Polito’s low-profile campaign for lt. gov.

Former state rep invites attacks, praise

Karyn Polito at the Baker-Polito Campaign Boston headquarters

Karyn Polito, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, is both a plus and a minus in Charlie Baker’s run for governor against Democrat Martha Coakley.

Polito’s tea party associations and a decade-long conservative voting record on Beacon Hill may undercut Baker’s move to the middle. But Polito assets include her gender, her geographical base, (she hails from central Massachusetts), and a proven track record as a vote-getter.

She lost the treasurer’s race to Democrat Steve Grossman four years ago, but she racked up the most votes of any Republican candidate running statewide. “I got a million votes, which is a few more than Charlie Baker got,” said Polito.

The third-generation Shrewsbury native accepted Baker’s invitation to join the Republican ticket after his first choice, Mary Connaughton, the former Massachusetts Turnpike board member who lost her 2010 state auditor bid, turned him down.

Four years ago, in her race for treasurer, Polito displayed a take no-prisoners style that led to memorable fireworks in several debates with Grossman. This time around, she has kept a lower profile and the Baker campaign appears determined to keep her under wraps. Despite the Coakley camp’s request for a series of statewide debates with Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Steve Kerrigan, they had only one televised face-off on NECN.

Kerrigan, whose name Polito doesn’t mention in an interview (she refers to him only as “my opponent”), has aggressively tried to paint her as a conservative. During their NECN debate, he noted her praise for tea party leader Allan West, her five votes against marriage equality in the Legislature, and her support for voter ID legislation.

Polito dismissed the tea party accusations, said she still supports voter ID laws, and insists she now embraces marriage equality. Polito explained that her current views on marriage equality are not unlike those of President Obama or Tom Reilly, the former attorney general. “It’s been a long time since marriage for everyone was adopted here in Massachusetts…and my personal experiences have allowed me to grow, accept, and embrace marriage,” she said.

In an interview, Polito talked about a friend in a same-sex marriage who became a mother at the same time she did. “We’ve grown together as mothers as well as well as professionals,” Polito said about the Shrewsbury woman who she declined to name. “I am happy to see her so happy and doing well in life as I am with my husband.”

Sen. Benjamin Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, remains skeptical. “With Karyn Polito, you look [at her story] and say, ‘Was she not listening to those stories when she voted five times against marriage equality in the Legislature?’ I have trouble believing that people weren’t reaching out to her at that time. It’s either that she didn’t hear them or she wasn’t convinced at that point.”

Polito is less than forthcoming about how she views the insurgent tea party. She has participated in events like a 2011 tea party rally on Boston Common, continues to take a tough line on raising taxes, and supports Question 1, which, if passed, would do away with indexing the gas tax to inflation. Democrats point to her ties to former Florida congressman West, a tea party stalwart, who came to Massachusetts last year to present Polito with a “Citizen Patriot” award from a national tea party organization.

She brushed aside questions about her current views. “They are irrelevant to my experience,” Polito said several times. She described herself as “a Republican in the New England tradition” and added: “I have always been someone [who] worked across party lines to get things done.”

Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, describes Polito as “moderate, slightly right-of-center, but she was never the most conservative member of [the Republican] caucus by any means.”

Downing is amazed at Polito’s conversion from conservative to moderate. “When it comes to his running mate, Republican Charlie Baker has essentially said to voters… ‘trust us that she doesn’t hold any of the positions that she held when she was a state representative,’ ” he said.

Barring the unexpected, the lieutenant governor presides over the Governor’s Council during the governor’s absences. Otherwise, it’s the original make-work job: It’s up to the officeholder to set an agenda.

During their NECN debate, host Jim Braude asked Polito and Kerrigan whether anything in Massachusetts governance has been neglected since Tim Murray, the former lieutenant governor, resigned. Polito praised Murray’s work as Gov. Deval Patrick’s liaison to mayors and town managers.” “It takes a lot of effort,” she said. “He had a real personal way of doing it.”

Connaughton, now director of finance and administration at the Pioneer Institute, expects that Polito, if elected, might take up a similar liaison role in the Legislature for Baker. “To get done what he needs to get done, he’s going to have to have a very strong relationship with the Legislature,” she said.

Polito said that she has a special interest in victims’ rights and issues facing women and children. Does that mean she’d be up for taking an oversight role with the troubled Department of Children and Families? “Charlie and I will dive into that organization,” she said without hesitation. Pressed for specifics, she added, “Until we are in office, we won’t have a full assessment of what needs to be done.”

Her signature achievement in the House was Jessica’s Law, which established mandatory minimum sentences for sexual assault crimes against children. She and Attorney General Coakley differed on the scope of the 2008 measure, with Polito favoring stiffer sentences, plus residency restrictions for sex offenders, while Coakley supported giving prosecutors more leeway in sentencing. Democratic leaders eventually stripped out the residency requirement.

Coakley wasn’t the last Beacon Hill chieftan she tussled with. In 2009, Polito and six other Republicans took on House Minority Leader Brad Jones. Jones believed that the revolt stemmed from members’ frustration with the GOP’s failure to make significant statewide gains. There were only 16 Republicans in the House after the 2008 election. “There was a caucus-wide frustration that we weren’t adding members,” said Jones.

Polito sided with a group of members led by her central Massachusetts colleague Lewis Evangelidis, a Holden Republican, who tried to oust Bradley as minority leader. They wanted the Republican contingent to confront the Democratic majority more often rather than taking the less confrontational approach that Jones favored.

Now Worcester County Sheriff, Evangelidis served eight years with Polito before leaving the chamber in 2010, at the same time Politio did, to run for the law enforcement post.

“Karen and I…tried to take a stand that we felt we had to do things differently [in the House] if we wanted to increase our numbers,” said Evangelidis. He lost the contest for minority leader by two votes and the opposing camps eventually mended fences.

“We’re all friends now,” Jones said.

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Polito’s assertiveness also found its way across the aisle. During her 2010 run for treasurer, Polito singlehandedly blocked a $400 million spending bill over the course of a week’s worth of informal sessions where a single member can thwart the passage of legislation. Polito stood firm, arguing that the entire House should vote on the bill in a formal session. The measure finally moved after Polito arrived late for a vote on the measure.

If Karyn Polito wakes up as lieutenant governor on November 5, Hedlund fully expects her to be an activist again. “She is going to take some things and run with them and carve out a niche,” Hedlund said. “It’s not her style to sit back, just cruise around, and cut ribbons.”