The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

[1997 in Review]

1997: the year of the switcheroo

Even by Massachusetts's standards, it was a year of sudden reversals, changes of heart, and flat-out flabbergasting plot twists

1997 in Review: News by Michael Crowley

It was already mid-fall -- October 28, to be exact -- when the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted to reinstate capital punishment in a state that hadn't seen an execution for 50 years.

That night, the death penalty prevailed in a cliffhanger of a vote, 81-79. A dumbfounded media depicted the return of executions to supposedly ultraliberal Massachusetts as a done deal. Although it wouldn't be final until the House bill was reconciled with a slightly different version already passed by the Senate, that looked like a mere legislative technicality.

But this was 1997. And no one who had been paying attention to the schizophrenic year to date in state politics should have been surprised by what happened next: a stunning last-minute reversal, thanks to the troubled conscience of a heroic Democratic state representative named Jim Slattery, that resulted in an 80-80 tie -- and the defeat of the death penalty bill.

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And so it went all year. From Joe Kennedy to Bill Weld, from the Patriots' stadium quest to the area-code altercation, the one thing you could count on in 1997 was a startling plot twist, a sudden paradigm shift, a refutation of the conventional political wisdom.

Sudden changes of fortune, of course, are a basic ingredient of politics. But just as global warming helped make 1997 the hottest year on record, the roller-coaster mania of Massachusetts politics may have made it the most dramatic. Judging by the swarm of national press coverage our humble little commonwealth attracted -- from episodes of Crossfire to Maureen Dowd columns in the New York Times -- it seems the rest of America agreed.

It's almost hard to believe today, but when the curtain went up on 1997, no wisdom was more conventional than this: Joe Kennedy would be the man to beat in the 1998 Massachusetts governor's race. For months, Kennedy had been running a shadow campaign -- crossing the state, raising big money, airing slick ads. We expected him to run, and many of us expected him to win.

What happened to Kennedy next was so very 1997.

First, Joe's ex-wife went public in March with her gripes about the annulment of their marriage, publishing an angry book confirming popular suspicions that the congressman was a bullying hothead.

Things became infinitely worse the next month, when an understated headline appeared in the Boston Globe over a photo of Kennedy's cousin Michael: KENNEDY KIN ALLEGEDLY HAD AFFAIR WITH SITTER.

The luck of the Irish had run out. By spring, mainstream and tabloid media from Boston to Bangkok were awash in stories about the teenage Alicia Silverstone look-alike, Kennedy's regard for his religion ("Catholic gobbledygook"), and the apparent decline, once and for all, of the Kennedy dynasty.

But the worse things got, the more Kennedy seemed determined to tough it out. At June's state Democratic convention in Salem, he delivered a public apology -- forced as it was -- for all that had gone wrong. Even after another knuckleheaded cousin, John Jr., penned a George magazine editorial calling Joe and Michael "poster boys for bad behavior," Joe was adamant that he would run. He opened a state campaign account and named a campaign chairwoman. In June, he said of rumors that he would bail out: "There's no truth to that." Asked in July about running, he said: "Yes, that's what I intend to do."

On August 29, Kennedy announced that he wouldn't run after all.

This being 1997, though, there was one more twist. Kennedy soon returned to the public eye in a series of media appearances, and his advisers -- though they now deny it -- appeared to be floating a trial balloon: Kennedy might reconsider.

If 1997 opened with a mistaken sense of certainty about Joe Kennedy's intentions, Bill Weld was a maddening enigma from January 1. Perhaps even more than Kennedy, he embodied the weird gestalt of 1997.

Weld had just lost a tight race for US Senate in November, and his future was uncertain. He had long pledged that this, his second term, would be his last. But he'd also suggested he might step down early and hand his job off to his lieutenant, Paul Cellucci, who wanted a head start on a 1998 campaign for the corner office.

But with plenty of the, er, holiday spirit in him at the governor's annual holiday party, Weld declared that he wanted to "kick Joe K.'s ass" himself in the '98 governor's race. In later interviews, Weld suggested even more explicitly that he might try for a third term after all. The year opened, remarkably enough, with pundits handicapping a Kennedy-Weld matchup.

In the ensuing weeks, Weld yo-yoed around. He wanted a presidential appointment. He mused about a job in international finance. Above all, he remained smugly oblique about his intentions for a third term. But not long after a spring Boston Globe poll showed Weld trouncing Kennedy in a gubernatorial matchup, the White House delivered: Weld was to be America's next ambassador to Mexico.

In any other year, the governor might have shuffled quietly off, despite some grumbling from the Republican right, for a few insignificant years of sipping margaritas and preaching free trade.

But this was 1997. Weld's appointment was immediately met by predictable grousing from junior GOP right-wingers, who didn't care much for his lefty social leanings. What nobody expected was the sideswipe by a band of Massachusetts Republicans, who bitterly declared that Weld "did nothing for the Republican Party in Massachusetts." All that, and some perceived slights from Weld's Senate campaign, convinced a certain jowly North Carolina senator to pronounce the nomination dead on arrival.

But Weld was not to be denied: on July 30, he dramatically quit the governor's post and set off on his "battle for the soul of the Republican party." The national media were entranced, and suddenly this former Senate also-ran was transformed into a White House 2000 thoroughbred.

Yet Weld was no match for the unflinching Jesse Helms. And just as quickly as he'd caught the national eye, Weld faded. Finally, the ex-governor washed up last month in a six-figure-salary job at a top New York law firm. After all he went through in 1997, he now says he's finished with politics.

The Weld and Kennedy sagas made for a few roller-coaster subplots involving the other candidates for governor in 1998.

One of them concerned the man who had toiled so long in Bill Weld's shadow: Paul Cellucci. The longer Weld hung around in office, the more it seemed Cellucci would never get a chance to establish himself as acting governor before running for the job in 1998. The mysterious karma of 1997 even clouded up the Phoenix's own crystal ball: in April, we proclaimed the lieutenant governor's "Fall from Grace" -- just one day before Weld got the nomination that opened the corner office to Cellucci.

When Weld was first tapped, Cellucci seemed to have it made. But he remained stuck on the sidelines as Helms stalled the ambassadorial nomination, and people began to speculate that Weld might stick around and try for a third term after all. Just as Cellucci was really beginning to sweat, however, came another reversal: Weld staged his kamikaze dive into Washington, and the office belonged to Cellucci.

And that changed everything, of course. Cellucci immediately slapped his name on highway signs statewide, and basked in a luxurious media honeymoon. With Joe Kennedy out of the race, Cellucci has become the new 1998 front-runner.

At first, however, nobody seemed to benefit more from Kennedy's exit than the man who had long suffered in his shadow, Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. For months, Harshbarger had been trying to convince people that a Kennedy could be defeated in a Massachusetts Democratic primary, stubbornly proclaiming that "no one is entitled to be governor." Few people really believed him, but when Kennedy was finally chased from the race, Harshbarger seemed like the luckiest man in Massachusetts.

Of course, this being 1997, that had to change -- fast. Democratic insiders had long resented Harshbarger, and instead of rallying around him, they sniped away and cast about for new candidates. Recent polls show that, far from consolidating support, Harshbarger has gained almost no ground since Kennedy's exit.

Similarly, if not quite so drastically, the Cellucci pendulum has swung back again. The acting guv lost a major victory -- and, in front of TV cameras, his cool -- when the death penalty was stifled. And despite his new rank and fundraising prowess, he has failed to squash his opponent for the Republican nomination, state treasurer Joe Malone, who spent the year traveling to every teeny GOP gathering in the state and winning vital party-activist support.

One other candidate for governor had a taxing up-and-down year in 1997 -- especially since the ups were few and the downs pretty low. Former Boston mayor Ray Flynn began the year with a public, humiliatingly unsuccessful search for a job once his tenure as ambassador to the Vatican expired. Flynn couldn't even get a job as Northeastern University's athletic director. But Kennedy's exit left a void in the governor's race for a liberal urban populist like Ray, and come September, he was in like. . . . Well, even if Flynn wasn't much of a threat to win it all, he seemed poised at least to rebuild his reputation, which had been tarnished in his last days as mayor and in his controversial years in Rome.

Then a 1000 pound anvil -- in the form of an October Globe account of Flynn's heavy drinking and his spotty performance as ambassador -- landed on him. Democrats again rolled their eyes at the utterance of Flynn's name.

But the fickle hand of fate in 1997 wasn't confined to the tortured souls seeking the Massachusetts governorship.

Term limits were a case in point. A 1994 ballot initiative stipulated that Beacon Hill pols would automatically be kicked out of office after eight years. So a slew of legislators, many of them facing expulsion as soon as 2002, spent early 1997 preparing to run for higher office. This new spirit of upward mobility was the talk of the State House, and promised more turnover than the legislature had seen in decades.

Then along came the justices of the state's Supreme Judicial Court, who called the whole thing off in May. They ruled that term limits violated the state constitution, prompting what the populist activist Barbara Anderson called a "huge sigh of relief on the part of the average clod in the legislature."

But even after term limits were killed, plenty of folks on (and off) Beacon Hill had designs on one of local politics' grand prizes: Joe Kennedy's Eighth District congressional seat. Because the historic seat so rarely opens up, just about every pol with a local base began revving the campaign engines in anticipation of Kennedy's exit for the governor's race. When striking UPS workers picketed the company's facility in Watertown -- which makes up a major chunk of the Eighth District -- a parade of would-be candidates for the seat turned out to show solidarity with the workers.

Perhaps in some other year, we'd now be gearing up for a thrilling congressional race featuring the best political talent in the Boston area. But not in 1997. Kennedy, as you know, is staying put (although some say he may soon retire). And all those erstwhile contenders for his seat have ricocheted in new directions. State senator Warren Tolman is running instead for lieutenant governor. Senate president Tom Birmingham is clamping down on the Senate. And Dianne Wilkerson, whose supporters looked forward to her audition for the political big time, was instead busted for tax evasion this fall.

The ambitions of second-tier state politicians may not have caught much of the public's attention. The death penalty, on the other hand, became the single issue for which most average citizens will remember the legislature in 1997 -- and they will remember that place as one of gripping drama and stunning turnabout.

Making the death penalty double-take doubly bizarre was its connection to that most shocking of all 1997 switcheroo stories, the Louise Woodward trial.

The legislature had come to the brink of passing death penalty legislation after a series of horrifying local murders -- including that of 10-year-old Little Leaguer Jeffrey Curley -- that were demagogued to their full potential by Paul Cellucci and friends.

But then the British au pair was slapped with a life sentence that most people found cruel -- and her wrenching sobs were captured for sympathetic TV viewers worldwide. With the House preparing to etch capital punishment into law on November 6, John Slattery took the floor to say he was switching his vote, which locked the House in a tie and killed the bill. Slattery cited the Woodward verdict as a key factor in his decision. "We don't always get the right guy in the criminal justice system," he said, adding: "The timing of the case is ironic." But it wasn't, of course. It was just 1997.

So it was par for the course when, just five days after Slattery's switch -- which earned him death threats and the label "Judas Slattery" from talk-radio host Howie Carr -- Judge Hiller Zobel threw out the Woodward verdict and let her walk.

If the death penalty was the year's signature reversal, the New England Patriots' quest for a suitable stadium was its longest-running drama. In January, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was set on South Boston; in February, he was chased away. When Kraft tried to lean on the state for help, House Speaker Tom Finneran called him a "whining" millionaire, and soon Kraft was negotiating with Rhode Island, which in September appeared willing to build him a shiny new stadium.

And so we braced for the Providence Patriots. But not this year. Rhode Island had a last-minute attack of common sense, and the deal fell through. Suddenly Kraft was crawling back to the legislature, asking for $50 million to help fix up Foxboro stadium. And that still wasn't the end of it. Initially, no deal could be reached; then an eleventh-hour agreement came through in November. Now Finneran is blasting Kraft again, and everything's back to square one.

Even an issue as seemingly mundane as a change in the telephone area codes blew up into "chaos and controversy," as a frustrated Paul Cellucci put it in August. The state's public utility agency had long planned to create two new area codes -- 781 and 978 -- that would have left 128 towns in the 508 and 617 areas with new phone numbers. But pandering legislators carved out exemptions for 12 towns, including Watertown, Arlington, and Revere. Cellucci, trying to please voters in those towns, said he'd allow their reprieve. He and the intervening legislators were local heroes, all.

Ah, but not so fast! State regulators warned against "area-code chaos." The 617 area would run out of phone numbers by May 1998, they said, and businesses had already spent millions of dollars changing their stationery and advertising. Cellucci whiplashed against the bill, and the towns were dragged screaming into the area-code future (although Belmont and Watertown managed to cling to 617). It had all happened in about a week, and it was a bad one for Cellucci. Not only did he look confused, but he made enemies, too. As one state rep put it: "If Cellucci comes to Revere looking for votes, he'd better dial 911."

Admittedly, history resists tidy, all-encompassing classifications. There were exceptions to the binary, back-and-forth rule last year. The steadiest constant was the state's economy, which is no longer "on the rebound" but is now generating revenue, profits, and jobs at a miraculous pace.

The economy also brought goodwill for incumbent pols, none of whom profited more than Boston mayor Tom Menino. In November, Menino sauntered to an unopposed reelection -- the first of this city's storied Hizzoners ever to do so.

Likewise, it was fairly smooth going on Beacon Hill for House Speaker Finneran. Yes, Finneran had to grapple with blowups like the death penalty and the stadium, and with criticism for his heavy-handed tactics and the pay raises he arranged for his allies. But mostly, Finneran made the legislative trains run on time. He easily consolidated his power in the House, even if that meant smothering debate and dissent. With Birmingham distracted for much of the year by a possible run for Congress, and with Cellucci still finding his footing, Finneran has established himself as the King of the Hill.

The state Republican Party also was consistent all year: consistently chaotic. Party officials feuded over their allegiances in the governor's race (and in the Weld nomination fight), and internal bickering led to the ouster of the state party's executive director in September. After vowing to rebuild the party's farm team, GOP chairman Jean Inman has had an embarrassingly hard time recruiting candidates. True, state Democrats also endured their share of infighting -- most notably over whether to embrace or undermine Scott Harshbarger's candidacy. But apart from Paul Cellucci's moment in the sun, the state GOP had little to cheer about in 1997.

Yes, it was good fun, 1997. But was it just a wild, drunken fling, or did it all have some deeper significance?

The fireworks did tend to obscure some issues with a real impact on the little guy. The legislature coughed up several bills affecting daily life in Massachusetts. One deregulated the electric-utility industry, which should lower power rates by 10 or 15 percent (not nearly enough, some said). Another expanded the fledgling charter-school program. The working poor got a break with $29 million in earned income tax credits. And for better or worse, a jumbo new South Boston convention center was finally approved last month.

And there's no doubt that the shock waves of 1997 will ripple forcefully into next November's state elections. The election is in 1998, but the field for the governor's race is already set -- a field whose political center of gravity veered to the right when Joe Kennedy dropped out. Eighty legislators on Beacon Hill are nervously wondering how important the death penalty will be when their constituents decide whether to send them back to Beacon Hill. And the Patriots have to wind up somewhere.

Some people reviewing the year might be tempted to indulge in a few predictions for the one ahead. But only those people who haven't learned a thing from the past 12 months.

Michael Crowley can be reached at mcrowley[a]