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Swift’s speech; Weld’s legacy

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 16, 2002 — For much of Governor Jane Swift’s nine months in office, she’s been haunted by the ghost of William Weld. The former governor cynically took down tollbooths on the Massachusetts Turnpike when he thought it would help him defeat John Kerry in the 1996 US Senate race, even though he knew that Big Dig costs were spiraling out of control. Swift has fought to raise Mass Pike tolls this year to help pay for the Big Dig over the objections of two Turnpike Authority board members she is trying to fire — one of whom is Christy Mihos, a staunch Republican donor. Weld began the practice of packing Massport with hacks (one of whom was Swift); the current governor has had to devote considerable political capital to dealing with the infestation of hacks at Logan Airport after terrorists hijacked two planes from Boston and crashed them into the World Trade Center on September 11. Finally, Weld helped forge the Republicans’ unholy alliance with former Senate president William Bulger at the expense of building his own party. The lack of party depth didn’t help Swift this year as she quickly ran through a short list of acceptable lieutenant-gubernatorial running mates before settling upon the talented but green Patrick Guerriero of Melrose.

Perhaps that’s why Weld’s attendance inside the House chambers last night for Swift’s first State of the State address was so bizarre. The former governor was front and center, with his red hair slicked back in some bizarre attempt to emulate a real Manhattanite and his pale skin ghastly white, as befit his spectral presence. Indeed, Swift’s speech (which was far more memorable than any delivered by her predecessor, Paul Cellucci) hit the high notes of Weld’s governorship: tacking to the left on social policy and to the right on fiscal issues. She offered a compromise on bilingual education that would allow each school system to decide on the future of the program in its community (what could be more Republican than that?), and she vowed to stand by the income-tax cut passed by state voters in 2000. "The tax rollback — supported by an overwhelming number of voters — must and will stand," Swift thundered. And she hammered away at our unpopular state legislature: "Public service cannot be seen as self-service," she admonished. "When people vote for clean elections, fund them. When people vote for lower taxes, roll them back."

Following Swift’s speech, the usual Democratic suspects were quick to criticize her address. Treasurer Shannon O’Brien said that the governor has been too slow in implementing some of the measures she touted in her speech — such as getting the state ready to face biochemical attack and failing to fund Clean Elections, even as Swift mouthed support for the program. Senate president Tom Birmingham warned that the tax cut could lead to further fiscal shortfalls. State Democratic Party chair Phil Johnston invoked the problems with the Turnpike Authority, Massport, and the state budget. Gubernatorial candidate Warren Tolman chided Swift for failing to discuss the environment, affordable housing, and prescription-drug benefits.

Swift’s defenders noted that the governor had delivered her speech in the lion’s den to emphasize the contrast between her office and the unpopular legislative leaders — an apt point. Confronting Beacon Hill shenanigans will always be an effective tactic for Republicans in this state. And Swift’s new sidekick, Guerriero, did a more-than-able job deflecting Democratic attacks after the speech. He noted the launch of two Democratic gubernatorial campaigns in recent weeks and their common theme of raising taxes: Robert Reich would like to raise the capital-gains tax; Senate president Tom Birmingham favors an increase in cigarette taxes. "The first thing they want to do is raise taxes," said Guerriero. "They took it right out of the Michael Dukakis playbook."

As dated as the Dukakis model is for 2002, the Weld model is equally antiquated. It’s no longer 1982 in Massachusetts, but neither is it 1992. Weld’s ship has sailed. And unlike during the 1980s, when Dukakis could rely on House Speaker George Keverian to help tax and spend without objection, the Democrats have the fiscally conservative Tom Finneran to keep state spending under control. The Weld playbook — as attractive as it is — may no longer be enough to propel a Republican into the governor’s office.

Weld, for one, didn’t want to address any criticisms of his time as governor last night. Asked whether his own aforementioned actions, coupled with his decision to abandon Massachusetts for the Big Apple, might have contributed to Swift’s problems, Weld brushed off the question. "I’m sure she’s up to them," Weld said as he slunk out of the State House into the night air.

Issue Date: January 16, 2002

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