In the early days of his administration, Republican Governor Charlie Baker has consulted his second-in-command, Karyn Polito, on state spending priorities and hiring decisions. She’s been by his side when he addressed the media on the budget deficit and the blizzard. And in private conversations, if he gets too fixated on a particular problem, he relies on her to refocus the conversation.
“I tend to get kind of wrapped around the axle about stuff because that’s just the way I’m built,” Baker said recently during an interview. “I can tell you, point blank, there were a number of times during the campaign . . . Karyn would just say, ‘Charlie you’re making way more out of this then you should. You should just stop.’ And she was right.”
“Charlie and I have known each other for a long time. I bring a different perspective than he brings to the office,” said Polito, a lifelong Shrewsbury resident and former state representative.
Polito, who was sworn in with Baker this month, is the first lieutenant governor Massachusetts has had in nearly two years, after Tim Murray’s abrupt resignation in 2013. What she’ll do with the job is largely dependent on what Baker decides, considering the office has little statutory power, save for two constitutionally required duties. The first is filling in for the governor when he or she leaves Massachusetts or is unable to function; the other is presiding over the Governor’s Council, an obscure body that weighs gubernatorial appointments, state Treasury warrants, and criminal pardons.
But already Polito and Baker have begun to carve out a job description that relies heavily on her base of support in Central Massachusetts, experience in municipal and legislative affairs, and background in development. She also plans to focus on homelessness, domestic violence, and empowering women.
“I’m not here for the ceremonial part of the experience. I’m here for real-life outcomes,” she said during a recent interview.
Polito says she made that clear to Baker when he first approached her about joining the ticket. Returning to government was something she only wanted to do if it would be to work in partnership with Baker, she said. “And I have a good partner in Charlie.”
(Of course, into every lieutenant governor’s life a little ceremonial work must fall. Consider Polito’s schedule last Wednesday, when she appeared at three swearing-in ceremonies — for the state auditor, treasurer, and attorney general — and never spoke a word.)
The Baker/Polito administration say they will model their working relationship after two others — one Republican, the other Democratic and both examples of how the open-ended nature of the lieutenant governor’s job allowed them to respond to the state’s needs and draw on the particular strengths of the number two.
Behind Polito’s desk is the official portrait of Paul Cellucci, another former state representative turned lieutenant governor whom she called a friend and mentor. Cellucci helped Governor William F. Weld advance his agenda in the House and Senate. Cellucci also became acting governor in 1997, when Weld left to pursue an ambassadorship. A year later, Cellucci was elected governor.
Asked if she plans to eventually run for higher office, Polito demurs. She says she wants to emulate Cellucci and run — again — as Baker’s copilot in four years.
Baker served in Cabinet level positions for both Weld and Cellucci and considers Weld a mentor. The former governor was a common sight on the campaign trail last fall, praising his protégé on the stump.
“I had a chance to watch that administration divide the work load for lack of a better way to put it,” Baker said. “Weld used to say, ‘You get two for the price of one.’ He was kidding but he sort of wasn’t. There was some real benefit to the idea that you have the ability to spread the work across more than one person’s desk.”
How the work will be divided between Baker and Polito will largely depend on professional skills and experience, he said.
“Health care is probably going to land in my lap,” said Baker, the former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim. “A lot of development stuff will probably land in hers. And that’s just going to be the way it’s going to work.”
Polito is a former member of the Shrewsbury Board of Selectmen whose family owns and operates a commercial real estate development firm, and she served in the state House of Representatives for more than a decade.
The governor’s first executive order was to create a “Community Compact Cabinet,” which Polito will lead, to strengthen Beacon Hill’s cooperation with cities and towns. The entity is aimed at reducing red tape, promoting best practices, and developing compacts between the state and communities with standards and expectations for both, the governor announced last week before the 900 members of the Massachusetts Municipal Association last week.
Baker’s Democratic predecessor, Deval Patrick, also had a Municipal Affairs Coordinating Cabinet, which was chaired by Murray, his lieutenant governor, who had previously served as both mayor and city councilor in Worcester. His key assets were his base of support in Central and Western Massachusetts and experience in municipal affairs. So, working with the state’s 351 cities and towns fell within his purview, serving as a link between the Patrick administration and demanding mayors and local officials across the state.
Murray’s departure created a vacuum of service, the governor’s office said.
“With the transition in the executive branch, we have an opportunity to turn the page and start a new chapter in our working relationship,” Polito told crowd at the MMA’s Women Elected Municipal Officials luncheon. “We view this relationship as two sides. It’s a true partnership. State government can’t succeed on its own.”
Partner. Partners. Partnership.
Polito uses some variation of the word regularly in speeches and conversations about the work that she and Baker plan to do, be it during her inaugural address, a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Peabody, a dinner for Brockton students and their mentors, or when addressing elected officials from across the state.
It is how she describes their working relationship. It is how she describes the relationship she and Baker want to create with the rest of the state. It is how, she said, they will make good on their campaign promises.
Whether such teamwork is enough to overcome the inevitable bumps in the road remains to be seen. There have been moments when the relationship between the number one and number two fractures as it did 1964 when Lieutenant Governor Francis X. Bellotti ran against — and defeated — Governor Endicott Peabody in the Democratic primary. He lost to Republican John Volpe in the general election.
And Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Murphy, who made an unsuccessful run at the governor’s office in 1990, proposed a budget-slashing scheme while Governor Michael Dukakis was out of state and she was in charge.