The assignment seemed easy enough: Talk to politicians, businesspeople, influence peddlers, party activists, and state and local officials who’ve worked with Secretary of State William F. Galvin and see what they say about the guy.
After all, Galvin, who turns 72 next month, has spent virtually his entire professional life — all but four years, in fact — in state government. Rolodexes have been replaced by iPhones, ethnic enclaves by melting pots, yet Galvin has somehow managed to be reelected secretary of state for nearly three decades. Surely people will have an explanation for his endurance.
With Galvin running once again — he faces lawyer Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP’s Boston branch, in the Democratic primary Sept. 6 — I started making calls. My editor was right: People do have thoughts about Galvin, a lot of them. But almost no one wanted to share them publicly.
Galvin, who was nicknamed “the prince of darkness” years ago for his ability to outmaneuver adversaries, seems to possess a nearly occult power to render mute a crowd that normally delights in seeing their name in print. What gives, I wondered. Then my cellphone rang. I’d left a message with Galvin’s spokeswoman and now, from a restricted number, Galvin was calling back.
“I’ve been aware of your activities for a few weeks,” Galvin intoned in a husky voice familiar to anyone who’s seen those TV commercials touting the work of his office. “What can I do for you?”
If reelected this fall to an eighth four-year term, Galvin, who grew up in Brighton and attended Boston College and Suffolk University Law School, will become the longest-serving secretary of state in the history of the Commonwealth, an impressive achievement for someone with a reputation for being a grump and a track record of alienating people in both parties, an assessment Galvin, by and large, does not dispute. Progressive Democrats, including Sullivan, say Galvin is the standard bearer of the status quo, resistant to meaningful voter reforms, while Republicans and others view him as a partisan who runs the secretary of state’s office as his personal fiefdom, meting out grants to campaign contributors or gumming up the gears of bureaucracy to halt projects he opposes.
Neither is true, says Galvin, whose appeal to voters typically emphasizes his experience and independence.
Most agree Galvin’s durability has much to do with his knowledge of the way things work on Beacon Hill, an expertise that, some believe, is unrivaled by anyone in Massachusetts history. In college, he spent two summers as an intern in the House of Representatives, and later, while in law school, worked for the Governor’s Council, an arcane, Colonial-era relic that vets judicial nominees. In 1975, when he was just 25, Galvin was elected to a House seat representing Allston-Brighton.
His tenure in the Legislature was marked by an uncommon attention to detail, which led former state senator George Bachrach to once refer to Galvin, unflatteringly, as “the master of minutiae.” He was also known for cultivating relationships with the media. It’s widely believed inside state government that he’s been a source not only for political reporters at the Globe but also for conservative Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr, whose frequent rants about do-nothing Democrats rarely, if ever, ding Galvin. (Asked about his relationship with Galvin, Carr replied curtly: “I don’t discuss my relationship with any sources, period.”)
During State of the Commonwealth addresses by the governor, some recall, Representative Galvin had a habit of ducking out early to be the first person to meet with the press.
“I talk to everybody who’s reasonable,” Galvin said of his relationship with the media. “I only decline to talk to people if they’re completely unreasonable.”
In 1990, Galvin aimed for statewide office, but lost his bid for treasurer to Republican Joseph D. Malone. He was back on the ballot four years later and was elected secretary of state.
Though viewed by the public as a mostly administrative position — making sure elections work — the secretary of state has a number of responsibilities: regulating lobbyists, enforcing securities rules, chairing the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and administering the state’s public-records law.
All of this has made Galvin unpopular at one time or another: Developers complain that the Historical Commission can be meddlesome; financial firms feel squeezed by Galvin’s strict regulations on brokers; civil libertarians have criticized his enforcement of the state’s weak public-records law.
Galvin has seldom seemed bothered by such criticism. He’s the opposite of a Beacon Hill backslapper. Professionally, according to those who know him, Galvin is very much a loner. They say he has few close friends at the State House, whose halls he often wanders after most folks have gone home, and he ordinarily eats alone during regular visits to the Stockyard Restaurant in Brighton.
“I guess you could say he doesn’t suffer fools well,” said Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, whose friendship with Galvin dates to their days in the Legislature in the 1970s. “He can be pretty standoffish, especially among lobbyists and others he regulates. I know some in the business community fear him because he’s taken people to task and returned millions to people who’ve been screwed by large insurers and others. That probably doesn’t make a lot of friends.”
But Galvin’s critics — too concerned about retribution to speak on the record — also use words like “petty,” “conniving,” and “vindictive” to describe him, and woe to anyone who insults or disrespects him. “You know what they say about the Irish, we forget everything but the grudges,” said someone whose employer has tangled with Galvin — and lost.
“I’m not vindictive,” insisted Galvin. “As far as grumpy, I may have to plead to that.”
One oft-cited allegation of animus that’s lasted through the ages is Galvin’s beef with Boston College. In the late 1970s, the story goes, the Rev. J. Donald Monan, then the president of BC, needed help with an issue before the Legislature, but rather than consult Galvin, whose House district included BC, Monan reached out to another BC alum, Winchester Representative Sherman “Whip” Saltmarsh Jr. That was it. Galvin was wounded by the slight and ever since, according to longtime State House observers, he’s worked to make life difficult for his alma mater. (Galvin’s daughter, Bridget, also attended BC, graduating in 2017.) Saltmarsh did not return a call or e-mail, and a BC official declined to be interviewed.
In the years since, Galvin, as a private citizen, has sued BC, claiming drunk football fans were a destructive nuisance in his neighborhood, and later, as secretary of state, he quietly, but effectively, opposed the school’s plan to create student housing on 43 acres it purchased from the Archdiocese of Boston in 2004. The college eventually abandoned the plan.
“It’s not an antagonistic relationship,” countered Galvin, who lives with his wife, Eileen, in a house on Lake Street in Brighton that’s directly across the street from the former archdiocese property. “I will tell you I think [Boston College’s] development policies, although they’re always a concern, have improved. In recent years, they’ve been more responsive to the neighborhood than when they were building bigger athletic facilities and other things without representation from the neighborhood.”
Even his fiercest critics agree Galvin has been an effective overseer of elections. In nearly 30 years, there have been no substantive allegations of fraud in the thousands of local, state, and federal elections his office has supervised. Still, it’s not hard to find people who gripe that Galvin could do more to improve the system. Then again, they say, after close to 50 years on Beacon Hill, he is the system, as responsible for its sclerosis as anyone else.
Some Democrats, including Sullivan, say he’s been an obstacle in the effort to increase voter registration and participation.
“Election Day registration was adopted by Maine in 1973. Massachusetts is a half century behind,” Sullivan said during the recent secretary of state debate on WBUR. “Bill Galvin has been in office for over a quarter of a century. If he could not get it done before, why should we believe he can get it done now?”
Republicans, meanwhile, fault Galvin for opposing a bid to require voters to present ID at polling places and for supporting the VOTES Act, which allows people to vote by mail for any reason.
Calling himself a “champion of voters rights,” Galvin bristles at the notion that he’s slow-walked election reform.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said, taking credit for implementing automatic voter registration, online voter registration, and vote by mail. “The advocacy groups my opponent purports to represent have their mission, but it’s not necessarily the mission of all the voters. In this office, you have to work for all the voters, you can’t decide that you’re only working for Democrats or only working for Republicans.”
Several people interviewed for this story say Galvin’s motivations sometimes seem more idiosyncratic than ideological.
For years, said Avi Green, former director of MassVOTE, the nonpartisan voter education organization, Galvin hindered efforts to get fully bilingual ballots for Chinese-American voters.
“There’s a community of folks whose English is relatively weak who wanted bilingual ballots, as they’re supposed to get under the Voting Rights Act,” said Green. “And Galvin’s office fought to prevent it from happening every step of the way.”
Ultimately, according to Lydia Lowe, former executive director of Chinese Progressive Association, Galvin relented.
“We had an 11-year struggle to finally get ballots in the city of Boston fully bilingual,” she said. “I don’t remember why, but one year Galvin just stopped blocking it.”
Galvin disputes this claim. His specific objection, he says, was to the transliteration of ballots, the process of using Chinese characters to approximate the sound of candidates’ names. (There are no words in Mandarin or Cantonese for Western names.)
“Transliteration opens up a degree of uncertainty that’s not good to have in the ballot process,” said Galvin.
Laurence Pizer, the former town clerk in Plymouth and onetime president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association, calls Galvin a “responsible election administrator” but says he can be enigmatic and difficult to deal with. Two years ago, in the early days of the pandemic, Pizer says he asked Galvin to delay a special election for the Plymouth & Barnstable District Senate seat because he felt it wasn’t safe in the midst of COVID.
“I simply could not communicate with the secretary and it ended up all we got were threats,” said Pizer. “We held it and, in my opinion, it wasn’t safe. And I wasn’t particularly satisfied that it was a super well-run election because a whole lot of my people just didn’t want to work.
“I’m not sure why, but that’s just kind of the way he operates,” said Pizer. “In addition to a lot of other schools I didn’t go to, I didn’t get a degree in psychology.”
Despite Galvin’s reputation for being attentive to the media — as a legislator, he used to drop by the Globe’s bureau at the State House and ask reporters on deadline if they needed a quote — the secretary of state has not been inoculated from scrutiny.
In 2014, the Globe reported that over a 10-year span he’d given state contracts totaling nearly $440,000 to a Washington-based political consulting firm that had done work for three of his reelection campaigns. In 2018, the Globe revealed that staffers in the secretary of state’s office did work for Galvin’s reelection campaign during work hours. And CommonWealth Magazine has documented that, as chairman of the Historical Commission, Galvin has doled out millions in historic rehabilitation tax credits to developers, some of whom later donated to his campaign committee.
Voters haven’t seemed to care. He’s never tallied below 64 percent in his primary and general reelection campaigns for secretary of state.
Contacted for this story, Galvin was, uncharacteristically, unavailable, at least initially. He said he was busy preparing for the election and rebuffed an impromptu interview request after one of his debates with Sullivan. He did finally consent to a phone interview.
“Let’s not waste time on the pleasantries,” Galvin said. “Just read the charges and I’ll reply.”
He said he has a long, unblemished record of managing elections in the state, and that, more than anything, is what’s needed going forward.
“My experience is one of the most compelling arguments for my reelection,” he said. “We’re confronting, in 2024, a situation where voters are being denied the right to vote. It’s become part of the campaign playbook, to deprive voters the right to vote, and who’s in a better position to call out false claims of fraud and fight for voters than somebody who’s done it?”
But he can’t do it forever, can he? If reelected this year, would Galvin run again in 2026?
“I will have served a very long time,” he said. “So, quite likely, I will not run again.”
Mark Shanahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.