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California is overflowing with lieutenant governor hopefuls — so many candidates, so few duties

California is overflowing with lieutenant governor hopefuls — so many candidates, so few duties
Democrat Eleni Kounalakis, standing, speaks during a lieutenant governor's race debate April 17. Also there are candidates Jeff Bleich, left, Ed Hernandez, Gayle McLaughlin and Lydia Ortega. (Steve Yeater / Associated Press)

Absent an untimely death or unprecedented crisis, the most modest of California's political prizes is lieutenant governor, a job whose official description runs just 14 words in the state Constitution.

And yet, it's sparked a fierce contest this year among 11 candidates — the largest crop of hopefuls in at least 50 years. Four Democrats, four Republicans, one Libertarian and two unaffiliated candidates all want the $146,854-a-year job with largely part-time work duties.

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Not that the candidates see it that way.

"The lieutenant governor's office is the absolute most important office, next to the governor," proclaimed state Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-Azusa) during a Sacramento Press Club debate last month.

One of his opponents, former U.S. Ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleich, went so far as to say the lieutenant governor is "effectively in charge of higher education and job preparation in the state."

No, not really.

It's hardly being "in charge" to serve as a University of California regent, a trustee of the California State University and chair of the obscure Commission for Economic Development. The lieutenant governor also has a seat on the California State Lands Commission, weighing in on public access to open space and waterways.

In the event of a tie in the state Senate, the lieutenant governor casts the deciding vote. That last happened in 1996, when then-Lt. Gov. Gray Davis voted to deny recognition to same-sex marriages performed outside the state. And of course, there's succession if a governor dies or resigns.

Bleich and Hernandez are running against fellow Democrats Eleni Kounalakis, also a former U.S. ambassador, and Cameron Gharabiklou; Republicans Cole Harris, Lydia Ortega, David Fennell and David Hernandez; Libertarian Tim Ferreira; and unaffiliated candidates Gayle McLaughlin and Danny Thomas.

Should campaign cash offer a hint at support or momentum, the contest narrows to Democrats Bleich, Kounalakis and Hernandez and Republican Harris. Together, they account for most of the $6.7 million reported in campaign contributions.

The job still pales in comparison to other statewide offices. The attorney general is the top lawyer and a law enforcement official. California's controller and treasurer make major decisions on state payments and investments. Elections are overseen by the secretary of state. The insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction have specific public policy roles.

The lieutenant governor doesn't run on a ticket with the governor, and those who have served in the two jobs haven't always gotten along. Former Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, a Republican, took it upon himself to appoint an appeals court judge when Gov. Jerry Brown was out of the state during his second term in 1979. (California still designates an "acting governor" when the chief executive is away.)

When Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom embarked on an effort to focus on the state's economy in 2011, he was leapfrogged by Brown. Ever since, Newsom has been careful to stay out of Brown's lane on public policy, sticking instead to less controversial proclamations. He will no doubt want his successor to do the same should he win the race for governor this fall.

This is the first open race for lieutenant governor in the era of the top-two primary, and it's possible for two Democrats to advance to the fall contest. Then again, those four candidates could split the party's vote into small pieces and put a Republican on top of the leaderboard June 5.

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Each of these men and women believes they can move the needle on issues such as college tuition, affordable housing and fighting national efforts to expand offshore oil drilling. But to do that, they'll have to change history. It will be hard to make California's lieutenant governor an essential part of government's engine and not just the spare tire in the trunk.

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