Not much precedence for acting govs to win higher office

It would indeed have been a Merry Christmas had Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito found a key to the governor’s office under the tree.

But alas, it was not to be. Maybe next year.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, rounding the corner of his second four-year term, is not going anywhere, at least for now, and especially not in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

But Republican governors have left office early in the past, hence the speculation. Their early departure paved the way for their lieutenant governors to take over as acting governors.

Most recently those governors were Republican Govs. William Weld and the late Paul Cellucci, both of whom resigned, making their seconds-in-command acting governors. Weld resigned  in 1997 to seek an ambassador’s job, and Cellucci resigned in 2001 to become U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Cellucci, as acting governor, succeeded Weld and was elected governor in his own right in 1998. Lt. Gov. Jane Swift, who succeeded Cellucci as acting governor, dropped plans to run for governor in 2000 after she was pushed aside by Mitt Romney.

Romney completed his gubernatorial term, but left Massachusetts to seek his political fortune elsewhere. This meant, however, that his lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, had no chance of gaining an edge by being acting governor.

Healey, nevertheless, was the Republican candidate for governor in 2008. She was beaten by Democrat Deval Patrick. Tim Murray of Worcester, Patrick’s lieutenant governor, had gubernatorial ambitions of his own, but he resigned after the fallout from a nighttime car crash.

The job of lieutenant governor may be the nothing job that many critics say it is. Still, it is an easy job to screw up largely because its duties are limited, and idle hands have a way of finding trouble.

Also, it is often not the steppingstone to higher office at it appears to be.

Since its official duties are only to be acting governor when the governor is out of state and  to preside over the Governor’s Council when the governor does not, a lieutenant governor has a lot of time to think about running for the corner office.

Baker, who has given no indication about his future, may even seek a third consecutive four-year term with Polito as his running mate. If they won, they would be lasting together longer than many marriages.

It would also make Polito the longest serving lieutenant governor since Democrat Tom O’Neill.

Come the next election in 2022, Polito will have served eight years as lieutenant governor. A victory would add another four years to her tenure, provided Baker completed his term.

That would be four years longer than O’Neill, son of the late U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, served. O’Neill was an underappreciated lieutenant governor under both Democrat Govs. Mike Dukakis and Edward King.

Regardless of party, lieutenant governors do not have much luck running for governor, or anything else, with or without becoming acting governor first.

In the past, only Republican lieutenant governors Cellucci and Frank Sargent, 50 years ago, got elected as acting governors to full four-year terms as governor.

Before Sargent, Frank Bellotti, now 97 years old, was lieutenant governor when he defeated Gov. Endicott Peabody, a fellow Democrat, in the 1964 primary, replacing Peabody as the Democratic nominee for governor.

Bellotti was beaten by Republican John A. Volpe. Sargent was Volpe’s lieutenant governor who became acting governor when Volpe resigned to join the Nixon administration.

There is simply something about the job that seems to work against upward mobility. Polito should take note.

However, the lone exception to the rule is the remarkable career of John F. Kerry.

Kerry was elected lieutenant governor in 1982 on a ticket headed by Gov. Michael Dukakis. While it was anticipated that Kerry would succeed Dukakis, a U.S. senate seat opened when incumbent Sen. Paul Tsongas did not seek re-election in 1984.

Kerry, without a dime to spare, was elected to the Senate and never looked back. He was the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, losing to George W. Bush.

President Barack Obama named Sen. Kerry secretary of state in 2013. Out of office for four years, Kerry is back, now President-elect Joe Biden’s climate czar and a key member of Biden’s cabinet. He is now also a multimillionaire.

Who said lieutenant governors go nowhere?

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