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Political Intelligence

With friends’ help, Paul Cellucci fights ALS

JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

Former Massachusetts governors William Weld (left) and Paul Cellucci and UMass Medical School chancellor Michael F. Collins with Cellucci grandchildren Francesca and Rhys Adams.

Paul Cellucci was no Mitt Romney or Deval Patrick, whose first experience in elective office was as governor.

The Republican climbed his way up, rung by rung in a heavily Democratic state, as a Hudson selectman, state representative, state senator, and lieutenant governor.

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His workmanlike effort paid off in 1997, when William F. Weld decided to resign as governor to wage an unsuccessful campaign for an appointment as US ambassador to Mexico.

As his No. 2, Cellucci ascended to the governorship, but not before Weld made a ceremonial trip down the State House steps and Cellucci met him halfway while walking up to the Corner Office.

“I said, ‘Paul, is this going to work?’ ’’ Weld remembered saying as the two shook hands before parting ways. “And he said, ‘It works for me.’ ’’

The room at the Seaport Boston Hotel broke up in laughter last Thursday as Weld recounted the conversation. It came during a bittersweet news conference to announce the ticket’s reunion, this time not for a political campaign but to raise money on behalf of the Champion Fund.

Cellucci, 63, established it last year after revealing he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It will support research by his physician, Dr. Robert H. Brown Jr., as he and his team at the UMass Memorial Medical Center seek treatments and a cure for ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.

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So far, Cellucci has raised $1.8 million toward his $10 million goal, boosted by a $500,000 contribution announced by Biogen Idec Inc. during the news conference that preceded a fund-raiser organized by Weld.

But it wasn’t just money that prompted people to turn out last week. It was the man.

Weld sat beside Cellucci, who whirred into the room in the wheelchair he has to use now that ALS has weakened his arms and legs.

At the door was Anthony Dichio, who used to stand point when he was a State Police trooper assigned to Cellucci’s protective detail.

In the front row was Jane Swift, who succeeded Cellucci as governor when he left to become US ambassador to Canada. Two seats over was Joe Malone, who was state treasurer during the Weld-Cellucci administrations.

US Senator Scott Brown, another Republican, also ducked in, fresh off a flight from Washington.

What also was telling was that sitting in the audience was Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray - a Democrat. There were also two other once-powerful Democratic politicians in attendance, former Senate president Thomas Birmingham and former House speaker Thomas Finneran, as well as the current House speaker, Robert DeLeo.

And sitting between Swift and Malone was Robert Durand, a Marlborough Democrat who joined Weld in his now-famous 1996 dive into the Charles River after an environmental bill-signing ceremony.

The refrain from them all was universal: respect.

Weld, with a seemingly endless supply of quirky expressions, introduced Cellucci as “the hind legs on the so-called ‘Weld-Cellucci kangaroo tandem,’ ’’ which he hastened to add was a term of endearment.

“The hind legs are stronger than the front legs,’’ Weld said.

Murray, a fellow Central Massachusetts politician, said of Cellucci: “He’s been somebody I’ve looked up to for a long time, and I just wanted to be here to be supportive.’’

Dichio, who spent hours alone with Cellucci driving him in his official Oldsmobile, said, “It was all work at the beginning; now, his family is my family.’’

Birmingham also hinted at a larger thought as he lauded Cellucci by saying, “I think he’s shown a lot of courage, and he’s being kind of selfless at a time when it can’t be easy.’’

As the former governor soldiers on in the face of a fatal illness, it prompts a question: What would you do if you knew that for every day the rest of your life, you would lose a little bit more of your physical abilities?

If you’re Paul Cellucci, you’d try to make sure that anyone else who gets Lou Gehrig’s disease suffers less than you, or doesn’t get it in the first place. (Contributions to the Champion Fund can be made at www.umassALS.com.)

Glen Johnson is lead blogger for Political Intelligence, available online at www.boston.com /politics. He can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.

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