Metro

Mass. lieutenant governor hopefuls labor in obscurity

Reublican Karyn Polito in Roslindale (left) and Democrat Steve Kerrigan in Franklin.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff; Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
Reublican Karyn Polito in Roslindale (left) and Democrat Steve Kerrigan in Franklin.

WORCESTER — Steve Kerrigan is a little-known former political operative running for lieutenant governor, an unheralded office that has almost no power and has been vacant for more than a year. So when he showed up at a picket line of nurses in Worcester, and was greeted by wild cheers and applause whipped up by a union activist bellowing into a bullhorn, even he seemed a little startled.

“No matter what happens, as Steve Kerrigan, citizen and Bay Stater, I will be here for you every day!” Kerrigan declared, as he basked in the raucous applause.

Such moments of unbridled adulation are not exactly common occurrences for Kerrigan or Karyn Polito, the Democratic and Republican candidates who want to be the governor’s official understudy.

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Far from the main-stage drama between Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker, Kerrigan and Polito have been campaigning in half-empty cafes and noisy livestock expos, trying to make an impression — any impression — on voters who often do not know who they are or what their job would entail.

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Their aim on the trail is to boost the gubernatorial hopefuls atop their tickets and patch holes in their candidacies.

Kerrigan, 43, a former political director for US Senator Edward M. Kennedy and organizer of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, is helping Coakley corral loyal Democratic constituencies, while taking on the traditional running mate’s role of attacking the opposition.

Polito, 47, a former state representative, has been important to Baker as a visible symbol of his commitment to women and as a valuable part of his effort to cut into Coakley’s lead among female voters. With Baker’s wife, Lauren, she is co-chair of “Women for Charlie,” which enlists women to raise money and make calls for the campaign.

Polito also connects well with conservatives, some of whom have been wary of Baker’s moderate image. At the Topsfield Fair, when a man asked how she could help the poor, she spoke passionately about reforming the “dependency system” of public housing and welfare benefits.

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She told the voter that single mothers have told her, “‘I want to work. I want to show a good example to my daughter, and I want to build up my self-esteem. But the system holds me in.’”

Welfare reform surfaced again when she stopped Diane and Leonard Nutile of Revere as they walked through a cattle barn. Delivering her “little pitch” for the ticket, Polito promised that she and Baker would lower taxes, cut regulations, and “get rid of the cheaters and abusers” on welfare.

“That’s the stuff we will get to that has not been achieved these past eight years,” she said. “Big difference between what we stand for and what the other side stands for, which is more of the same.”

Diane Nutile said she liked what she heard. “She sounds good,” she said afterward, adding that she hopes Polito keeps her promises once in office.

Kerrigan, who is openly gay, frequently blasts his rival as out-of-step with the “core beliefs of the Bay State.” He points to Polito’s vote for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in 2003 and to a “Citizen Patriot” award that she accepted last year from Allen West, a former Florida congressman and Tea Party leader.

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“I’d worry if she were lieutenant governor,” he said as an aide drove him in the campaign’s Ford Fusion from the picket line in Worcester to a fund-raiser in Boston.

Polito vehemently rejects Kerrigan’s criticism, saying her views on same-sex marriage have changed. “That was 10 years ago,” she said of her vote on the constitutional amendment. “And I fully embrace marriage quality.”

She also downplayed her award from West.

“I am my own brand, as is Charlie Baker,” she said. “We are Republicans in the New England tradition, and the Tea Party label is not a label I ascribe to myself.”

She accused Kerrigan of attacking her because “he’s stuck in the past and he’s stuck in negative politics.”

Both Kerrigan and Polito are fighting for a job with a rocky history, but one they insist can play a productive role. Under the state constitution, the lieutenant governor’s chief responsibility is to fill in for the governor if that person dies or travels out of state.

But Polito said she wants to emulate Lieutenant Governor Paul Cellucci, another former state representative, who helped Governor William F. Weld advance his agenda in the House and Senate.

“I really do think I’m like Charlie’s copilot,” Polito said.

Cellucci also became acting governor in 1997, when Weld left to pursue an ambassadorship. A year later, Cellucci was elected governor, making him the last number two official to win the coveted top job.

Kerrigan said he would work on a few specific issues – homelessness, veterans’ concerns, and the economy – much as Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray did before he resigned in June 2013 amid controversies over his ties to a disgraced local housing official and an early morning car crash.

As a former aide to Kennedy and Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, Kerrigan said he is comfortable with the role of unsung underling.

“This isn’t about doing something for the purpose of Steve Kerrigan looking good,” he said. “This is about doing something to do good.”

Still, lieutenant governors have not always been happy to stand dutifully in the background.

Lieutenant Governor Francis X. Bellotti ran against and defeated Governor Endicott Peabody in the 1964 Democratic primary, only to lose to Republican John Volpe in the general election.

Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Murphy accused Governor Michael Dukakis of excluding her from budget meetings when the economy cratered in 1990. When Dukakis prepared to leave town, she threatened to slash spending without his consent, declaring, ‘‘I won’t be a do-nothing lieutenant governor.’’

“Relations with the governor and the governor’s office always have to be managed,” Murphy warned in a recent interview. “There are strains internally because the governor and the governor’s people always want the governor to be first and foremost.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.