On the Democratic side, the race for lieutenant governor is, so far, all about one, big, fat dazzling number — the more than $1 million state Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow said he raised by the end of March.
Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem would like the race to measure something else: executive experience, of which she has a lot. As Salem’s mayor since 2005 — and its first female mayor — she wrestles continually with budget and planning challenges and would bring pragmatic, hands-on experience to Beacon Hill, if a governor wanted to tap into it. She has also modernized city services, revitalized the city’s downtown, and put Salem on the map as a leader in the offshore wind business.
“In my position as mayor, I have dealt with a microcosm of the challenges facing the state,” she told me during an interview in her office in Salem City Hall, a Greek Revival building constructed in 1838, whose dark walls exude a moodiness that suits this city well.
As mayor, Driscoll routinely deals with housing, education, and infrastructure — the nuts and bolts of municipal government. Plus, over the past two years, she had to manage public health and risk during the coronavirus pandemic. Unwelcome as it was, said Driscoll, “COVID showed us the future” — how to be flexible and entrepreneurial, from outdoor dining to telemedicine. Meanwhile, just ask her what it was like to have to tell people not to come to Salem for Halloween.
Naturally, experience is the preferred measurement when you report $112,937 in campaign cash on hand next to Lesser’s eye-catching tally. But Driscoll said her fund-raising total is now “almost $300,000” and that she will have enough to be competitive in a field of candidates that also includes state Senator Adam Hinds of Pittsfield, state Representative Tami Gouveia of Acton, and businessman Bret Bero. “I don’t expect we will have the most money in this race, but feel confident that we will have enough to get our message out,” Driscoll said.
Driscoll and Lesser — a four-term state senator, rail advocate, and Obama administration alum — are considered front-runners in this contest. While all the insiders are talking about Lesser’s $1 million, a poll just released by the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts Lowell shows that money does not instantly turn into votes.
Driscoll led the field, with support from 22 percent of those surveyed; Lesser was second, with 10 percent. However, this is a wide-open race, since 49 percent of those surveyed are undecided, 39 percent said they had never heard of Driscoll, and 45 percent said they had never heard of Lesser. As the pollsters noted, “Name recognition is low in this race for all candidates.” Indeed, it’s so low, the pollsters forgot to ask about Bero, an oversight for which they apologized.
Why do people want to become lieutenant governor? Good question. The official duties of the office are limited. The lieutenant governor becomes acting governor in the absence of the governor and presides over the Governor’s Council when the governor does not. The primary mission is to be loyal enough to the governor to earn substantive assignments. The ultimate hope is to someday become governor, which could happen if the elected governor leaves office before their term is up.
But candidates for lieutenant governor don’t usually acknowledge any such raw ambition. Driscoll said the chance to apply her mayoral experience to state government “is what motivates me to run.” Her mayoral experience has also taught her that “no city can make it alone. We need a strong state partner.” Each city and town is different, she said. What works in Salem, which has a unique draw of history and culture, doesn’t work everywhere. In her view, the key is for state government to work as a partner to maximize economic development and opportunity across Massachusetts.
Of course, it’s up to the next governor to decide their agenda, and the role of the lieutenant governor in carrying it out. But ideas and experience — that’s what should be debated and highlighted in this election cycle. Running for any office should be about something bigger than $1 million in a campaign war chest.