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JOAN VENNOCHI

Swift's well-earned portrait

JANE SWIFT'S portrait deserves to hang in the Massachusetts State House, no matter how controversial her tenure on Beacon Hill.

The painting, unveiled this week, legitimately reminds people of a ''first" in Bay State political history. It is also a reminder of the specific challenges that went along with becoming the first pregnant working mother to become acting governor of Massachusetts.

Swift's stint on Beacon Hill was beset by pseudo-scandals. She asked State House aides to babysit, and she used a state helicopter to fly home to Western Massachusetts for Thanksgiving.

Her underlying problem, however, was stature. She couldn't change the perception that she lacked it.

But that doesn't negate Swift's right to be included in the historical record of those who governed the Bay State. Nor does it diminish the important symbolism of her tempestuous time there.

Swift made it to the governor's office the same way Paul Cellucci did. They were both lieutenant governors who became acting governors when the governor left office before his term was up.

When Cellucci ran for election in his own right, Swift was the GOP's candidate for lieutenant governor. She was also pregnant with her first daughter, Elizabeth. When Cellucci left the governor's office to become US ambassador to Canada, Swift was 36 and pregnant with twins.

Swift became a poster child for a working mother's difficulty in achieving the correct work/family balance. Maternity -- not policy -- defined her stint on Beacon Hill, along with questions about how she could manage the acting governor's job while commuting home to her family at the western end of Massachusetts.

Much of the so-called analysis of the Swift administration revolved around the acting governor's physical characteristics, during and after pregnancy. Another favorite media topic was her marriage to a contractor, not a power-broker, who opted to become a stay-at-home dad. That being said, Swift did make mistakes, most notably involving the Turnpike Authority. At the same time, she was never given credit for the tough budget-cutting decisions she was forced to make after Cellucci left town.

And listening to speakers at this week's portrait unveiling ceremony, it is also clear that Massachusetts voters never got to know the woman described by Cellucci and Swift's former state Senate colleagues as determined, serious, and policy-driven.

As acting governor, Swift couldn't shake her image as a political lightweight, and some of the criticism was her own fault. She ultimately dropped out of the governor's race in 2002. Her decision cleared the path for Mitt Romney to gain the GOP nomination and then the corner office.

Romney attended the portrait unveiling, but declined a speaking role. Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, who is poised to become the GOP gubernatorial nominee in 2006, was invited to attend but did not.

The current lieutenant governor tells people she is ''no Jane Swift." She will find out soon enough that being thin, blonde, and rich lends itself to other types of gender-related bias and analysis.

As former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman said during remarks honoring Swift, when a woman runs for office, ''the standards aren't always the same. . . . The questions aren't always the same."

Cellucci noted that future female candidates ''will be better off" because of Swift's role as ''Her Excellency." That will be true only if, instead of disdaining Swift, any future female candidates understand the pressures she withstood as trailblazer. Without such empathy, it will be a long time before a portrait is unveiled of the first woman to be elected governor of Massachusetts.

Stepping up for Steppin' Out: Ruth Ellen Fitch, who recently celebrated her first anniversary as CEO of Dimock Community Health Center in Roxbury, is preparing to preside over the 18th annual ''Steppin' Out" gala. The Nov. 5 event is the primary fund-raiser for the Dimock, which serves more than 40,000 underprivileged Bostonians annually, regardless of ability to pay. In a city known for proper fund-raisers, this one rocks with jazz, diversity, and vitality.

This year, Steppin' Out is back at the Sheraton Boston; event organizers aim for $1 million, a goal essential to the Dimock's operating bottom line. ''This is truly a celebration of all the people who come together to support the Boston community of Roxbury," said one of the event's cochairs, Carol Wilgus of Pyramid Radio Inc. For information, go to www.dimock.org.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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