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Is a lieutenant governor even needed?

Massachusetts has had no lieutenant governor for 14 months, yet the wheels of government keep turning

Clockwise from top left: Republican Karyn Polito, Democrat Leland Cheung, Democrat Mike Lake, and Democrat Steve Kerrigan.

Aram Boghosian for the Boston Globe (top left and bottom left), Jessica Rinaldi (top right) and Wendy Maeda/Globe staff

Clockwise from top left: Republican Karyn Polito, Democrat Leland Cheung, Democrat Mike Lake, and Democrat Steve Kerrigan.

Democrat Leland Cheung stood before a roomful of Democratic activists recently, pledging to invest in education and infrastructure and push for a single-payer health insurance system.

Fellow Democrat Mike Lake took a moment at a women’s equality rally to talk about education, arguing that charter schools drain money from public schools.

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Republican Karyn Polito, watching students at Becker College in Worcester design games for cellphones and tablets, spoke about turning academic opportunities into economic ones.

But these candidates are running for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, so there’s a real chance they might never be able to deliver on their campaign promises. Why? Because even if elected, they will not have the final say on any of the administration’s initiatives.

“Generally speaking, it’s whatever the governor wants the lieutenant governor to do,” Secretary of State William Galvin said. “If the governor doesn’t want him to do anything, he doesn’t do anything.”

These days, of course, it’s not much of anything. Former lieutenant governor Timothy Murray resigned abruptly in May 2013 to lead the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, and for 14 months the wheels of government have kept turning without him — powerful ammunition for those who argue the 234-year-old office is superfluous. As a result, when this summer’s crop of candidates campaign, they’re championing not only their candidacies but also the indispensability of the office they’re seeking.

“I feel like a civics teacher for most of this campaign,” Steve Kerrigan, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, quipped recently on the way to a Belmont Democratic City Committee meeting. “I always joke with folks that you don’t run for lieutenant governor without understanding that you’re going to have to . . . explain some things.”

Angus Jennings.

Angus Jennings is running as an independent.

And sure enough, in Belmont, amid questions about casinos and public transportation, someone asked: “What would you do with the power, you know, the office of the lieutenant governor; and what would you hope your very effective role would be in that particular office?”

“Did everyone hear the question?” Kerrigan asked. “What would I do with the power of the lieutenant governor?”

“Don’t laugh.”

The room erupted in laughter.

There are seven people — three Democrats, one Republican, and three independents — running to be the state’s number two. The winner will have just two constitutionally required roles: filling in for the governor when he or she leaves Massachusetts or is unable to function; and presiding over the Governor’s Council, an obscure body that weighs gubernatorial appointments, state Treasury warrants and criminal pardons.

In other words, it can be largely a position of waiting — waiting on marching orders from the governor, waiting on the governor to travel outside the state to temporarily take charge, waiting on the governor to resign to permanently ascend.

“The governor knew I had my ear to the ground, and I was able to get stuff done,” Murray said. “There were other lieutenant governors who have been like the Maytag repairman waiting on the phone to ring.”

Shelly Saunders.

Shelly Saunders is among the independent candidates for lieutenant governor.

When governors do see value in their lieutenants, there are numerous ways to deploy them, veterans of the office say. The open-ended nature of the job allows them to respond to the state’s current needs and draw on their particular strengths.

That flexibility attracted Evelyn Murphy to run for the office. She was elected lieutenant governor in 1986 under Michael Dukakis, who had previously appointed her as secretary of economic and environmental affairs.

Because it’s loosely defined, she said, “there is potential and opportunity to shape it in ways that fit your strengths.”

Murray, who previously served as both mayor and city councilor in Worcester, said his key assets were his base of support in Central and Western Massachusetts and experience in municipal affairs. So, working with the state’s 351 cities and towns fell within his purview, serving as a link between the Patrick administration and demanding mayors and local officials across the state. He tackled homelessness, veterans’ issues, and transportation. And as other issues emerged, such as potential military base closings, he wrestled with those, too.

There have been more than a few moments when the waiting comes to an end — sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently — and the lieutenant governor ascends.

When Governor William F. Weld stepped down in 1997 to be US ambassador to Mexico, though he was never confirmed, Paul Cellucci stepped into the top spot. And Cellucci's number two, Jane Swift, rose from lieutenant governor to governor when he resigned in 2001 to become US ambassador to Canada.

Tracy Post and Jeff McCormick spoke to a Falmouth resident.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Tracy Post (running for lieutenant governor) and Jeff McCormick (running for governor) spoke to a Falmouth resident.

During her two years in office, Swift continued pushing the agenda set in motion by her former boss. She said her time in both offices was the result of her relationship with Cellucci, who recruited her to join the ticket.

“It is incredibly important to have a strong working relationship with the governor,” Swift said. “I would not have run for lieutenant governor were it not for the opportunity presented to me by Governor Cellucci. Being second in line in secession creates potential opportunity.”

He empowered her to tackle statewide education issues that included addressing public concerns in the early stages of the state’s high-stakes student testing. And as acting governor, Swift continued the state’s education reform efforts.

But secession is not always smooth.

Murphy, who made an unsuccessful run at the governor’s office in 1990, proposed a budget-slashing scheme while Dukakis was out of state and she was in charge. She acknowledges that it was a “messy disagreement,” but said such disputes shouldn’t undermine the importance of the office.

“If you’re doing your job in state government, you are going to have some differences,” Murphy said. “It’s just, they shouldn’t be aired publicly.”

Unlike a national election in which the candidate for vice president is chosen by the presidential nominee of each party, candidates for lieutenant governor in Massachusetts are chosen by voters in a party primary. (Unless you are running as an independent candidate — then you have to declare your running mate before you can start the process of getting on the ballot.)

So, in the weeks after the September party primary, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor can find themselves in a marriage of convenience — thrown together by voters and learning to get to know each other. At least that’s true of the Democrats.

Republican candidates for governor and lieutenant governor in a state that is overwhelmingly blue have often taken a different approach since the early 1990s, aligning their campaigns well before the primary. This united front not only helps strengthen each campaign but it also serves as a way to save money by sharing the cost of campaign materials and staff.

It’s what Polito, the sole Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, and her running mate Charlie Baker are doing. On the stump you rarely hear Polito mention her name without Baker’s following quickly.

“The lieutenant governor’s position is what you make it, and Charlie and I will work together for our common goal,” she recently said.

The debate about whether Massachusetts even needs a lieutenant governor has gone on for decades. You might think Galvin, the secretary of state who has stepped into the role three times in the last 17 years, would have a strong opinion about the office. Yet he seems rather indifferent — arguing the job is neither imperative nor superfluous.

“I don’t have a firm opinion about it,” said Galvin, who is currently acting as quasi-lieutenant governor because the seat is empty. “Some states have them. Some states don’t. It’s sort of like an accessory to the governor’s office. It’s helpful under some circumstances to have someone to delegate to. But is it absolutely necessary?”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.
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