Opinion

RENÉE LOTH

A ticket that leaves out Mass. voters

In 1989, when Bill Weld and his erstwhile rival Paul Cellucci decided to run as team for the state’s corner office, it was a political masterstroke. Weld was a promising but relatively obscure candidate for governor, with the distinction of having lost 349 of the state’s 351 cities and towns in his run for attorney general 12 years before. Cellucci was a well-regarded state senator, who in the lieutenant governor’s spot brought legislative experience and a certain ethnic credibility to the ticket. Since candidates for the two offices run independently in the primary, teaming up was an unorthodox move, symbolizing the reformer spirit of both candidates. “When you ride into Dodge to clean up the town, you don’t ride in alone,” Weld said at the time.

These days, though, the impulse to choose a running mate before the primary has become a knee-jerk habit among many candidates for governor, less about bold new ways of campaigning than about strategic maneuvering to clear the field. Like Weld, Cellucci, and Governor Mitt Romney before him, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker this week announced his personal choice for lieutenant governor, proposing to run with former state representative Karyn Polito. (Or maybe Polito proposed to Baker; those talks were private.) In any case, she happily accepted.

The 47-year-old Shrewsbury native seems a logical choice for Baker, with her mid-state base, her ticket-balancing ethnicity and gender, and her experience running a creditable (if losing) campaign for treasurer in 2010. But what about the voters’ choice? The state constitution provides for the two candidates to run separately, so voters can make discrete decisions on each office. Trying to tilt the field so early in the race seems dismissive of their views.

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Sure, Republican primary voters can still pick a different candidate for either office. But the Baker-Polito ticket, even if unofficial, will be a juggernaut of organization and fund-raising, designed precisely to keep primary opponents at bay. For a party that is forever bleating about the lack of competition in Massachusetts politics to restrict primary voter options in this way is puzzling. It’s like a political deal in the old smoke-filled room, but without the smoke or the room.

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Those who defend early ticket-teaming point to the memory of 1978, when Democratic primary voters executed a shotgun marriage between the incumbent lieutenant governor, Tom O’Neill III, and the upstart Edward J. King, a self-described Reagan Democrat. When they went on to win the corner office they could hardly conceal their mutual disdain, and King gave O’Neill barely a walk-on role in his administration. John Silber, the Democrats’ cantankerous candidate for governor in 1990, was similarly star-crossed on a ticket with the saucy liberal Marjorie Clapprood.

But these are management challenges, not existential threats to state government. The constitution lays out no specific duties for the lieutenant governor, after all. When he first ran in 2006, Governor Patrick simply took his chances on who the voters might pick among the four candidates for lieutenant governor. He made the relationship with Tim Murray work, at least in his first term, until a series of personal controversies led to Murray’s resignation earlier this year.

Anyway, hitching one’s wagon to another candidate early in the campaign can have serious risks. In 2006, Democratic Attorney General Tom Reilly went from front-runner to also-ran in the space of one day after he teamed up with state Representative Marie St. Fleur without properly vetting the fact that she owed thousands in delinquent taxes and student loans.

And remember Paul Loscocco? In 2010 the Holliston Republican joined the ticket of independent candidate Tim Cahill, who praised Loscocco’s “commitment” at their announcement. That happy marriage lasted less than nine months, til Loscocco jilted Cahill, left the ticket, and endorsed Baker instead. Cahill sued his own campaign aides, whom he accused of orchestrating Loscocco’s defection, but his aides counterattacked, and some of Cahill’s evidence backfired, eventually leading to his own indictment on campaign-finance corruption charges. Cahill is still recovering from the experience, including the $100,000 civil fine he agreed to pay in March.

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The moral of these stories? Private deals between candidates can be a perilous way to pick running mates. That should be left to the good sense of Massachusetts voters.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.