Next month, William F. Galvin will find himself thrust into the role of backup governor, a heartbeat away from the office he has coveted but never formally sought.
When Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray resigns on June 2, Galvin, the veteran secretary of state, will be second-in-line for the highest office in Massachusetts and will serve as acting governor when Deval Patrick travels out of state.
Yet no one expects him to storm into the Corner Office and hang his own portrait above the fireplace. He has filled this role under previous Republican governors and won praise for staying out of the limelight and tending quietly to the necessary functions of the office.
“It’s not a big deal, to be very honest,” said Galvin, a 62-year-old Brighton Democrat who has spent nearly four decades in elected office. “I don’t go to the governor’s office and spin myself around in the chair. This is about making government work, and it’s really about communication with the governor.”
If Patrick were to join the Obama administration or vacate his office, Galvin would serve as acting governor until the end of Patrick’s term in early 2015. Galvin insists that he has not given any thought to that possibility, pointing out that Patrick has vowed repeatedly to serve out the remainder of his term.
In some ways, Galvin would be an unusually guarded figure to fill the outsized role of chief executive.
He is often seen walking alone through the State House or along Beacon Street. In a culture of back-slapping and ego-stroking on Beacon Hill, he is the rare politician who seems to hover at the outside of a crowd, rather than dive into it.
“He’s always been a loner, to a certain extent,” said Robert Q. Crane, a former state treasurer who has been Galvin’s friend for more than 30 years. “He goes to work by himself. He doesn’t go to lunch with too many people. He’s very happy having his lunch at his desk.”
Despite his reluctance to glad-hand, Galvin is known as a savvy operator in the Legislature. He began his career in the early 1970s, when he was a law student working as an aide to the Governor’s Council, the panel that approves judicial nominations.
As a state representative from 1975 to 1991, he was dubbed the “Prince of Darkness,” for cutting deals behind the scenes. He ran unsuccessfully for treasurer in 1990, before being elected secretary of state in 1994, a position he has held since then.
As the state’s top financial regulator, he has cracked down on abuses in the banking sector. He has also butted heads with fellow Democrats who have flouted public information requests or lobbying laws, areas Galvin also oversees.
In the public, he is best known for overseeing elections. Though he has explored running for governor at times, he has never launched a campaign for that office. Friends say he would excel at the job, if only he could handle all the schmoozing needed to get there.
“I’ve always thought he’d be a really good governor. Period,” said Francis X. Bellotti, a former state attorney general. “But he doesn’t do the political stuff with the delegates and things like that. You don’t see him moving around the room, shaking hands all over the place. If he goes to a function, he just goes in, makes an appearance, stays for a while, and goes out.”
Galvin has, however, become an expert in the unique role of gubernatorial understudy.
He often filled in as acting governor after William F. Weld resigned in 1997 to pursue an ambassadorship to Mexico, vaulting Lieutenant Governor Paul Cellucci into the top job. Galvin reprised the role again in 2001, when Cellucci resigned to become ambassador to Canada, making Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift the acting governor.
Galvin said his job mostly entailed signing local bills and chairing the Governor’s Council.
Only once, Galvin said, was he pressed into a more serious role.
While serving as acting governor in 2005, a terrorist threat was reported against the city of Boston.
Galvin said that rather than respond to the press calls flooding in to his office, he called Governor Mitt Romney, who was in Washington with Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, for President George W. Bush’s inauguration, and asked Romney to come home.
“‘You get on the plane, and everything will be just fine,’” Galvin said he told Romney, who flew back to Boston.
Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney spokesman, said there was never any question that Romney would return to Massachusetts once he learned of the terrorist threat, which turned out to be unfounded.
“Our experience with Bill Galvin was positive,” Fehrnstrom said in an e-mail. “Whenever he was called on to act in the governor’s absence, he could be trusted to conduct himself professionally, and he didn’t use it as an opportunity to grandstand.”
On Thursday, after Murray announced that he was resigning to run the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, Patrick called Galvin to talk to the longtime secretary of state about serving as his temporary replacement.
Galvin told the governor he would do anything he could to help, and Patrick seemed relieved to have such a seasoned governor-in-waiting ready to step in again.
“He’s had a lot of practice with this,” Patrick said.