Seated around a slick, curved table for their first debate, Kim Driscoll, Eric Lesser, and Tami Gouveia cast themselves as contrasting choices to be Massachusetts’ next lieutenant governor. It also quickly became clear that a different candidate would consume the event’s focus.
“The question voters are going to be asking is: ‘Who is the right lieutenant for Maura Healey?’” Lesser said. And with that, over the next five minutes Healey was named or referenced 12 different times in a primary that she’s not even running in.
The lone Democrat left in the race for governor, Healey isn’t just casting a shadow over the contest to be her running mate in November. Her presence has all but infiltrated it, remixing how the candidates pitch themselves and influencing how voters may ultimately choose in the Sept. 6 primary, even if she doesn’t issue a formal endorsement.
Driscoll, a five-term mayor from Salem, said she is a seasoned “on-the-ground” executive who can complement Healey’s statewide profile. Lesser, a state senator from Longmeadow and Obama White House alum, has emphasized the balance a Western Massachusetts perspective would bring to a ticket with Healey, a South End Democrat. Gouveia, a state representative and longtime social worker, said her “content expertise” in public health would supplement a Healey gubernatorial agenda.
“Whether she’s defining [the race] or not, the fact that she is the only candidate for governor defines how they run their campaigns,” said Steve Kerrigan, who ran as Martha Coakley’s running mate in 2014 after securing the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.
“They’ve got to look at her campaign, her skill sets, and her experience and find ways to be an additive to that that makes them valuable to the ticket,” he said, “and to the dyed-in-the-wool Healey people.”
That dynamic and the ho-hum gubernatorial primary that created it are an unusual situation in modern Massachusetts politics. In the last 50 years, Democratic primary voters have encountered an uncontested race for governor just twice, when Deval Patrick ran for reelection in 2010 and when Michael Dukakis did so in 1986. And never has that happened on the Democratic side in that span when there has been an open seat.
But after state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz ended her bid for governor in June and left the field to Healey, any question about who the lieutenant governor candidates would team with evaporated. That allowed a Healey-infused pitch to quickly fill the void for what is, officially, a very sparse constitutional role.
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 formal responsibility is replacing the governor should he or she die or leave office.
It allows governors to essentially shape their lieutenant’s job. Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, a former state lawmaker from Shrewsbury, has served as a liaison to cities and towns for Governor Charlie Baker. Tim Murray, a former Worcester mayor, served a similar role under Governor Deval Patrick before he resigned in 2013.
“I see a visible shift in how people are talking about” the race, said state Senator Adam Hinds, a lieutenant governor candidate himself before he was eliminated from the field during the state party’s June convention. “Voters really are looking for who is going to be a good partner with Maura.”
Surely, how much a candidate’s compatibility with Healey matters will likely differ from voter to voter. And other factors, including the emergence of a super PAC to boost Driscoll’s candidacy, could also sway what’s still a low-profile race.
But candidates are embracing the idea of showcasing how they pair with Healey.
Driscoll last month went as far as issuing a video endorsement of Healey, despite her being the only Democrat left running. Appearing at a meet-and-greet with leaders from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers last week, she told them she could be a “partner with a Governor Healey, to think about how we champion the work of gateway cities.”
“She’s been in a statewide role and has done a great job as AG. . . . I’ve been on the ground in communities,” Driscoll said afterward. “That’s a really strong combination.”
Lesser, too, has framed himself as the one best suited to help further Healey’s goals, in both subtle and obvious ways. A 30-second ad he launched last month leaned into making Massachusetts more affordable, a tentpole of Healey’s own campaign promising to cut taxes.
Touring downtown Franklin last Thursday, he repeatedly mentioned his Western Massachusetts ties to shop owners, including his support for installing high speed passenger train service between Springfield and Boston.
“I’m the only candidate in this race from outside 495,” he told a group of two dozen people at a winery in town. Circulating among them, he also touted his push for a student loan bill of rights — an initiative on which he worked with Healey’s office.
Gouveia, a state representative from Acton who’s drawn backing from some of the party’s most progressive corners, was the first candidate to launch a campaign for lieutenant governor and has emphasized throughout that tackling barriers in addressing mental health is one of the top issues facing the state.
She said she also believes voters want a lieutenant governor who is a “little more independent.” That, and her background in social work — she has a doctorate in public health — could be a plus in a Healey administration, she said.
“Being a good teammate is being able to have divergent ideas so working through those issues, you come up with the best solutions,” Gouveia said.
Then, of course, there’s a question of what Healey envisions for her running mate.
Healey has not shied from throwing endorsements into competitive primaries, including amid her own bid for governor. She backed Andrea J. Campbell to be her successor in the attorney general’s office, inserting herself into a three-way primary just weeks ahead of the Sept. 6 vote.
But she has publicly avoided signaling any preference for a running mate, and advisers say Healey has no plans to endorse in the lieutenant governor’s race, believing any of the three would benefit the ticket. She has also built working relationships with them, particularly with Lesser and Driscoll — connections both lieutenant governor hopefuls have emphasized.
“The voters are going to decide who the lieutenant governor nominee will be,” Healey told reporters last week in Lawrence.
Republican gubernatorial candidates in Massachusetts have a long history of tapping a running mate in an attempt to broaden their appeal ahead of the primary. Baker turned to former Senate minority leader Richard Tisei in his first bid for governor before pairing with Polito early in his 2014 run in what was viewed as an overture to more conservative Republicans.
Republicans Geoff Diehl and Chris Doughty, too, have picked running mates ahead of the September primary, each teaming with former state lawmakers in Leah Allen and Kate Campanale.
But trying to handpick a running mate amid a competitive lieutenant field has proven fraught for Democrats before.
In the 2006 gubernatorial primary, then-Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly first was in talks with millionaire businessman Chris Gabrieli about being his running mate before pivoting to pick then-state Representative Marie St. Fleur. But that unraveled within hours after the Globe reported she had delinquent tax debts and St. Fleur quickly pulled out.
Scott Ferson, a strategist who worked on Murray’s 2006 run but is not involved with any of the campaigns this year, said he’s “looking for signs” of Healey’s preference, and wondered if she could formally tip her hand in the race if it could help sort out a tightly knotted contest.
“Would she? If she’s wrong, that would be awkward,” Ferson said. “But governors also don’t have to care about their lieutenant governor.”
Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.