At first blush, it's hard to imagine why anyone would run for lieutenant governor. After all, you're mainly there as a backup in case something happens to the governor. Sure, you preside over the Senate, and chair the state's parole board. But beyond that, the position is often seen as little more than the state's official second banana.
But there must be something appealing about the post: Three Democrats are vying for their party's nomination. The candidates are former Philadelphia city controller Jonathan Saidel; Scott Conklin, a state representative from Centre County; and former Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner. Smith-Ribner, the lone black female in the race, has Pittsburgh roots: She attended the University of Pittsburgh and served as the solicitor for the Allegheny County Controller's office.
The winner of the primary will join the Democratic candidate for governor in taking on the GOP gubernatorial candidate -- most likely Attorney General Tom Corbett -- and whichever lieutenant-governor candidate emerges from a nine-candidate Republican scrum. Montgomery County Commissioner Jim Cawley has the Republican endorsement, but among his challengers is Butler County state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, best known in these parts for his anti-gay, anti-immigrant stances.
As for the Democratic candidates, Smith-Ribner did not return calls or e-mails to her campaign. Saidel and Conklin, meanwhile, say they don't see the post as ceremonial. They hope to use it to make a difference.
The 52-year-old Conklin fashions himself as a "Harry Truman Democrat through and through."
"I believe, like Truman, that regardless of what side of the aisle you're on, you have to do the right things for the right reasons," says Conklin.
Conklin has been endorsed by a handful of Democratic committees in rural areas. Prior to his election to the state House in 2006, Conklin served seven years as a Centre County Commissioner. During that time, he says, he worked on building a new county jail and on a task force to tackle prison reform. Since the lieutenant governor's office heads the parole board, he believes his background makes him well suited for the post, and will allow him to address pressing state issues like prison overcrowding.
"We've been getting tough on crime," says Conklin, "but now we need to get smart on incarceration.
"We've got people locked up in our prisons that the only danger that they pose is to themselves. We've got our prisons filling up with drug and other non-violent offenders, thanks to things like the 'three strikes' law. We need to do what we can to get out into the communities and the schools, and get to these kids while they're young to help them get their lives straight. We need to keep families together and we need to find alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders."
Saidel may be the most popular Democrat running for anything in the state. The wise-cracking former Philly controller -- he held the post for 16 years -- won a 2001 re-election bid with nearly 90 percent of the vote. He stepped down from the post in 2005, and has since been in private practice as a lawyer. But in this year's race, he has received the party's endorsement with a unanimous proclamation. He also has the backing of numerous unions, LGBT advocates and pro-choice groups.
An experienced campaigner, he's already begun to take shots at the GOP's Corbett, especially Corbett's decision to challenge President Barack Obama's health-care reform in court.
"It's important that a Democrat wins the governor's race," says Saidel. Corbett, he says, is "not prepared to be governor. He's never done a budget in his life."
Saidel says being elected to the LG post would be an opportunity to "remake the office."
"What I want to be is a standard-bearer for those issues that I think are important: fiscal responsibility, social justice and making government run in a much more cost-efficient manner," Saidel says. "These are things that I think the people in Harrisburg have forgotten.
"And the great thing about being my age is that I can say whatever I want. What are they going to do with me? They can't threaten me that I'm jeopardizing the beginning of my new career."