Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, considered a front-runner for governor until a string of controversies tarnished his political standing, abruptly announced his resignation Wednesday, saying he will leave the administration in June to lead the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Murray’s exit makes him the first lieutenant governor to resign in the middle of a term since John F. Kerry joined the US Senate in 1985. The move will leave the state’s second-highest governmental position vacant until a new administration takes office in early 2015. The state constitution does not allow Governor Deval Patrick to appoint a replacement.
Murray has held a broader portfolio than many of his predecessors, one that included involvement in economic development and municipal affairs. But controversies over his ties to a disgraced local official and an early morning car accident have hobbled him politically since late 2011.
The departure is the latest and most robust sign of the Patrick administration’s lame-duck status. While the governor has lost a number of Cabinet officials in recent months, Murray was his partner on the campaign trail and had served as a key link between his administration and demanding mayors and local officials across the state.
Patrick contested that lame-duck characterization Wednesday at the State House press conference. “You judge us over the next 18 months and see if we slow down,” he said.
Now Murray moves into a much lower-profile position, although one that is expected to pay him more than $200,000, significantly more than the approximately $125,000 he now makes, Patrick officials said. It would be more than $50,000 above the salary of the current chief executive, who in September announced his plans to step down.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” Murray said of his departure in an interview with the Globe Wednesday. “When I think about this job and its potential and the vision of where they want to take it, I get very excited.”
He dismissed the notion that his ties to former Chelsea Housing Authority chief Michael McLaughlin — who raised money for Murray’s campaign and earlier this year pleaded guilty to federal felony charges of concealing his salary — or his November 2011 car accident had fueled his decision. A longtime advocate for the homeless, Murray assailed McLaughlin’s behavior.
Murray said he initially dismissed the chamber’s offer, but grew more enthusiastic when officials there discussed their plans to enhance the group’s performance and highlight the areas’ innovation economy. His political woes, he said, were not a factor.
“People are going to believe what they want to believe, but to me this is a right fit and a right decision, and I struggled with the idea of leaving early, because there are still items on the punchlist,” Murray said at the press conference.
Murray also voiced the frustrations common among many outside metropolitan Boston: that much of the state’s political and commercial focus is on the capital.
“It’s oftentimes very Boston-centric, and that’s at the expense of other regions,” said Murray. “The fact of the matter is, if you took Central Massachusetts and plopped it down in any other state in the country, it would be seen as a major economic force, which it is. But we don’t promote it and sell it.”
In January, Murray announced he would not seek the corner office next year, despite years of anticipation that he would look to graduate from the number two post. As lieutenant governor, Murray worked as Patrick’s liaison to local officials, taking the lead on veterans’ affairs, domestic violence, sexual assault, and transportation issues.
The administration was trying to help Murray land a private-sector job, according to a person familiar with those efforts. Patrick and Murray are close personally, although Murray associates have long felt that the governor’s political operation was not sufficiently supportive of Murray.
At the press conference, Patrick joked about Murray’s departure. “His departure leaves a very big hole in our team, so I’m happy for him personally, but I’m a little miffed professionally,” Patrick said.
The two figures have long been a contrast in styles: Patrick the skilled orator and Murray more centered on the machinery of government. That focus, which could be accompanied by Murray’s occasionally heavy hand in pushing patronage hiring, more than once drew unflattering attention to the administration.
Such was the case with McLaughlin, who was a political ally of Murray’s until the salary scam came to light.
McLaughlin will be sentenced June 14 and is required to cooperate as a condition of his plea. In addition, Attorney General Martha Coakley is still investigating McLaughlin’s fund-raising on Murray’s behalf. Murray said Wednesday that he did not expect to be indicted, adding that he has cooperated fully with investigators.
House minority leader Bradley H. Jones Jr., issued a statement, said Murray is leaving with “a number of unanswered questions regarding his involvement in numerous scandals.”
“His direct connection to improper hiring practices and midnight car rides leave far more questions upon his departure than answers,” Jones said.
Without a replacement mechanism for the lieutenant governor’s post, Patrick will operate without a lieutenant governor until his term expires in January 2015. Next in the line of succession is Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who will serve as acting governor when Patrick is out of state.
The Worcester chamber, where Murray worked in the mailroom during high school, reached out in late March, the lieutenant governor said.
Murray said he hired a private lawyer to consult with the State Ethics Commission and informed Patrick of the opportunity “a few weeks after” the initial inquiry.
The chamber’s executive committee extended an offer last week, he said. On Tuesday, he filed a disclosure of the appearance of a conflict of interest with the Ethics Commission. He said Wednesday that he was unsure whether he would register as a lobbyist, but would adhere to state ethics laws.
Murray said the chance to avoid the hours of travel required by his current job and to spend more time with his wife and two young daughters also appealed to him.
Worcester political and business circles started buzzing late Tuesday about the prospect of Murray, who has remained popular in the area after three terms as mayor, taking the chamber post. Many in the region feel that Murray’s fate on Beacon Hill is symbolic of Worcester’s treatment at the hands of the state’s Boston-
centered power structure.
Lou DiNatale, a Worcester-area based Democratic operative, said Murray’s tough sledding in Massachusetts politics is symbolic of what many in that city feel is the “continued Boston bias against Worcester.”
“What Tim Murray bumped into is the invisible shield that prevents Worcester political figures from breaking into the Boston-based political world,” DiNatale said.
Murray, too, addressed that dynamic, saying the capital has dominated “the discourse, the focus, not only in the media, but in this building, and I think we do a disservice to the whole state and, quite frankly, to the whole Greater Boston area.”
Peter Stanton, a member of the chamber’s board of directors and chief executive of New England Business Media, said Murray has “clearly got the kind of background to be very effective in this kind of leadership position.”
Asked to name some of the projects Murray has been involved with in the Worcester area, Stanton replied: “Can you tick off projects in Worcester where his fingerprints aren’t on them? I mean, I think he’s involved in most everything.”