Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R) chairs a meeting of the Board of Public Works at the State House in Annapolis on June 23. On the right is Comptroller Peter Franchot (D). (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

As Maryland’s little-known lieutenant governor, Boyd K. Rutherford is not accustomed to dramatic entrances.

Yet there he was at an Eastern Shore clambake on a July afternoon, tilting his head back in laughter as lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano bellowed, “This is a great lieutenant governor!” and “This is a true leader!”

The lieutenant governor waded into an afternoon-long procession of handshakes, photos and greetings from strangers, which invariably included, in hushed tones, “How’s the governor? . . . Let Larry know he’s in our prayers.”

A month after Gov. Larry Hogan disclosed that he had been diagnosed with advanced non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Rutherford, 58, has found himself thrust into an unfamiliar and somewhat awkward role.

At a minimum, Rutherford is filling in more frequently for Hogan at meetings, ribbon-cuttings and other events. But the gravity of Hogan’s illness and treatment regimen also creates the possibility that Rutherford may have to step up in a more permanent way.

If he were to succeed Hogan, Rutherford would become Maryland’s first African American governor, a Republican — like Hogan — in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.

“Is he or is he not a heartbeat away? That’s on everyone’s mind,” said Gloria Lawlah, a Democrat who served in the Maryland General Assembly for two decades.

Rutherford, a District native whose grandmother was an ally of the city’s political maestro, Marion Barry, joined the Republican Party in his 30s after deciding that policies championed by Barry and other Democrats had failed blacks. During stints in state and federal government, he gained a reputation as a measured, methodical conservative with an eye for spending cuts.

Hogan’s aides, as well as Rutherford himself, are careful to define the lieutenant governor’s enhanced duties as largely ceremonial. The governor, they say, is fully engaged as the state’s leader, in charge of setting policy and making appointments even when he’s hospitalized for chemotherapy.

Yet Hogan’s illness has also cast more attention on his understudy, as was clear when Rutherford attended the J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake in Crisfield, an annual confab where the state’s political establishment mingles with a sprawling crowd.

“Hi. Boyd Rutherford,” the lieutenant governor repeated to everyone he met, his voice friendly, if sometimes a bit tentative, as he made the rounds in wire-rimmed sunglasses and a red golf shirt.

“It’s usually hot as the dickens here,” Rutherford said, posing with a stranger for one of what would be 201 portraits the governor’s photographer shot of him and guests.

While others gorged on crabs, Rutherford nibbled on layer cake, explaining later that he was too busy greeting people to join in the messy fun. At one point, he grew frustrated with a reporter who was following him around. “Why do you have to get so close?” he said. “You know, I’m not used to this.”

When he arrived, Rutherford said he would stay no more than two hours. Three and a half hours later, he was still shaking hands, his smile unflinching as he posed for more photos.

Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford, along with other officials, officially welcomes Denmark-based Maersk to the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore on July 1. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Cerebral and guarded

On a Saturday morning five months after the swearing-in, Hogan summoned Rutherford to his State House office. The two men sat alone as the governor told his deputy that he had cancer and would begin chemotherapy almost immediately.

“I knew I was going to make you cry,” Hogan said as they became tearful, the lieutenant governor recalled.

They had become friendly in the early 2000s, when both worked for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). In November, their upset victory in a left-leaning state stunned Democrats and thrilled Republicans across the country.

Unlike previous lieutenant governors, Rutherford eschewed hiring a large staff of his own, preferring to work directly with the governor’s senior aides. Rutherford participates in key budget and policy meetings, and Hogan tapped him to chair a task force on heroin addiction and oversee a review of state business regulations.

Asked about how his role has changed since his boss’s cancer diagnosis, Rutherford focused on logistics. He used to spend three or four nights a week attending events, he said, and now it can be seven — a difference that his wife, Monica, has pointed out.

“It’s more her adjustment than mine,” he said.

In public, Rutherford can seem cerebral and guarded, particularly for a politician, a species overcrowded with serial backslappers. After a ribbon-cutting at a Prince George’s County hospital, he conversed with the facility’s boss for 15 minutes, ate a deviled egg, then asked an aide, “Where’s the vehicle?” He bypassed dozens of guests on his way to the exit.

“My impression is that he’s much more comfortable behind the scenes, being part of the building blocks of an organization,” said Michael Steele, who served as Ehrlich’s lieutenant governor. “He’s very much a guy who drills down on the process of things.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Governor Boyd K. Rutherford, behind him, address the crowd at a “Buy Local” cookout on July 16. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Yet Rutherford can also display partisan political passion, especially on his Facebook page, where he once ripped into Vice President Biden for suggesting that Republicans were seeking to enslave African Americans. “Does Biden have no Shame?” Rutherford wrote in 2012. “His claim that anyone wants to put Blacks in chains is outrageous!”

In 2013, Rutherford wrote that “Julian Bond is the reason I am no longer a member of the NAACP,” deriding the civil right leader’s contention that the tea party is racist. “What’s his proof? Who admitted this?”

At another point, Rutherford lambasted the Internal Revenue Service for investigating conservative organizations. He described the agency’s scrutiny as “worse than Watergate.”

Democratic roots

Rutherford’s unbridled conservatism is notable given that he grew up in the District, the son of a postal worker who — like the overwhelming majority of city residents — was a registered Democrat.

“I was always disenchanted with the Democratic Party,” Rutherford said. “They treat black people as victims, and I’m not a victim.”

His wife remains a Democrat, Rutherford said, although he added, “She voted for me.”

Rutherford’s grandmother, Thelma, was a social worker and a well-known party activist, at one point serving as head of the city’s Food Stamps Advisory Commission. She was on a first-name basis with Barry when he ran for mayor in 1978, and she was appointed to his transition team when he won.

“She spoke up for poor people and advocated for women to be on commissions,” said Theresa Jones, another Barry appointee. “She was a no-nonsense person. People would get carried away with their emotions, and she’d bring them back down to earth with the facts.”

Boyd Rutherford’s friends describe him in similar terms, saying he was a focused student at Archbishop John Carroll High School and at Howard University, where he majored in economics and political science.

He grew up in middle-class Michigan Park in Northeast Washington. A little girl named Muriel E. Bowser lived around the corner. The future D.C. mayor was 16 years younger than Rutherford, who remembers her father, Joe, ordering him and his friends to scram when they played ball in a nearby field.

“He was never extreme in anything. He was never radical, he was not a rah-rah kind of guy,” said Courtney Glass, 61, a childhood friend and retired Metro worker. “He doesn’t get caught up in frivolous conversations.”

Rutherford, in an interview in his State House office that his aides limited to 30 minutes, acknowledged his immediate family’s Democratic roots but said there were also Republicans in the extended clan.

“I always went my own way,” Rutherford said, recalling that he registered as an independent when he turned 18.

He eventually became a Democrat but switched to the GOP in the 1990s, fed up with the Democrats in general and Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal in particular.

Rutherford received a law degree from the University of Southern California. He and his wife live in Columbia and have a son and two daughters, all now adults. He worked two years for the Bush administration’s Department of General Services, then joined Ehrlich’s cabinet to head the state’s General Services agency.

At least once, Ehrlich considered putting Rutherford on his ticket as lieutenant governor, but Rutherford said he wasn’t interested.

After another stint in the Bush administration, Rutherford landed a senior job at the Republican National Committee. He also has practiced law at a private firm.

In 2012, with Democrat Martin O’Malley in his second term as governor, Rutherford went on Facebook to lament, “Too bad those of us in Maryland don’t have a Governor like Chris Christie.”

“Not yet Boyd,” wrote a Facebook friend named “Larry Hogan,” a businessman who at that point was largely unknown to the public. “But someday we just might.”

A screenshot of a Facebook post from Boyd Rutherford in 2012 that Larry Hogan commented on. (Facebook) (Facebook)
A low public profile

On a steamy Saturday in June, Rutherford traveled to Baltimore for the opening of a community center named after Freddie Gray, the African American man whose death in police custody triggered rioting this spring.

Jamal Bryant, a Baltimore pastor who presided at the ceremony outside the center’s entrance, led Rutherford on a tour afterward. As they walked into a classroom, a woman shouted, “Hey! Look who’s here!”

She ran toward the men and threw her arms around Bryant, apparently unaware that the pastor was accompanied by the state’s second-highest-ranking leader.

The lieutenant governor’s grin suggested that he didn’t mind the anonymity one bit.