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Analysis: Differences in Pitch of Healey’s Would-be Lieutenant Govs Sharpen…

Mass Lieutenant Gov Primary

It’s actually becoming easier to tell lieutenant governor aspirants apart. (WMP&I)

BOSTON—With three weeks until Massachusetts begins counting ballots, the Democratic contenders for number two in the gubernatorial election again crossed swords. The subjects ranged from transportation to the meaning of the office they seek. But the Boston-area media panel posed more than just existential questions about little-known office and the Hub’s imploding transit infrastructure.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, Acton Rep Tami Gouveia, and Longmeadow Senator Eric Lesser had a lot to say about these and other topics. Whether by design or circumstance, the event at WBUR’s CitySpace let candidates sharply contrast their pitches to run on gubernatorial ticket with Maura Healey, their party’s presumptive candidate for governor. This goes to the heart of how they envision they would fit into the lieutenant governor’s office.

This contrast has become the race’s defining feature. The Boston Globe recently attributed this to Healey’s de facto victory in the gubernatorial nomination. This is certainly a factor and the LG hopefuls’ fate is ultimately tied to Healey’s. The same day voters will choose Democrats’ lieutenant nom, resulting in a shotgun wedding of a ticket that runs as a unit in November.

Yet, the growing differentiation also fits perfectly with what Driscoll, Gouveia and Lesser have been saying since well before Healey became the last woman standing.

That the three Democrats were vying for the second highest, but arguably least powerful elected position in the commonwealth was lost on nobody. There were several questions that tested candidates on how they would deal with disagreement with the ultimately decisionmaker—the governor.

For example, Gouveia opened with her desire to drill down on the “root causes” of systemic racial and social inequalities in office, drawing on her work as a social worker and in public health. Driscoll spotlight her city’s transformation into “hip, history, vibrant destination,” to unwrap her executive experience. For his part, Lesser pointed to his emphasis on transportation and his “history of working closely with attorney general Maura Healey.”

Last summer, Gouveia, who has been in the race longest, was speaking in the language of tackling social inequities she saw in her native Lowell. She often tells the story about money being tight while she was a single mother. At that time, Healey wasn’t even a candidate for governor.

Had Driscoll not talked about her time as mayor and the recent tradition of lieutenant governors liaising with municipalities, it would be political malpractice. Of course, she did talk about them. Her current office and the lieutenant governor’s recent role role featured prominently in her announcement video from January.

“Mayors like me have been on the front line of our most urgent fights,” she said then.

Lesser has been talking about the cost of living, transportation and his service at the federal level—in Barack Obama’s White House—since he announced. In debates, he has mentioned his work with Healey on the Student Loan Bill of Rights as an example of having already worked with her closely.

“I also have a history of working closely with Attorney General Maura Healey,” he noted in his opening statement.

But Lesser has been noting the student bill of rights since his campaign

Eric Lesser lieutenant governor

Even Lesser’s Neal endorsement was on message, standing in front of a transportation hub. (WMP&I)

announcement in January.

Arguably, he made such comments cognizant that Healey was all but certain to run and favored to win the nomination. Her effectively clinching the nod, however, made it easier for the candidate to play up the themes they had already established.

On round after round, the markings of the candidates’ lanes was clear. On the question of how to handle disagreement with the governor, whose say is final, it came through.

Driscoll harkened back to her time as a subordinate to Chelsea’s City Manager and played up creative tension. Lesser discussed disagreeing with colleagues but then looking to the next vote to make more progress next time. Gouveia pointed to her career as a social worker, resolving problems. She also highlighted rejecting invective hurled at Republicans and others with whom she and Democrats disagree.

Kim Driscoll

Driscoll in Western Mass. Her appeal to working as a mayor has earned her a few executive nods the 413. (WMP&I)

On questions about the Work and Family Mobility Act, which allows persons to obtain drivers licenses regardless of legal status, they spoke in their respective characters. Rhetoric only began to converge on what they would do if voters repeal the law at the ballot in November. At that point, there is not much more they could do but urge the legislature to find an alternative—or simply overrule voters.

Two other major converges arose on Tuesday. The first was on transportation and the MBTA more specifically. The Boston-area transportation agency has challenged the adequacy of words like “mess” and “disaster” in recent months. While the candidates pitched some of their ideas—e.g. Lesser’s bill of rights for riders—the responses largely echoes riders’ frustration and barely contained skepticism about the effect of the Orange Line’s shutdown.

The other major convergence was partial. As she had in the GBH debate earlier this month, Driscoll discussed her work’s impact on people’s lives and the onus on mayors to act. This channeled her pitch about her municipal background and attempted to further crystalize the presumption the lieutenant governor would be act as liaison to cities and town. However, it also had the effect of subtweeting the legislature—and its members on stage with her.

The convergence was not obvious in the moment. Neither Gouveia nor Lesser had a chance to respond, but at GBH, both rejected the suggestion their work did not have the impact on constituents the way mayors do. What they could do at WBUR was in their closing statements invoke a SuperPAC that favors Driscoll and would begin spending hours after the debate.

Tami Gouveia

Rep Gouveia at Tuesday’s debate. As with her rivals, debates have given Gouveia a chance to underscore her pitch–targeting root causes of disparities–but she’s been using such language for a year. (WMP&I)

On a tactical level, this differentiation is obvious. It plays to the candidates’ strength. Yet, it is unusual compared to more recent Democratic LG primaries because the entire field consists of electeds. The complication is that voters do not understand the office very well and may become vexed upon learning its prerogatives. Can voters process these messages such that the candidates’ pitches become a major force in the outcome?

Recent polling shows the LG candidates have meager name recognition. Polls show “undecided” winning the race by a mile, even though it will not appear on the ballot.

Does that mean none of this matters? Not exactly. Down ballot races in Massachusetts primaries do not tend to break through to voters until late. There is time for these messages to make an impact and voters will have to decide which of these will matter most. It is a variation, if a somewhat more textured one, of the contest of resumes that often dominate primaries in arch-Democratic Massachusetts.

There is another element: accountability. These lieutenant governor nominees will not be decided policy, but how they serve is going to be very much in their control. Laying out the raison d’etre of their campaigns lets voters know what to expect. In short, it becomes a metric to grade the LG in four years when voters return to the polls—or Governor Healey considers whether the marriage is working.