Outgoing Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito will focus on family, possible mentorship role
The role of lieutenant governor is a bit of a blank canvas.
The Massachusetts Constitution only outlines two specific responsibilities for the number-two role in the executive branch: serving on and presiding over the Governor's Council, which vets and confirms judicial nominees, and stepping up as acting governor when necessary.
That leaves a good deal of bandwidth for each lieutenant governor to shape the office. And in the mind of outgoing Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, she was able, with the support of Gov. Charlie Baker, to "redefine" the job.
A day after giving Baker the same opportunity, the News Service offered Polito a chance during an exit interview to write a phrase that would follow a mention of her name as a summation of her career in public office.
Polito's answer was even more sweeping than Baker.'s
It started out as former Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, "who had a strong career in public service, starting in local government and serving in the Legislature and co-governing with Charlie Baker in the executive branch and incorporated an approach around collaboration, finding common ground and getting stuff done," turned to describing the Shrewsbury Republican as someone who got a chance to "redefine the role of lieutenant governor in our administration, and in that redefinition, elevated municipalities into the executive office to allow for a strong state and local relationship to develop," then finished with Polito's desire to be "remembered as someone who co-led on an approach of bipartisanship and collaboration, that got a lot of stuff done, and gave voice to people and places that were underrepresented, and brought more opportunity and access to opportunity."
A Constant Municipal Focus
Through a steady stream of public events across the state, closed-doors meetings, headlining appearances at the Massachusetts Municipal Association annual meeting and chairing the Local Government Advisory Commission, Polito —who early in her public service career served on the select board in her hometown — has positioned herself as a close ally to municipal leaders.
A main feature of her approach to the job, Polito said, "was to embrace building a strong commonwealth by building strong communities."
Right at the outset of his first term, Baker signed an executive order creating a Community Compact Cabinet and tasking it with, among other steps, helping cities and towns implement a standardized set of best practices for local governments. In the ensuing years, Polito said, dozens of municipalities joined in, and the Legislature agreed to steer tens of millions of dollars their way "to modernize, update and make more professional municipal government."
"That is a legacy piece, but I also feel it's institutionalized," she said. "You have good government at the local level. They're more independent, they're more in control of their finances and more in control of their future, and less reliant on state government. So that was a key piece."
Polito rattled off a long list of major policy areas where local and state interests are tangled together, including housing production, downtown and local business support, infrastructure, and economic development.
She also thinks the administration's work to craft relationships with municipalities and a plan of "stiff-arming the noisy politics" paid dividends starting in March 2020, when the world careened into an unprecedented public health emergency fueled by COVID-19.
"In a time of crisis, you can't all of a sudden become friends," Polito said. "Those relationships were baked in well before the pandemic hit and allowed us to actively listen to each other, develop solves to problems that no one had to solve before, and come out the other end having prioritized the public health, safety and well-being of the people of this commonwealth."
"That's not a Republican or a Democrat thing, that's the right thing to do," she added. "And I believe our approach helped us to succeed in that process."
Judges and Justice
One of the most consistent items on Polito's calendar for the past eight years has been the almost-weekly assembly of the Governor's Council, an eight-member panel whose members are all elected to those positions by voters.
Polito said she has also put in a significant amount of work behind the scenes to fulfill her Governor's Council responsibilities. At times, she said, she played a co-equal role in judicial nominations with Baker, who during his tenure has reshaped the state's judiciary, including by nominating all seven current members of the Supreme Judicial Court.
The lieutenant governor described a rigid process for picking candidates: first, all applicants for posts in the state judiciary such as judge and clerk magistrate undergo a "blind review of [their] credentials." Then, the Judicial Nominating Commission does its own assessment of candidates.
Once that panel narrowed a field of names to recommend, Polito told the News Service, she and Baker would each conduct their own individual interviews with candidates. Polito said she interviewed "every candidate" that reached that point in the process over the past two terms.
"We both had the opportunity to assess the abilities and character of these individuals, and we would discuss what we learned in that process," Polito said. "And so we then felt comfortable, after a discussion, around who is the nominee to these positions, knowing that we're putting our faith and trust in these individuals to exercise the very best judgment in fast-paced, difficult circumstances."
The justice system, specifically the ways with which survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence interact with it, has also been a central focus of Polito's policy work dating back to the decade she spent in the House.
It's also an area of lingering frustration for Polito as her time in office draws to a close.
For three straight sessions, Baker and Polito pressed for legislation to overhaul the process by which Massachusetts courts deem defendants dangerous and can detain them, and for three straight sessions, they have been unable to get both the House and Senate on board. The duo have also seen their efforts to crack down on distribution of sexually explicit images and videos without a subject's consent, often referred to as "revenge porn," stall out repeatedly.
The final round of advocacy this session featured a string of public roundtable events with survivors sharing their stories in harrowing detail.
"I was just so inspired by the many victims and survivors that came forward to help us advance reforms to the dangerousness laws, and I still hope that in the future that will happen," Polito said. "I was disappointed it didn't finally get over the line."
After the Judiciary Committee shelved the administration's so-called dangerousness bill once again this summer, Baker tried to attach some of its provisions to a no-cost prison phone calls budget rider. The Senate adopted a narrower version, but the House did not, and both the dangerousness reforms and the free incarcerated communication measure are now all but certain to die with the term's end next week.
Asked if she wished the administration had altered its sales pitch to try and get lawmakers on board, Polito instead pointed to other steps the Legislature and administration took to support sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, such as increasing funding for treatment providers.
"I believe in the next term, there will be further discussion around where the common ground is for [the dangerousness bill] to move forward," she said. "Just because the legislative term ends doesn't mean the issue is no longer an issue for people in this commonwealth. I believe there are members of the Legislature that would like to see this conversation continue about how to address the deficiencies in our laws."
Stepping Away From the Spotlight
For some pundits and political insiders, the bigger surprise late last year was not that Baker opted against seeking a third term, but that Polito would exit office with him instead of launching a gubernatorial run of her own.
After eight years alongside Baker, who frequently landed at or near the top of "most popular governor" lists, many expected Polito to try to carry on their administration's legacy. But she, like Baker, said in December 2021 that she wanted more time with her family; husband Stephan Rodolakis and their two children.
Now just one week remains until the 56-year-old Polito transitions to civilian life, ending a stretch of more than two continuous decades in either elected or appointed office.
"I am grateful to have had that level of service in this commonwealth, but it has also come with a lot of service from my husband and my two children, who have only known life —because they're now 19 and 17 — of a mother in public life," Polito said this week. "So I've reached a point where I feel I can take these experiences and pour them into ways to make other organizations better and create the kind of culture and environment that I've been accustomed to these eight years, and see that play out in other venues."
At least at the statewide level, there's no obvious successor as the standard-bearer for the kind of moderate Republicanism that Baker and Polito championed while working alongside large Democrat majorities in the House and Senate.
Without Baker or Polito on the ballot — nor involved in any statewide race besides the contest for auditor — voters picked former Rep. Geoff Diehl as the Republican nominee for governor.
Diehl and his running mate, former Rep. Leah Cole Allen, represent a different, Trump-aligned wing of the MassGOP that has repeatedly clashed with the Baker-Polito branch. Facing off against Diehl and Allen, Democrats Maura Healey and Kim Driscoll easily flipped the corner office with nearly 64% of the vote.
But Polito said she does not have any regrets about the political fallout of her and Baker's departures.
"I'd say I'm an optimistic person. I always see the glass as half-full, and I'd like to think that our demonstration and the way we've conducted ourselves as bipartisan leaders will serve as an inspiration to other individuals to rise up and be candidates and embrace the kind of leadership that the governor and I have," she said. "It's obviously pretty popular around here in Massachusetts, and you know, leading through some difficult times like the pandemic, leaving with a high approval rating and satisfaction across the board in this commonwealth feels pretty good. And I think that serves as an example of a brand that others could adopt in the future."
Especially since he announced he would not seek a third term, Baker has faced a near-constant barrage of questions about whether he has any plans to run for another office in 2024 or beyond, most of which he's answered with something that's not quite a no and not quite a yes. In the meantime, Baker will take over as president of the NCAA in March.
Polito said she plans to take over running her family's real estate infrastructure business once she leaves office and is "considering advising some boards for companies and startups in Massachusetts."
Asked if she would leave the door open to running for office again down the line, Polito did not definitively rule it out, but indicated her focus is elsewhere, at least for the foreseeable future.
"I've had a full life of public service. I've enjoyed it. I've had a deep impact on people and places of this commonwealth. I've reached a point now where I need to focus on my family business and serve in some role where I can help advance the kind of culture and leadership that I believe in, in organizations, in some ways in the private sector," she said. "I have time to sort out the public service piece. I think the next opportunity would be for me to perhaps mentor others to either run for office or be part of a government organization, and then leave it at that for now."