He grocery shopped, mowed his own lawn, and I doubt there’s a Bertucci’s between Boston and Pittsfield he couldn’t find with his internal pasta-GPS. But Paul Cellucci didn’t need to try to look or act like a politician who was “one of us.” He simply was one of us.
Maybe that explains his perfect 13-0 election record. Voters have a near-flawless radar when it comes to sorting out the genuine from the inauthentic. But there was something more to rising from a small-town selectman to legislator to lieutenant governor to governor (a Republican governor, no less, in our cerulean blue state) and US ambassador than simply being a regular guy. There was something extraordinary, too. What was it?
I think it was partly that Paul understood people. He instinctively got their hopes and aspirations and worries because they were the same as his hopes and aspirations and worries. It’s not just that he wasn’t a phony — there are plenty of politicians who lack the common touch but are still authentic. It’s that he understood the job of governing because he understood exactly what most people wanted out of government. They wanted what he wanted.
He also knew what he believed. He was pro-choice and a huge booster of women in the workplace not because it suited some interest group or political imperative but because he truly respected women. His life perspective was his governing perspective. It worked.
And so did he. Hard. Multiple events in the mornings and evenings. Dozens of meetings and calls and press conferences in between. One time, when Governor Weld was told a storm was headed to Massachusetts and emergency management personnel would likely call him at dawn, he turned to then-Lieutenant Governor Cellucci and said, “That sounds like a job for Paul.” It was and he relished the many times he had to go to the bunker in Framingham to preside over decisions to keep people safe. He also got a big kick out of hearing on the radio on that first early morning that “Governor Weld has just declared a state of emergency” knowing his partner and friend was surely still sound asleep in Cambridge.
So he understood people, embraced hard work. Yet that doesn’t quite add up to extraordinary, does it? There was more.
Paul Cellucci was pound-on-the-desk passionate. Governing mattered. The choices we were making mattered. Politics was not some game of ego and spin. When critics took aim at his appointment of Margaret Marshall as chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, he took to the podium in Room 157, the press room at the State House, and said people who were uncomfortable with women in power should “get a life.”
And he felt it all, inside, deeply. You could see the impact in his eyes, moist with tears, when he returned from a meeting of the state Domestic Violence Commission, having heard awful story after awful story of the destruction wrought by rage; the anger in his voice when he told deadbeat dads “You can run, but you can’t hide”; the purpose in his vow that the voters would have their say on cutting the income tax —a promise was made, it had to be kept.
And at the end of those long, hard political battles, there was a call from Paul Cellucci to this weary staffer from the car on his way to an evening event. “Hey, this is Paul, thank you for all your hard work today” — the “hahd” without the “r.”
When he was diagnosed with ALS and decided to wage his “last campaign” to raise money for research, he knew it was unlikely his efforts would help him. But it could help others. So far, the UMass Champion’s fund has raised nearly $2 million. And with its success, it was pointed out to him in my last visit a few weeks ago, that his final campaign record had ticked up to 14-0. He smiled. “I like that,” he said.
Grateful. Passionate. Empathetic. Determined. That was the Paul Cellucci I knew — an extraordinary, regular guy.
Virginia Buckingham was chief of staff to Gov. Paul Cellucci.