The job of Florida lieutenant governor — and how it got that way

DeSantis and Gillum have to make their first major decision with one goal in mind: Don't mess it up.
Former Gov. Claude Kirk, left, and Ray Osborne, the first lieutenant governor in the modern era []
Former Gov. Claude Kirk, left, and Ray Osborne, the first lieutenant governor in the modern era []
Published Sept. 4, 2018|Updated Sept. 4, 2018

The modern office of lieutenant governor of Florida turns 50 years old this year and it's a milestone that will be ignored — like the job itself, come to think of it.

The two candidates for governor, Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum, have to pick someone by 5 p.m. Thursday, and it probably won't mean much unless something goes wrong.

The only job in state government with literally no job description pays about $125,000 a year. It was brought back to life by voters when they adopted the modern state Constitution in November 1968.

"There shall be a lieutenant governor who shall perform such duties pertaining to the office of governor as shall be assigned by the governor," the Constitution says, "except when otherwise provided by law and such other duties as may be prescribed by law."

That's it. A small office in the state Capitol with a couple of assistants and very little to do. The Maytag repairman of Florida politics.

The job disappeared in 1884 and didn't exist for the next 84 years.

It disappeared for a second time five years ago.

Gov. Rick Scott demanded the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll following a controversy over internet cafes. He left the office vacant for nearly a year before he chose Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the 19th person to hold the office.

READ MORE: History predicts obscurity for new Florida lieutenant governor

Lopez-Cantera's predecessors usually got to chair important, albeit boring, boards on tourism, space and children. They also got to fly to important events on a sleek state aircraft, but Scott got rid of the plane.

Scott invited reporters to Jacksonville one day in the summer of 2010 to announce his choice of Carroll, an immigrant from Trinidad and a Navy veteran, calling her "the embodiment of the American dream."

A couple of years later, Carroll was gone. It's an object lesson for DeSantis and Gillum as they make their first big decisions as nominees.

If Florida can function for months and months with no lieutenant governor, should taxpayers keep paying for the position?

The first "L.G.," as the job is known by the political class, was an affable legislator from St. Petersburg, Ray Osborne. He was a much-needed peacemaker at a time when Republican Gov. Claude Kirk battled an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature.

Kirk lost a 1970 re-election bid to Democrat Reubin Askew, whose choice of Tom Adams as a running mate helped carry both men to victory. But Askew dumped Adams from the 1974 ticket after Capitol reporters revealed that Adams used state employees to do chores on his farm.

In 1978, Democrat Bob Graham of Miami Lakes chose as his partner Wayne Mixson, a veteran state House member and a peanut farmer from Marianna who provided geographic balance, which has long been viewed as one of the job's political assets.

In a recent interview, Mixson said he was courted by both Graham and his Democratic rival Bob Shevin in the '78 campaign. Mixson said he knew he would be chosen when Graham's wife Adele said: "Wayne, you look better to me all the time. I didn't think Adele was flirting with me at all."

Mixson, who recently turned 96, is the state's oldest surviving lieutenant governor. He served for three days as governor in 1987 after Graham was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Mixson and his wife Margie still live in Tallahassee, where his Lexus has a personalized license plate that says "1 AND 2" because he held both of the top two jobs.

Jeb Bush had serious running mate issues in his first two races for governor.

His choice of state Rep. Tom Feeney in 1994 brought relentless attacks from the Democratic ticket of Lawton Chiles and Buddy MacKay, who claimed Feeney was an extreme right-winger who would abolish Medicare.

Bush narrowly lost that election, and the campaign ended with Democrats making thousands of phone calls to seniors claiming that Bush would get rid of Social Security and Medicare (something no governor can do). The Democrats justified the "scare calls" on the ground that Feeney had criticized both entitlement programs in the campaign.

On his way to victory in 1998, Bush chose as his running mate Sandra Mortham, a popular Pinellas lawmaker and a political moderate. But controversy over her spending decisions as Secretary of State led to Mortham being replaced by a career educator, Frank Brogan.

Brogan's incandescent smile made him a natural fit as L.G., and his alliance with Bush helped him win the presidency of Florida Atlantic University in 2003. Two-term Senate president Toni Jennings replaced Brogan, who currently holds a high-level job in the U.S. Department of Education.

The most visible occupant of this obscure office was MacKay, a former congressman from Ocala who narrowly lost a race for U.S. Senate in 1988 and was instrumental in Chiles' decision to seek the governorship in 1990, and is the last Democrat to have held the office.

Chiles handed MacKay a series of high-profile assignments, including chairing a blue-ribbon education policy board and helping Miami recover from a fiscal crisis. MacKay governed the state for three weeks after Chiles died of a heart attack in December 1998.

On the campaign trail one day in 1990, Chiles turned to his running mate standing behind him and offered him the microphone, but according to a Miami Herald account, MacKay declined.

"Lieutenant governors don't make speeches," MacKay said.