Kentucky’s New Lieutenant Gov. Rattles a Political Barrier

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Jenean Hampton, of Kentucky, ran against two other women for the lieutenant governor post.

Credit: Courtesy of Matt Bevin for Governor

Jenean Hampton, of Kentucky, ran against two other women for the lieutenant governor post.

(WOMENSENEWS)– In the three off-year races earlier in this month–in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi–two races had female candidates running for lieutenant governor. None had women vying for governor.

In Mississippi, the Reform Party’s Rosa Williams lost to incumbent Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

In Kentucky, the victor of the all-woman field was Republican Jenean Hampton, who is now the first African American to hold the post in her state and the second woman in the post.

After Hampton’s victory, the country now has 13 female lieutenant governors. While that’s a very low number, it’s still more than double the ranks of female governors, who number six.

What does this comparatively female-friendly job require?

Compared to governors, lieutenant governors are behind the scenes, but their roles have been expanding as governors have had so much more to handle since the great recession of 2008 and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, finds a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust.

With governors increasingly focused on jobs, trade and security, lieutenant governors have had to take over other important state matters.

In Colorado, for instance, the lieutenant governor directs the Department of Education. In Louisiana, the lieutenant governor is commissioner of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. In Indiana, the lieutenant governor serves as secretary of agriculture and runs six state agencies.

Moving Up the Ladder

Lieutenant governors also have better odds of moving up the ladder to the governor post than attorneys general, finds research by University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato.

In a 2010 study, Sabato found that lieutenant governors have a success rate twice as high as attorneys general at becoming governor. "Lieutenant governors are an Avis-style No. 2, but at least with respect to the governorship, they try harder and succeed more often," Sabato said in a press statement accompanying the release of his report five years ago.

Specifically, over a fifth, or 22 percent, of all lieutenant governors in the past 25 years have gone on to become governor.

In Kentucky, where Hampton was just elected, governors and lieutenant governors are elected together and both serve a term of four years.

The lieutenant governor is forced to assume the governor’s role in case the latter is "impeached, removed from office, die, refuse to qualify, resign, certify by entry on his Journal that he is unable to discharge the duties of his office, or be, from any cause, unable to discharge the duties of his office," according to the Kentucky Constitution. But this is only until the governor is able to resume the role or a new one has been elected, similar to other states.

In Mississippi, where Reeves retained his post as lieutenant governor, the job means heading the state Senate and presiding over it. It also confers the ability to make committee appointments; members, vice chairs and chairs.

In about half the states, lieutenant governors cast tie-breaking votes, according to the National Lieutenant Governors Association, based in Florence, Ky. They also maintain substantial daily roles, such as managing departments and divisions of government and chairing commissions.

Low Representation

In the United States, women hold only one-fourth of all statewide elective executive offices.

Becoming a governor is notoriously difficult for women, particularly so when it comes to unseating an incumbent, who is usually male. But for several lieutenant governors the job comes to them, without any campaigning. Lieutenant governors have become governors without running for the post at least 24 times since 2000, finds a data analysis by the National Lieutenant Governors Association.

One in four of all state governors in the U.S. between 1980 and 2006 also at one time served as lieutenant governor, the National Lieutenant Governors Association found. And if they’re really lucky, they could end up like Secretary of State John Kerry, who ascended by election to the Senate after serving as the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.

But as promising as the position may seem to be, some experts see it as a useless post.

A 2014 Washington Post report, for instance, called the lieutenant governor position "the worst job in politics." It cited figures since the start of 2012 that show six lieutenant governors have resigned, six more whose gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns have crumbled and three who have opted not to run for reelection with their governor.

Female lieutenant governors also face a perception problem.

Many people don’t see women as leaders, finds a 2015 study by Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. "The average person found it easier to pair words like ‘president’ and ‘executive’ with male names and pictures and words like ‘assistant’ and ‘aide’ with female names," she said on the Vanderbilt website.

Mo said there is a simple reason for this perception. "People are at this level because they haven’t seen a lot of female leaders," she says on the university website.

She noted, however, that when given information about qualification differences, many voters would choose women. "People can overcome these unconscious tendencies to see only males as leaders," she said.

Newly elected Kentucky Lt. Gov. Hampton agrees. In 2014 when she first ran for public office and lost, she told WKU Radio that she was just an average person who wanted to make a difference.

"Sometimes you’re screaming at the TV, you see things that need to be improved, and you’re screaming that someone needs to do something," she said. "Well sometimes that someone is you."

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