Governor-elect Charlie Baker has chosen Lon Povich, who served in the administration of former governor William Weld and is currently general counsel for warehouse retailer BJ’s Wholesale Club, as his top lawyer.
The selection of Povich, the latest in a string of Democrats to take top posts in the Republican administration, won widespread praise in legal circles Monday.
“It’s a home-run appointment for the governor,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel and chief operating officer for the Massachusetts Bar Association. “He’s one of the brightest intellects in the legal community.”
The influence of the chief legal counsel varies from administration to administration, but the position can be among the most powerful in the executive branch.
William “Mo” Cowan rose from Governor Deval Patrick’s top lawyer to chief of staff, before Patrick appointed him as an interim US senator when John Kerry left the chamber to serve as US Secretary of State.
The chief legal counsel’s duties typically include shaping the legal response to major lawsuits against the state, vetting legislation, and overseeing judicial nominations.
Povich, 55, is familiar with the office. As deputy chief legal counsel for Weld, a Republican, he worked on a reorganization of the governor’s Cabinet, helped negotiate a pact with the Wampanoag tribe for a Southeastern Massachusetts casino that was never built, and developed a reputation as a lawyer at once formidable and approachable.
“Lon has a marvelous disposition,” said Brackett B. Denniston III, who was chief legal counsel for Weld and is now general counsel at General Electric. “He’s able to give tough-minded advice, but always in a way that is graceful.”
From time to time, friends say, Weld tapped Povich to write comic verse for public appearances.
“He’s a very gregarious person, very friendly,” said Michael Teteur, a long-time friend who is national chairman of the litigation department for law firm Foley & Lardner. “At Harvard Law School, Lon knew every one of the 550 people in our class. And people knew him.”
Povich, who was not available for an interview Monday, grew up in Bath, Maine, a small town north of Portland known for shipbuilding and a handsome downtown. His grandfather opened a clothing shop there in 1910 that his father ran into the mid-1990s. Twenty years later, the sign is still on the building, now home to an antiques shop.
Povich graduated from Dartmouth College before attending Harvard Law, where he met his future wife, Ilissa. He began his career as a law clerk for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s Chief Justice Vincent L. McKusick, oscillating between the public and private sectors in the decades that followed.
As an assistant United States attorney, he prosecuted white-collar crime during the savings and loan crisis before joining the Weld Administration. It was there that he got to know Baker, who served as health and human services secretary and, later, budget chief.
For a decade, Povich worked as vice president and general counsel at Boston Consulting Group and then moved to BJ’s Wholesale, eager to work for a publicly traded company, according to friends. A few years later, the company was taken private.
Povich has served on the board of the Greater Boston Food Bank and recently won the Good Apple Award for “demonstrated dedication to public service, fairness, and social justice” from the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. He has two children, a daughter who teaches special education and a son who is at Dartmouth.
Baker, who has moved between government and the private sector, is forming a Cabinet in his own mold.
He tapped Republican state Representative Matthew Beaton, co-owner of a construction firm that promotes green building techniques, as his energy and environmental affairs secretary. Steven Kadish, his incoming chief of staff, worked at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and in the state’s health and human services bureaucracy, just like the governor-elect.
Kadish, like Povich, incoming secretary of housing and economic development Jay Ash, and incoming chief secretary Carlo Basile, is a Democrat.
“Assembling a team of experienced professionals committed to making Massachusetts great is our top priority and Lon joins a bipartisan team ready to hit the ground running in January,” said Baker, in a statement announcing the Povich appointment.
Povich, in a statement, called Baker “a dedicated public servant with the imagination and drive needed to make Massachusetts a better place to live.”
Observers say Baker’s approach to criminal justice issues will help determine the contours of Povich’s job.
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants has called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders. And many in the legal community are pressing for better pay for assistant district attorneys, public defenders, and private attorneys appointed to defend the indigent.
“We’ll be there early on congratulating Lon on his appointment,” said Healy of the Massachusetts Bar Association, “but also trying to lobby him to do the right things and to make the right recommendations to the governor.”David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe