Acting Governors

When William Weld resigned last summer, a constitutional process pushed Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci into the governor’s chair. And Cellucci enjoys all of the powers of the governor’s office — signing legislation, giving the “State of the State” address, and some day seeing his portrait on a State House wall.

But one crucial difference separates Cellucci from most other governors: he hasn’t been elected to the post. In November, voters will decide how to remember him: as a governor in his own right, or as a lieutenant governor who managed to fill the gap; as an “acting governor,” or as a man who rose above constitutional default to craft his own administration.

Curious about the historical precedents, CommonWealth investigated the electoral successes of other acting governors.

Cellucci is the Commonwealth’s 10th lieutenant governor to fill a gubernatorial vacancy, but only the second in this century. The other was Republican Francis Sargent, who moved into the governor’s office Jan. 22, 1969, the day Gov. John Volpe left to become President Nixon’s Transportation Secretary. Sargent claimed the governorship as his own the next year, winning against Democrat Kevin White by 14 percentage points. He served from 1971 until 1975, and may be best remembered as a liberal Republican who, among other things, championed a statute challenging the legality of the Vietnam War.

Constitution of Massachusetts Chapter II, Section II, Article III

“Whenever the chair of the governor shall be vacant, by reason of his death, or absence from the Commonwealth, or otherwise, the lieutenant-governor, for the time being, shall, during such vacancy, perform all the duties incumbent upon the governor, and shall have and exercise all the powers and authorities, which by this constitution the governor is vested with, when personally present.”

But Sargent was one of the few lucky acting governors. Only two others have won the gubernatorial election immediately following a stint as a stand-in. (Samuel Adams in the late 1700s and Roger Wolcott in the late 1800s.) And four were never elected in their own right. “An acting governorship does give an advantage…but it isn’t automatic that [he] wins,” explains Richard Hogarty, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

In fact, the first loser was the Commonwealth’s first lieutenant governor — Thomas Cushing, who followed Gov. John Hancock into the corner office 213 years ago. Ill health forced Hancock to resign half-way through his fifth term (each lasted one year at that time). But he left the office more easily knowing that Cushing, his longtime friend and ally, was in charge. Hancock figured that “Cushing would keep the chair warm for him and return it to him whenever he wished,” historian William M. Fowler Jr. wrote in The Baron of Beacon Hill. But he added: “All this was assuming, of course, that Cushing could get elected governor on his own.”

Unfortunately for Cushing, he couldn’t. Although he continued Hancock’s policies (or perhaps because he did), he finished second in a three-way race for governor in 1785. (The election ultimately was decided by the Legislature because no candidate won a majority in the popular vote. But Cushing lost that contest, too.) James Bowdoin took over that May.

Over the next 50 years, three other acting governors failed to win their own gubernatorial titles. One was Moses Gill, elected lieutenant governor with Gov. Increase Sumner in 1797, 1798, and 1799. The Commonwealth was shocked when Sumner died only five days into his third term. Suddenly, Gill was doing the job of governor. Despite nearly an entire term in the governor’s office, however, Gill lost his own election bid the next year to Federalist Caleb Strong. Gill’s own untimely death, just 10 days before Strong took over, prevented him from trying again.

Levi Lincoln also failed to return to the corner office after serving as acting governor. He lost his 1809 election bid in a close race with Federalist Christopher Gore. Afterward, he declined an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court because of failing eyesight. After two years on the Governor’s Council, he retired almost completely to private life.

Cellucci and his supporters may be happy to know that the last loser came 163 years ago. Samuel T. Armstrong, a Charlestown businessman who dabbled in politics, became acting governor when Gov. John Davis resigned in 1835 to serve in the U.S. Senate. But without the support of Whig party leader Daniel Webster, Armstrong was forced to run as an Independent candidate in the 1835 gubernatorial election. After pulling in only 3 percent of the popular vote, Armstrong handed the office to fellow Whig Edward Everett. Armstrong went on to be mayor of Boston for a year, served briefly in the Massachusetts Senate, then returned to his publishing business.

But there remains one other group to consider: those persevering politicians who lost the gubernatorial election that immediately followed their term as acting governor, but came back to win later on. Marcus Morton faced the voters and lost 12 times before finally returning to the governor’s office on his 13th attempt, in 1840. The process was somewhat less painful for Thomas Talbot, who made it back a few years hence, in 1879.

So, count them all up and it would seem that the historical record on acting governors is inconclusive: some win, some lose, some are counted down but not out.

Then what about Paul Cellucci? If he wins, he’d certainly gain a popular vindication and finally get to stop hearing that hated “acting” in front of his name. If he loses in 1998, he may still be able to stage a comeback. “The good news for Paul Cellucci is that acting governors do get [elected], if not immediately,” says Garrison Nelson, a professor of politics at Brandeis University.

Meet the Author
But if he never wins the office for himself? What would history have to say about him then? Hogarty, the UMass-Boston professor, speculates that Cellucci would be haunted by his lack of executive identity. “He’ll be remembered more as a team player with Weld, partly because of the short term of his acting governorship,” Hogarty says. “He hasn’t made many footprints yet.”

Amanda Beck is a former CommonWealth intern.