The funeral last week for former Gov. Paul Cellucci was an unusual moment in our partisan world of government. People from both sides of the political aisle showed their heartfelt sadness over his death to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis —Lou Gehrig’s disease — at the age of 65, and recalled qualities and strengths that perhaps should have been better appreciated during his life.
Cellucci, who served as governor from 1997 to 2001, wasn’t known for being a firebrand public speaker. A Republican, he wasn’t particularly partisan. He didn’t carry himself in a manner that reeked of self importance.
Instead, he remained true to his roots as a nuts-and-bolts leader. He had started his political career as a selectman in a small town, then moved on to the state Legislature. He had a calming way about him, a willingness to work with people, and a touch of Italian machismo. He was more apt to find compromise than to villify.
William Weld, the colorful governor who led the state from 2001 to 2007, picked Cellucci as his running mate because he needed someone who could connect him to the “sausage factory” that is the state Legislature. Weld was famously witty and aloof. Cellucci was his hands-on man who could wrangle Weld’s agenda through the Legislature. He was Weld’s ideal counterpart.
“If I may say so, he was always right. It kind of took the steam out of the rest of the discussion,” Weld recounted.
When Weld left office, Cellucci held true to the tenets of Massachusetts Republicans — he was a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. If there was an issue that would cause him to raise his voice, it was invariably taxes and spending. Even then, it was a rare moment when Cellucci displayed partisan podium-thumping rhetoric.
Cellucci named Jane Swift as his lieutenant governor, and she became the state’s first woman governor when Cellucci left office in 2001. Swift recalled that Cellucci took pride in naming women to top positions in state government and showed a strong sensitivity to women’s issues.
“Despite a significant risk, he was reliably pro-choice, and his leadership on the issues of domestic violence, and Herculean efforts to pass legislation to protect victims from their assailants, saved lives,” Swift said. “He did usher in an era of leadership for women.”
Gov. Deval Patrick shared an anecdote about a meeting he had with Cellucci. Cellucci invited him to go golfing. The two men talked about politics and family, all the while Patrick wondered what Cellucci’s agenda was. There was no agenda. Patrick eventually realized that Cellucci was just reaching out to him, across the political aisle, in an effort to give some helpful advice.
That wasn’t unusual for Cellucci. House Speaker Robert Deleo, a Democrat, recalled his good relations with Cellucci.
“A former member of the House, he paid attention to us and treated us all with great respect,” said DeLeo, who said he and Cellucci would eat together at Italian restaurants in the North End and played bocce ball.
Governors occasionally find themselves attending local events — chamber meetings, ribbon cuttings and the like. Unlike some governors we’ve seen, Cellucci was the kind of man who was comfortable in these settings and immediately put people at ease. It was probably his smalltown political roots that helped him understand the importance of listening to people.
“Paul was a public servant first and a politician second. Paul proved that in the blood sport of Massachusetts politics, you can be a truly good and decent person and succeed at the highest levels,” Swift said.