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Massachusetts' Murphy: making hay while the Duke is away

EVELYN Murphy, as skilled as she may be with scissors, has no intention of spending much of the next four years cutting ribbons at ceremonial functions. While Massachusetts' lieutenant governor won't ignore invitations to such events, she will surely be making the most of opportunities that come her way to grasp the executive reins.

With Gov. Michael Dukakis likely to be away much of the time pursuing the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, Miss Murphy seems bound to gain substantial visibility. Whenever the governor is away, she will be the chief executive. And that exposure along with the hands-on experience it provides, should stand her in good stead, regardless of how Mr. Dukakis fares in his quest.

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But with the increased opportunities and responsibilities come major challenges. As capable as she proved herself administratively as a cabinet member in both the first and second Dukakis terms, the lieutenant governor could find her leadership tested as never before.

A lot could hinge on how much specific authority Dukakis delegates to her. Obviously most decisions confronting the head of state can await his return from the campaign trail, or be handled by his aides.

This could prove frustrating for the lieutenant governor in her zeal to demonstrate to the people of Massachusetts her capacity as a take-charge problem-solver. Yet in the interest of harmony she may have little choice but to be what amounts to a temporary caretaker of the affairs of state.

Certainly it is to the advantage of both the governor and lieutenant governor to have an understanding as to what Murphy's role will be. Gubernatorial staff members, too, must be kept apprised of what is expected of them while their boss is away. For instance, should legislation that comes to the governor's desk when he is out of state be held for his signature or passed along to Murphy?

There can be little doubt that major measures, particularly ones that might enhance the Dukakis image, will be saved for his approval. That should pose no problem for his aides, since it is unlikely the governor will be away for more than a week at a time, at least early in the campaign. Under the state constitution the governor has 10 calendar days, excluding Sundays and legal holidays, to act on legislation that clears House and Senate. For this reason there might not be too many ``Murphy laws.''

After eight years in state government - the first four as secretary of environmental affairs and more recently as secretary for economic affairs - Murphy knows her way around the state as well as anyone in the executive branch. And she has the enthusiasm and determination to do more than required.

For example, even before the embers of the March 26 fire that devastated a Lowell mill complex had cooled, the lieutenant governor was on the scene, assuring local business and community leaders that they could count on help from Beacon Hill. Dukakis, who at the time was thousands of miles away preparing his political turf in Iowa, could hardly have done more had he rushed home to the scene, with words of comfort for the several dozen burned out firms and their approximately 300 workers.

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Like most of those who have preceded her as lieutenant governor, there is little question that Murphy has her sights on the governor's chair. If Dukakis succeeds in his current pursuits, she would automatically move up in January 1989 and would almost surely run for a full four-year term of her own in 1990.

But if Dukakis fails in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, the state's first woman lieutenant governor could find it hard to readjust.

While some state political observers doubt Dukakis would go after a fourth term in the state executive chair if he does not make it to Washington, the possibility of a 1990 reelection bid cannot be ruled out. That would certainly disappoint several of his fellow-Democrats, including Murphy, who could find themselves having to either take on Dukakis, wait four more years, or abandon their gubernatorial dreams altogether.

Assuming she does not trip up somewhere along the way, perhaps by overstepping her ground, or clashing with Dukakis loyalists, the lieutenant governor could have the advantage of being the only woman contender for her party's gubernatorial nomination come 1990.

All others now likely to run are men. They include Attorney General James M. Shannon, US Rep. Chester G. Atkins, and former state auditor John J. Finnegan.

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