Is Karyn Polito angling for a third term — or a first?

The lieutenant governor is a steady presence at Charlie Baker’s side, with ambitions of her own  

ON THE WALL behind her desk, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito keeps the official portrait of former Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci, one of her political mentors, the man who first encouraged her to run for office — and someone whose career path she seems interested in emulating.

Cellucci emerged from the Legislature and was the first lieutenant governor to develop a real partnership with the governor, William Weld. He moved on to the corner office by remaining loyal and waiting his turn. 

Polito finds herself in much the same position. She has a close working relationship with Gov. Charlie Baker, who recently gave Polito a high-profile position overseeing the board in charge of the state’s four-phase reopening. She put in countless hours meeting with constituency groups and helped develop a timetable that was slow and steady and so far seems to be working. 

Baker appears to be grooming Polito as his successor, but no one knows when that will happen. The governor hasn’t ruled out running for a third term in 2022 and Polito, following the Cellucci playbook, remains steadfastly mum about her own ambitions.

Polito would not comment on whether she wants to run for governor, saying she is “fully focused on my work” as lieutenant governor. She also won’t rule out another four years in the second spot. “We haven’t made any decisions about that, but it’s a possibility that a third term could be in our future,” Polito said in an interview in her office, down the hall from Baker’s, in early March. Asked again mid-June about any gubernatorial aspirations, she stayed on message with a non-answer, talking generally about public service.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito in her office in front of a portrait of her mentor, Gov. Paul Cellucci. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

If she were to run, Polito’s closeness to Baker has pros and cons. Baker has been consistently ranked the most popular governor in America, and Polito knows how he did it. But Polito will have to develop her own identity and build her own coalition after years of tying her political fortunes to Baker’s.

George Bachrach, the former president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts and a one-time Democratic state senator and candidate himself for governor, said Baker is an imposing figure to compete with.I think it’s very hard to shine next to Charlie Baker,” he said. “Baker is a dominant force physically and managerially.”

When Baker announces a major bill or meets with legislative leadership, Polito is almost always by his side. On controversial topics, the state’s two top Republican politicians consistently appear in sync.

After Baker refused to say who he voted for in the 2020 Republican presidential primary – though he said he didn’t vote for Trump – Polito took a similar position. “I voted,” Polito said. “But that’s one area that the governor and I just are not going to spend a lot of time talking about,” she said about presidential politics.

“We’re together on the big things and the small things,” Polito said of her relationship with Baker. “We can debate and discuss issues and then we arrive at our common place, and that’s important to us to be together to show strong leadership and support for the initiatives we pursue.”

HELMING THE REOPENING

As the state was developing its reopening plan following the initial coronavirus surge, the board Polito co-chaired met for more than 40 hours, including weekends, and heard presentations from 75 groups. Polito was on every call and questioned almost every group. She texted or called board members with questions.

“I think one of the key parts of our success is grounding our response on data and the public health advice and the medical advice,” Polito said.

Members described her approach as measured and data-driven, without rushing toward reopening and with an eye toward public health metrics. “She really understands the economic imperative of reopening the economy, but was always wanting the science to lead to make sure we were making sound decisions,” said Joe Bahena, CEO of Joseph Abboud Manufacturing Corporation in New Bedford.

Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said Polito was willing to dive into the weeds – asking how opening a public pool or holding a festival would work.

Laurie Leshin, the president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said the board began to notice themes early on – like the need for masks and cleaning equipment, or the importance of transportation and childcare – and if a group did not bring those up, Polito would ask. Leshin said Polito took the weight of the reopening decisions seriously, and listened to various opinions, acknowledging that the group needed to act with imperfect information.

Presenters said Polito’s engagement varied. Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said Polito did most of the questioning for their presentation, with a focus on health and safety. “She was very good, very engaging, and hit a lot of the important questions that we hadn’t covered in our initial presentation,” Hurst said. When the union SEIU 509 presented, on the other hand, spokeswoman Megan Piccirillo said Polito didn’t ask any questions.

Polito has had some face time in front of cameras as co-chair of the state’s reopening advisory board. (Pool photo by Matthew Lee/Boston Globe

Until the reopening board, Polito’s roles within the administration were generally on non-controversial topics that she is passionate about.

Polito is the administration’s liaison to municipalities. It is a mark of pride Polito and Baker mention at every opportunity that she has visited all 351 Massachusetts cities and towns. She keeps a map in her office where she marked each community in green as she visited it.

Polito runs a council on sexual assault and domestic violence, leads an advisory council on getting students involved in science, technology, engineering and math, co-chairs an economic development planning council, and has focused on workforce development and helping women and girls.

She helped launch the state’s first domestic violence-related public awareness campaign in two decades; created programs to boost female and minority participation in science and math education; awarded millions of dollars to coastal communities through a re-launched Seaport Economic Council; and helped develop workforce grant and training programs.

Polito maintains a low public profile, often standing alongside the governor but saying little that makes news. If her presence tends to underwhelm, it’s a posture that pretty much comes with holding the number two job. When she talks, it is often to stress a bill’s impact on her priorities, like local aid or funding for domestic violence prevention.

Among municipal officials, Polito earned a reputation as a hard-working politician who is omnipresent at ribbon cuttings and grant awards. 

When a storm hit Sudbury in March 2018, littering branches and debris all over town roads, town manager Melissa Rodrigues called Polito on her cellphone. “Karyn was available to me at midnight, pretty much, sending crews in from the state to help us clear roads,” Rodrigues said.

When the state awarded Whitman a grant to pay for energy efficiency projects, town administrator Frank Lynam said of Polito, “She inspected the furnaces we put in the library, she looked at the lights we put in the schools.” 

Becket selectman Michael Lavery said Polito personally presented the 1,800-household town with a grant for a rural broadband project — the first politician he’s seen visit in a decade.

In January, Polito received a standing ovation when she addressed the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s annual meeting, speaking about hiring concerns, her signature “community compact” program that helps communities adopt best practices, local aid, and grant programs.

After her speech, Polito said she learned about the value of good municipal government as a former Shrewsbury selectwoman and zoning board member. “For us, it’s the very essence of how people define how things are going in this state, how they feel when they wake up in a respective neighborhood or in a community,” Polito said. “Do their kids have good schools? Do they have good jobs? Do they have a vibrant community where it’s safe and healthy and there’s things to do?”

Polito said her work establishing relationships with local officials served her well during the pandemic, since she knew who to call when the crisis hit. Her work developing the state’s economic development plan helped her understand regional economies and industry sectors.

Of course, the deep network of ties to local officials also won’t hurt should she mount her own statewide campaign. 

FAMILY TIES 

Polito, who served as Shrewsbury state representative from 2001 to 2011 and ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2010, is affable and an avid listener, always asking about people’s communities, interests, and families. She knows how to navigate politics and run a meeting so everyone feels included. But she can also appear guarded and scripted, rarely speaking off the cuff or revealing much about herself. While she is known as hard-working and intelligent, she rarely exhibits the high-energy, gin-up-the-crowd enthusiasm that, for example, Attorney General Maura Healey – a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate – is known for.

Polito gets the most personal when talking about her family — a topic raised publicly when she was asked about attending a graduation party for her niece and nephew at her brother’s house on Memorial Day weekend as the administration was calling for continued social distancing. At a press conference, Polito said the gathering was a small, outdoor cookout, with social distancing, as allowed under the governor’s orders. 

The Boston Globe reported that members of Polito’s family bought lakeside property, referred to as Tatassit Circle, in Shrewsbury with access to a small nearby island in 2012. Polito, a lawyer who has been active in her family’s Shrewsbury-based commercial real estate development firm, and her husband Stephan Rodolakis moved into a $1.5 million home there in 2016. Polito’s parents and brother also built homes there.

Asked about the party in an interview, Polito talked about the “blessing” of having her family close by. “It’s one of ways I can manage the work I do in government, because I always know someone is around when my kids need something, or when I get home late there’s usually a meal waiting for me at home to serve my family,” said Polito, who has a son who just finished his sophomore year in high school and a daughter who just finished eighth grade.

“For me to drop by my goddaughter’s graduation and to see my nephew was perfectly acceptable,” she said of the Memorial Day weekend party, “and it’s something a lot of other people are doing in the Commonwealth as they think about getting together outdoors with distancing, face covering, sanitization to go with it when that is needed.” 

PATRONAGE POLITICS  

Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis, a Republican, said Polito understands the issues and knows the political players. “To get things done, you have to know everybody and where they’re coming from,” Evangelidis said. “Karyn’s always been very tuned in to the players, what their agendas are, and what they want to accomplish.”

Polito’s relationships across Worcester County, which make the administration particularly strong politically in Central Massachusetts, are also the source of the most controversial aspect of her tenure as lieutenant governor: The administration’s hiring of people with deep ties to the area — and to Polito.  

A masked Polito with Gov. Charlie Baker visiting LabCentral in Cambridge in early June. (Pool photo by Matthew Stone/Boston Herald)

Former energy secretary Matt Beaton was Polito’s successor as a Republican state representative from Shrewsbury. Bachrach, the former environmental leader and Democratic lawmaker, said he thought Baker delegated the selection of an energy secretary to Polito, and he criticized her choice. “I thought Matt was a decent, affable sportsman who was not ready to handle the larger portfolio in terms of energy policy,” Bachrach said.

The state’s commissioner of agricultural resources, John Lebeaux, is also from Shrewsbury, and he told the Boston Globe that his family and Polito’s family had a long-time friendship. Public Safety Secretary Thomas Turco, who was appointed to that position in 2018, worked his way up through the Worcester office of the state Probation Department and donated $4,250 to Polito’s campaign committee between 2008 and 2017.

In 2017, the Globe reported that the son of Polito supporters – who had an arrest record – was hired by the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

A number of Baker’s nominees for clerk magistrate positions, well-paid court jobs with lifetime tenure, have also had Polito ties. They include Det. Lt. Joseph McCarthy, who coached Polito’s son in youth football; Sharon Casey, the former executive director of the Judicial Nominating Council and a college friend of Polito’s; Kirsten Hughes, the former chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican Party; Republican Governor’s Councilor Jen Caissie; and Fitchburg attorney Damian Riddle, who donated to Polito. 

Polito presides over the Governor’s Council, which confirms judicial nominations.

Governor’s Councilor Marilyn Devaney, a Democrat, criticized Polito for what Devaney called “political appointments” that are “not fair.” Devaney said she is “discouraged” by the number of political appointments in this administration. “It’s not what I signed up for, it breaks my heart,” she said. “There are good people out there who didn’t have a chance.”

Another member of the elected Governor’s Council, Eileen Duff, a Democrat, sent out a fundraising email in February with Polito’s face and the headline, “Stop the patronage pipeline.”

Polito denied that any of the picks are patronage appointments. “That is not how the governor and I and our team conduct business,” she said. “It’s about making sure that the best, most qualified people serve in government.” Polito noted that the judicial nominating process includes an evaluation by an independent commission through a blind review, without names attached.

CAMPAIGN DOUGH SHOW 

Politically, Polito is seen as the Republican Party’s most likely future candidate for governor.

In 2019, Polito outraised Baker, raking in $1.8 million for her campaign committee compared to $1.1 million for Baker, stoking speculation that she is preparing for a run for governor. By the end of May, Polito had the far larger campaign account — $1.83 million compared to $710,000 for Baker.

Practically, this lets Baker and Polito keep their options open, since Polito can use her money to run for either governor or lieutenant governor, while Baker’s money is only useful if he seeks a third term.

Polito brushed off the numbers’ significance, saying she and the governor work as a team and fundraise together, each holding their own events.

Administration officials regularly refer to the governor’s time in office as the “Baker-Polito administration,” almost as one word. Baker often says it is easier to reach consensus within the administration than in the Legislature, because it only requires two votes: his and Polito’s.

Lon Povich, the governor’s former chief legal counsel, said Polito was invited to every meeting Baker had that involved a substantive policy matter, and she usually attended. “Not one major decision is made without her being a key part of the discussion,” Povich said.

Tony Cignoli, a Springfield-based political consultant, called it “a foregone conclusion” that Polito will run if Baker does not seek a third term. “She’s everywhere all the time,” he said, offering an example that illustrated the point vividly.

Cignoli said after one roundtable at a Springfield community college, Polito made an unscheduled stop at a philanthropic dinner event with business community leaders. “No one knows she’s coming,” Cignoli said. “She walks in the door to say thank you for what you’re doing for the community, works the room, says hello to every person, takes photographs, and leaves.”

Cignoli said her high profile role during the pandemic could help her. Polito already cultivated a reputation for advocating for small businesses against bureaucracy and getting involved in the minutiae of government. Her reopening work continues this, while making a compelling campaign ad. “It’s the kind of reality you can use in campaign messaging,” Cignoli said.

A MOVE TO THE MIDDLE 

While today, Baker and Polito tout their bipartisanship and work easily across party lines, as a candidate, Polito would have to contend with party politics.

Baker has a rocky relationship with Republican Party chairman Jim Lyons, a Trump-backing hardline conservative who stands considerably to the governor’s right. Lyons declined to comment for this story.

Mary Lou Daxland, recent past president of the Massachusetts Republican Assembly, a conservative GOP group, and northeast vice president of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, said Polito “is definitely not a conservative.” “She’s made it very clear she did not and will not vote for President Trump,” Daxland said. “She’s not really someone that the conservatives want as a governor.”

Polito once would have seemed a suitable standard-bearer for the party’s right flank. She opposed same-sex marriage during the state’s gay marriage debate in 2004-2005 and introduced a “right-to-know” bill in 2003, which would have required doctors to give photographs of fetuses to women considering an abortion.

But since teaming up with Baker, she’s undergone a social-issues metamorphosis. Today, Polito supports gay marriage and abortion rights. In 2015, she officiated at the same-sex wedding of then-Senate President Stan Rosenberg, and in 2014, she said she regretted her support for the “right-to-know” bill. 

Brian Kennedy, current president of the Massachusetts Republican Assembly, preferred the more conservative Polito from her days as a state rep. Ever since she ran with Baker, who has long cut a more moderate profile on social issues, “She’s been,  ‘Charlie’s the greatest this, Charlie’s the greatest that,’” Kennedy said. “She’s waffled on a lot.”

Kennedy said conservatives are upset by Baker’s support for a cap-and-trade program for transportation emissions that would raise the price of gas, and his decision to provide state funding to Planned Parenthood. Some conservatives were unhappy when Baker signed a bill protecting transgender people from discrimination in public places.

While some GOP loyalists aren’t happy with her move to the middle, Democratic Party leaders see Polito — or at least her past positions — as too conservative for the state.

Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman Gus Bickford said the party will make sure voters know about Polito’s “much more conservative bent” as a state representative should she mount a campaign on her own. “People will learn about that if she does try to make a leap to another office,” Bickford said.

While some Republicans complain that Baker and Polito have not supported Trump, Democrats criticize them for not being more outspoken against him. “They act like there is a border on Massachusetts and they have no responsibility for the current administration in the White House,” Bickford said.

Polito says she believes voters like the administration’s collaborative style and decision to try to steer clear of national controversies. “We heard this everywhere we go — that people like the style of our leadership, the bipartisanship, the collaboration, the finding common ground, the getting stuff done, the focus on the work and sort of the stiff arm to the noisy, more dramatic stuff that might get an instant headline but really isn’t productive,” Polito said.

Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman said Polito has built the types of relationships that will make her popular among voters and elected representatives. “The lieutenant governor has built a phenomenal working relationship with almost every mayor and every town clerk and every county commissioner across Massachusetts, from Pittsfield to Provincetown,” Kaufman said. “And it’s not based on politics, it’s based on believing that the corner office should understand the problems of and how to help the local elected officials.”

Kaufman said both Baker and Polito have garnered national respect within the party, despite their liberal social positions, and have shown they can be strong fundraisers to help state Republicans.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Former Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, a Democrat who served under Gov. Deval Patrick, said a lieutenant governor must be a utility player, able to fill many different roles depending on the needs of government. The lieutenant governor has “institutional knowledge and understanding of how government works and how it affects different regions of the state and different sectors of the economy,” he said.

In other words, the skills needed to be lieutenant governor prime a candidate to run for the top spot.