When the governor gets sick and he's barely on speaking terms with the lieutenant governor, is the state of Maryland in jeopardy?
That question remains unresolved even after the latest scare 10 days ago. Gov. William Donald Schaefer entered Johns Hopkins Hospital complaining that he hadn't been feeling very well. At age 70, Mr. Schaefer doesn't exercise much and is a classic Type-A personality. He's had high blood pressure for a number of years. So there was, indeed, cause for concern at this turn of events.
Fortunately, test results showed nothing was amiss. The governor walked out of the hospital late the next day and went back to work.
But what if . . . ?
That's the terrible question always hanging over the lieutenant governor. His only clearly defined duty in the state constitution is to take over in the event something happens to the governor. It's a ghoulish assignment.
The way it is supposed to work is that the governor and lieutenant governor are elected as a team by the voters. They then work as a team in running state government.
That is how it happened in the Mandel-Lee years. But Harry Hughes' first lieutenant governor, Samuel Bogley III, split with the governor over the abortion question and got the cold shoulder for most of his four years in office. He wasn't even notified when the governor left the state.
When Mr. Hughes ran and won a second term, he did so with a different candidate for lieutenant governor, J. Joseph Curran Jr., who proved far more compatible.
It looked like a closer working relationship would emerge with Donald Schaefer's 1986 victory. He and Melvin A. Steinberg seemed to operate well together in the first few years, with the lieutenant governor plotting legislative strategy and using his finely honed political skills to the governor's advantage. But the two men had a major falling out over the timing of tax reform proposals. Their personalities just didn't mesh.
The result is that though the Schaefer-Steinberg team was reelected, Mr. Steinberg has been squeezed out of all major decision-making. He has been stripped of his government duties. He spends nearly all his time campaigning for the 1994 election: He's running for governor and trying to convince voters he's been expelled from the unpopular Schaefer administration and thus is an "outsider", but an outsider with a wealth of political experience in Annapolis.
Yet Mr. Steinberg remains the constitutionally designated replacement for Mr. Schaefer should the governor resign, die in office or be temporarily unable to perform his duties. While Lainy LeBow of the governor's staff promptly notified Mr. Steinberg of the governor's check-in at Hopkins this time, he had been ignored during Mr. Schaefer's other brushes with ill health.
Left unresolved are a wealth of important questions. For instance, what if the governor had gone into Johns Hopkins with a more serious malady, one that made him "temporarily unable to perform the duties of his office"? Mr. Schaefer gave the lieutenant governor no written letter to cover such contingency. Would there have been reluctance among staffers to hand over the reins of government to Mr. Steinberg, even on a temporary basis?
Or take the governor's fairly frequent economic-development forays overseas. What happens if he is temporarily disabled while abroad? What happens if he's out of communications range when a major disaster hits Maryland? Without a signed letter from the governor designating the lieutenant governor as temporarily in charge, Maryland would be left without a leader at a moment when executive leadership is crucial.
Or what if the governor becomes incapacitated as Woodrow Wilson was, and the extent of his illness is hidden by his protective "family." Would the state be ruled by a group of unelected aides? Would the lieutenant governor have to take the elaborate constitutional journey through the General Assembly and Court of Appeals to be named acting governor?
This could turn messy. The wounds inflicted in the Schaefer-Steinberg dispute are deep and probably permanent. But the governor's refusal to accept the lieutenant governor's constitutional role as his emergency stand-in could leave Maryland in a state of executive paralysis should the unexpected happen.
Most people try to accumulate some kind of life insurance or disability insurance to take care of their loved ones in the event of the ultimate calamity. The state constitution has a similar safety-net arrangement -- but it is useless if the governor chooses to ignore it.
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.