The Hill and the Hall – August, 2008

August 1, 2008

Each Friday, Paul McMorrow will take you inside the smoke-filled rooms and darkly-lit corridors of government to bring you the hottest and juiciest political tidbits. This Week: The legislature takes it down to the wire; plus the usual maneuvering, backstabbing and backslapping that we all love.

How hard has the legislature been working? On Thursday, the thirstiest day of the week, the House and the Senate both missed last call. Now that’s public service. As Gov. Deval Patrick told a group of kids who were regaling him with birthday wishes, “It’s insane down there right now.”

In racing toward the end of the legislative session, legislators passed bills on global warming and health care costs, establishing universal pre-K education, securing Greenway funding, bailing out the debt-addled Pike, and approving several billion in new bonding expenditures. Additionally, they overrode nearly half of the Governor’s budget vetoes.

Most will need several uninterrupted days on the golf course to recover from such exertion. And, as luck would have it, they’ll be able to enjoy a cold one or ten on the links. That’s because, just before checking out until next January, the pols legalized booze on golf courses. Fore!

The House also struck a blow for freedom and soaring eagles and such, advancing a bill that would order the state pension system to divest from Iran. That bill wasn’t without some controversy, though. Byron Rushing announced that he’d be voting against the measure, complaining that the bill was “only about terrorism.” In that case…

The clock did run out on two high-profile bills – Patrick’s bid at criminal records reform, and same-day voter registration. Oh well. Maybe somebody’ll get around to that by 2010. Maybe not.

Though distinguished by remarkable productivity, the session’s end resembled the weeks that followed it, in that it was often overshadowed by House Speaker Sal DiMasi’s ongoing quest to retain control over his restless Democratic supermajority. It seems that when legislators gather to vote along party lines, they also tend to plot and scheme and spread disinformation about their boss’s future, and each other’s ambitions.

There had been whispers that the faction lining up behind Ways and Means Chair Bob DeLeo might be using budget veto overrides to reward supporters and punish enemies. The chairman was busy working his cell phone, but the override process largely consisted of reps shuffling into the chamber, voting with leadership (Dems yes, GOP no), and then ambling back out of the room.

At one point, Speaker Pro-Tempore Thomas Petrolati had to urge his charges to remain in the room, so that they might dispense with the business ahead of them in a more expeditious manner. Some allowed themselves to be herded; others did not.

In one interesting development, the House advanced a popular bill that had been stagnant since January. According to the Herald, leadership had “put a hold” on the bill after pocketing $42,000 from an interest group opposing the legislation. And then, after being held for months upon months, the bill moved. It was Wednesday, after 5 p.m., and over at Herald Square, the paper was preparing to ship a story about the bill’s curious death. By the time the story ran, on Thursday, the bill wasn’t dead; it was undead and on the move!

Still, from the ceremony celebrating the death of the last bit of law Kris Mineau could cling to, you’d never know that there was angst and scandal swirling through the State House. Patrick and DiMasi laughed and embraced and delivered speeches that made onlookers weep. Senator Dianne Wilkerson cheered the end of “a very dark, evil chapter in the history of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” Everybody cheered the fact that Mitt Romney is no longer governor. And then the crowd sang happy birthday to Patrick.

The Senate joined little kids and gay marriage advocates in celebrating the governor’s aging. The body took a break from overriding his budget vetoes to enjoy a bite of Modern Pastry rum cake with the birthday man.

Afterward, Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei warned his colleagues, “I might be a little unstable on my feet because that rum cake was very strong.” He confirmed that he’d marked the occasion by posing for a photo with Patrick, and then attempted to get his colleagues to begin their upcoming five-month vacation on a responsible note.

“When we come back in January, chances are, we’re going to come back to a real mess. We should do what we can right now to contain spending as best as we can. These agencies aren’t going to fall apart. They can certain afford a little belt-tightening. I don’t agree with the governor on a lot of policy issues. But he is correct on sounding the alarm.”

The speech, unlike that killer midday drunk joke, went unnoticed. Looming economic disaster? Sounds like something that can wait until January. Until then, most legislators have uncontested reelection contests to worry about. Have a nice summer, fall and Christmas, everybody!

Material for this week’s Hill and the Hall aided greatly by the various wire services who worked just as long hours as the legislature and didn’t get any cake.

August 8, 2008

Each Friday, Paul McMorrow will take you inside the smoke-filled rooms and darkly-lit corridors of government to bring you the hottest and juiciest political tidbits. This Week: World traveler Matt Amorello probably should have read the fine print; Worcester Sheriff Guy Glodis slapfightsJohn KerryMike Flaherty hires a consultant; while The Hill tries its unregistered hand at lobbying.

World traveler/embattled ex-public servant Matt Amorello was not in India last week. That’s because he was stuck on Beacon Hill, very nearly weeping while angrily insisting that he’s not a crook. Don’t laugh yet. Amorello isn’t just a not-crook; he’s also a sound manager who has the state’s best financial interests at heart.

That was the line the former Turnpike head fed to the state Ethics Commission this week. In his final days at the agency, you see, other people wanted to allow Pike employees to cash out 100 percent of their unused sick time. They knew Mitt Romney was about to clean house, and they wanted to pork the system for as much as they could, while they could. Not Amorello. Because he only raised the buyback ceiling to 50 percent, and because he acted all angry as he did it, Amorello should be the hero here, not the victim.

So says Amorello.

The bureaucrat makes a less than convincing case for himself. While his altruism may be commendable. (He totally cursed out the patsy who changed the buyback policy; it was so blue that “I can’t use the words I said in this setting,” he testified). Not to mention his restraint. (He “did nothing … to enhance my position at all” because he passed up the chance to trade in his unused sick time for $73,000, and instead settled for a miserable $110,000-plus severance package).

Those qualities might not be enough to stave off a guilty verdict before the Ethics Commission.

That’s because, while Amorello has proven himself to be more than adept at things like not supervising massive public works projects, he appears to be less skilled at reading. The ethics complaint against him says the buyback policy change represented an “unwarranted privilege of substantial value” for himself and for “his senior staff.” Since five of his top aides used the altered policy to net $130,000—his chief of staff, for one, enjoyed a nearly $59,000 payday—well, let’s just say that we may not have seen the last time the former Pike boss get teary-eyed for the cameras.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones issued a press release Monday announcing that during last week’s marathon sessions the North Reading rep had cast his 4,500th consecutive roll call vote. By the time all his “Nay” votes were swatted away, he’d topped 4,600 straight votes. The lesson here, it appears, is that Republicans are better at timing their jaunts to St. Croix than Democrats are.

Turns out that the talents wielded by Worcester County Sheriff Guy Glodis extend far beyond making penis jokes on TV. The guy can be a total bastard during election season, too.

Glodis didn’t endorse Democratic Senate hopeful Ed O’Reilly this week. And that’s about all he didn’t do. In a flame-throwing interview with State House News, Glodis (he works for the state, you know) explained his decision to invite O’Reilly to a Shrewsbury senior citizen picnic thusly: “I’ve invited John Kerry numerous times in the past, which he has never showed up at.”

That wasn’t gratuitous enough, so Glodis added that the “seven or eight times” he’s bumped into O’Reilly in the past month have been “more than I’ve met John Kerry in the entire 20-plus years he’s represented the Commonwealth.”

Even though weather on the Cape hasn’t been great lately, City Hall has been relatively quiet. Look for that to change in the coming weeks.Michael Flaherty, who is said by some people (and by some people, we mean every person ever) to be interested in the din-filled mayor’s office, has begun putting his newly acquired wealth to work.

Flaherty recently dropped a sizable chunk ($36,000) of his epic $132,000 June fundraising haul with Cambridge-based Web 2.0 consultantsSocialSphereJohn Della Volpe, the firm’s founder, also runs polling for Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Della Volpe did some consulting and polling work for Flaherty last year, but this current job looks to be heavier lifting: It cost more than twice what last year’s jobs did. OCPF filings bill the expenditure as “research.”

And while the Southie councilor takes the temperature of the electorate, or the Internet, or Facebooking Menino-hating young voters who remain ungrateful for their new bicycle lanes, or whatever else he’s polling, he’s also laying plans to have Hizzoner’s good name dragged through the gutter this fall.

Flaherty’s special City Council committee on moving City Hall has finally scheduled a hearing—for mid-September. It’ll be the encore to last year’s red-raced, book-throwing spectacular, and it’s sure to throw several dozen embarrassing questions in the administration’s face. Naturally, the television cameras will be there to soak it all in.

And don’t forget about last week—Flaherty issued an email accusing Hizzoner of enabling the Fire Department abuses it’s now railing against. Calls for internal documents and justice and the like can’t be far behind. He’ll whittle down that 72 percent approval rating yet…

The Hill and the Hall is putting on its unregistered lobbyist hat and demanding action on Beacon Hill. Lots of bills died unnecessary deaths in the session’s final days. One of them is hurting America right now.

Here’s how. The legislature could have passed a bill trading looser caps on campaign contributions for more frequent campaign finance reporting. There was support for the idea in committee. And if such a trade had taken place, journalists reporting on the few competitive races that are heating up right now wouldn’t be doing so while flying blind.

As things stand, nobody running for the legislature has to disclose pre-primary fundraising and expenditure data until the week before the vote. Somebody could be up to nothing good, and nobody would know! And that, dear friends, makes the Statue of Liberty cry blood.

August 15, 2008

Each Friday, Paul McMorrow will take you inside the smoke-filled rooms and darkly-lit corridors of government to bring you the hottest and juiciest political tidbits. This Week: The governor’s genius move, plus: the nasty wake left by John Buonomo, or as they call it in Somerville, politics.

Gov. Deval Patrick spent the week pissing people off. Unlike all those other times, though, Patrick should be rejoicing at the sound of these wailing choruses.

The governor began the week by vetoing a multi-billion dollar pension increase for state retirees. Ralph White, president of the retirees’ union (62,000 members strong), pronounced his members “very, very angry” with the governor. At least the old people don’t have guns. The same can’t be said for the state’s cops, whom Patrick is about to squeeze out of roadside detail work, to the ire of the Massachusetts Police Association and the state AFL-CIO.

This is genius.

It’s critical that Patrick start burning the organized masses that got him elected. It’s one thing to cravenly cuddle up next to casino-hungry Teamsters; it’s another to be seen as fattening friendly interests’ wallets while the state’s fiscal death spiral accelerates. He can publicly disavow interest in the Corner Office all he wants, but an economic collapse – it’s a distinct possibility – would present State Treasurer Tim Cahill with an irresistible chance to take a run at Patrick.

Patrick should know by now, impressive talking-points pdfs notwithstanding, that it’s public perception that will make or break him. The more he can be painted as a Beacon Hill Nero, tossing buckets of taxpayers’ dollars to political supporters while hard-working Americans have to stoop to visiting Sal’s Pizza three times a week just to feed their malnourished families, the more he opens himself to an insurrection.

And the surest way to guard against an insurrection will be to pretend, for just a little while, that he’s Mitt Romney – and, for the sake of this great Commonwealth, make sure to smile for the cameras while he smacks around a union or two. It’ll do more for his poll numbers in Haverhill than any super-sexy prime time speech ever could.

Filthy crook/hands-on office supply shopper (allegedly), John Buonomo has picked up a pair of opponents. They go really beautifully with thatindictment (this fall’s must-have political accessory!)

The Buonomo saga makes a nice bookend to that other ludicrous race roiling southern Middlesex Country right now. In one corner, we’ve got D-listAaron Burr/Alexander Hamilton fisticuffs (the term is used quite loosely). And in the other, there’s the hack who makes over $110,000 a year for the privilege of and handing plum jobs to his political supporters, and who, in spite of that generous compensation package, still feels compelled to swipe pocket change from the office copy machine. Even after he knows he’s probably under investigation.

But it’s the write-in Democrat challenging Buonomo who really makes this race a thing of beauty.

Meet Sean O’Donovan. He has engaged in perennial flirtation with higher office, but never risen above Somerville alderman. His consolation prize for missing out on cushier offices and fatter salaries? By staying in town, he’s able to grandstand against density in his own neighborhood while cramming condos into somebody else’s. And what if that somebody happens to be the relative of your Congressman (and former mayor)? No worries. That’s where your checkbook comes in.

According to reports, O’Donovan and the chair of Somerville’s zoning board have been sending money to each other for nearly a decade; most of the cash ended up in a charitable fund controlled by the chair. After the zoning board broomed through O’Donovan’s most recent condo proposal, over the objections of neighbors and one of O’Donovan’s Board of Alderman colleagues.

One project opponent told the Somerville News, “This whole process has been all about politics and Sean O’Donovan’s connections. It became clear by the way he ran the meetings that [the zoning chair] wanted this project to go through.” One anonymous News commenter cast the race as a contest between “a petty larcenist” and “a grand larcenist.”

O’Donovan is a Democrat, but he told the Cambridge Chronicle he’ll be trying to get written onto the Working Families Party ticket. He hasn’t yet registered with OCPF.

Buonomo, as an officeholder, does have an active campaign account. And though he hasn’t raised any money since the first half of June, he ended July with nearly $135,000 in the bank. According to campaign finance reports, Buonomo has spent roughly $4,000 on yard signs and mailers over the past two months. Wonder if they’ll have to be reworked to reflect the Register of Probate’s new, uh, situation. “Vote Buonomo: You know it makes cents!” Or if, since the DA is after Buonomo for crimes allegedly committed while on the job, he’ll try to pay his lawyer’s bills with his political supporters contributions.

A word from the other side of the aisle: Buonomo’s prospective Republican opponent, Natick’s John Lambert, hasn’t had any activity at OCPF since his failed 2004 bid for the House. That race, part of Mitt Romney’s spectacularly unproductive bid to wrest the Legislature away from TravKing Tom and Sal, saw Lambert burn through every last cent in campaign account – and then get steamrolled by David Linsky.

Better luck this time!

August 29, 2008

Each Friday, Paul McMorrow will take you inside the smoke-filled rooms and darkly-lit corridors of government to bring you the hottest and juiciest political tidbits. This Week: The most powerful guy in the House is Paul McMurtry? While the Commonwealth churns, the city waits; Plus: Mo Feeney takes over, and all is well.

Paul McMurtry is the most powerful man in the House right now. That fact is due largely to the legislature’s disinclination to work at any pace that could be characterized as “speedy,” or even, “workmanlike,” or even “mildly determined.”

The House and Senate left a whole mess of bills untended to when their formal sessions expired this month. Most of the remaining said mess of bills are routine local matters that can still be pushed through to the governor – so long as there are no objections from any of the legislators who bother to show up to work on any given day. But if just one guy decides to throw the brakes on a bill, everything is F’d for everybody.

Paul McMurtry is that one guy.

He’s been derailing House sessions for two weeks now, and shows no signs of slowing down. He won’t relent until Angelo Scaccia blinks first. Scaccia won’t. So nothing gets done. And the two Reps’ colleagues are starting to get pissed.

On Thursday, the Globe detailed the McMurtry-Scaccia flap for the portion of the political world that doesn’t subscribe to State House News. McMurtry needs to get approval for a local bill granting a liquor license to a grocery store in his Westwood district. Scaccia, who reps Hyde Park, has longstanding ties to a competing supermarket, as well as to that supermarket’s former-legislator-turned-lobbyist. And so, at the behest of his grocery buddies, he has vowed to block McMurtry’s bill. McMurtry has retaliated by blocking virtually all other House business.

On Monday, the House met for just 32 minutes (enough time to entertain the Lebanese tourist minister) before McMurtry halted democracy. Thursday, business only lasted seven minutes. Court officers lazed around the chamber, surfing the Internet and reading aloud box scores from the Herald. They snapped to attention long enough to say the Pledge of Allegiance (punctuated, naturally, with a hushed but determined “Play ball!”). Thanks to the boozy grocery store death vendetta, McMurtry rose to doubt the presence of a quorum, and they were allowed to quickly return to making money for doing hardly anything at all.

These developments have left Antonio Cabral in a mood that could easily be described as “not too wicked pleased.” He’s got bills to move, and they’re not moving. Hence, the displeasure. He tried to cut McMurtry off when the Westwood Rep rose to halt Thursday’s session, and when that failed, he proceeded to get all angry and stuff.

Afterward, the press was ushered out of the House gallery, while the eight or so legislators present remained inside, talking and trying to hug it out. After a while, they emerged an announced that those efforts had, in fact, failed. The inaction shall continue.

Scaccia told State House News that he’s not blocking the Westwood bill because of any rotten lobbyist action. Rather, he said, “What I’m doing is being very loyal to them for what they have done for my community.” How does this standoff end? “Something has to give somewhere, and it ain’t going to be me.”

Paul Donato, who’s been in charge of this circus while everybody else in the state was out of the state, said after Thursday’s session that a rumored compromise between Scaccia and McMurtry had collapsed, and, “We’re going to be dealing with this for some time.”

Donato suggested the only way out of this pissing contest might involve raising the cap on grocery stores with beer and wine licenses. That way, McMurtry’s store could get a license, and so could Scaccia’s. “I’m not sure how the problem can be solved without coming up with a method for licensing supermarkets beyond the three the law allows,” he said. “It would have to be one agreement that everyone in the legislature is comfortable with, but there seems to be an alternative there that could be used as a compromise.”

Easy enough, right? All the legislature has to do now is get unanimous consent for the change – and hope that the lobbyists and interest groups who poured $13 million into a bruising fight over this very matter two years ago, uh, look the other way, or something.

Lost in this cacophony of grunting was the fact that Beacon Hill looked like Left Behind come to life this past week. Who knew that Jesus would only come for the Democrats? The loneliest place in the world: The bar at the 21st Amendment.

The McMurtry-Scaccia swordfight is symptomatic of a larger political dysfunction in the state. Home rule statutes mean that before municipal officials can sneeze, they have to ask the legislature for permission. And then they have to wait. And wait. And every so often, routine requests get caught up in these larger, decidedly nasty conflicts.

One recent example: Back in 2006, Boston wanted to let more restaurants sell booze. But the bill granting more licenses to the city got caught up in a long, drawn-out fight with Sen. Michael Morrissey over boating fees and name-calling. And freedom!

“Integral facets of city government are controlled by the Commonwealth, and they’re not always receptive to us,” argues City Council PresidentMaureen Feeney. “Sometimes, our larger, more challenging issues are almost trivial to them. The average person assumes that the city has control over what happens in the city. That’s not necessarily the case. It’s very limiting. It makes the process so challenging – we spend years trying to get something done that we should be able to do through an ordinance. We can’t control the way things happen. Instead, we have to go hat in hand to the legislature, over and over. And no disrespect to the legislature. That’s just the way the state constitution is.”

The liquor license fight wasn’t even the most ludicrous situation Feeney has seen. For the past four sessions, the mayor and the council have been trying to lower the speed limit on some cut-through streets, but the legislature hasn’t played along. And don’t even think about trying to raise a half-cent meals tax – something the country’s other major cities can do on their own.

Feeney calls the current State House flap a, “teachable moment, an opportunity to shine a light” on the vagaries of home rule. “We’re still a step-child to government,” she says. “It’s a waste of time, energy and focus, and we’re just trying to operate the city in a responsible way.”

This past week, it hasn’t been Council President Feeney. With Mayor Menino at the DNC, it’s been Acting Mayor Feeney. So what’s it been like to run the show?

“We haven’t picked out any new curtains for the mayor’s office,” she assures us. “We like it on this side of the building.” She also invoked the words of the late city councilor Pat McDonough, who said, ‘Acting mayors do more acting than they do mayoring.’” Feeney and Menino conferred last Friday, before he flew west, but they haven’t had to confer since then.

Nothing like the Blizzard of ‘78, which stranded Mayor Kevin White in Florida, and left Council President/Acting Mayor Larry DiCara to run Boston in his absence. “Somebody had to stay and shut off the lights at the end of the day,” she says. “But, it’s been pretty ordinary. Pretty quiet. The fact that the city’s still standing speaks for itself.”


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