Karyn Polito has a slew of photos and paintings hanging in her State House office, but none looms larger than the huge portrait of former governor Paul Cellucci, her political mentor and idol — and the only former lieutenant governor in almost five decades to be elected governor.
The prominent placement of the portrait, just above Polito's desk, captures what many in the political world sense: Polito sees — without explicitly saying so — a bright political future. After all, she has been channeling Cellucci's political trajectory from a back-bench Republican lawmaker to lieutenant governor, and she shares his Worcester County roots.
If winning the governor's office is her eventual goal, and most insiders think it is, Polito has a tough road ahead. Standing in her way is a longstanding political reality in Massachusetts: Voters traditionally balk at promoting lieutenant governors to the corner office.
“It’s the road to nowhere if you don’t want to go anywhere,’’ said Thomas P. O’Neill III who served two terms as lieutenant under two governors in the 1970s and early 1980s. A brief entry into the 1982 gubernatorial race as the sitting lieutenant governor ended quickly and marked his last foray into a campaign.
In a recent interview in her office, Polito brushed aside attempts to get her talk about her future.
"I have always worked hard on what is in front of me. That's the key to my success,'' she said. "My political future is here and now with Charlie Baker."
More than 10 months into the job, Polito, like almost everyone who has held the office, lives in the shadow of the governor.
Still, according to administration insiders, the 49-year-old Shrewsbury native, unlike many of her predecessors, is an integral part of Governor Charlie Baker's team. The model is what Baker saw firsthand when he served in William F. Weld's administration, where Cellucci, then lieutenant governor, was often considered an equal partner with the governor.
Polito's role is not as influential, but Baker aides say he has taken her into his inner circle when making important decisions, planning policy, and dealing with sensitive political problems. He has also assigned her the task of implementing some of the administration's major initiatives.
Nonetheless, while her mission has taken her from one end of the state to the other, she is often on the sidelines of the media frenzies of Beacon Hill. That has made it difficult to create a well-defined public profile. Reporters — and the public — have little interest in what the lieutenant governor has to say on the headline-grabbing issues.
A new Mass Insight poll, in fact, showed that nearly half of those surveyed had never heard of her, and 54 percent could not offer an opinion of her work. Worse yet: The percentage of voters with an unfavorable impression of Polito (25 percent) tops those who view her favorably (21 percent). That negative rating has more than doubled since she became lieutenant governor in January, when it was just 10 percent.
The ambitions of a string of lieutenant governors have run aground on the often merciless terrain of Massachusetts politics. That history does not seem to be deterring Polito. Despite feigning little interest in the future, she is making all the early moves of a political figure looking to broaden her base. Most obvious is the fact that she has recalibrated her image since joining Baker's gubernatorial ticket in late 2013.
"I am a moderate,'' she said in her recent office interview, when pressed to explain views that have often been described as very conservative.
She attributed the misconception to the efforts of her opponents to paint her as a right-wing Republican. "Labels that candidates attached to me were incorrect,'' she said. "I am a professional woman, I am a mom, I come from a hard-working-class area of the state. Those are my roots.''
Indeed, deeply ensconced now in the center of political power, she does not talk like an antigovernment Tea Party activist ready to tear down the underpinnings of the State House.
"We love this place,'' Polito said, talking of her work with Baker. "The institution of government, when it works, is very powerful and impactful."
She has a good argument to bolster that claim of moderation in her past. As a legislator from 2001 through 2010, she broke with her conservative colleagues when she voted for legislation to raise the minimum wage, recognize global warming, and promote renewable energy. She has long supported abortion rights.
But her high-profile opposition to gay rights issues and her close alliances with outspoken antigay social conservatives left a stronger political imprint, strong enough that Baker's decision to have her join him on his ticket seemed odd for a candidate seeking to project a moderate image.
Polito had opposed a measure to provide civil rights protection status for transgender people. She briefly cosponsored a "parents' rights" bill pushed by anti-gay-rights activists — dropping her support after encountering heavy pressure. And she wrote to the Registry of Motor Vehicles in 2009 with concerns about a rule allowing drivers to change their gender designation without medical documentation.
Her flirtation with the Tea Party also burnished her credentials with the GOP's far-right flanks and marked her as a right-wing favorite by moderates, liberals, and partisan foes. Just four months before joining Baker's ticket, Polito was the guest of honor at an event organized by a local Tea Party group in Stoughton, where she was presented with an award from Allen West, the former right-wing Florida congressman.
That was mid-August 2013. Fast forward four months and she was standing next to Baker as his running mate. Soon, she was embracing gay marriage. Within months of Baker taking office, Polito was designated as his point person to the Massachusetts Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Youth.
And in a move that threw salt into the wounds of her socially conservative allies, she accepted the offer to officiate at the wedding of Senate President Stan Rosenberg, the first openly gay legislative leader.
"Life has changed in the Commonwealth, and I have changed as well,'' said Polito, describing her embrace of gay marriage. "I am very happy in the place I am, and I want other couples, however they may want, to have the same experience my husband and I have had," she said.
There is no consistent reason why lieutenant governors rarely become governor. Sometimes it is political forces beyond their control. Sometimes the public desires a change from the current administration. Sometimes the lieutenant governor ends up carrying the baggage of a governor whose polls numbers have plummeted.
In fact, a sitting lieutenant governor hasn't been elected governor since Republican Robert F. Bradford in 1946.
Lieutenant Governor Francis X. Bellotti, who upset Governor Endicott Peabody in the 1964 Democratic primary, lost to John Volpe in a bitterly fought general election.
Two lieutenant governors — Frank Sargent in 1969 and Jane Swift in 2001 — moved into the governor's office to fill vacancies. Sargent, who took the office when Volpe joined the Nixon Cabinet, won a full term in 1970, then was defeated by Michael Dukakis four years later. Swift, after self-inflicted wounds and political missteps, had to give up her hopes to run in 2002.
Cellucci became acting governor when Weld vacated the office and from that perch was able to win it on his own when he defeated Attorney General Scott Harshbarger in 1998.
Evelyn Murphy was lieutenant governor in the third Dukakis administration but flopped in the 1990 Democratic gubernatorial primary, pulling out just days before the election. Tim Murray served as lieutenant governor into Deval Patrick's second term, preparing to run in 2014. But he ran into a buzz saw of controversy and eventually resigned the post to take a high-paying job as president of the Greater Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.
O'Neill's failure to get traction as a gubernatorial candidate is probably the most stark illustration of the political dead-end that goes with being lieutenant. He burst onto the State House scene by winning a House seat in 1972. He then moved quickly to run for lieutenant governor, riding into office on Dukakis's ticket in 1974. He survived the conservative Democrat Edward J. King's gubernatorial victory in 1978 and had to endure an exiled four years under King's regime.
But his attempt to cut into Dukakis's comeback fell flat, despite his connections to some of the old guard of the Democratic Party — mostly through his father, the sitting US House speaker. He failed to make the cut at the 1982 party convention to compete in gubernatorial primary election.
Can Polito break that 70-year curse on lieutenant governors who want to move up? At this very early point, she seems to be best chance for Republicans. And even Democrats take her seriously.
Joe Ricca, a veteran Massachusetts Democratic operative who lives in Polito's hometown and has watched her political rise, noted the factors in her favor. "She has geographic base, a gender base, and financial base, which makes her valuable to Baker — and more importantly formidable in the future."
Frank Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.