In Iowa: The mystery of the lieutenant governor, circa 1857

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Politics can be a killer of curiosity.

Take the intriguing question of whether Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds truly becomes our full-fledged governor when Gov. Terry Branstad leaves to become ambassador to China.

Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan, and others have raised questions about the transition, based on the Iowa constitution’s vague wording.

“In case of the death, impeachment, resignation, removal from office, or other disability of the governor, the powers and duties of the office for the residue of the term, or until he shall be acquitted, or the disability removed, shall devolve upon the lieutenant governor,” says Article IV, Section 17.

Does this devolving of powers for the residue mean the lieutenant becomes a capital-G governor or merely an acting governor? It’s the sort of deeply wonky, mysterious and history-soaked stuff that appeals to government geeks such as myself.

But even asking the question spawns political backlash. The Branstad administration takes offense. Republicans see it as a knock against Reynolds. The Attorney General’s office already has given its swift preliminary opinion that we will have Gov. Reynolds, no asterisk. Johnson asked in February for a formal opinion, which has yet to be completed.

Politically, it’s radioactive. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a real question worth asking. A full-fledged Gov. Reynolds gets to appoint a lieutenant governor, which raises the possibility, however slight, that gubernatorial powers could devolve, amid tragedy or scandal, to someone who wasn’t elected.

What were they thinking in 1857, when 36 delegates met in Iowa City to revise and expand the 1846 statehood constitution into the framework we still use today? It was at that convention that the office of lieutenant governor in Iowa was born. (The independently elected office that presided over the Iowa Senate created by the convention became the governor’s hand-picked running mate of today, with an amendment approved in 1988.)

We can’t ask them. But we can check the minutes.

I spent a few hours this week digging through “The Debates of the Constitutional Convention of the State of Iowa,” a hefty, two-volume account of the deliberations that yielded the 1857 constitution. W. Blair Lord, a guy from Baltimore, did an admirable job putting together the “complete report.” It’s readily available online. Enjoy a cup of coffee while it downloads.

And it turns out the convention’s first major action on the issue of lieutenant governing was an attempt to delete the office entirely.

On Wednesday, Feb. 18, 1857, the delegation, meeting as a “committee of the whole,” accepted an amendment sponsored by George Gillaspy, a farmer from Ottumwa, to strike the words “lieutenant governor” from a section dealing with the election of the governor and lieutenant. That led William Warren, a mail contractor from Bellevue, to move for striking the whole lieutenant governor section.

Warren believed the secretary of state should be second in line. If he had his way, we’d be getting ready for Gov. Paul Pate to take office.

But A.H. Marvin, a Monticello farmer, believed power should devolve to the president of the Senate. Marvin was backed up by Iowa City lawyer W. Penn Clark, who insisted that Warren’s plan would give the secretary of state two offices to manage.

By Wednesday’s end, the issue seemed settled.

But on Thursday, Feb. 19, Hosea W. Gray, a farmer from Marion, rose to urge the convention to reconsider. He argued 10 northern “free” states already have lieutenant governors, a majority, and, besides, the expense would be minimal.

Rufus Clarke, a Mount Pleasant lawyer, argued voters would elect a lieutenant governor, unlike a Senate president picked by senators. Eliminating the office would take power away from the people.

And it’s Clarke who gives us the first solid clue as to what delegates were thinking with regard to our modern question.

“When a man is a candidate for the office of lieutenant governor, the people always vote for him with the understanding that circumstances may arise which will make him their governor,” Clarke told delegates, according to the record.

No acting about it, at least for Clarke. James F. Wilson, a Fairfield lawyer, reversed his vote to scrap the office and objected to tabbing the Senate president. After all, back then, senators were elected by county.

“We give one county in the state, in that case, the right to elect a governor for the whole state,” Wilson said, again suggesting this devolving business was no half-measure in his mind.

John T. Clark, a Waukon lawyer who also changed his position, was on the same page.

“We elect the governor by the direct votes of the people — by popular will — by the popular voice. In case of his removal or disability, I see no reason why the person filling his place should not be elected directly by the whole people as much as the governor himself,” Clark said.

Still, not everyone was convinced.

“It strikes me that the office of lieutenant governor is entirely unnecessary,” said H.D. Gibson, a merchant from Knoxville.

But the committee amendment scrapping the lieutenant governor’s office failed 14-19.

Bottom line, I couldn’t find anything in the record suggesting delegates saw devolving for the residue as anything less than becoming governor.

To the contrary, they seemed to be wrestling with the issue expressly because that person could be governor.

At the same time, delegates clearly wanted to make sure the person filling the vacated governor’s office had been elected. So they might not be down with appointing a lieutenant.

But I do think it’s all but certain they’d be stunned by the fact they created an office that someday would provide a pathway for a woman to become governor. Had that dizzying possibility come up for debate at the convention, W. Blair Lord probably would have run out of ink.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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