They're Number 2

When members of the Democratic State Committee gather during an election year for one of their duller-than-dirt meetings, party chairman Phil Johnston customarily acknowledges any candidates who may have dropped by so they can wave to the crowd and split before the tedious proceedings begin. And a party get-together at a union hall in Dorchester was no exception.

Gubernatorial candidates were introduced first. Next up were the candidates for lieutenant governor, who are chosen in a separate primary even though they run on the ticket with the gubernatorial nominee in November. Johnston acknowledged John Slattery, a lawyer and state representative from Peabody, and Chris Gabrieli, a millionaire businessman and philanthropist from Boston. (Former state Senator Lois Pines of Newton, who gave up her seat in a failed 1998 run for attorney general, couldn't make it that night.)

But when it came to the fourth Democrat in the field, former Lincoln-Sudbury School Board member Sarah Cannon Holden, veteran party activist Johnston faltered. Also running for lieutenant governor, he said, is “Sarah Hannon.” Hearing the titters from the crowd, he corrected himself. But Holden was fuming. This wasn't the first time Johnston had looked at her and drawn a blank: At a previous event, he had introduced her as “Sarah-Ann Shaw,” the name of a former Boston TV reporter. Holden hissed at a party official: “How many times do we have to go through this?”

Hey, Shirley . . . excuse me, Shelley . . . sorry, Cindy. Better get used to it. Even a savvy insider like Johnston can't keep up with the action in this year's race for lieutenant governor without a scorecard.

Lieutenant governor. Sloppy seconds. A supporting part, one candidate for the position confesses, that was viewed in the past as “the governor's official food taster, hanging around waiting for the governor to die.” The mildly degrading, seen-but-not-heard understudy role with only two requirements: Be ready to step in if the governor croaks, quits, or goes nuts, and, while you're waiting, serve on the obscure Massachusetts Governor's Council, an experience something like living death. The undistinguished gig that wins you membership in the National Council of Lieutenant Governors, a group that touts as one of its signal accomplishments of 2001 the adoption of a resolution “supporting Guam's right to self-determination.”

The lieutenant governor's office in this state has led to political obscurity for all but a handful of those who've languished in it over the past half-century. But suddenly, second banana is an in-demand dessert.

In a phenomenon unprecedented in modern times, the job has attracted no fewer than eight candidates, many of them major political figures. There are four Democrats, including two veteran legislators and a party activist along with the aforementioned Shecky Hanlon, and two Republicans who emerged from a field of four declared candidates in the bruising fight leading up to last month's party convention: Jim Rappaport, wealthy former GOP chairman and U.S. Senate candidate, and another former GOP chair, Kerry Murphy Healey. There are also two fringe-party hopefuls, Jonathan Levy of the Greens and Libertarian Rich Aucoin.

Where the coat-holder's slot once drew interest strictly from obscure backbenchers with microscopic profiles who ran underfunded campaigns, the position this year is a fragrant honeypot attracting some of the most ambitious political bees in the hive.

No wonder. The last two lieutenant governors, Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift, both rose to governor, thanks to midterm resignations by their respective top cheeses (Bill Weld in 1997, Cellucci in 2001). It's a torch-passing that had previously occurred only once in the past century when Frank Sargent ascended in 1969 to the seat vacated by John Volpe, who was appointed U.S. secretary of transportation. For Cellucci, the acting governorship turned out to be a gift that helped secure election in his own right in 1998; Swift was unable to turn the same trick this year. But the tantalizing prospect of being vaulted to the head of the line by a gubernatorial abdication has heightened political interest in, and elevated the stakes of, the race for food taster in chief. And given the money and intensity the candidates promise to bring to the fight, it seems unlikely that Phil Johnston — or an electorate now attuned to the prospect of a future executive substitution — will have trouble identifying the major players come fall. Says Slattery: “There's no question that the lieutenant governor's race is taken more seriously now in light of what happened with the last two governors.”

Of course, it would be in somewhat poor taste to openly acknowledge that you're aspiring to an office in the hope that your running mate might choke on an olive pit. “It's not any part of my temptation on this,” insists Gabrieli. “To accept this job in hopes that you're going to luck into the top job is not something that holds any appeal.” Slattery goes so far as to denounce the Weld/Cellucci exits. “I don't agree with what they did,” he says. “If you're elected to a full term, you ought to serve your full term.” Nonetheless, at least one candidate hopes the ascension of two lieutenant governors in the past five years weighs on the minds of voters come primary time in September. “People will want to elect a lieutenant governor who is capable of assuming the responsibilities of governor,” says Lois Pines.

On the surface, the emerging pattern of ascension to the governorship is a throwback to the first quarter of the 20th century. Between 1900 and 1925, eight of this state's 12 lieutenant governors went on to become governor. It was the heyday of what one historian calls the “escalator” system, in which powerful party leaders handpicked candidates and cycled them up through the ranks. (One escalator rider, an obscure former mayor of Northampton named Calvin Coolidge who became governor in 1919 after the obligatory term as lieutenant governor, also became the role model for all ambitious second bananas when he parlayed national publicity over his handling of the 1919 Boston police strike into the 1920 GOP nomination for vice president of the United States, hitting the Oval Office jackpot when President Warren Harding died in 1923.)

But as the omnipotence of the political parties waned, the escalator broke down. Between 1929 and the 1997 Weld/Cellucci handoff, only three lieutenant governors scored the top job. With the exception of John Kerry, who won a U.S. Senate seat in 1984 after a forgettable two-year turn as Michael Dukakis's understudy, the roster of contemporary lieutenant governors is a roll call of political futility: Tom O'Neill (1982 gubernatorial reject), Elliot Richardson (failed 1984 Senate candidate), Frank Bellotti and Evelyn Murphy (both losers in the 1990 guber- natorial primary).

The old micromanaged escalator system may have been autocratic, but at least it promoted a certain degree of compatibility between the two pols at the top of the ticket. By the 1978 election, party discipline had become lax enough to allow the pairing of Ed King, a conservative challenger who upset incumbent Dukakis in that year's primary, with the liberal O'Neill, son of the former U.S. House speaker. “We really didn't agree philosophically on anything,” recalls O'Neill. That disastrous coupling was followed by the acrimonious 1986 linkage of Murphy with Dukakis, who froze her out so thoroughly that the two still don't speak. And in a shotgun ticket that might have become the all-time symbol of discord if it had actually triumphed in the November 1990 election, knee-jerk liberal Marjorie Clapprood was paired with dyspeptic conservative John Silber.

Intraticket compatibility may well be the key issue for this year's lieutenant governor candidates. It looms large enough that two candidates, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Mitt Romney (with Healey) and O'Brien (with Gabrieli), have aped the unofficial-pairing model set by Weld's 1990 linkup with Cellucci, a strategy that was also used by both Cellucci (who tabbed Swift) and Joe Malone (with Janet Jeghelian) in the 1998 GOP primary. “The only thing that should matter to people about the nominee politically should be, can they help the ticket win?” says Gabrieli, who can't understand why Democrats would want to “accept whoever shows up at the finish line.”

Easy for him to say. A venture capitalist who made millions selling clinical software to the healthcare industry, Gabrieli sank more than 5 million bucks into a failed 1998 run for Congress, and has since spent money and time helping elect local Democrats and fostering educational programs for urban kids. Party insiders think the genial, centrist Gabrieli would be an easy fit with any nominee, even if it isn't O'Brien.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, that's not necessarily the case with the other lieutenant governor hopefuls. Slattery, for example, has been an outspoken liberal with an eye for the spotlight during eight years in the House. His biggest splash came when he cast the deciding vote against a bill to restore the death penalty in 1997, just days after voting for capital punishment. He's also the darling of the state's largest teacher union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, in part for his opposition to charter schools. Could this become a problem if the gubernatorial nominee is, say, Tom Birmingham, a staunch supporter of charter schools? “It's good within any administration to have divergent points of view,” says Slattery, who scoffs at the notion of a lieutenant governor's being “a yes-person or a sycophant.”

When Pines works up a head of steam describing her formidable résumé, which includes productive years in the legislature and regional work for the Federal Trade Commission, you can easily imagine her lording it over her gubernatorial partner once in office. “What I bring to the office is something different than all of them — I bring experience,” boasts Pines, at 61, by far the senior figure on the ballot in either party.

Over on the GOP side, there's Rappaport, the supremely self-confident heir to a multimillion-dollar real estate empire, whose enemies dismiss him as someone who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. “I think that a good adviser is heard when the advisee or boss wants you to be heard,” he says. We'll see.

Then there's Sandy, er, Sheila, no, Shauna . . . Sarah Cannon Holden, a professionally trained labor arbitrator. Her name recognition might improve in a hurry if she fulfills Clean Elections Law fundraising requirements that could qualify her this spring for a $700,000 public-financing windfall. “I owe nothing to anybody,” she says. Holden's ambitions are on display when she explains why she's attempting the Evel Knievel-like jump from local school board to statewide office: “There's really no other job that would offer that role, unless you want to talk about being governor.”

Oh, my. So as vigorous as the 2002 governor's race looks to be, it might be a secondary spectacle to the free-for-all for lieutenant governor. That is, if you can keep track of the combatants. “Our primary won't be as divisive as [the Republicans'],” insists Phil Johnston. “Our three candidates are basically the same.”

Um, Phil — you just did it again.