Kerrigan Vs. Polito: How The Lt. Governor Candidates View Their Running Mate Roles

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Republican lieutenant governor candidate Karyn Polito, left, and Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Steve Kerrigan (Asma Khalid, Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Republican lieutenant governor candidate Karyn Polito, left, and Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Steve Kerrigan (Asma Khalid, Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The focus this election season is naturally on the governor's race, but on Nov. 4, if you cast a ballot for Democrat Martha Coakley or Republican Charlie Baker, you'll also be voting for their running mates.

Twice in recent memory the lieutenant governor has become governor: first, in 1997, when Paul Cellucci took over from Gov. Bill Weld; and then again in 2001 when Jane Swift took the reins from Celluci.

This year, both leading party lieutenant governor candidates hail from central Massachusetts, but they fall on polar opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Kerrigan Couldn't Get Politics Out Of His System

Democrat Steve Kerrigan grew up going to Catholic school in Shrewsbury. And there was a time when it was ministry, not policy, that seemed like his mission in life.

"I wanted to join the Xaverian Brothers after I graduated college," he said.

But first he wanted to get politics out of his system.

"Three days before my 18th birthday, back in 1989, I started an internship with Sen. Ted Kennedy, and left his office 14 years later," Kerrigan said.

Clearly his politics "cleanse" wasn't effective. Instead, he became a political animal.

But whether religious or political, the 43-year-old Kerrigan says he's driven by the same commitment to service.

Since his Kennedy years, Kerrigan has led the Democratic National Convention and the Presidential Inaugural Committee. He's a deep blue Democrat.

These days, he runs a nonprofit to help military families.

And, on the campaign trail, he is often Coakley's surrogate, defending her record.

At a State House press conference earlier this month, Kerrigan blasted Baker for questioning Coakley's record on the Department of Children and Families.

"Charlie Baker has decided that he wants to have a debate about who is the right governor to protect children and their families," Kerrigan told a gaggle of reporters. "And, if he wants to have that debate against someone who has a career and a lifetime of protecting children who are vulnerable and giving voice to their struggles, then bring it on."

Kerrigan says he sees the job of lieutenant governor as a facilitator, as "really serving the role of ombudsman [to] make sure that we're running a more efficient and effective government than we have in the past."

In fact, in the recent past, the state has not even had a lieutenant governor; Tim Murray resigned in June 2013. The job has been vacant for more than a year, which Kerrigan says is problematic.

"In the primary, I was endorsed by 17 mayors across the state," he said, "and every one of them would tell you that they desperately miss having a lieutenant governor to be able to go to to really cut through the red tape of government."

On a recent morning, while Kerrigan greeted folks at Zaftigs Deli in Brookline, a guy named John Gabriel McCarthy stopped him to ask a question: "We're gay, and you like the fact that we, if we want to get married?"

"Well, I'm gay," Kerrigan responded. "I would be the first openly gay lieutenant governor in the entire country."

"Ah, that's wonderful!" squealed McCarthy.

And it is a point Kerrigan is eager to highlight, especially as he questions his opponent, Polito, about her murky record on LGBT issues.

"My concern is that when [Polito] was in the Legislature, not once, but many, many times, she took votes and strong stances against marriage equality," Kerrigan said.

These days, Polito is a changed woman.

"I can say I fully embrace marriage equality," she said, though she won't say exactly when she converted.

When Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, she preferred civil unions, which, she says, many people at the time did.

"My position at the time was no different than Steve Kerrigan's boss, Tom Reilly, or even the president of the United States, Barack Obama," Polito said. "And I think it's unfair for Steve Kerrigan to hold me to a different standard than he would hold them. It's been 10 years since that vote. I have met people who share my values for my family and for my business who are gay, and who want the same things that I do."

Polito Comes Alive While Campaigning

Democrats are also keen to pounce on Polito as a Tea Party conservative, but Polito rejects that label.

"That would be an incorrect label attached to me by my opponent who has chosen to run a negative campaign," she said.

But, to be fair, Polito has flirted with the Tea Party, although as a legislator she's also always supported a women's right to choose.

Polito is hesitant, almost guarded, as she searches for the right words to answer questions about her past, but when she's campaigning, she seems to come alive; her inflection changes as her voice transforms.

"A lot of people certainly need help, a helping hand, but it shouldn't be a permanent crutch," she told a group of seniors at a retirement community in Worcester last week.

The crowd adored her; after her talk, people flocked to her, some saying they're going to vote Republican in November because of what they heard from her.

"You're remarkable. You've come a long way since I saw you last," one woman told Polito.

"Aw, that's good. Progress is a good thing," Polito said.

The 47-year-old mother of two currently runs a commercial real estate development firm, although she began her political career on the Shrewsbury Board of Selectmen. She then served as a state representative advocating for legislation to better protect kids from sex offenders and went on to run unsuccessfully for state treasurer four years ago.

In this election, it's been said that maybe Polito could help bridge the gender gap for the Baker camp. But she questions this idea of the "women's vote."

"I think the Democrats' war on women is more of a political movement," Polito said. "This characterization that women need to be conversed with in a different way is something I find a little strange and more political."

Polito is less visionary than her rival, Kerrigan, about the role of the lieutenant governor; instead, she speaks of herself more as Baker's teammate.

"We've been building this campaign together for over a year. We've known each other for quite a long time, and we come to this experience with a common vision," Polito said. "Charlie Baker and I, we're experienced and ready. And there will be no lag time for us to get going."

What's interesting about both Polito and Kerrigan is the political role they play this election season.

Baker is trying to appeal to the moderate middle, and his opponent, Coakley, is trying to overcome criticism that she was too moderate during the Democratic primary.

All these accusations of "moderation" mean their running mates — the candidates for lieutenant governor — are on a curious mission to electrify the "traditional" Democrats and Republicans.

This segment aired on October 15, 2014.

Headshot of Asma Khalid

Asma Khalid Reporter
Asma Khalid formerly led WBUR's BostonomiX, a biz/tech team covering the innovation economy.



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