant governor from rival camps. They waltzed through November but warred after winning. Later in the decade, while Gov. Jim Thompson pressed lawmakers to approve the federal Equal Rights Amendment, Lt. Gov. Dave O'Neal lobbied against it.

After losing a U.S. Senate bid in 1980, O'Neal declared he was bored and resigned. In 1994, Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra announced he was taking a new gig as a radio talk show host. Fans of scrapping the office gleefully highlight those episodes but neglect another slice of history.

Shortly after Kustra's announcement, Gov. Jim Edgar underwent open heart surgery and convinced his lieutenant governor to remain in the office and on the 1994 ballot. Beginning in the 1990 primary, the pair had campaigned and governed together with mutual respect and shared philosophies. Kustra's resignation would have put Attorney General Roland Burris, a critic of Edgar and his policies, at the front of the succession line for the remainder of the governor's first term and perhaps made voters less comfortable with re-electing him.

Kustra departed near the end of their second term for a university presidency, but he was there for Edgar and the people of Illinois at a crucial moment.

Similar relationships should not be left to chance. The constitution empowers legislators to adopt the vice presidential template in Illinois, and they should.

Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, writes a twice-monthly column.

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