Schwarzenegger May Rue McClintock as Lite Guv

One of the funnier moments from my time toiling as chief of staff to then-Lt. Gov. Gray Davis in the mid-’90s was a visit by a group of sixth graders to the state Capitol. Walking by Davis’ office, one of the schoolgirls spied the sign above the door, which read “Lt. Governor.” “Who is the lunatic governor?” she asked her teacher, who quickly came in to relate the humorous query.

Now, state Sen. Tom McClintock, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, isn’t exactly a lunatic, but he’s about as far to the right edge of the Earth as you can get without falling off. And as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s de facto running mate, the governor might want to consider the possible ramifications if McClintock is swept into office on his coattails.

Under California’s constitution, the lieutenant governor automatically is vested with the full powers of the governor whenever the latter leaves the state — a holdover provision from the days when governors traveled by horse and buggy or cross-country trains. And the courts have upheld the notion that this conferring of powers is literal and complete. That means when Schwarzenegger is on one of his unannounced trips to Hawaii or Sun Valley, Lt. Gov. Tom McClintock would be acting governor, in charge of the Schwarzenegger administration.

Most Californians over 50 probably remember the hijinks of former Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, a callow pop singer and record-company executive elected to the post in 1978, beating the Democratic incumbent Mervyn Dymally. During Gov. Jerry Brown’s jaunts out of state campaigning for the president, Curb made an appointment to the state court of appeal and issued an executive order repealing some clean-air standards. Brown withdrew the judicial appointment upon his return to the state, and the executive order was found to be invalid due to technical problems with its language.

Of course, some will say Curb was a Republican lieutenant governor serving under a Democratic governor. This is true, but it begs this surprising observation: Curb’s election in ’78 was the first time in the 20th century that a governor and lieutenant governor of different political parties had been elected in California.

And in ruling unanimously in ’79 to uphold the constitutional powers of an acting governor, the California Supreme Court noted that since 1964, there had been more than 1,400 instances of a California lieutenant governor taking action in the absence of a governor. These included signing and vetoing bills, issuing executive orders and pardons, and making appointments.

Gov. Schwarzenegger in particular might want to review how certain governors and lieutenant governors of the same party in earlier times actually got along. Former Gov. Earl Warren, for instance, confessed in his 1977 autobiography that he hid bills in safe-deposit boxes at a bank during his out-of-state trips so that his fellow Republican understudy could not sign or veto them in his absence.

In 1916, Gov. Hiram Johnson delayed for weeks taking the seat in the U.S. Senate to which he had been elected due to his mistrust of his lieutenant governor who would succeed him — a man, it must be noted, Johnson himself had appointed to the office after the death of the previous occupant.

Then, of course, there was the more recent example of Gov. Gray Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the first governor and lieutenant governor of the same party since Jerry Brown and Dymally in 1974-’78. Elected as pals in the 1998 Democratic landslide (Davis ran TV ads calling Bustamante “mi amigo”), things went downhill almost immediately.

Within months of taking office in 1999, Davis decided to submit Proposition 187, the divisive anti-immigrant measure passed in ’94 but declared unconstitutional by the courts, to mediation by the federal District Court of Appeals, instead of just dropping the appeal launched by Gov. Pete Wilson.

Bustamante ducked a briefing by the governor on the morning his action was announced, claiming he was out of town. Then, within hours, he held an angry press conference on the Capitol steps — that Davis himself could see and hear from his office — denouncing his fellow Democrat as a traitor to the Latino people. Oh, and he also announced he was suing the governor.

This was not well received, of course, and the lieutenant governor in short order found several of his staff parking spaces in the Capitol basement re-assigned to the governor’s office. In fact, the relationship deteriorated so badly that Bustamante boycotted the traditional fly-around by the Democratic ticket in the 2002 election because the plane was provided by the Davis campaign.

Of course, McClintock probably has pledged to be a good boy if he’s elected. But the governor should recall that McClintock was the only major Republican who refused to drop out of the recall race for governor in favor of the Terminator. And there is the small matter of his voting against the governor’s budgets and opposing three of the four infrastructure-bond measures Schwarzenegger is spearheading on this fall’s ballot.

So, forewarned is forearmed, governor. You don’t want your frequent travel plans to be mucked up by an acting governor of your own party — but of a substantially different ideology — actually acting in your absence. And remember, it’s a secret ballot in that voting booth.