April 24 - May 1, 1 9 9 7
[Governor's Race]

Fall from grace

Lieutenant Governor Paul Cellucci was on the inside track to be governor. Now things are starting to get a little complicated.

by Dan Kennedy

Mounted above Lieutenant Governor Paul Cellucci's desk, in his office on the third floor of the State House, is a large, ornately framed portrait of Robert F. Bradford, the state's Republican governor from 1947 to '48. When asked about its significance, Cellucci has a ready answer.

"He's a good role model," he replies with just the slightest trace of a grin. "He was a lieutenant governor who became governor."

It's an expression of optimism entirely out of sync with Cellucci's political prospects. These days Cellucci seems more likely to be transmogrified into the Invisible Man than the next governor of the Commonwealth.

Lieutenant Governor Paul Cellucci
Attorney General Scott Harshbarger
Rep. Joe Kennedy
State Treasurer Joe Malone

Joe Kennedy, a likely candidate for governor in 1998, has quickly established himself as a media black hole, sucking in all the heat and light that enters his gravitational field.

In public, Governor Bill Weld can't decide whether to run again -- and in private, he breaks bread with Cellucci's archrival, State Treasurer Joe Malone, telling him something that apparently sounded to Malone like a pledge not to seek re-election.

On the few occasions when the political wise guys even mention Cellucci's name, it's to spread rumors: that he'll step down, or that he'll run for Congress. Never mind that Cellucci says none of it's true.

For Argeo Paul Cellucci, it wasn't supposed to be like this.

Just a year ago it looked like a good bet that he would follow in Governor Bradford's footsteps. Weld was off to a strong start in his campaign to unseat US Senator John Kerry. And if Weld won, Cellucci would have a two-year head start as governor before having to stand for election in his own right.

But Cellucci's political fortunes were soon dealt a devastating double blow.

The first came on July 26, when the Boston Globe, in a front-page story, reported that Cellucci -- whose status as Weld's "co-governor" is built largely on their reputation for tight-fisted management of the state's fiscal affairs -- had run up $750,000 in personal debt, $70,000 of that on credit cards.

The second came on Election Day, November 5, when Weld lost by an unexpectedly big margin, sentencing Cellucci to two more years as lieutenant governor. To make matters worse, some political observers blamed Cellucci for Weld's defeat, arguing that voters didn't want to leave the governorship in the hands of a guy who couldn't balance his own finances.

The question now is whether Cellucci has any political future at all.

Forget Joe Kennedy for the moment. Few observers outside Cellucci's immediate circle think Cellucci could even win his party's 1998 gubernatorial primary against Malone, a media-savvy, charismatic outsider. One telling indication: a poll conducted in February by Opinion Dynamics showed Malone with a favorable/unfavorable ratio of 53/9 and Cellucci with 40/21. (Kennedy was at 61/24 and Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, his likely Democratic-primary opponent, scored 48/11.)

"Cellucci's in deep shit," says Lou DiNatale, a political analyst with UMass/Boston's McCormack Institute of Public Affairs. "Malone is a completely independently built political operation. Cellucci needed the cover of Weld in order to grow, and that really hasn't worked to his advantage. He makes an easy target, both in a primary and a general election."

Adds a Democratic political operative: "Every Republican I know believes that Malone would win a fair fight -- or even an unfair fight, as long as he gets to make his case. The truth is that the hearts and souls of Republicans belong to Malone. That's the line you get over and over and over again, except from people who are incredibly loyal to Weld-Cellucci."

Thus at 49, Cellucci's political career may well be over, or close to it. So it's not surprising that after more than six years in one of the most thoroughly useless jobs in state government, Cellucci says he wants another six: the remaining two years of his current term, plus another four in a third Weld-Cellucci administration, which can happen only if both he and the governor break their pledge to serve only two terms. Presumably a third term would give Cellucci a chance to hunker down, get his finances under control, repair his image. And who knows? Maybe by 2002, both Malone and Kennedy will have found something else to do with their lives.

"I'm encouraging the governor to run," says Cellucci. "You go with your strongest candidate, and Governor Weld and I have been a very good team."

More . . .

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com.