Politics

The Massachusetts Mess

Politics has always been rough in the Bay State. These days, though, meanness sometimes seems like an end in itself.
by | December 2001

The job of running Massachusetts isn't lacking for big-name applicants. In October, after several months of uncertainty, acting Governor Jane M. Swift, a Republican, announced that she wanted to be given a full term next year. By then, no fewer than five Democrats had also let it be known they were giving it a shot, including the state Senate president, the secretary of state and the state treasurer.

To Massachusetts, of course, all this makes sense. It seems obvious that any politician with a healthy ego would covet the governorship. "Politics in Massachusetts is a professional sport," says Gus Bickford, former executive director of the state Democratic Party. "Being the governor or U.S. senator is the prize."

But to any outsider who's been watching the state for the past few years, the question that occurs is, "Why? Why on earth would anybody want this job?"

Consider the course of Swift's term so far. She was pregnant with twins when she took over in April, after her boss, Paul Cellucci, gave up the governorship to be ambassador to Canada. Immediately, Swift had to contend with both a political establishment and a general public that doubted her ability to act as mother and governor at the same time. When it came time to have her babies and she was placed on bed rest for 10 days, the Governor's Council--an archaic but not entirely powerless body that happened to be made up of Democrats--challenged her ability to govern by telephone from her hospital room. After that imbroglio died down, Swift suddenly resurfaced in the headlines when it was revealed that she was her husband's fourth wife, not his second, as they had indicated when they applied for their marriage certificate.

Swift had barely made it back to the office when the September 11 terrorists boarded two airplanes at Boston's Logan Airport, focusing public attention on the fact that both the director of Massport--the state port authority, which has Logan in its portfolio of agencies-- and the director of security at Logan had been patronage appointees with no relevant experience other than close ties to Swift's two Republican predecessors. Assuming she can win a full term in 2002, Swift faces the tricky maneuver of addressing her own party's addiction to state jobs without undercutting its hold on the executive branch.

Meanwhile, the news out of the Democratic-dominated state legislature was mostly about House Speaker Tom Finneran's two knife-in-the-back redistricting ploys. The first effectively eliminated the congressional seat of U.S. Representative Martin Meehan--who has been, not coincidentally, a critic of the speaker. Then, in October, came the second installment, which combined the legislative districts of two of Finneran's most dogged detractors in the Democratic caucus, both women. The resulting firestorm of criticism led him to retract his plan, only to eliminate a much-demanded minority-dominated district he'd created nearby. Despite considerable protest from a melange of interest groups and liberal legislators, the House leadership pushed the new measure through with scant debate.

None of this--the backbiting, the mean-spirited power plays, the sense that public agendas are driven as much by personal concerns as by policy--is unusual for Massachusetts. The state's politics has always been reminiscent of the poster that appeared years ago on Beacon Hill during the national battle against drunk driving. It quoted the old rock lyrics: "Every breath you take, every move you make, we'll be watching you." That sentiment could just as well be the motto of the state political establishment. As Bickford puts it, "Careers are evaluated daily on Beacon Hill, and people are always looking at how to take advantage of little slip-ups."

Until recently in Massachusetts, though, the game of politics was bearable because it led somewhere--to policies and innovations that made state government meaningful. It has become harder of late to make that case. To be sure, state government is not at a complete standstill. Legislators in recent months have grappled with sentencing reform, affordable housing and insurance for experimental cancer therapies. But where the Massachusetts statehouse once ranked among the more conspicuous venues for innovation in state government nationally, the sense of being part of an enterprise engaged in noteworthy pursuits has disappeared. Instead, there is a growing conviction around the state that its political leadership has become enmired in its own worst impulses. As Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara put it recently, referring to the statehouse, "Why, save an appreciation for Charles Bulfinch's architectural gem, would anyone compete for the chance to work in this building?"

Massachusetts' long history of political backbiting was held in check for years by a combination of strong governors and legislative leaders willing to forge a common purpose. The state has always had a strong legislature: Its constitution, written by John and Samuel Adams, enshrined a distrust of executive power. The governorship began to gain influence in the 1960s, first with Republican John Volpe, who battled for two years to institute a sales tax and give the state a reliable source of revenue, and then with his successor, Republican Frank Sargent, who made the governorship a seat of policy innovation. Sargent became the first governor in the country to halt work on interstate expressways in favor of a more balanced approach to transportation, helped modernize state government by setting up a cabinet system, and developed a national profile with his efforts on gun control, public housing and the deinstitutionalization of mental patients. Michael Dukakis, his Democratic successor, reshaped the state's transportation system, developed some of the earliest welfare- to-work strategies in the country, and established a reputation for hiring creative cabinet secretaries and then giving them the room they needed to run their departments.

In all these cases, the governors were joined by a set of imposing legislative leaders who, despite sometimes intense political disagreements with the governor, were in accord on the benefits of an active state government. The prevailing ethic was, "We expect government to do things, and we expect it to succeed at them," as Bob Keough, the editor of the state policy journal CommonWealth, puts it.

That may still be Massachusetts' fundamental political conviction, but as a guiding light for statehouse politics, it dimmed permanently during the state's fiscal crisis of 1989-92. Two political changes occurred then that continue to shape life at the statehouse: The state began to elect Republican governors; and its appetite for the generous use of public dollars shrank dramatically. "That period drove the process and set the stage for the state government we have now," says Stan Rosenberg, the assistant majority leader in the Senate. "We do less now than before."

Other states went through hard times in the last recession, of course, but it's fair to say that Massachusetts trumped most of them for the sheer political havoc wrought by a sour economy. "We lost 400,000 jobs," says Finneran, who was then chair of the banking committee. "We're not a big state--400,000 jobs was a cataclysmic economic event." With Dukakis politically wounded by his loss in the 1988 presidential campaign--and by the public's realization that the state's economy was headed south even while he was off campaigning on the "Massachusetts Miracle"--it fell to the state legislature to deal with growing deficits; after much fumbling, it twice increased taxes and began cutting spending.

It was not a happy time to be a politician. In his book, "Experiencing Politics," former legislator John McDonough, who now teaches at Brandeis University, recalls standing in line at a food store in his Boston district, a half-gallon of milk in his hand, when a stranger began shouting at him, "You are a cockroach! How dare you vote to raise my taxes? You are a disgrace! You should be ashamed! We are going to run you out of there fast!" Legislators were spat on, accosted on the street, insulted at public meetings. To no one's surprise, a good number went on to lose their seats in the 1990 elections. There are many who believe the state's political process has never recovered.

An equally important political shift took place in the governor's office, which Republican William Weld won that year. Weld came into office with strong opinions and a clear agenda: shrink government and rid the bureaucracy of "walruses," his derisive term for patronage appointees.

Weld was a reasonably successful policy entrepreneur during his first couple of years as governor. He proposed tax cuts and spending reductions, which the legislature adopted, and launched two major efforts to reshape how government worked--a privatization initiative and a move to performance budgeting--which the legislature stymied. It was on his watch, as well, that the state instituted an extensive, standards-based education reform package in 1993, and welfare reform in 1995; both drew national attention.

But by then Democrats had also reclaimed the legislative majority necessary to override a gubernatorial veto, and Weld seemed to lose interest in his ideas and in the governorship--so much so that in 1995 one Boston Herald columnist took note of that era's national preoccupation to muse, "National Missing Children's Day. What about National Missing Governors' Day? In Massachusetts, every day is National Missing Governors' Day." No one seemed much surprised when Weld ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1996 and then tried to become ambassador to Mexico the following year, handing off the governorship to his lieutenant governor, Paul Cellucci.

Cellucci, too, ended up ducking out early. "As far as anyone in Massachusetts politics could tell," says one non-partisan onlooker, "Paul Cellucci's goal was always to become governor, but once he became governor he found it wasn't much fun. Weld and Cellucci had governed as a team: Weld was brilliant at setting the political stage, the context, but when it came to details, he left it to Cellucci and his top policy person. Once Cellucci became governor, he was responsible for setting an agenda and putting it into practice, and he didn't have much of an agenda." His only significant initiative was an income-tax rollback, which he didn't even bother trying to get through the legislature; voters approved it in 2000.

Instead of promoting and implementing new policies, Cellucci spent much of his three years in office fending off bad publicity from out- of-control cost overruns on the massive Big Dig highway project in Boston. After George W. Bush became president in January 2001, Cellucci gratefully accepted his ambassadorial post and fled Beacon Hill, handing off the governorship to his lieutenant governor, Jane Swift.

Watching the gubernatorial lob from Weld to Cellucci to Swift, you can't help but ask, as The Economist magazine did in February, "Is it really so awful to be governor of Massachusetts?" Not only did two governors just pick up and leave in the middle of their terms in office, but the Democrats' most compelling potential vote-getter, former U.S. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, dropped out of the governor's race in 1998 and has bypassed next year's contest entirely.

In each of these cases, the reasons seem either personal or rooted in the politics of the moment, rather than in some distasteful flaw in the governorship itself. Dukakis, who now teaches political science at Northeastern University, insists that "this is one of the strongest governorships, structurally, in the country. You can do all kinds of exciting stuff. The governor in this state has all the tools he or she needs."

But if the tools exist, no recent occupant of the office has developed a sustained ability to use them successfully. This is not a coincidence; it is a reflection of the fact that it has been years since anyone has been able to forge a workable consensus on where state government should be headed. For all his initial popularity, Weld discovered this when he tried twice to reshape the budget to embrace performance measurement. Not only did many executive agencies resist, but so did the state Senate, which refused to pass the new budgets. The initiative eventually disappeared, and despite the fact that other states have adopted the notion with great success, no one on Beacon Hill has tried to resuscitate it. "We have short memories for new ideas," observes Bob Keough, "and long memories for grudges, slights and failure."

This has not been helped by a press corps that seems more than happy to dwell on such things. For one thing, sustained television coverage of public affairs has disappeared. "We used to have some of the best TV journalists around covering the statehouse, people who were formidable in their own right and who had an impact," Dukakis says. "Today there's none of that." For their part, the Globe and the Herald maintain platoons of columnists who embrace Beacon Hill's "every breath you take" culture while openly--though cleverly--disdaining any responsibility for its results, and though both papers do follow policy debates in the legislature, they have tended in recent years to devote their most intense coverage to questionable legislative and ethical behavior.

Of course, the legislature itself has given them ammunition, in no small part because it has come to embody the sometimes paralyzing ideological currents that have shifted the state around since the last recession. Senate President Thomas Birmingham, a labor lawyer in private life who is fond of quoting Shakespeare and Virgil, grew up in a working-class family in the small, gritty Boston suburb of Chelsea, and has steered the Senate in a generally liberal direction. Constituencies such as organized labor, teachers and trial lawyers often--though not always--can count on it to block legislation they don't like; it is the Senate that has tried to enact domestic partners legislation, HMO reform and an increase in the cigarette tax to broaden health coverage for the uninsured.

The House has not welcomed the liberal Senate initiatives, and the main reason is Speaker Finneran, who may be a partisan Democrat but is no fan of generous state spending. The son of a rug and upholstery cleaner who spent the first part of his childhood in a South Boston public housing development, Finneran has always said he draws his bearings from the working-class outlook of the neighborhoods he grew up in and represents. Talking about the last recession, he says, "The faces I don't forget are the faces of people who were laid off, not just for two weeks or two months, but for 24 months. Marriages were broken, people became alcoholic, people became depressed, families broke up. It was absolutely incredible to behold. We did dreadful psychological damage to the business, investment, employer and taxpayer communities of Massachusetts. They were appropriately furious at us for the juvenile way we tried to handle what was a serious and very sobering challenge."

The result of what Finneran calls his "scar tissue" from that time is a cold environment in the House for new spending initiatives. "It's against his basic principles to see government as an agent for change," says one frustrated social welfare lobbyist. But the larger implications of the difference in philosophical outlook between Finneran and Birmingham is a policy gridlock just as profound as would exist if one of them were a Republican and the other a Democrat.

If the Senate and the House differ in their political outlooks, though, they are similar in the control their leaders exercise. Every bill of substance in the Senate has to go through the Ways and Means Committee, and if Birmingham doesn't like it, it doesn't come out. In the House, members who speak out against Finneran, or oppose initiatives he favors strongly--such as a recent move to lift the two- term limit on speakers--have a tendency to lose chairmanships or seats on important committees or decent office space.

The bottom line is that when Finneran and Birmingham are unable to find common ground--which is often--little gets done. For most of this autumn, for instance, state government bumped along on two-week "emergency" budget increments: Legislators would appropriate 1/26 of the year's budget, then go back and do it all over again a fortnight later. This was because Finneran and Birmingham could not agree on how to spend tobacco-settlement revenue, on whether to fund the state's "Clean Elections" law or on how to address the state's looming $1.1 billion budget deficit.

"In the past," says former legislator McDonough, "the normal pattern on the budget was for the Ways and Means chairs to fight it out, then bring it to the presiding officers, who'd resolve their differences. That's what Finneran and Birmingham did when they were Ways and Means chairs. But there's no one to play that brokering role now." That dilemma could just as well describe broader matters: Without a governor who's willing to wade in and build consensus behind a particular course of action, you're more likely to find political stalemate than creative policy making. In such a vacuum, it's no surprise that the game of politics has become more important than its goals.

That's why the most intriguing guessing game in Massachusetts at the moment is whether Swift can emerge as a strong governor in her own right, or whether she's too hampered by her predecessors and her own past. In October, she signaled her growing self-confidence by declaring her intention to engage with the legislature on the budget. She announced a statewide hiring freeze and readied a set of proposed spending cuts, saying she would sit down with Finneran and Birmingham and come up with a plan. It was right about then that the firestorm over Finneran's House redistricting plan broke, however, and by early November--four months after the budget was due--the impasse still hadn't been resolved.

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net  | 

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