The Boston Phoenix
December 30, 1999 - January 6, 2000


It's the economy, stupid

The vibrant, multinational economic climate is making state politics less relevant to the future

Talking Politics by Seth Gitell

The most significant number to come out of Massachusetts politics during 1999 may be 11,166.

That's the number of domestic corporations that were created in the Commonwealth this year, according to the secretary of state's office. The constant stream of development reflects the state's vibrant and energetic business environment (throughout the '90s, the number of new corporations created in Massachusetts has remained steady at around 11,000 per year). So it's not surprising that in this climate, where the action is in fast-paced capital transactions, high-speed Internet ventures, and tech-stock speculation, the arcane workings of Beacon Hill seem less relevant than ever before. Add to that a series of ugly political episodes -- the burial at sea of former Massport head Peter Blute, the drawn-out budget battle, and the charges and countercharges of extortion on Beacon Hill -- and it's no surprise that many residents tune out when it comes to politics. Even William Weld, the man credited with helping bring high-minded political discourse back to Massachusetts, is packing his bags and heading for New York City.

Economics trumps politics, says Lou DiNatale, the director of state and local policy at UMass Boston's McCormack Institute. "We have a draining of interest in politics because of new alternate institutions," he says. "The strong dominance of economic news is now the main indicator of social health. Politics is now viewed by the general public only in how it affects the economy."

BUDGET BATTLE: Senate President Tom Birmingham (top) and House Speaker Tom Finneran took three months to hash out a state budget.

The traditional fault lines of Massachusetts politics are shifting, and this year showed it as well as any other in recent memory -- though the future of the political landscape is still blurry. Previous eras saw the Irish overtake the Yankees, the suburban Dukakis reformers temporarily triumph over the urban Democratic machines, and the Republicans vanquish the reformers.

Today's battles reflect two dominant issues that people still care about -- education and taxes. Still, Beacon Hill managed to mess up often enough this year to alienate from the process even those who care about these issues.

Consider the more than four months it took state legislators to come up with a budget. For more than three months, House Speaker Thomas Finneran haggled with Senate President Thomas Birmingham. Once they finally agreed on a budget, the governor vetoed a key amendment to the new Clean Elections Law that would have benefited incumbents like Birmingham. He also vetoed $94 million earmarked for education reform -- a pet project of Birmingham's. In what seemed like a fit of pique, Birmingham then held up pay raises for government workers, including a $45,000 increase for Cellucci. Although Cellucci's veto of the education money was easily overridden (not one Republican sided with the governor), his veto of the provision that would have gutted the Clean Elections Law stood. Birmingham, meanwhile, was successful in blocking the pay raises. In a bizarre public display of temper, Cellucci claimed that Birmingham had tried to extort him by hinting that his pay raise would be blocked if Cellucci vetoed the Clean Elections amendment. Birmingham denied it, and both men offered to take polygraph tests. Finneran was strangely silent throughout the drama. The entire episode prompted Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi to compare the trio of state leaders to "three blind mice."

Although it would be hard to come up with a spectacle more absurd than the governor and the Senate president offering to take lie-detector tests, 1999 was rich in material. Peter Blute's abrupt downfall and Robi Blute's ardent -- albeit unusual -- defense of her husband ("my breasts are bigger than hers") kept us entertained for weeks. But even if the infamous booze cruise with the topless "Gidget" had never taken place, it looked as if Blute would have been leaving Massport anyway. Republican insiders had apparently had it in for the former Boston College football player for some time. The biggest beneficiary of his fall (and the one believed to be the architect of his departure, although not the tipster) was Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift, who's on the fast track to the governor's office should Cellucci leave Massachusetts to join a George W. administration in Washington -- as many have speculated he will.

Swift's ascent is being packaged by the state GOP as a sign of the rise of the suburban soccer mom. To a large degree, that's exactly what it is. Swift has gone out of her way to emphasize her status as a working mother -- and to point out the similarly situated Virginia Buckingham, Blute's replacement at Massport. Yet even Buckingham, Cellucci's former chief-of-staff, stumbled into tabloid territory this year. Soon after taking office, Buckingham vowed to change Massport's free-flowing, just-expense-it culture. But her reform-minded statements were undercut by the revelation that she had received free upgrades to first class on airline flights. Still, there's a striking contrast between old urban Democratic politicos such as US Representative Joe Moakley, who opposes Massport's plan to build a new runway at Logan Airport, and the likes of Buckingham, a Boston College graduate barely in her 30s. Shortly after Buckingham's appointment to Massport, Moakley questioned her credentials and publicly described her as "some girl sitting in the next office."

None of this is the stuff of profiles in courage. Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh sees a great discrepancy between the state's economic vibrancy and the languor of the current political scene. "This is a time of missed opportunity. This could be one of the last chances this generation has to fix problems that have plagued people for generations," says Marsh. "At a time when you have all these great dot-com start-ups, we've yet to resolve health care, jobs, education, and the ability to retire. You see fewer and fewer people across the spectrum who want to be in politics, and much of that can be laid at the [feet of the] kind of environment that surrounds politics these days."

Pols like Cellucci and Birmingham are still able to find the silver lining in all this, however. Cellucci political adviser Rob Gray points out that the governor's in-state favorability ratings are high -- higher, even, than Ted Kennedy's. For a Republican who has put an emphasis on tax cutting, "the fact that the economy is good is not a bad thing, with Cellucci and the Republican Party the ones identified with bringing the state back from the brink of fiscal disaster in the late 1980s," Gray says.

Birmingham contends that even though the budget process looked ugly, the result was good. "Although I can make no defense of the process, I can say I am proud of the end result," says the Senate president. "During the summer, we'd get all sorts of calls saying, why can't you settle it? I said, `I can settle it tomorrow if you want me to give up full funding of the public schools.' I'm not going to apologize for full funding of the public schools."

But even Birmingham, who would like to see voters outraged at the governor for trying to cut vital education funds, is finding the strong economy to be one of the defining facts of political life circa 1999. "The basic point is, when the economy is going very well there is less anger at state government. But there are important issues at stake that are not just of the nature of altruistic gestures," he says.

Most in the state political world say what Birmingham is saying -- that people are less angry about local political issues because of the good economy. That's true, in part. Yet times were also good in the mid 1980s, when WRKO talkmaster Jerry Williams led his anti-seat-belt fight. Then, people also cared about national political issues, such as the Iran-contra affair. Today, political consultant Michael Goldman has a radio show on that same station -- but he's as apt to discuss cable television or movies or books as politics. Goldman maintains that it's part of his job to discuss subjects other than politics. He's not alone. Blute quickly found work after the Nauticus debacle -- as a radio-show co-host. He's now on WRKO and handles a similar array of non-political topics.

During the mid to late '80s, a sprinkling of cultural commentators such as Allan Bloom, who wrote The Closing of the American Mind, and E.D. Hirsch Jr., the author of Cultural Literacy, raised a clarion call of complaint that young people didn't seem to know anything about history. A 1986 survey found that 68 percent of 17-year-olds did not know when the Civil War happened. But when it became clear that students were tuning in to subjects such as business and computers (perhaps under the influence of the '80s sit-com hit Family Ties and Michael J. Fox's portrayal of young übercapitalist Alex Keaton) -- and doing well at them -- those voices quieted down. Now those students have grown up to be young workers in the new economy. And guess what? They don't care about politics now any more than they cared about history then. They certainly don't have the patience to learn the details of state budget battles.

More important, everything about the way today's economy is organized renders state politics largely irrelevant to the lives of people who would have been actively involved a generation or two ago. Companies are national and international. Workers travel from state to state and country to country. In the old two-martini-lunch days, employees could score points with their boss by knowing a thing or two about local politics. But when the boss lives in New York or California or London, where's the utility in that? In addition, the decline of local business institutions means that the economic establishment is less invested in the state. (Locally, that's part of what led to the demise of the Vault, the informal group of business leaders that once navigated the relationship between business and government in Boston.)

"When you're a branch town, you're not going to get the kind of leadership that you used to, whether the branch town is Boston or Fall River," says Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "With the pressures to succeed in the global economy, public policy and government is a luxury that these people can't afford."

The ugly events of this past summer and fall aren't going to revive interest in state politics. "For most people, politics appears to be defined by gamesmanship, efforts to one-up one's competition, and an absence in the kind of fast, flexible, entrepreneurial behavior that people would like to see in a smart activist government and its elected officials," says Steve Grossman, a local businessman and the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

To jump-start public interest in politics, the whiz kids, legal geniuses, and financial masterminds must be brought into the polity, along with disenfranchised blue-collar workers and new state residents. Let's hope next year brings up better politics-- or else it's polygraphs for everyone.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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