BOSTON (AP) — Former Gov. Argeo Paul Cellucci, who led Massachusetts from 1997 to 2001 before becoming U.S. ambassador to Canada, died Saturday of complications from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He was 65.
His death was announced on behalf of his family by Dr. Michael F. Collins, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where Cellucci was involved in raising funds for ALS research.
Cellucci was a moderate cast in the mold of New England Republicans — fiscally conservative yet middle of the road on many social issues. In three decades in politics, starting at the local level on a hometown commission, he never lost an election.
He was elected lieutenant governor in 1990 and became acting governor in 1997 when his predecessor, William Weld, resigned to pursue an ambassadorship. Cellucci won election as governor in his own right in 1998. He also served as U.S. ambassador to Canada.
Cellucci and Weld started as rivals before teaming up to run as a GOP ticket. Cellucci was a statehouse insider who was a key asset for Weld, an outsider.
Cellucci's personality was more reserved than Weld's, but he played a much larger role than a typical lieutenant governor and was credited with guiding Weld, a former federal prosecutor and political neophyte, through the political process during their 1990 campaign. Weld often called Cellucci his "co-governor" and relied on him to work with Democrats and fellow Republicans in the Legislature to help push the administration's agenda.
"A gentleman in the true sense of the word, he worked across party lines for the betterment of the country and the Commonwealth," House Speaker Robert DeLeo said.
After fending off a nasty primary challenge by state Treasurer Joe Malone in the 1998 GOP primary, Cellucci faced Attorney General Scott Harshbarger in the November election, which he won with 51 percent of the vote.
He was nominated for the Canada ambassadorship by the Bush administration in February 2001 after a long association with the Bush family. His departure paved the way for his lieutenant governor, Jane Swift, to be named acting governor and become the state's first women chief executive.
"Paul's long record of public service was consistently defined by grace, integrity and common sense, qualities that are all too scarce in modern politics," Swift said in a statement Saturday.
Cellucci was a longtime friend of former President George H.W. Bush, having spearheaded his presidential campaigns in Massachusetts. Cellucci was one of the first GOP governors to stoke President George W. Bush's presidential ambitions, and he helped get a majority of the state executives behind Bush, even backing the then-Texas governor when U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona overwhelmingly won the state's GOP primary.
Cellucci was approached by Bush's team for a possible Cabinet post, but the governor was said to be cool to the idea. Cellucci was also a close friend of White House chief of staff Andrew Card, a former Massachusetts legislator.
"This son of Hudson, Massachusetts, was a close and loyal friend, a superb public servant, and a devoted family man — and our admiration for the way he served throughout his life, and fought a dreaded disease at the end, knows no bounds," George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush said in joint statement.
Cellucci was known as a dedicated film buff. One of his favorite movies was the Coen brothers' classic "The Big Lebowski." Cellucci, who bore a resemblance to Robert De Niro, could also be persuaded into offering up his impersonation of De Niro's character from "Taxi Driver."
He was born in Hudson, a working-class town where his father owned car dealerships. He graduated from Boston College, where he served in the Reserve Officers Training Corps and received a degree from Boston College Law School in 1973.
His political career began in 1970, while he was still in law school, when he was elected to the Hudson Charter Commission. He served on the Hudson Board of Selectmen from 1971-77, and in the state House of Representatives from 1976-84. Cellucci was elected to the state Senate in 1984.
CARA RUBINSKY,Associated Press
Associated Press Writer Steve LeBlanc contributed to this report.
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Published in San Francisco Chronicle on Jun. 8, 2013.