In July 1962 when one of Idaho’s U.S. senators, Henry Dworshak, died, his funeral was scheduled shortly after to be held in Washington, DC. Idaho’s governor, Robert Smylie (like Dworshak a Republican), made plans to attend.
Those plans changed after he got a phone call from Bill Drevlow, who was then the lieutenant governor, and a Democrat. Remember here that when a governor sets foot outside the state, the lieutenant governor takes over, and while the principal is away, can do whatever a sitting governor can do, from signing bills to appointing office holders …
As Smylie recalled, “Bill asked me not to go to Henry Dworshak’s funeral in Washington, which I should have done as a matter of courtesy, simply because, he said, ‘I do not think I could withstand the pressure to appoint a senator.’ So I stayed home.”
Drevlow and Smylie had a good relationship, and that incident exemplified it: Another lieutenant governor of an opposing party - or an opposing faction - might not have offered the warning, and simply struck without notice. Idaho’s structure of electing governors and LG’s completely separately - different from many states which bind them together - allows for that.
Idahoans can easily forget this, because relations between the occupants of those offices for most of the state’s history have been cordial. While the holders of the second office were often obscure politicians for much of the first half of Idaho state history, they’ve tended to be prominent figures in recent decades.
Of the five lieutenant governors who held the office for at least a term in the four decades up to the last election, four became governors of the state, and a fifth (David Leroy) only narrowly lost election to the top job. (One of the four, Jim Risch, served parts of two separate terms adding up to more than four years.) All of those LGs appeared to have a satisfactory working relationship with their governors, even when they were of different parties; the mutual deep involvement in Idaho politics and in their party structures may have been a factor.
But that’s history. Current events are something else entirely.
The cold war between Governor Brad Little and Lieutenant Governor Janet McGeachin has drawn not only statewide but even international attention. Part of the reason is the subject of their current dispute, over the state’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Little has pressed for restrictions on public, business and other activities with an aim of corralling the virus. McGeachin has opposed him on this.
And not just as a matter of perspective. Consider this line from the national news site Daily Beast: “A few days before reopening The Celt Pub and Grill, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin penned a scathing op-ed in which she slammed Gov. Brad Little’s oversight of the coronavirus pandemic.” The reopening of the business which she co-owns, the story also notes, was directly in opposition to the governor’s shutdown orders, and exactly the sort of thing the Idaho State Police had been investigating and warning business owners about.
If that wasn’t sufficiently in-your-face, McGeachin also remarked in her opinion piece, “As Lieutenant Governor, I am one heartbeat away from the governor’s chair.” That is accurate, but also a little eerie considering the attitudes and armaments of some of her more enthusiastic supporters.
It’s not easy to imagine McGeachin giving Little a friendly cautionary phone call in the event of his plan to leave the state for, say, a regional governor’s meeting.
Little may have to watch his travel plans, for the rest of this term at least, with the utmost of care.
And as the term ends, you couldn’t be surprised to actually see an Idaho lieutenant governor running against an incumbent governor. That would really write a distinctive chapter of Idaho political history.