Steven Walters
The State of Politics

The Curious Job of Lieutenant Governor

Mandela Barnes finding out there is no manual — and few certainties — for the job.

By - Jun 10th, 2019 11:05 am
Mandela Barnes.

Mandela Barnes.

Then-Republican Lt. Gov. Scott McCallum was ready to leave the Capitol for that day’s public appearances. But, an aide said, there was a problem.

It seems that something McCallum had done or said, or an appearance he had made without first clearing it with the governor’s office, had prompted then-Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson’s top deputy to take away McCallum’s official state car.

It may be an old story, but it says a lot about the job of being a Wisconsin lieutenant governor. There’s no manual on how to be a lieutenant governor and the only real responsibility is to become governor in the event of a resignation or death.

But there are a few unwritten political rules in the relationships between governor and lieutenant governor.

First, lieutenant governors can’t seem too ambitious, as in too anxious to be governor.

Second, lieutenant governors can’t upstage the governor, make public appearances not cleared with the Governor’s Office, or make comments that can be interpreted as the official position of the governor. [Remember, Vice President Joe Biden endorsed same-sex marriages before President Barack Obama had officially done so.]

Third, if the lieutenant governor can give a better fire-up-the-crowd speech than the governor, make sure other speakers separate them. Or, if you’re an aide to the governor, how about making sure the lieutenant governor isn’t at that event?

Governors can also have lieutenant governors float trial-balloons on controversial issues, which — if the backlash is too strong — the governor can quickly disavow.

Relationships between governors and lieutenant governors can also be strained. Thompson and McCallum – a team from 1987 until February 2001, when Thompson resigned for a Washington cabinet job with President George Bush – were not close, for example.

And, when he ran for governor in 2002, then-Democratic Atty. Gen. Jim Doyle preferred then-Democratic state Sen. Kevin Shibilski, of Stevens Point, as his running mate. But Barbara Lawton defeated Shibilski in the Democratic primary and ended up serving eight years as Doyle’s lieutenant governor.

Two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch had a much better working relationship. No matter what they were asked, both Walker and Kleefisch stayed on message.

When Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes beat the Walker/Kleefisch team last November, Wisconsin got its first African-American lieutenant governor and an enthusiastic 32-year-old champion of Milwaukee. Barnes served two terms in the Assembly before running for lieutenant governor.

Evers likes and respects Barnes, who has gone out of his way to defer to the governor on major policy issues and vigorously champion the governor’s priorities.

At the state Democratic Party convention, Barnes championed one Evers  priority — legalizing the recreational use of marijuana — in a way that got him denounced by an Assembly Republican leader.

“You don’t see families being torn apart by a marijuana epidemic,” Barnes said. “Think about how much more enjoying your Thanksgiving dinner could be in a state with recreational marijuana.”

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, a Republican, said Barnes should apologize. “This is ridiculous for anyone to say, let alone an elected official. Pathetic that anyone would push drug use as a way to spend time together as a family,” Steineke said in a Tweet.  “[Barnes] doesn’t comprehend how drug use in general has ripped families apart? I’m at a loss. He owes the ppl he serves an apology.”

Republican Party leaders also criticized Barnes for the cost of his security detail, after reported that it cost $36,622 in January and February to protect him – several times what it cost to protect Kleefisch last year. That disclosure prompted Republicans on the budget-writing committee to add a stipulation that costs to protect Barnes this year could not exceed what it cost to protect Kleefisch last year.

Republican Party leaders also criticized $108 in fines for unpaid parking tickets that Barnes owed.

Lawton said the relationship between a governor and lieutenant governor is “rewritten” every four years.

For example, Lawton said she had to rely on student interns to drive her around the state during her first four years in office. For “safety” reasons, she then demanded – and was assigned – a Capitol Police officer to drive her to public appearances outside Madison.

Lawton said she wrote Barnes a note with this advice: “It’s a huge responsibility. It’s an opportunity to have a tremendous impact on the course of events in our state.”

And, she added: “It will be the most creative job you will ever have.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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