Flynn’s Harp:Washington Lieutenant Governor
The fact that the role of lieutenant governor in Washington was basically envisioned in the state constitution as a part-time position made it historically a job coveted by those who first made a name outside of politics, then sought an easy road into statewide office.
William Jennings (Wee) Coyle, a former football star and decorated war hero, started it all in 1920 when he parlayed his name familiarity into a landslide victory in the race for the state’s second-highest elective office, hoping to become governor four years later. Coyle was only 32, a handsome former UW star quarterback just back from the World War I battlefields when he strategized to use the lieutenant governor role to position himself to run for governor, a race he ran in 1924, but lost.
For most of the next seven decades, the office was held by those who had first risen to prominence beyond the political sphere.
That’s now merely a part of political history in Washington since current Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a Democrat and former state legislator from Shelton, has brought importance to the position beyond the constitutional ones of filling in for the governor and serving as presiding officer of the State Senate.
During the four terms since he was elected in 1996, Owen, who is running for re-election this year, has created for the office the role of a goodwill ambassador for the state in international trade and promotion of Washington products overseas. Plus he has led trade missions in parts of the world where the title “lieutenant governor” opens doors. But the history of the position, next in line for the state’s top elective office if anything happens to the governor, has provided some interesting political lore.
The fact the lieutenant governor is often described as “a heartbeat away from the governor’s chair” has seemed to hold little importance for Washington voters, despite the fact that three of the first six lieutenant governors rose to the top state office because of the deaths of the governors.
Colorful Victor A. Meyers, a mustachioed maestro who earned a reputation as a big-name band leader, decided to seek the office as a Democrat in 1932. He won and was re-elected four times before being defeated in 1952 by Emmett Anderson, who had gained fame as the “Grand Exalted Ruler” of the Elks.
But Anderson made an unsuccessful run for governor in 1956 and John A. Cherberg, a failed football coach at the University of Washington, ran for the job as a Democrat and won, commencing a 32-year stand in the job that made him the longest tenured lieutenant governor ever in the nation.
The most interesting effort to boost a non-politician into the job came in 1968 when then-Gov. Dan Evans and his state Republican chairman, C. Montgomery (Gummie) Johnson, hatched a plan to oust Cherberg from the office, which by then he had held for 12 years.
They were seeking to boost the fortunes of Art Fletcher, a black city councilman from Pasco who had gathered some national prominence for development of a self-help program in the East Pasco ghetto.
Johnson knew that if a candidate like Fletcher, the state’s first African-American to be touted for statewide office, was to have a chance, he had to first prove that he could beat a name candidate. So Johnson talked popular and prominent hydroplane driver Bill Muncey into running for the post, once confiding off the record that Muncey had wanted to know what a lieutenant governor did. “Not a lot,” Johnson had replied, with some honesty.
The political ploy worked to the extent that Fletcher, who a year later would earn a position in the Nixon Administration, won the GOP primary, but failed to dislodge Cherberg in the general election.
By the time he retired in 1988, Cherberg had built a reputation for integrity and even-handedness in his role as the State Senate’s presiding officer. And with the election of Joel Pritchard, a respected Republican congressman and former legislator, the job took on a legitimacy and importance that Owen has continued to build on during his 16 years in the office.