Let There Be Lite

Rick Perry isn’t even governor yet—and may never be—but the race to succeed him is already on.

IN EARLY AUGUST the state’s elite lobbyists gathered at the elegant Austin Club to plan a fundraiser honoring Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry. State senator Ken Armbrister (Democrat, Victoria), flanked by senators David Sibley (Republican, Waco) and Bill Ratliff (Republican, Mount Pleasant), rose to address the assembled representatives of Big Money—and promptly stuck his foot in his mouth.

George W. Bush’s bid for the presidency could catapult Perry into the Governor’s Mansion, Armbrister began. But, he continued, one thing is certain: Today, you know you are here with the next lieutenant governor of Texas. Barely stifled laughter immediately rippled through the politically sophisticated group, prompting Ratliff and Sibley to turn bright shades of red. Armbrister had unintentionally spotlighted the behind-the-scenes jockeying to succeed Perry taking place within the 31-member Senate. He, Ratliff, and Sibley are among the most likely members to become the body’s next presiding officer if Bush wins, Perry ascends, and the office of Lite Guv, as it is affectionately known, comes open. “It was one of those things where, as soon as it comes out of your mouth, you think, ‘I’d better say something else quick,’” Armbrister told me later. “I said, ‘Don’t read anything into that last statement.’”

In a curious turn of events, presidential politics has touched off an internecine competition to determine who will take over a state office that is not now vacant and may never be. Just as curious, while Texas’ lieutenant governors usually are chosen by voters, the next person to assume the post could be selected by Senate members in a procedure that one legislator likens to a “sixth-grade election for class president.” At stake is one of the most powerful legislative positions in all fifty states. The Lite Guv controls the Senate agenda, determines committee membership and appoints the chairmen, and decides which committees vote on which bills. In short, the lieutenant governor has the ability to determine whether a bill lives or dies. Added to that roster of responsibilities in 2001 will be the issue central to every politician’s being: redistricting, in which the Legislature carves up the state into political districts that shape the outcome of elections for the next decade.

Under the terms of the Texas Constitution, senators must elect one of their own to assume the duties and responsibilities of lieutenant governor within thirty days of a vacancy in the office. In this case the vacancy would occur only when Bush resigns as governor following his election as president November 7, 2000. At that moment, Perry would automatically assume the governorship, opening the way for the selection of a new number two. The last Lite Guv vacancy occurred in 1961, when Ben Ramsey resigned to become railroad commissioner and Culp

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