Virginia’s part-timer ‘decider’

December 10, 2011

Bill Bolling had new carpeting installed at home, and he pulled up the old rugs himself. That saved money, but his knees were killing him when he was back to work at his two jobs.There are plenty of Americans who, on a salary of $36,000 a year, might subject themselves to backbreaking DIY home improvements. They might even work a second job. Usually, though, they are not lieutenant governors.

Most of Bolling’s counterparts across the country collect full-time paychecks two or three times the size of his. In the commonwealth, second-in-command is a part-time gig.

Nevertheless, Bolling (R) says he spends 40-plus hours a week on his state job, which means he is earning about $17.30 an hour, just shy of what a big-rig driver can fetch in Richmond.

So Bolling has a day job: He’s an insurance man who merely moonlights as lieutenant governor.

“Most people in Virginia don’t realize it is a part-time office,” said Bolling, 54. “Most people that I talk to are somewhat shocked.”

That surprise is sure to increase, right along with Bolling’s power and stature. Elections last month left the Virginia Senate evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Because the lieutenant governor breaks tie votes, he is about to become Richmond’s “decider.”

“He’s the guy,” said Jeff Ryer, spokesman for the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus. “If there’s a party-line vote, he’s going to be the decider.”

Bolling, who is running to succeed Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) in 2013, could benefit from the added visibility. But the even Senate split is likely to make his two-job juggling act trickier to pull off. So will the recent entrance of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) into the governor’s race, which instantly transformed the Republican primary from cakewalk to dogfight.

Lieutenant governors, like U.S. vice presidents, normally suffer second-banana syndrome. They’re often the butt of jokes about how they have nothing to do so long as the boss remains alive or unindicted.

“Check the pulse” is how Ryer jokingly summed up the duties.

Even lieutenant governors tell lieutenant governor jokes. Don Beyer, Virginia’s lieutenant governor from 1990 to 1998, tells this one:

Calvin Coolidge walks into a room. He shakes a guy’s hand and says: “Hi, I’m Calvin Coolidge. I’m the lieutenant governor.” (Which he was, in Massachusetts, before becoming president.) The guy asks, “What does the lieutenant governor do?” Coolidge says, “I just did it.”

There’s more to it than that, of course. But not much more if the governor and the lieutenant, who run independently in Virginia, aren’t from the same party or don’t get along. The lieutenant presides over the Senate, breaks tie votes and sits on some commissions, unless the governor gives him more to do.

Former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) once dismissed the job as “a rather vacuous position,” a comment that came back to haunt him years later when he ran for it. (He won anyway.)

The part-timer status is part idealism, part penny-pinching by a state smitten with small government, said A.E. Dick Howard, a constitutional law expert at the University of Virginia.

“It’s kind of the old, romantic notion of the citizen legislature, so that people in government shouldn’t make a career of it,” he said. “You also save the taxpayers a lot of money.”

Only Texas, Idaho and South Dakota are stingier with their lieutenants. Way stingier in the case of the Lone Star State, where the salary is $7,200 a year. For Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R), who owns an energy company and is running for U.S. Senate, politics is an expensive hobby, like the cutting horses he also enjoys.

Most of Virginia’s recent lieutenant governors have been independently wealthy or retired, so they could afford to devote themselves to a job that represents a pay cut but a possible steppingstone to higher office.

Former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D), who served as lieutenant from 2002 to 2006, had made enough money as a lawyer to stop practicing while in office. John Hager (R), 1998 to 2002, was a retired executive of a tobacco company. Wilder, 1986 to 1990, remained a senior member of his law firm, which provided him with income, but quit trying cases.

“The salary for the job is nothing to shout about,” said Hager, who ran unsuccessfully for governor.

Besides Bolling, the only recent lieutenant governor who juggled a full-time job with his official duties was Beyer. As Virginia’s No. 2, he made ends meet as a car dealer.

“I tried to balance my Don Beyer Volvo dealership life with my Lt Gov job for the full eight years,” Beyer (D), now ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, said via e-mail from Bern. “This was only possible because my brother, Mike, was my partner, and a most generous soul, who carried the bulk of the burden during those years.

“My dealership time tended to be limited to lots of car phone time, and endless stacks of paper read and analyzed in the car. If I had to do it all over again, and if I could afford it, I would take a leave of absence from the stores (as ambassador here, I resigned from everything in the family business), and would avoid the time conflicts and extra stress.”

Beyer also was the only other lieutenant to preside over an evenly divided Senate. That heaped lots of extra attention on him, but it did not really expand the hours he spent on state business, he said.

Bolling figures the 20-20 Senate split won’t put more time demands on him — just more visibility and pressure. As if he needs anything new thrown into a balancing act that can require him to change clothes two or three times a day.

The uniform for both jobs might seem largely the same: suit and tie. But Bolling must pull off quick costume changes as he zips (in the family Chevy Tahoe that logged 35,000 miles last year) from client meeting to muddy job-site tour, from commission hearing to political barbecue.

“I may start the day in a business suit and duck into the restroom in McDonald’s and put on Dockers and a polo shirt,” he said. “You become very familiar with what’s off every interstate exit in Virginia.”

The double life wasn’t so hard to pulloff in his first term, when he served under Kaine, a friend but a Democrat, who Bolling said “wasn’t going to let me be actively involved.” Bolling presided over the Senate and served on six or eight boards. He spent about one-third of his time on state duties, two-thirds on his day job as a vice president with insurer Riggs, Counselman, Michaels and Downes.

Things changed under McDonnell, who made Bolling a Cabinet member and the state’s chief jobs creation officer. The latter involves meeting with business leaders across Virginia and out of state.

“I’m spending 75 percent of my time being lieutenant governor, easily putting in 40-plus hours a week,” Bolling said.

He’s not complaining. For a man raised in a two-bedroom mobile home in southern West Virginia, $36,000 a year is nothing to sneeze at, even with a stay-at-home wife and a combined “10 straight years of college tuition” for their two sons.

“I come from very humble beginnings,” he said. “If someone would have told me as a little kid I could do the things I’ve done, I wouldn’t have believed it possible.”

Well, except for the moonlighting part.

“My mom and dad always worked two jobs,” he said. “My mom was a bookkeeper and waited tables in a restaurant. My dad was a coal miner from sunup to sundown.”

Until he left Whitesville, W.Va., for college, Bolling wore two hats at Irene’s Cafe, where his mother was a waitress and, later, owner.

“I was biscuit maker by morning, 5 a.m. every morning, and I was the dishwasher by night after baseball, basketball, football,” he said.

Bolling keeps lots of balls in the air today with an understanding employer and high-tech gizmos.

“When the General Assembly is in session, I’m pretty much at the Capitol full time. I’m pretty slammed with meetings all day,” he said. “The good thing is, these days with BlackBerrys and e-mail and cellphones, you’re never really away.”

Read more on PostLocal.com:

Father charged after 2-month-old dies

The 10-lowest college graduation rates in region

Police identify stabbing suspect killed by officer

Married couples at a record low

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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