DOVER, Del. — Six Democrats are spending considerable amounts of time and money vying to become Delaware’s next lieutenant governor, a post that carries few official duties and has been vacant for more than a year, to no one’s great distress.
The lieutenant governor’s office has sat empty since January 2015, when incumbent Democrat Matt Denn became attorney general.
After Denn announced in 2014 that he was running for attorney general following the late Beau Biden’s decision not to seek re-election, state lawmakers introduced, but failed to act on, proposals to amend Delaware’s constitution to allow a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office to be filled by gubernatorial appointment or special election.
In the meantime, taxpayers haven’t been dinged for the lieutenant governor’s $80,000 salary or annual office budget of $600,000, and some political observers have wondered whether Delaware even needs a lieutenant governor, given that the state has chugged along fine without one.
“Can the state survive? The answer is probably ‘yes,'” Denn said. “Is the state better off with one? I think the answer is also ‘yes.'”
Under Delaware’s constitution, the lieutenant governor has exactly three responsibilities: preside over the Senate, chair the state Board of Pardons, and take over the reins of government if the governor leaves, dies or becomes incapacitated.
The office holds more practical value, however, as a political stepping stone, a hub for networking with lawmakers, administration officials and the private sector, and a platform from which to pursue pet issues.
“In some ways, it’s an apprenticeship, if you will, to help somebody learn about state government and the challenges of governing,” said U.S. Rep. John Carney, who held the office before Denn and is now running for governor.
“The lieutenant governor can do meaningful things to the extent the governor is willing to delegate,” Carney added.
While often emphasizing the importance of the Board of Pardons, particularly amid ongoing criminal justice reforms, the candidates in next week’s Democratic primary have spent much of their time talking about broader issues, including job creation, education, income inequality and government efficiency.
Ciro Poppiti III, for example, has focused on taking care of senior citizens.
Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, a nursing professor, has spent much of her time talking about health care.
Similarly, Carney and Denn had their own priorities. Denn focused on children’s issues, while Carney advocated for health and wellness programs and launched an effort to identify best practices for improving student achievement.
Both men said that in order to make a difference, the lieutenant governor, despite being elected separately, has to have a good relationship with the governor.
“There has to be some level of trust and cooperation,” said Denn, noting that he was allowed by Gov. Jack Markell to sit in on budget development meetings.
Carney believes the relationship between the governor and lieutenant governor is so important that state law should be changed to ensure that they’re from the same party, which has not always been the case.
Poppiti agrees that’s an idea worth considering, although he’s confident that Democrats will win both seats in November.
“I see the lieutenant governor as Robin to the governor’s Batman,” he said. “The system doesn’t work … if the lieutenant governor doesn’t understand his or her lane, which is you have to advocate for the governor’s priorities and you have to have the governor’s back.”