The Hill and the Hall – May, 2008

May 2, 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: Palace intrigue in the House of King Sal leads to a surprising conspirator. Et tu, Petrolati?

If Gov. Deval Patrick has learned anything from his time in the corner office, it’s that reporters love scandal and whiffs of impropriety. Backstabbing? Ego politics? Personal humiliation? Yes, please!

Patrick seemed to have a hard time adjusting to this scavenger mentality last year. He appeared bewildered at the media’s willingness to subject him to endless rounds of questions about the beatings he was taking from House Speaker Sal DiMasi. He clearly thought there were more important things happening in the building, and couldn’t fathom why we didn’t get that, too. Doesn’t the Beacon Hill press corps – or, for that matter, the suits they write about – do anything other than bleed their idols and leave them for dead?

Not really.

Patrick is now witnessing this phenomenon from a much more comfortable position. While he’s off saving public education and spreading the gospelof clean energy, DiMasi, the man who savaged his beloved casino plan, suddenly finds himself on the wrong end of the politics as bloodsport motif.

Even worse, some of his closest friends in the House are reportedly leading the effort to topple him.

DiMasi just endured his single worst week since seizing the speakership nearly four years ago. A Sunday Globe story dropped a bomb about how a friend, and unregistered lobbyist, might have funneled a sack of illegal cash into the speaker’s pocket. It inspired some halfhearted mockery from Howie Carr, as these things tend to do.

There followed a GOP-initiated ethics investigation and a merciless Joan Vennochi column; the former was enough to incite at least the third all-outscramble to inherit Sal’s not-yet-open seat in six months. The first two rounds of jockeying were fueledby rumors that DiMasi was going to pull aTravand bolt for a lucrative lobbying post. DiMasi appeared to put them to rest, and we’ve already passed the latest rumored date he was supposed to have left office, so that should’ve been the end of that.

But Sunday’s story involves real money and, thus, the potential for a serious scandal. It chummed the waters of ambition, with speculation that Sal will follow in the steps of King Tom and Good Time Charlie Flaherty and re-ignited the frantic scramble to line up votes behind a candidate to succeed DiMasi. Should a successor be needed, of course.

DiMasi has expressly forbidden such vote-wrangling, and even hinted that he’ll soon execute a House leader or two to keep his troops in line. (It’s a fine line to walk. A power struggle that led to a leadership demotion more than 20 years ago led to an open revolt that toppled the sitting speaker, Tom McGee, and helped bring one Sal DiMasi into leadership.)

But the head-counting has actually accelerated in the face of DiMasi’s threats – a clear sign of the speaker’s tenuous position. Even more shocking than the maneuvering to replace a guy who says he’s not going anywhere, are the identities of the pols leading the charge.

Back in January, when DiMasi threatened to discipline John Rogers for vote-counting, the hot rumor inside the State House was that the “House leadership sources” the story cited included anti-Rogers members of DiMasi’s inner circle. The theory was that, if Sal’s Pals could draw Rogers (a Finneran guy) into a fatal confrontation, it would pave the way for their own hand-picked candidate to eventually succeed DiMasi.

One of the names the Hill and the Hall heard was advancing those Rogers rumors is the same name that had tried to rally support around Ron Marianolast summer. It was the same name that was reportedly acting as a key organizer for Ways and Means Chairman Bob DeLeo during the December-January flare-up.

And, a House source says, this same Rep is currently helping lead a “highly aggressive” campaign to line up votes behind DeLeo, against DiMasi’s direct orders.

It’s Sal’s top lieutenantThomas Petrolati.

“Petrolati has been heavily involved in pushing DeLeo,” this source says, and the pace of the vote-gathering has increased every day this week. “They’re literally dragging people into offices to really hammer away at them.” The DeLeo team, reportedly well behind Rogers in votes, is said to be promising reps line items in the budget in exchange for support. “They’re running around, trying to knuckle people into signing up in exchange for money for their districts.” That may explain the glut of porky line items being duct-taped to this supposedly austere budget.

James Vallee and Charlie Murphy, whose phantom vote from St. Croix helped instigate the current wave of anti-DiMasi sentiment, are also said to be helping steer DeLeo’s effort. But it’s Petrolati’s name, given his closeness to the speaker, and his role in helping push Finneran out the door, that’s really raising eyebrows on Beacon Hill. The word “apoplectic” has been used to describe DiMasi’s reaction to the campaigning. And that might be kind.

DiMasi, Petrolati and DeLeo are the House. More than anyone else, they steer the flow of information and legislation in the body. Rogers may be Majority Leader, but these two are Sal’s guys. They’re the ones that really matter. They’re the ones who were the trigger men on all the supposedly dirty billshelping drag Sal down now. And here they are, reportedly digging the guy’s grave before he’s even dead.

The mentality at play here is half prisoner’s dilemma, half bank-run mob mentality. It’s in Sal’s Pals interest to stay true to their buddies, but when they thought they had to choose between their own careers and loyalty to the speaker, they chose themselves. How to tell when to jump ship? It’s not the most exacting of sciences but… look around, and if everybody else is running for the life boats, you’d better do the same.

The lesson Sal’s learning this week: In this state, your friends are only your friends as long as you’re of use to them. And if it looks like you might sink, they’ll be the first to throw you overboard.

May 9, 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 fight for the soul of Somerville.

Somerville does few things better than eat its young. It has to. The city is so solidly Democratic that if its politicians didn’t cannibalize each other, there would be nothing for anybody to do—no scheming, no name-calling, no axes cleaving the backsides of inattentive bystanders. No savagery at all. The boredom would become insufferable. The city would become Arlington, or something.

There’s no danger of that happening, thankfully.

The city’s lust for internecine conflict last made headlines in November, when Mayor Joe Curtatone faced down Richard Scirocco, an alleged batterer who had been arrested for providing alcohol to minors. That wasn’t exciting enough, so Lenny DiCiccio, a longtime Curtatone family friend, godfather to the mayor’s brother, and brains (the term is employed loosely) behind the Scirocco campaign, allegedly warned Curtatone supporters, “Don’t stand too close to the mayor this weekend,” because, “We’re going to bury this guy.” Curtatone responded by securing a police detail.

“It was the only excitement we had in the damn thing,” DiCiccio complained later. DiCiccio has also revealed that he only ran Scirocco against the mayor in the first place because Curtatone wouldn’t put him on the city licensing commission: “He said I was going to shake everybody down for liquor licenses, so I stuck Rick in the race just to make him spend some money.”

This particular brand of bloodlust will be on display again come September, when two-term State Rep. Carl Sciortino will try to beat back a challenge from Alderman Bob Trane. Both men are Democrats, so the race will hinge less on actual issues than on name-calling and revenge politics. As it should.

Sciortino took the seat in 2004 by bouncing an entrenched Rep, Vinnie Ciampa, in what was essentially a gay-marriage vote. Among the more interesting turns of phrase bandied about was the labeling of Sciortino as a, “homosexual, anti-Catholic extremist.” Those charges didn’t stick, and theGlobe declared the contest a bellwether race in the city’s transformation from rotting townie dump to insufferable yuppie enclave.

Somerville’s progressives, falling solidly in the latter camp, used the momentum from Sciortino’s election to elevate Pat Jehlen to the Senate, and slideDenise Provost into Jehlen’s House seat.

But that wasn’t enough. They got greedy. Or bored. It doesn’t matter now. Whatever it was, they appeared set on replacing every vanilla Dem in town with a tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show. And that, predictably enough, has brought some wicked retribution to Sciortino’s doorstep.

A progressive candidate, Beacon Hill staffer Rachel Heller, challenged Trane in last November’s alderman race. Sciortino endorsed her – a significant affront to the incumbent, if you assume that “Democrat” and “Progressive Democrat” aren’t completely antithetical. Heller lost, but not before throwing a few wild swings at Trane, including an eleventhhour flyer that implied that the alderman was on the take and hated poor people.

Then Heller took another run at Trane in February, fielding a Democratic City Committee slate on primary day that succeeded in bouncing some of the alderman’s allies off the committee. Trane called the fact that anybody had actually bothered to contest the race, “out of left field.”

And that, it seems, was enough to provoke a blood feud.

Trane didn’t just respond by taking a run at an incumbent state rep from his own party, he launched a barrage of vitriolic gibberish at Sciortino, calling the rep, “absolutely an elitist,” and, “out of touch with the district.”

Elitist and out of touch? That doesn’t sound familiardoes it? But in this case, those words are a lot more than just empty, shameless pandering. The politics of gentrification and identity are unusually raw in the district Sciortino and Trane are fighting over, and elitism is a remarkably loaded charge (or, if you’re on the receiving end, slur).

There’s a real cultural chasm between Sciortino’s natural base and Trane’s. The utterly filthy Curtatone-Scirocco-DiCiccio fracas was just bored guys busting balls, but here, in the combatants’ minds at least, the city’s future is on the line. Which is to say, the race has the potential to be very nasty. And a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

May 16, 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: Gov. Patrick’s special photo-op; Mayor Menino’s charm; and about the budget: We’re still screwed.

Under normal circumstances, any press aides who allowed their boss to be photographed – and videoed! – participating in a humiliating stunt like the one Gov. Deval Patrick engaged in this week would have their asses handed to them. Hard.

Yeah, we get it, Google is fun and quirky and the web bubble’s champagne and caviar days are here to stay. And all of that means that MIT grads are now building Massachusetts’s high-tech economy, one ping-pong ball at a time. But this is not a photo that conveys the dignity and gravitas governors usually strive to project. The super-sized photo that ran in Wednesday’s Globe made Patrick look downright, uh, special.

And looking at the nonexistent blowback from these photos, all of that’s just fine. That fact, more than any other, shows how radically the balance of power has shifted on Beacon Hill recently. These circumstances aren’t the least bit normal – not to the formerly beleaguered governor, anyway.

As recently as two months ago, Patrick’s ping-pong photo-op would’ve been just another indication that he’s the punchline to a bad joke, not a functioning governor. House Speaker Sal DiMasi would’ve used the game to drop some demeaning comment about Patrick’s China trade mission into a joint media appearance, and the press would’ve howled its approval. That’s how things have gone since Patrick took office – he has enjoyed the unkindest kind of attention, while everyone around him skates free and easy.

No more, it seems. Sal’s the one scrambling to stay alive amidst a vicious ink-stained feeding frenzy. (Developments this week: Someone knows where Sal lives; Sal is not a crookRich Vitale will now be squirrelly half-truthful on his own timeJohn Rogers is still taking names).

Meanwhile, Patrick, by virtue of not being the victim of a blizzard of awful press, can do no wrong. He’s not the big game being hunted, and therefore, hitting a couple dozen ping-pong balls into the net is suddenly not news. It’s just how he rolls. Feels good, doesn’t it, governor?

Gov. Patrick didn’t have a monopoly on awkward photo ops this week, though. Far from it. Mayor Tom Menino played bocce with some seniors in the North End, took a bicycle ride in a Smurf suitbantered with a slob on television, and pitched Macs to a Globe tech columnist. The mayor might be rolling out a massive charm offensive. Or he might be so unbeatable he’s given up caring. (It’s worth noting that Michael Flaherty raised a whopping $72 in April. That’s Felix Arroyo territory right there.)

Anyone who takes on Menino is going to have to have a sizable bankroll. Challengers will also have to out-hustle a mayor who’s made a living out-hustling everybody else in town. And even that might not be enough. This month’s Power package talked about how Menino’s apparent invincibility comes from the schedule he keeps: He’s always in the neighborhoods, and present at every event that invites him.

The voters who live in those neighborhoods will be tough to sway, because they know how much attention this mayor lavishes on the citizenry. An anecdote that didn’t make the final cut is illustrative.

City Councilor Rob Consalvo recalls trying to get a tiny, dead-end Hyde Park street renamed after the victim of a horrific car crash in the hours before Menino’s 2004 DNC speech. “The last thing he needed to be doing that day was bothering with a street change,” Consalvo recalled. “I expected five minutes. He gave me an hour. That’s why people love him.”

Now it’s time for the Hill and the Hall to remind everybody that the state budget is still, in technical terms, screwed. So says Mike Widmer, who issued a bulletin this week blasting the House’s reliance on rainy day funds for draining it, “much too rapidly.” It also called for a final budget figure to be, “several hundred million dollars less than the House budget’s bottom line.”

Ben LaGuer will be governor before that happens. The Senate’s spending plan always tops the House, and then the two split the difference. It doesn’t work in reverse. Still, we’re not just here to spread doom. We’re also here to help.

Our suggestion for shoring up the budget in these tough financial times: Leave that awful banner up in front of the State House, and sell corporate ads on it. If it’s good enough for the Pine Street Inn, it’s good enough for this great Commonwealth. Charles Bulfinch would surely understand that tough times mean desperate measures.

And as luck would have it, I happen to know a guy who knows a guy who can wrangle a few initial buys. Just, you know, as a favor.

May 30, 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: How hard is it to get signatures, really?; and Michael Flaherty’s war chest gets a little bigger. Plus: Falling asleep during a hearing on drowsy driving, and more campaign finance data.

You’re a state legislator. All you have to do to keep your job is get a couple hundred people to write their names on a piece of paper. Lately, that’s been an astoundingly tall task.

State Senator Dianne Wilkerson was last year’s cautionary tale. She failed to wring 300 good signatures out of a district that sprawls from Beacon Hill, through the South End, to JP and Roxbury. Suffice it to say, there are well more than 300 registered voters living in this district, and Wilkerson’s failure to successfully navigate this routine task brought several rounds of mockery and head-shaking – not to mention a brutal write-in campaign – upon the senator’s head.

So, it’s more than a little staggering that in the election immediately following Wilkerson’s debacle, another legislator has failed to navigate the chore of ensuring continued service in one of the nation’s least competitive legislatures. Rep. Carl Sciortino is now scrambling to keep his job because he didn’t learn from Wilkerson’s mistakes.

Twelve pages of nomination papers disappeared from his desk this month, and as a result, he couldn’t give Secretary of State Bill Galvin the 150 good signatures he needs to get on the ballot. Twice last week, a judge ruled that 114 signatures weren’t enough to get Sciortino on the ballot. Now he’s heading to the state Appeals Court, and likely looking at running a sticker campaign, like Wilkerson did two years ago.

But, the senator had it easy: She was caught in a wild four-way write-in campaign, but there weren’t any Democrats on the primary ballot. Sciortino has anopponentBob Trane, who’s out for blood. This opponent, as it happens, has mastered the art of rudimentary bureaucracy. That’s bad news indeed.

Sciortino has said that the towns in his district, Somerville and Medford, certified 186 of his signatures. He then picked up those papers and brought them to his State House office. After a week, he noticed that several were missing, and later reported them stolen. “I know exactly where they were in my office,” he told State House News on Thursday. “They were not misplaced or misfiled. They were stolen.”

That accusation has grabbed headlines, but it’s really beside the point. It doesn’t matter if some Keno-fiending townie version of G. Gordon Liddy may have waltzed into Sciortino’s unlocked office and walked off with 72 good signatures, because Sciortino shouldn’t have been in a position where 72 signatures could keep him off the ballot.

The rule of thumb is to gather twice the number of signatures that you need. That way, when your signature gatherers catch residents who’ve let their voter registrations lapse, or when a campaign worker accidentally spills coffee on a signature sheet – or even when you failed to bring your certified signatures right to Galvin’s office right after picking them up at City Hall, and instead left them lying on your desk for days, just asking to be pilfered by an as-yet-unidentified signature pirate – it’s not the end your career.

Considering that anti-tax robot Carla Howell recently found over 66,000 people who figured it’d be a great idea to plunge the state into fiscal oblivionand got them to sign their names for her, the prospect of wrangling up a few hundred good signatures in voter-rich west Somerville – well, it ain’t the Trail of Tears.

For those keeping track, Sciortino’s opponent, Bob Trane, managed to get 150 signatures to Galvin’s office, and he filed organization papers with OCPF last week. At least one guy in this race knows how to stumble through the motions of getting elected.

State Senator Marc Pacheco was hospitalized on Wednesday, forcing the cancellation of a hearing that was to express outrage over skyrocketing gas prices and demonstrate concern for the plight of the common man. There were a few tasteless jokes bandied about in response, but by far, this one’s the winner: “I think he got sick when he found out how few people were gonna show up.”

Spotted: One court officer nodding off during Senator Richard Moore’s meeting on the dangers of drowsy driving. A legislative staffer in the room didn’t look to be too far behind.

The month isn’t over yet, but OCPF filings show that Michael Flaherty, the city councilor who might, or might not be, interested in gettingdemolished by Tom Menino next November, deposited $16,675 into his campaign account in early May. That’s after raising just short of $75 for the month of April.

Flaherty shouldn’t feel too wonderful about himself, though: The mayor posted around $50,000 in receipts over the past two weeks, after raising over $48,000 in the first two weeks of May. As of May 15, Menino had $258,685 in cash on hand, plus $750,000 in savings. He’s already eclipsed the $1 million mark for available cash, and we haven’t even hit the busy fall fundraising season yet. That couldn’t have anything to do with rumors of Flaherty’s cold feet, could it?

Somewhat interesting observation: Menino files with OCPF every two weeks, while Flaherty files once a month. The mayor also regularly posts bank deposit records (usually hefty ones) between filing dates. The tactic allows would-be challengers to soil themselves in real time over just how rapidly Menino is growing his war chest.

For Flaherty, infrequent filings can help mask lackluster fundraising performances. It also helps keep the identities of Flaherty’s donors secret, and out of the Menino machine’s hands, for as long as legally possible.

The less than disastrous news (we hesitate to use the word “good”) in all this? Two weeks ago, OCPF released a report that found more than a third of last year’s mayoral victors were outspent. The report called stockpiling cash “no guarantee” of reelection.

More good times with campaign finance data: When the House feted outgoing Rep. Rachel Kaprielian last week, it said goodbye to one of its richest members.

Kaprielian, who was tapped last week to run the RMV, leaves the House with $116,996.03 in the bank. That’s short of the massive bankrolls of Thomas Petrolati ($422,949.20), Peter Koutoujian ($402,687.40), Speaker Sal DiMasi ($387,881.21), Ron Mariano ($310,415.13) and John Binienda($362,606.33), but far richer than top DiMasi aides Lida Harkins ($10,971.75), Byron Rushing ($19,051.36), and would-be Speaker John Rogers($79,253.13). Kaprielian also leaves the House with a fatter war chest than either Minority Leader Brad Jones ($102,074.46) or deposed Speaker/lobbyist/radio personality Tom Finneran ($48,987.80).

Wire services contributed to this report.

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