BOSTON – For more than five years, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito has been a near constant at the side of Gov. Charlie Baker, a partner always there for every big moment, even if she was just off center stage.
From budget rollouts to bill-signing ceremonies and even a presidential endorsement, Polito has been there to back up whatever the administration was doing, and maybe add a few supportive words herself.
She has famously visited all 351 cities and towns, some more than once, and is the administration’s chief liaison to municipal leaders, which has allowed her to quietly build relationships that could pay dividends in a future campaign.
But now, with the outbreak of COVID-19 consuming the administration and Baker’s political future uncertain, Polito is getting a chance to step into the spotlight in her own right.
Two weeks ago, Polito was tapped by Baker to lead a group of influential business leaders and members of the administration to develop a plan to safely reopen the economy after nine weeks of asking residents to stay at home. While Baker is still calling the shots and signing off on all decisions, Polito’s role in helping craft such a high-stakes strategy puts her at the forefront of the administration’s response to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
“My biggest regret in our last poll was that we didn’t ask voters about Karyn Polito,” said John Cluverius, associate director of the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion and assistant professor of political science.
As an enormously popular governor, Baker has not ruled out seeking a third term, but if he doesn’t, political operatives, observers and former rivals interviewed by the News Service agree that Polito’s role in helping to craft the state’s reopening strategy could be a solid springboard to a campaign for governor in 2022.
“She certainly understands the blue collar and the white collar side of it and this is an opportunity to catapult her politically. Instead of being behind the governor, people can see her as someone who shines in her own light and is quite capable and competent,” said Guy Glodis, a former Democratic state lawmaker and sheriff from Worcester, who now lobbies on Beacon Hill.
Glodis defeated Polito in a race for the state Senate in 1998. He was a state representative at the time, and she had been a selectwoman in Shrewsbury.
Glodis said he thinks Baker was right to tap Polito for this job, calling her a “prodigious worker” who’s made the most of the role of lieutenant governor.
“I’ve never known Karyn to take time off for anything. She’s very hands on. In some ways, she’s a workaholic. I think she will be well received. This could really catapult her into the limelight and show the substance and knowledge she possesses,” Glodis said.
As with anything that carries potential for reward, there is also a possible downside.
If the state moves too fast and reopens the economy too soon, Massachusetts could risk a resurgence of the virus. Act too slowly and the financial pain felt by small business owners and workers may be too much for them to bounce back from quickly. Some state Republicans are already calling on the Baker administration to move more quickly to keep up with what’s happening in states along the borders.
“If she gets it right, it could be huge. But if she gets it right, Charlie also gets it right. And if she gets it wrong, she gets it more wrong than the governor,” said Steve Kerrigan, the CEO of the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center in Worcester.
Kerrigan ran against Polito for lieutenant governor on a ticket with former Attorney General Martha Coakley in 2014. He’s also a former aide to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and ran the 2012 Democratic National Convention for President Obama.
The Central Massachusetts native said getting such a high profile task has “great upside,” but it comes with “a risk, and a significant one.”
“I do think she’ll be weighed and measured based on the reaction to the plan,” Kerrigan said.
Polito gave Massachusetts the first glimpse of what reopening might look like on Monday when she helped Baker unveil their “four-phase” strategy to reopen businesses in waves. While the full plan won’t come out until next week, Polito got her highest profile chance yet to offer comfort to anxious residents and voters.
“COVID-19 has placed an incredible burden on our economy, created uncertainty and losses for every region of our commonwealth, but together we are developing the framework and phases that the governor described to put us back on track as quickly and as safely as possible,” Polito said during Monday’s press conference, carried live on the major Boston television networks.
In addition to the leaders on the reopening advisory board, Polito has met with more than 44 industry groups and leaders from health care and finance to retail and tourism to help craft the plan.
“It’s an opportunity, if done well, to both build good will among voters, but also good will among elites in the state who might not be as familiar with the lieutenant governor,” said Cluverius.
Since January, Polito has both out-raised the governor and built a larger campaign account, pulling in $254,652 so far in 2020, leaving her with $1.85 million in the bank. Baker, by comparison, has raised $185,062 so far this year, and has $740,857 in his campaign account.
Of her totals this year, Polito raised $48,828 in March and April, including $9,810 last month, which was her smallest month of the year. Baker has raised $103,281 in the two months that the pandemic has gripped Massachusetts.
Cluverius said the best way for any lieutenant governor to run for the top job is to “ride the coattails of a popular incumbent,” and in Baker this lieutenant governor has that. The UML polling center’s latest survey found 81% support for the job Baker has been doing, which would give Polito a considerable tailwind if Baker opted against another campaign.
“What our poll showed is that Bay Staters are overwhelmingly satisfied with the state government’s response to the pandemic and being front and center in an activity that voters already have a lot of faith in gives you an opportunity to display competence and compassion. That’s a winning formula for any candidate for public office,” Cluverius said.
Rob Gray, a media consultant and Republican campaign strategist, said her time in front the cameras also gives her the chance to start to build something lieutenant governor’s often lack when they try to run for higher office — name recognition.
“Even under popular governors, lieutenant governors don’t always have the chance to make a name for themselves. This is that kind of chance,” Gray said.
Polito, 53, got her start in politics at the town level in Shrewsbury, where her family owns and operates a commercial real estate development firm. After losing to Glodis for state Senate, she ran and won a seat in the House of Representatives without any opposition.
In fact, Polito served five terms in the House without ever being challenged, encountering her first opponent after Glodis in 2010 when she lost the statewide general election for Treasurer to Steve Grossman.
Some Democrats said they wondered when Baker appointed her to lead the advisory board whether she would push for the administration to pursue a more aggressive reopening strategy than Baker might otherwise pursue.
The question speaks to the continuing perception that Polito is a more conservative Republican than her position in the Baker administration has allowed her to be, someone more in the mold of Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis than a Baker or a Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland.
Polito was once one of the more outspoken conservatives on Beacon Hill. But today, finding daylight between her and the moderate governor would take considerable effort.
“I think it was because that was indicative of her district,” said Glodis. “She represented a very conservative district, but I think she’s evolved and grown in her political identity and morphed into a more moderate, mainstream Republican.”
Gray said the high marks voters have given the Baker administration so far during this crisis also lessens the risk for Polito at this moment to tie herself so closely with the reopening strategy.
So as the May 18 release of the full reopening strategy approaches, Polito is likely to get a lot more TV time with many voters stuck at home watching intently.
“It’s a moment in the sun. She hasn’t been allowed many of them,” Kerrigan said.