Karyn Polito: From Shrewsbury town meeting member to lieutenant governor

·8 min read
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito is honored on the field at Polar Park before a Worcester Red Sox game in September.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito is honored on the field at Polar Park before a Worcester Red Sox game in September.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, a longtime public official from Shrewsbury, will not be running for reelection. Nor will she be running for governor, at least not in 2022.

Polito, a Central Massachusetts native, and incumbent Gov. Charlie Baker announced Wednesday that they would not be seeking a third term.

Polito's commitment and attentiveness to the area as well as her cooperative nature was praised by area state legislators and local officials Wednesday.

In a statement, City Manager Edward M. Augustus praised Polito and Baker for their investment in Worcester.

"The entire commonwealth of Massachusetts and the city of Worcester specifically have benefited from the continuous leadership and unwavering support of Governor Baker and Lieutenant Governor Polito," Augustus said. "Whether it was working together to convert the PawSox into the WooSox or navigating the many stages of the pandemic, Karyn Polito has been by our side and in our corner since the very beginning. Worcester’s momentum is in no small part due to their support for our city."

Shrewsbury Town Manager Kevin J. Mizikar said he first met Polito in 2015, when he was Leicester town administrator. He said that she brought knowledge about Central Massachusetts to the role of lieutenant governor.

"Her being a lifelong Shrewsbury resident means she's been a stalwart supporter of Shrewsbury and Central Massachusetts," Mizikar said. "I think the greatest benefit that comes from that is just her innate knowledge is just her innate knowledge of the region. She understands Central Massachusetts, the economy, the infrastructure and that obviously places her in a wonderful advocacy role for the region."

Politics in Polito's blood

Polito, 55, has spent much of her adult life in politics, beginning in her hometown of Shrewsbury.

She was a town meeting member and selectman in the 1990s, inspired to enter public service by her late grandfather, Robert F. Lutz. He served as a town meeting member for many years.

Karyn Polito at the Statehouse in 2001.
Karyn Polito at the Statehouse in 2001.

"I was always interested in knowing more about things he was working on. That was our common bond," Polito said about her grandfather.

Mizikar said that Polito's experience in municipal politics has shined in her participation in municipal government reform and the community compact cabinet program.

Polito and her team regularly reach out to municipal administrators to understand local government issues, Mizikar said.

Establishing resources for COVID-19 testing in Shrewsbury during the initial phase of pandemic response was particular area where Mizikar valued Polito's collaboration. He said infrastructure projects like the Route 20 corridor overtaken by the administration have benefited the region.

State Rep. Michael J. Soter of the 8th Worcester District said he was very disappointed to hear the news that Baker and Polito would not be running, saying that both are strong advocates for the state who handled difficult decisions during the pandemic.

Soter was effusive in his praise for Polito, who he considers on of the most effective lieutenant governors the state has ever had.

"She put Central Massachusetts on the map," Soter said. "Not just Central Massachusetts either, I would argue that she also took care of the western part of the state also ... she focused on the issues outside of Boston. Everything can't be about Boston."

A genuine and committed person

Polito would always take Soter's phone calls, he said. He recalled talking to Polito in the 1990s, when she was considering a run for state senator and that she has always been genuine in her commitment to the region.

"The biggest thing that I can tell you is that in my private conversations with the lieutenant governor, her collaboration and working with me on programs like works grant program and economic development were very strong. She listened to me, she understood my passion to get this approved," Soter said.

State Rep. Paul Frost of the 7th Worcester District said that Polito was a hands-on lieutenant governor with a skill for retail politics and governing who was so well-known that she was on a first-name basis with Central Massachusetts officials.

"You saw her around all the time, especially in Central Massachusetts. People didn't have to formally call her lieutenant governor, her name was Karyn," Frost said. "Various town managers had a direct line to her."

Timothy P. Murray, president and CEO of the Worcester Chamber of Commerce and a former lieutenant governor under Deval Patrick, said Polito was there to support and advocate for Worcester in projects ranging from Polar Park, the Worcester Public Market and funding for Union Station.

"The role that she has played is an important one, it's reminding decision makers in Boston, both in government and in the business community that Boston alone is not the whole state," Murray said.

As someone who served in Polito's current position, Murray said that the amount of travel and the time dedication necessary for the role may not be understood from the outside.

"It's an 18-hour day, seven-day a week job and you don't get much time for yourself and your family, and that's just the reality of these jobs," Murray said.

The potential loss of a voice for Central Massachusetts in Beacon Hill will be difficult to fill, according to several people interviewed.

'Huge void' on Beacon Hill

While Mizikar said he has a good working relationship with state legislators from the region and that they will continue to serve the area well, he acknowledged that Polito not being in office will be a loss.

Soter said losing Polito will create a " huge void" in Central Mass. representation on Beacon Hill.

"We'll see who comes out of this running for office, but I would say I would be hard pressed to support anybody that isn't focused on Central Massachusetts," Soter said. "Central Massachusetts is the heart of the Massachusetts economy and if people want to argue with me about that, I would be happy to debate them on that."

Karyn Polito at a 2007 ice cream social in Shrewsbury.
Karyn Polito at a 2007 ice cream social in Shrewsbury.

Frost said Baker and Polito made sure Central Massachusetts was paid attention to.

"We were not ignored out here in Central Massachusetts. I know when I first started politics, my God that was always the thing," Frost said.

Soter said he wishes Polito will eventually make a comeback and believes she still has a bright future.

A Republican, Polito will serve out the rest of her term in 2022. Baker and Polito cited a need to focus on handling the continuing COVID-19 pandemic in their statement outlining the decision not to run in 2022.

"We have a great deal of work to do to put the pandemic behind us, keep our kids in school, and keep our communities and economy moving forward. That work cannot and should not be about politics and the next election," the statement read. "If we were to run, it would be a distraction that would potentially get in the way of many of the things we should be working on for everyone in Massachusetts."

The Baker-Polito Administration governed as moderate Republicans often compared to former incumbents such as William Weld. At one time the most popular governor in the country, Baker has maintained high approval ratings from Democrats and Republicans.

However, Baker and Polito's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn criticism from state Republican Party officials, who is increasingly seen as loyal to former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Geoff Diehl in a 2022 primary challenge to Baker.

Reflecting the tension between Baker and the state Republican leadership, state GOP chairman James J. Lyons brought up Diehl's primary challenge and reiterated his support for Trump in a statement Wednesday.

"Our part remains committed to the America-First agenda advocated by President Donald J. Trump, and its clear to me that Charlie Baker was shaken by President Trump's endorsement of Geoff Diehl," Lyons said.

Soter and Frost, both Republicans, praised Baker and Polito for appealing to voters across party lines and said the state party has to work on building its bench with candidates that can win in general elections.

Soter is not confident that his party can retain the governorship without Baker, saying that while he believes Diehl is a good man, he does not believe that Diehl has been successful relating to the desires of voters.

The Republican Party in the state has shifted too far into focusing on national issues and needs to do better at building trust on local matters, like state Democrats have, Soter said.

"The Republican Party here needs to start soul searching and start focusing in on what the Democratic Party does very well, and that's focusing in on their constituents," Soter said.

Frost said that the state Republican Party apparatus is in poor shape, and criticized Lyons for spending too much time criticizing Baker and Polito. He said that the party could potentially look to elected sheriffs and district attorneys who won general elections for future candidates.

Polito was the 72nd lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, first serving in January 2015.

Prior to being elected lieutenant governor, Polito served as a member of the state House of Representatives in the 11th Worcester District for five terms, starting in 2001. She made an unsuccessful bid for state treasurer in 2010.

Polito is a graduate of Holy Name Central Catholic High School in Worcester, Boston College and the New England School of Law. She has two children with her husband Stephan M. Rodolakis.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Karyn Polito: From Shrewsbury town meeting member to lieutenant governor

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