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It was once called a ‘useless job.’ Now, lieutenant governor may be the hottest race in Massachusetts politics

As lieutenant governor. Karyn Polito has been the Baker administration’s primary liaison to local officials.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Massachusetts’ lieutenant governor has very little formal responsibility beyond leading an obscure eight-person council. A gubernatorial candidate once dismissed it as a “useless job.” The title doesn’t exist in some states.

It also may be the most sought-after seat in Massachusetts politics right now.

In the weeks since Governor Charlie Baker and his lieutenant governor, Karyn Polito, said they would not seek reelection, it’s her office — not the top statewide seat — that has stirred a surge of interest among the Democratic Party’s state bench.

At least 10 Democrats are running for or are considering seeking state government’s number two post in 2022, an unusual number for a down-ballot seat that typically draws a smattering of green or lesser-known political candidates.

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A sitting state senator, a two-term state representative, and a Boston businessman are already in. Another state senator, one of Massachusetts’ longest-serving current mayors, and a federal bureaucrat who came 142 votes short of a congressional seat are all eyeing the race. The former interim mayor of Lawrence is also weighing whether to jump in.

“I haven’t talked so much about the lieutenant governor since I ran for it,” said Steve Kerrigan, the party’s 2014 nominee who has fielded calls from several would-be candidates.

The lieutenant governor theoretically provides a potential steppingstone to the state’s highest office. Beyond chairing the Governor’s Council — the eight-person body that vets and votes on the governor’s judicial nominees — the lieutenant governor’s only other constitutional responsibility is replacing the governor should they die or leave office.

It’s a rare situation, recent history notwithstanding. Paul Cellucci became acting governor in 1997 when William F. Weld resigned, and Jane Swift followed four years later when Cellucci himself left to become US ambassador to Canada.

The current political feeding frenzy is also about timing. With both Baker and Polito out of the picture, many are now waiting for Attorney General Maura Healey to say whether she’ll run for governor even as she staffs up and builds upon a $3.3 million campaign account.

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Should she run, the South End Democrat is viewed as an immediate front-runner within a field that includes state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz and Harvard professor Danielle Allen.

That potential, political watchers say, provides an enticing opportunity for a would-be lieutenant governor. The candidate is selected in a separate primary but would team with the Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee in November’s general election — without a popular, two-term Republican incumbent on the other ticket.

It all makes the lieutenant governor primary “potentially more exciting than the top of the ticket. You would never think that would happen,” said Tatishe Nteta, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “A lot of these folks in another life would have run for Congress. But in each of these places, there are incumbents that are difficult to move. So the question is, if you’re a relatively young ambitious person, ‘What’s the next step for me?’ ”

For many, it may be lieutenant governor, an often ignored, if not maligned, role in state government.

Unlike with the governor, the state has no formal replacement process if a lieutenant governor leaves office. When then-lieutenant governor Tim Murray — once a front-runner for governor until controversies dimmed his political star — resigned in 2013, the office sat empty for nearly 20 months.

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Three years earlier, when Tim Cahill’s failed gubernatorial campaign saw his running mate, Paul Loscocco, defect and endorse Baker, a defiant Cahill dismissed losing his would-be lieutenant governor as unimportant.

“I don’t plan to die, and we can save money on that useless job,” he said.

But others say the $165,000-a-year post holds a wealth of potential political benefits. Its loosely defined role allows administrations to shape the lieutenant governor’s day-to-day roles. Polito, for example, has been the Baker administration’s primary liaison to local officials, to the point it often touted that she had visited all 351 of the state’s cities and towns.

“If you care about what the party’s agenda is, but you don’t think you have a shot at becoming the governor, there are few positions where you can promote it [on such a wide scale] as this job,” said Mohammed Missouri, executive director of Jetpac, a nonprofit that trains American Muslims who want to run for public office. “It immediately gives you a statewide profile.”

The current field has been forming since June, when Tami Gouveia, a two-term state representative, said she would run. State Senator Adam Hinds, a three-term Democrat from Pittsfield, jumped into the race in October. Bret Bero, a Boston businessman and Babson College lecturer, launched a campaign with $200,000 of his own money.

Baker and Polito’s announcement seemingly doused the race with accelerant.

Eric P. Lesser, a four-term state senator and Obama White House alum, is weighing a campaign, the Globe reported, as is Dan Koh, the chief of staff at the Labor Department under Secretary Martin J. Walsh. Koh narrowly lost a crowded Democratic primary for the Third Congressional District seat in 2018.

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Kim Driscoll, who was elected to her fifth term as Salem mayor in November, is also seriously considering running, saying she can provide a seasoned partner to towns and cities in the governor’s executive suite.

“It’s a language I love, and a language that I speak,” Driscoll said of working with municipalities. She said her decision is not tied to who ultimately runs for governor. “You have to recognize in that role, it’s a bit of a shotgun marriage in September.”

Kendrys Vasquez, who served as Lawrence’s interim mayor before losing November’s election, said he, too, is weighing whether to run, arguing the party needs “a ticket that is balanced,” not just geographically but in representation. Before he was mayor, Vasquez was the youngest Dominican American elected to the city council in Lawrence, a majority-Latino city.

Angel Donahue-Rodriguez, deputy chief of staff at the MBTA, told Politico he is considering running. Manny Cruz, a Salem school committee member, filed paperwork with campaign finance officials for a potential lieutenant governor campaign, as has Scott Donohue, a Melrose Democrat.

No formal candidates have emerged among Republicans. Oftentimes, GOP gubernatorial candidates team with a lieutenant governor candidate to form a ticket ahead of their primaries.

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Of course, it is likely that some, if not many, of the Democrats currently considering a campaign will opt against it. Even fewer may ultimately make the ballot.

“There can’t be 12 people who want to run for lieutenant governor,” said Gary Mannion, a Democratic state committee member. “But it’s almost like a bellwether for people to see if they have legs statewide.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.