Karyn Polito vividly remembers the day in May 1995 when she won her first election for a select board seat in her hometown.
“It snowed in the morning,” she said, “and it was sunny at night.”
Two decades later, something seemingly more unexpected happened: Polito voluntarily chose to step away from another campaign.
Twice elected lieutenant governor under Charlie Baker, Polito stunned both Republicans and Democrats by deciding last December to not run for Baker’s seat after he opted against seeking reelection. The Shrewsbury Republican had amassed more than $2 million in her campaign account, forged deep relationships through visits to all 351 of Massachusetts’ cities and towns, and, while operating squarely in Baker’s shadow, served as an integral part of his administration and decision-making.
It helped spur speculation for years that she was his heir apparent. But, Polito contends, she and Baker decided when they first teamed in December 2013 that “we would leave together.” Like Baker, she said she also considered family — a mother of two teenagers, she said she wants more time to see “their futures in fuller bloom.” In not running, she also skipped a primary against a Donald Trump-backed challenger as conservatives controlled the state party operations.
For many in the GOP, that meant the party had also lost its best shot at the top of the ballot; Geoff Diehl, the Republican nominee, lost by nearly 30 percentage points to now Governor-elect Maura Healey. The party is now reassessing its future, and in the coming weeks possibly its leadership, post-Baker.
It remains to be seen if Polito will again be a part of it.
“She can be a player for Congress. I think she can be a player for statewide office. I think she can be a player for [US] Senate,” said state Representative Paul Frost, an Auburn Republican and Polito ally. “If she reenters the political arena, she’s going to be a formidable, well-financed, top-quality candidate — no doubt, without question. All of that is in place. It just has to be in her heart.”
For now, Polito, 56, said she wants to build a post-State House “portfolio” that includes helping steward her family’s real estate development company, where she is part owner, and serving on “some boards” and in advisory roles.
She said she’s also been approached about serving as a mentor for those interested in entering politics or government work. It’s a role in which she could serve as an ambassador for the moderate, bridge-building brand that she and Baker ran on.
“We’re leaving office at a very popular approval rating,” Polito said in an interview in her State House office. By one measure, Baker’s is the highest in the county. “I think that’s a reflection of not only the governor but on my contributions and our administration and our leadership team. And I hope that others will take a page of our now playbook and replicate it.”
Polito didn’t close the door to running for higher or different office, echoing comments she has made for years in obliquely addressing her future.
“I have had a full amount of [public] service,” Polito said. Whatever form of “service” she pursues in the future, she said, “I have time to sort out what that might be.”
Should she choose to run for office again, allies say, she has a unique record to build upon. Polito served as the administration’s primary liaison to municipalities, a role that brought her to all corners of the state. That includes Gosnold, the 70-person town on the Elizabeth Islands, and the small Berkshire County towns where hundreds of residents live. She built a reputation for readily giving local officials and others her cellphone number, and personally taking their calls.
“I don’t recall a lieutenant governor before picking up the phone and me saying, ‘My town manager is having an issue with this or that,’ and the LG saying, ‘Give me their info and I’ll call them,’” said Frost. “Karyn did that.”
Polito has played other notable, if not always public-facing, roles. She helped lead the committee that created the state’s reopening plan during the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has run a council on sexual assault and domestic violence.
And she was integral in helping build the bench of nearly 250 judges Baker has appointed, interviewing every one before their nomination. Her close ties to several of the administration’s nominees for lifetime clerk-magistrate posts — a Shrewsbury detective who coached Polito’s son in youth football, a law school friend — have also been cast by Democrats as patronage picks, claims Polito has denied.
But visibility is limited in a seat with few constitutional responsibilities, one of which is to chair the similarly low-profile Governor’s Council. The lieutenant governor is typically expected to help carry the governor’s agenda, rather than build his or her own. And beyond the late Paul Cellucci — Polito’s political mentor and whose portrait has hung in her office for eight years — no other lieutenant governor has later been elected governor in more than five decades.
Polito’s political profile has seemingly shifted since her alliance with the moderate Baker. During her and Baker’s 2014 campaign, she repeatedly rejected wearing the “Tea Party label” after she had, months before joining the ticket, accepted a “Citizen Patriot” award from Allen West, a conservative former Florida congressman who later served as chairman of the Texas Republican Party.
Polito has long supported abortion rights, and as legislator backed raising the minimum wage. But as a state representative, she voted for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, building a socially conservative reputation.
After becoming Baker’s running mate, she became a supporter of gay marriage, irritating social conservatives in the party. Polito later said that life in Massachusetts had changed and she had “changed as well.”
“I am a moderate,” she told the Globe in 2015.
She has operated in virtual lockstep with Baker ever since, including politically. In 2016, she and Baker both supported Chris Christie’s presidential bid, appearing with him in New Hampshire before the former New Jersey governor ended his campaign. Like Baker, she said she didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020. Like Baker, she did not endorse Diehl in this year’s gubernatorial race.
In the State House, she sits in Baker’s inner circle, helping craft important decisions and plan policy.
“There was never a disconnect, ‘Well, the governor said this and the lieutenant governor told us this,’” said Holden state Representative Kimberly Ferguson, the House’s No. 2 Republican. “It was a team approach.”
Questions of whether she would seek the governor’s office have long hung over her. When asked in a WBZ interview in 2019 if she planned to some day run for the top office, she said she was open to “other possibilities of serving” in the future, conceding it was “not a ‘no.’”
It still isn’t.
“There are a lot of people who think naturally the next step is running for governor,” said state Representative Hannah Kane, a fellow Shrewsbury Republican who now has the legislative seat Polito held for a decade. “I think making a choice of not running for governor right now does not mean one is not interested in public service.”
She also has options. She and her husband own homes in Shrewsbury and Dartmouth, giving her roots in two congressional districts — the Second and Ninth, respectively — where Republicans have largely fared relatively well in down-ballot races.
Besides Baker, Polito is the only other Republican who’s held statewide constitutional office in Massachusetts in the last 16 years. And like Baker, she’s been on the statewide ballot three times, having lost a bid for state treasurer in 2010.
“She could be the Republican that perhaps helps save or resurrect the Republican Party in Massachusetts,” Tony Cignoli, a Western Massachusetts political consultant, said of Polito. “She’s in a unique position that she won’t be forgotten too quickly.”
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.