ONE RACE ON THE NOVEMBER BALLOT IS far more important than any other. It could clear the way for George W. Bush to get the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, or thwart his prospects. It could herald a GOP sweep of statewide offices, or lead to a revival of the Texas Democratic party. It could alter political relationships that have been in place so long as to be thought immutable—between legislators and their leaders, between their leaders and the business lobby. The race is not the one for governor between Bush and Democrat Garry Mauro, in which only the size of Bush’s margin is in doubt, but the one for lieutenant governor, between John Sharp, the Democratic state comptroller, and Rick Perry, the Republican commissioner of agriculture. Regardless of how it is identified on the ballot, it is really a second governor’s race: If Bush is elected president, the lieutenant governor will become governor in January 2001.
Yet the battle for lite-guv, as the job is known around the Capitol, has managed to go largely unnoticed by the public. This is hardly surprising. The title “lieutenant governor” sounds as if it ought to describe a banana republic jefe with epaulets on his shoulders. Few Texans know what a lieutenant governor actually does, other than hang around in case a governor is impeached (as James “Pa” Ferguson was in 1917, enabling William P. Hobby to assume the office) or dies (as Beauford Jester did in 1949, opening the way for Allan Shivers). In politics, number two jobs aren’t worth “a pitcher of warm spit,” as Cactus Jack Garner of Uvalde once said of the vice presidency, which he held during Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms in the White House. (The fourth term would have been better.) Indeed, eight states get along without a lieutenant governor; in many of the rest, about the most exciting day a lieutenant governor has is when he gets to break a tie