By Colleen Quinn

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Leland Cheung wants to eliminate the Governor's Council, the eight-member panel that vets judicial candidates and which he would preside over if elected.

Cheung, a Cambridge City Councilor, issued a press release Tuesday saying he thinks the state Senate should approve judicial nominations made by the governor so that the lieutenant governor can focus on economic development and job creation.

"I propose that the Lieutenant Governor serve as the Chief Operating Officer of our Commonwealth - a forward-focused position that works with state agencies, local leaders, mayors, managers, non-profits, cities and towns with the common goal of building one Commonwealth that creates opportunity for every resident," Cheung said in a statement.

Abolishing the Governor's Council has been suggested multiple times by other politicians, but lawmakers have shown little appetite for the idea. It would require an amendment to the state constitution to abolish the council. A constitutional change must be approved by lawmakers in two consecutive legislative sessions, and then voted on in a statewide ballot referendum question. In July 2004, a bid to advance an amendment abolishing the council, led by Sen. Brian Joyce of Milton, failed on a vote of 43-148.

Cheung was one of three Democratic candidates to win enough support at the party convention in June to move on to the primary election in September. Steve Kerrigan, a longtime Democratic operative, narrowly won the most support. Mike Lake, a 2010 candidate for auditor, also qualified for the ballot. Former Rep. Karyn Polito is running as a Republican candidate.

"Residents across the Commonwealth have asked me why I would choose to run for the office of Lieutenant Governor - a role that only matters in the absence or the death of the sitting Governor," Cheung said in the release. "Other than that, the only constitutional function is to preside over the Governor's Council - an antiquated vestige of our colonial days that's become a waste of taxpayer money."

A spokesman for Kerrigan said there is no evidence that changing the way judges are selected will improve the fairness or efficiency of the judicial system.

"Councillors are directly elected and fully answerable to a greater number of voters than any one legislator - arguably making them more accountable for their actions and decisions. If the voters are unhappy with their performance, they can always vote them out," David Guarino, a spokesman for the Kerrigan campaign, said in an email.

"Steve is fully confident that, as Lieutenant Governor, he will be more than able to handle the multiple tasks of helping the Governor advance his or her agenda, work to make government more open and efficient and help drive our future economic growth -- all while also chairing the weekly meeting of the Governor's Council," Guarino added.

In an editorial piece published in the Boston Globe June 2013, Kerrigan wrote the lack of explicit constitutional duties for the lieutenant governor makes it one of the most potentially dynamic and effective positions in state government.

"An experienced and resourceful lieutenant governor is in a unique position to address pressing needs, keep long-term priorities on track amidst daily crises and distractions, and coordinate with other levels of government - both locally and in Washington," Kerrigan wrote.

Lake said abolishing the council would require significant effort with a constitutional amendment.

"As Lieutenant Governor, I will focus such effort on tackling the issues that affect Massachusetts families most, like education, homelessness, transportation and job creation," Lake wrote in an email to the News Service.

Cheung said he wants to "reboot" the lieutenant governor's role. He proposed naming the lieutenant governor as an appointee to all Massachusetts state agencies focusing on economic development.

Using California as a model, Cheung said the lieutenant governor in that state sits on several boards that impact economic development. He pointed out Massachusetts has more than a dozen state agencies focused on economic development, including the Executive office of Housing and Economic Development, MassDevelopment, the Massachusetts Office of Business Development, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, and the Clean Energy Center.

When news of Cheung's proposal to eliminate the Governor's Council began circulating last week, Councilor Eileen Duff said it showed "political naiveté."

"The lieutenant governor sits and oversees the Governor's Council. Why would you think it is a good idea to tell people you don't think they should exist, and then you are going to have a good working relationship with them?" said Duff, who supports Lake.

She said the current system is better than electing judges or having the Senate confirm judges. "This may not be a perfect system, but this is a really good system," she said.

Councilor Robert Jubinville defended the Governor's Council, saying it is not an "antiquated vestige" but a constitutional body created at the same time as the Senate. Jubinville argued it would make more sense to do away with the lieutenant governor's position.

"In case Mr. Cheung hasn't noticed, the citizens of the Commonwealth have not had a lieutenant governor in over a year and we have gotten along just fine, in my opinion," he said. "The Governor's Council has not had to put up with a rubber stamp lieutenant governor who can break a tie vote. We members of the Council have been working hard and establishing ourselves as an independent body, free from the political process Mr. Cheung seems to want to impose on judicial nominees."