The Boston Phoenix
December 2 - 9, 1999


Early exit?

Is Paul Cellucci Beltway bound? Some seem to hope so.

Talking Politics by Seth Gitell

On WRKO radio last Wednesday, Andy Moes -- with radio partner Peter Blute at his side -- asked Governor Paul Cellucci if, given the opportunity, he would join a George W. Bush administration. Cellucci praised Bush and lauded the lieutenant governor who would replace him at the State House if he left, but he said he would stay where he is. "I think Jane Swift would be a great governor for our state," he said. "She's done a great job . . . but I worked very hard to get this job, and I love it."

These assurances notwithstanding, the governor's actions in recent weeks suggest a chief executive who, like his predecessor William Weld, may not even finish out his term.

Let's begin with the incident that set Beacon Hill aflame a mere two weeks ago. Cellucci called the Boston Globe from the Republican Governors Association meeting in Carlsbad, California, and accused Senate president Tom Birmingham of extorting him. In a public display of temper, Cellucci alleged that Birmingham had threatened to nix the governor's $45,000 pay raise if Cellucci vetoed a key amendment to the new Clean Elections Law that would benefit incumbents such as Birmingham. Cellucci vetoed the amendment, and Birmingham blocked the pay raise. This doesn't mean that Birmingham actually tried to extort Cellucci, but even if he did, Cellucci's outburst was unusual -- especially considering that it highlighted his own financial interests. It's hard to imagine the same behavior from any other public official facing re-election in three years -- such is not the way electoral careers flourish. But this is not the first time Cellucci's gotten in a public snit. He's engaged in contentious exchanges with other elected officials over the proposed new runway at Logan Airport, for example.

Shortly after the messy exchange with Birmingham (in response to Cellucci's charges, Birmingham pronounced the governor "flaky"), Cellucci turned his attention to the national press corps attending the governors' convention. Out of the watchful eye of the local press, which couldn't get enough of the weird public spat between the governor and the Senate president, Cellucci started talking up the presidential candidacy of George W. Bush to national scribes. "We're already sending troops up to New Hampshire and we'll continue to do so," he enthused to the Washington Post.

This contrast in Cellucci's behavior -- one instant he's a frustrated pol throwing a tantrum, the next he's a smooth presidential-campaign spinner -- is sending Massachusetts political insiders into a tizzy. Just how long, people are not so privately wondering, does Cellucci intend to be governor?

"It's hard to imagine anybody who's gotten into a public fight [as Cellucci has] with Congressman Joe Moakley, Mayor Menino, Mayor Mariano of Worcester [who] would ever appear on a ballot in Massachusetts and expect to be successful," says Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "I think there's always a chance that Cellucci might go. After inheriting the office from Bill Weld, he wanted to win the governorship in his own right. That might have been the only thing he wanted to achieve. Especially when you look at his lack of achievements in the past year, he's conducted his first year in office as a bystander."

Then there's the rise of Jane Swift. Last August, she was the highest-profile public official at work on the whack job of former Massport head Peter Blute. She was also seen as a strong advocate of hiring Virginia Buckingham for Blute's old job. More recently, Swift took center stage at the New England Regional Transportation Summit at the Logan Airport Hilton. Swift served as MC and introduced the key speakers, who included Cellucci and the governors of Rhode Island and Connecticut. In between sessions, she deftly worked the room of lobbyists and transportation officials, coffee cup and saucer in hand. When Cellucci and Buckingham took a moment to confer in front of the dais, Swift immediately swooped in to join them.

Swift's ascendance on the state level is no accident. Cellucci knew it would work to his benefit if he ran with a woman; that was why he persuaded Swift to join his ticket instead of running for Congress again against Representative John Olver. Part of the deal, some insiders believe, was that Swift would become governor more rapidly than expected. Even if there was no express arrangement to this effect, the perception among political insiders is that Swift is becoming the pol to reckon with in the state's executive branch.

Massachusetts contributors are certainly drawn to her. An examination of state fundraising records from August to mid November tells the story. Swift has raised $179,129.05, Cellucci $318,812.13. Even though the governor outraised Swift, the lieutenant governor's strong performance suggests that contributors are betting she will become governor sooner rather than later. Says Massachusetts political consultant Michael Goldman: "Those people aren't paying that kind of money to have access to the lieutenant governor. They're paying that money to have access to the next governor." Adds a Massachusetts Republican insider: "It shows she's a really strong player in Massachusetts." Says Jean Inman, a past chairman of the state Republican Party: "To me, it's very good. It shows her strength. She's doing an excellent job, and people are supportive of the administration and they are willing to contribute." Observers draw parallels between Swift and Evelyn Murphy, who was able to raise substantial funds as lieutenant governor once it became clear that Michael Dukakis was not going to run for office again in 1990.

And then there is Cellucci's apparent lack of interest in shoring up support on Beacon Hill. He was surely frustrated by his inability to prevent the legislature from overriding his budget vetoes -- his only public input into the budget-making process. Legislative overrides require a full two-thirds of the House of Representatives and the Senate, yet Cellucci still doesn't have the votes to prevent them from happening. There are only 27 Republican representatives and seven Republican senators. Seven more Senate seats is all it would take for Cellucci and the Republicans to be able to block legislative vetoes. (Not that that would guarantee legislative support. The Republicans voted with the Democrats in overriding a Cellucci veto of education-reform money.)

One would think that Cellucci would be barnstorming all over the state in a quest to gain power on Beacon Hill, hoping to be able to prevent these veto overrides one day. But he's not. Other than a symbolic commitment to Citizens for Limited Taxation and its income-tax-rollback effort, Cellucci has been absent from the fundraising scene. Except, of course, for his efforts on behalf of George W. Bush.

"The clearest indication that he has no intention of staying [as governor] is he's making no effort to attempt to get additional people elected to the Massachusetts Senate," says Goldman. "All he has to do is identify seven Senate seats that he thinks are vulnerable so he can withstand a veto."

In fact, Cellucci's actually working to re-elect a Democrat: William McManus of Worcester's 14th District, for whom he's hosting a fundraiser on December 8. Why? Well, the party line is that Cellucci is returning a favor. "I assume that Representative McManus was helpful to the governor's election in November. This is returning the favor. It's a personal thing between these two men," says House Republican leader Francis Marini of Hanson. "The governor is attempting to do the best he can to get more Republicans elected to the state legislature."

But dig a little deeper and you'll hear a different story. Privately, Republicans will tell you that the state party is in a shambles. That Cellucci should be in the vulnerable districts recruiting attractive candidates. That a true Cellucci legacy would be ensuring two real parties in Massachusetts. Now, the best Massachusetts conservatives have to look to is Thomas Finneran, the Democratic House Speaker, whom Republicans backed as Speaker and whom many see as holding the keys to the budget on Beacon Hill.

All these clues further underline the question: what are Cellucci's long-term plans? At the Massport conference, the Phoenix asked Cellucci whether he would join a Bush administration. Cellucci sat on-stage, with Swift at his side. "I'm helping Governor Bush because I want him to be the next president of the United States. It's important for the country," Cellucci said. Does Cellucci plan to relinquish the governorship to Swift before his term is out? "I have no plans to," Cellucci said, turning to look at Swift, "though she could certainly do the job."

At the same conference, Andrew Card -- a transportation expert, treasurer of the Bush campaign, and a fixture of the Bush inner circle -- was asked about the possibility of Cellucci's joining a Bush administration. "I'm confident that Paul Cellucci would be high in Governor Bush's mind if [Bush] is in a position to put together a leadership team. Paul was one of the first governors to endorse him," Card said confidently. Then he caught himself and backtracked: "But Paul's real passion is for Massachusetts. If I were Bush, I would want Paul Cellucci. If I were Paul Cellucci, I would take a hard look at how my leadership could best help the Commonwealth."

One reason Cellucci may be so close-mouthed about his plans is that he has not cemented his future with Bush yet. Even though Cellucci's ties to the Bush family go back to 1980 (when he, along with Card and a handful of other Republicans, embraced George Bush the elder), he is still just one of many Republican governors now jockeying for influence with Bush the younger. (The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed the Republicans Governors Association "the Aspiring Vice Presidents Association.") Here in the Northeast, Cellucci must vie for influence against New York governor George Pataki, who has two things Cellucci doesn't -- he's a Yalie like Bush, and he controls a much larger state than Massachusetts. Then there is the innovative Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, who has attempted to implement school vouchers. His backing of Bush gave the candidate an early boost in his presidential quest.

Beyond that are two other fairly significant obstacles to Cellucci's apparent inside-the-Beltway aspirations. The first is his performance in marshaling the "troops" for the New Hampshire and Massachusetts primaries. As Marshall Breger, a former member of the Reagan and Bush administrations, puts it: "Can he deliver Massachusetts? Can he help in New Hampshire? This is the stuff that moves you up in the process." The Granite State is where the national prospects of local figures such as Cellucci are determined. Exhibit A: John Sununu (did anyone ever think this guy would become a White House chief-of-staff?).

If Bush fails to do well in New Hampshire, Cellucci -- from neighboring Massachusetts -- will bear some of the blame. And if Bush falters in the Commonwealth, Cellucci can kiss his chances of working for Bush goodbye.

Not only that, but Cellucci and his team have already goofed up once: they failed to give Bush adequate warning about Andy Hiller, political correspondent for Boston's WHDH-TV and master of the on-camera ambush. The Bush camp couldn't have been happy about that one. Bush's performance on the Hiller pop quiz (in which the candidate was asked to name the leaders of Chechnya, Pakistan, India, and Taiwan, and got only the last name of Taiwan's leader -- Lee -- correct) launched his worst month yet on the campaign trail. As a local official, Cellucci would have been the one to tip Bush off about Hiller's tactics. Whether it's fair or not, he got the blame for the gaffe. The Massachusetts governor is now trying to put some spin on the situation. He told WRKO's Moes: "I'm of the opinion that it helped George Bush. I think it's good to be tested. I think it's good to have some bumps in the road. I think it toughens you up." If that's Cellucci's idea of help, Bush is in trouble.

The second obstacle, of course, is Cellucci's finances. The question of Cellucci's personal debt, more than $700,000 during the 1998 election, is relevant in two ways. First, Cellucci must be able to afford to take a job in Washington (with the added expense of finding a place to live there). Second, the debt could come up again at appointment time -- when every aspect of a candidate's life is carefully examined.

Meanwhile, he has yet to contribute a dime of his own money to the Bush campaign. According to public finance records available at the Center for Responsive Politics' Web site, nobody named Cellucci has given any money to Bush. By contrast, Bill Weld gave $1000 each to Bush and Elizabeth Dole back in April. Everyone knows that Cellucci's broke. But a token contribution would go a long way.

If anyone has taken the path Cellucci seems to want to follow, it is, as Cellucci himself would say, his "old pal" Andrew Card. Card was able to parlay his work for then-presidential candidate George Bush into a job in the Reagan White House. He eventually ended up as the secretary of transportation -- a position that would be a dream job for Cellucci. For one, a job as cabinet secretary pays considerably more than the Massachusetts governorship. (Cellucci currently gets $90,000. The transportation secretary gets $120,900.) It could also lead to a lucrative lobbying position when it's over. Card, for example, is a high-profile lobbyist for General Motors. Of course, as a career politician, Cellucci is motivated by more than money. What state politician wouldn't want to play a part in national politics, have access to some of the top Republicans in the country, and get the chance to be a big-time player? How could Cellucci pass all that up?

There is precedent for such a leap. The last Italian-American Republican governor of Massachusetts, John Volpe, went to Washington with Richard Nixon as transportation secretary. (There's a building named after him in Kendall Square.) And it's not as if Cellucci doesn't have the credentials to be transportation secretary. There's his stewardship of the Big Dig, his personal lobbying of Delta to start service to Worcester, and his push for the new runway at Logan.

Still, it's no sure thing. What happens in Massachusetts if Bush doesn't become president? And what happens to Cellucci if Bush wins, but does not ask him to join his administration? It's hard to envision the governor settling back into a mundane Beacon Hill existence after his national and international jet-setting and schmoozing. And what about Swift? She's not likely to be too happy if Cellucci stays longer than anticipated. (It would be a little bit like working for Weld after he lost his Senate race to John Kerry.)

Cellucci's defenders make a good case that Cellucci has doggedly worked himself up through the political ranks and is too cautious to bet everything on a Bush presidency. But this analysis overlooks how tough it would be for a governor who feels underappreciated (he didn't get his hoped-for raise) and annoyed (every one of his high-profile vetoes was summarily overridden) to stay in the State House should Bush not win. Cellucci has done a good job of making friends with industry. He's hobnobbed in Hollywood; he's forged ties on his missions afield that have brought tourism and business back to Massachusetts. Perhaps Cellucci's back-up plan is to network his way to big money via a job in big business?

The result of an early checkout by Cellucci would be a Swift governorship. If Swift can learn enough by the time Cellucci goes, if indeed he does, that could empower the state's Republican Party. But there are many critics out there -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- who think the transition between governor and lieutenant governor that went so smoothly with Weld and Cellucci might not work at all a second time around. If it were to fail, Republicans could wind up with little to show for their decade in control of the Massachusetts governor's office.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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