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Political analysis

Paul Cellucci, the state’s last bipartisan governor?

Paul Cellucci reacted to the cheers of the crowd as he declared victory in the Massachusetts Governors race on Nov. 3, 1998.

REUTERS File

Paul Cellucci reacted to the cheers of the crowd as he declared victory in the Massachusetts Governors race on Nov. 3, 1998.

The genuine affection poured out from Democrats since Argeo Paul Cellucci’s death, and the sincere expressions of empathy during his long illness, strike at the unique role the former governor plays in the state’s political history.

Cellucci, who died Saturday after fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was more than just the last Bay State native elected to the office, or the only Beacon Hill figure in the last quarter-century to work his way through the State House to win the electorate’s appointment to the top job. He was not just George W. Bush’s loyal foot soldier and appointee as US ambassador to Canada, who came home to a warm welcome in a Democratic state generally disdainful of the Bush administration.

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While Massachusetts, and states in general, lag the national political climate in partisan acrimony, Cellucci nonetheless stands out, for various reasons, as the last chief executive who could reasonably be considered a bipartisan figure.

Former Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, said a governor like Cellucci -- with whom he agreed on education policy but memorably battled on the death penalty and a major tax cut -- has become a less likely figure as party activists increasingly drive the nomination processes in both parties.

“It’s quite possible that he’s the last of a particular breed, at least for a little while,” Finneran said.

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Among Democrats embittered by the relative partisanship of the Romney era, Cellucci has been a totem to an earlier era of political bon homie -- the way Washington politicians wistfully discuss the days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill would sit around in their shirtsleeves. Even Cellucci’s ascendancy to the Corner Office was enabled by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, nominating a Republican governor, William F. Weld, to an ambassadorship, a move ultimately blocked by the Senate. During his early years in the Massachusetts House, he was a post-Watergate era reformer at home with bucking leadership.

But Cellucci’s affable personal style transcended the clichés.

George Bachrach, now president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts and a former state senator who served with Cellucci, said, “He was, on the one hand, part of the moderate Republican tradition that could work across the aisle that we seem to have lost in American politics, but on the other hand he was not part of the Republican Party that was in the tank to the majority party. So I think he really did preserve his independence, and did it his way.”

When acting Governor Jane Swift used the trappings of her office to facilitate motherhood duties, Democrats pounced. When Governor Mitt Romney announced intentions to lead a squad of legislative candidates against the opposition party, Democrats quailed, then threw tantrums. When Governor Deval Patrick committed a string of political miscues during his early months in office, Republicans – and not a few Democrats – chortled.

Cellucci, through an unaffected personal style true to his Hudson hometown and a network of personal relationships built during 14 years in the Legislature, neither contributed to nor suffered that level of churlishness, Beacon Hill veterans say.

Former Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham, now senior counsel at the law firm Edwards Wildman, recalled that even Cellucci’s ardor for tax cuts, in direct collision with Democratic legislative leaders’ own plans, came across as congenial. Cellucci’s State House experience, Birmingham said, gave him an appreciation for the way the legislative bodies work that has eluded some of his successors.

“He was what you saw and what you were introduced to, a very outgoing guy who liked people and loved politics,” said Thomas P. O’Neill III, himself a former lieutenant governor and current owner of a Boston public affairs firm. “He liked getting things done, whether it was something for Hudson or getting a job for somebody, or making sure Democratic and Republican leaders were working together.”

After Weld stepped down in 1997, Cellucci assumed the acting governorship. Then state-treasurer Joseph D. Malone said Cellucci emissaries reached out to him to offer the number-two spot on the 1998 ticket. Malone demurred, deciding instead to challenge Cellucci in the primary, an ill-fated decision that echoes among today’s party operatives in the form of lingering grudges.

Malone on Monday described himself and Cellucci during the late 1990s as “a couple of boxers in the ring.” He and Cellucci repaired the relationship and became, Malone said, “very good friends.

“Sometimes you get a unique perspective being in the ring opposite a guy, and that’s what I developed with Paul,” Malone said. “This guy was an old school guy who just loved people and was devoted to his family.”

“He really did cross party lines effortlessly, and very rarely did you hear a bad word spoken about him by anybody at the State House. He had that innate ability to disagree without making it personal, and then to rebuild a bridge immediately,” Malone said.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Cellucci encouraged Malone to support former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani – a touchy proposition for a Massachusetts Republican with Romney in the race. Even dicier for Malone because many of his top aides in the Treasury had gone on to occupy senior roles in Romney’s campaign.

Cellucci, Malone said, made the sale.

“He was almost as happy getting other people elected as he was working to get his own cause advanced,” Malone said.

Finneran said Cellucci’s ability to scale the heights of state government onto the world stage never undermined his connection to his home.

“What I liked about ‘Celluch’ reminds you of Kipling, that he could ‘walk with kings and keep the common touch’,” Finneran said. “He obviously was very close to both Bushes. He met with kings and prime ministers, and he never left Hudson behind. A lot of folks, they let it go to their head. Paul Cellucci never did that.”

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at James.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.
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