With the departure of Ed Reinecke as California’s lieutenant governor, Governor Ronald Reagan was, for the second time during his term, facing the prospect of appointing yet another second-in-command. This time, though, it was an entirely different situation than the one facing Reagan in January of 1969 during his first term in office.
Now, Reagan was a lame-duck, with about 90 days left on both his term and that of the lieutenant governor’s. So, he was confronted with two options as he pondered whom to appoint. He could name a caretaker to the office, someone who would respectfully manage the office, serve quietly on the 15 or so boards and commissions that came along with the job, and hand over the reigns to a successor in January of 1975. Or, he could designate someone whom, if appointed, could possibly move the GOP forward politically in the November, 1974 election. From the comments that Reagan made when he announced his decision, it appears as if he was to some degree torn about the choice.
When he announced his selection, Reagan stated that he “gave up” on the idea of a caretaker lieutenant governor serving for 90 days (Bergholz, 1974), which indicates that he appeared to have at least given it some serious thought. But, after weighing the possibilities, and being at his core a loyal Republican who wanted to see his party succeed at the polls in November despite the enormous trouble generated by the Watergate scandal, Reagan appointed the person who he felt could best make this occur.
And, who was his choice? None other than the 1974 GOP nominee for the office, State Senator John Harmer of Glendale. Harmer was only 40 years old and was considered one of the most conservative members of California’s upper house. And, Harmer acknowledged that he was taking a huge political risk in giving up a safe seat in the middle of his term for a position that might well only last until January 3, 1975 (Skelton, 1974).
Harmer wasted no time in being sworn in, taking office on October 5, 1975, and barely a week later, in his capacity as both Acting Governor and Chair of the California Economic Development Commission, hosted a statewide summit meeting to discuss inflation. Harmer defended his actions, indicating that he was acting on direction from Reagan, who was in turn responding to President Gerald Ford’s recent national address about the issue. And, he indicated that there would be a follow-up statewide inflation discussion on October 30, 1974, via the California Energy Council, another body over which Harmer presided (Gillam 1974).
With the November election looming, Harmer attempted to do as much as he could via official channels to boost his candidacy. In addition to receiving publicity for serving as Acting Governor in Reagan’s absence and hosting discussions about critical issues, Harmer also was named by Reagan on October 30, 1974 to coordinate a federal jobs effort, a role that had also been coordinated by his predecessor in office, Ed Reinecke (Los Angeles Times 1974). However, Reagan and Harmer’s efforts to boost his candidacy for a full term in his own right were for naught, with Democratic nominee State Senator Mervyn Dymally edging Harmer by about 3 percentage points on Election Day.
Perhaps if there had not been so much foot-dragging by influential GOP leaders such as Reagan, Attorney General Evelle Younger, and party gubernatorial nominee Controller Houston Flournoy during the time it took to extricate Reinecke from office, Harmer might have succeeded in winning the job outright; after all, even though his title as Lieutenant Governor did not make it to the ballots (which had already been printed) he lost by only a very narrow margin to Senator Dymally. Reagan’s decision to appoint the GOP nominee for the job as the new second-in-command, rather than an office caretaker, is understandable as well, knowing Reagan’s loyalty to the Republican Party.
When he made the Harmer appointment, Reagan may have considered the events of 1970, when he was faced with a similar decision to fill a vacancy, then in the office of California Secretary of State, when the incumbent GOP officeholder, Frank Jordan, passed away. At that time Reagan appointed a caretaker, H.P. Sullivan, who indeed dutifully served out the 9 or so months remaining on Jordan’s term, but he saw the office taken by Democrat Edmund G. Brown, Jr. in the 1970 general election. He may have wanted to avoid, if he could, a similar scenario from occurring with the lieutenant governor’s post. In the end, John Harmer’s 90 days or so in office were a unique footnote in California political history, and led to no greater electoral success for him.
Bergholz, Richard. “Reagan Will Name Harmer Today to Replace Reinecke. ” Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1974, A1.
Gillam, Jerry. “Harmer Calls Summit Talk on Inflation.” Los Angeles Times, October 12, 1974, pg. 23.
Los Angeles Times. “Harmer to Coordinate Job Program in State.” Los Angeles Times, October 30, 1974, C5.
Skelton, George. “Reagan Names Harmer, Stirs Race for No. 2 Job.” Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1974, A3.