Former DA files for ‘lite’ governor job
But now Earle, of Austin, has filed for lieutenant governor, and that’s something else again.
In his first statewide race, the former Travis County district attorney will find out just how big Texas is. And, should lightning strike and he becomes lieutenant governor, he’ll find out if its considerable power will survive.
Other Democrats talking about lieutenant governor are outspoken Austin restaurateur Marc Katz and former labor leader Linda Chavez-Thompson of San Antonio.
The current lieutenant governor is Republican David Dewhurst. He tired of waiting for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to decide whether to quit her Senate seat to focus on her GOP primary challenge to Gov. Rick Perry. That would have set up a special election for that job. So Dewhurst filed for a third four-year term.
Earle, 67, retired as Travis County DA in 2008, after 32 years as prosecutor -- including several ethics-oriented cases against state officials through the office’s Public Integrity Unit. He’d talked over the years about running for the U.S. senate, Texas attorney general, and the U.S. House of Representatives, but never did.
Many Texans may not know that the lieutenant governor’s chief function, other than being on deck should the governor leave office for whatever reason, is to preside over the Texas Senate.
For the past half century, that legislative power has made the Texas lieutenant governor the most powerful in the 50 states. Most lieutenant governors are afterthoughts, barring a gubernatorial vacancy.
Not so in Texas. The lieutenant governor runs (and often serves) independently of the governor. Since Texas is one of a half-dozen states that does not organize its legislative branches on a partisan basis – yet – the lieutenant governor has wielded enormous power.
Most state legislatures are organized on a partisan basis like Congress, where the dominant party’s majority leader usually wields the power – though often with limitations.
The Texas lieutenant governor appoints Senate committees and their chairs; decides which bills go to which committees; decides whom to recognize on the Senate floor, thus controlling the agenda; and is the Senate’s leader and names the other four Senate members on the Legislative Budget Board, which writes the rough draft of the state budget.
Most of the lieutenant governor’s powers, however, aren’t in the state constitution, but the Senate rules passed at the start of each regular legislative session.
Although senators have made occasional efforts to strip powers from the lieutenant governor, they have gone nowhere, for several reasons:
• The lieutenant governor is elected statewide, and under the Texas Constitution will be the president of the Senate regardless of what the senators might prefer.
• While senators might like to limit the lieutenant governor’s power, most are reluctant to risk their legislative careers if they fail.
• While they may complain about the lieutenant governor’s exercise of power, the senators aren’t sure who among them they might prefer to supervise the Senate.
• Some senators think they might someday seek the job, and thus don’t want to limit its power.
If Dewhurst is re-elected and doesn’t get an opportunity to go to the U.S. Senate, he will most likely retain the existing powers of the lieutenant governor. Republicans hold a 19-12 advantage over the Democrats in the Senate. Most observers think that ratio is unlikely to change in the 2010 elections, and they’re unlikely to punish their fellow Republican.
If, however, a Democrat should win -- Newsweek magazine recently predicted that White would narrowly be elected governor in 2010, which if it happened, could aid the party’s lieutenant governor candidate -- the Republican senators very likely would strip several of the lieutenant governor’s powers.
Texas’ most powerful lieutenant governor ever, the late Democrat Bob Bullock (1991-1999), managed to hang onto his powers despite the Senate majority shifting Republican during his tenure.
But he was able to do so only because he dealt Republicans in on some of the powerful committee chairmanships, and because he developed a symbiotic, cordial working relationship with Republican Gov. George W. Bush. With Bush’s arm around him, the Senate’s Republicans weren’t eager to challenge Bullock.
That won’t be the case should a Democrat – whether Earle or someone else – become lieutenant governor. That victory, absent some fancy acrossthe aisle deal-making, would likely signal the end of the Texas lieutenant governor as the most powerful in the country.