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[talking politics]

Waiting in the wings
If Jane Swift needs even a little time off after giving birth to twins, the secretary of state is ready, willing, and — most bet — eager to become acting governor


SECRETARY OF STATE William F. Galvin enters a sparse conference room inside the State House bookstore and takes a seat at the table. “Welcome to my world,” he says, opening his arms ever so slightly. I place my microcassette recorder on the table and ask if I can record the interview. Galvin gives his approval as he motions to an aide: “We’re going to tape it too.”

This sort of attention to detail has marked Galvin’s career. He has a deep knowledge of the state’s arcane redistricting laws that’s served him well in back-room political fights. His understanding of the nuances of the state’s election laws helped him to persuade municipal officials to eliminate punch-card ballots after the litigation in the 1996 Philip Johnston–Bill Delahunt congressional race, which hinged on hand-counting the ballots. And 25 years of public life have taught him when to slap a tape recorder down in front of a reporter. The 50-year-old pol is also ambitious — to the point that he’s been dubbed the “prince of darkness.” Now, with six years of statewide elective experience under his belt, Galvin is seriously considering a run for governor in 2002.

All of this should — and probably does — have Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift looking over her shoulder. In a few short months, when Governor Paul Cellucci is expected to be confirmed by the US Senate as ambassador to Canada, Swift will become acting governor. The same thing happened to Cellucci when he was lieutenant governor and William Weld stepped down to pursue his nomination as ambassador to Mexico.

In most cases, the transition of power is fairly straightforward. But this time, it’s not. Swift is due to give birth to twins in June — just when budget negotiations will be heating up. If she becomes incapacitated or needs extended recovery time, Galvin ascends to the governor’s seat: the state constitution specifies that if a governor is unable to perform the duties of office and there is no lieutenant governor to step in, the secretary of state becomes the acting governor.

The state’s already gotten a taste of what he might do if that happens: back in December 1998, he served as acting governor while Cellucci was out of state on vacation. Galvin seized the opportunity to file legislation making health-maintenance organizations more accountable. (Michael Jonas provides an entertaining account of the incident in his profile of Galvin in the Spring 2000 issue of CommonWealth magazine.)

Galvin’s fearsome image as a master of Machiavellian tactics emerged when, as a state representative, he successfully navigated the 1983-’84 leadership battle between House Speaker Tom McGee of Lynn and Representative George Keverian, a Democrat from Everett, who had begun lobbying his fellow members to support him in a leadership coup. McGee’s heavy-handed ways — he’d been known to remove furniture from the offices of his critics, and wouldn’t even let legislators have a cup of coffee in his office while waiting to see him — had offended many colleagues. Galvin needed to play each side against the other if he hoped to retain his chairmanship of the influential government regulations committee. Throughout the battle, he kept his loyalties to himself — even as both sides hoped to sway him. After Keverian issued a public statement naming his supporters and seemed poised to win the battle, Galvin held his own press conference saying that he sided with him. Keverian, thankful to Galvin, allowed him to keep his chairmanship. Today, Galvin says that he, along with others in the House, sought to forge a compromise between McGee and the Keverian forces.

By 1990 the Keverian-Galvin alliance turned to bitterness when Galvin challenged Keverian for the Democratic nomination for treasurer. It was a brutal campaign that cemented Galvin’s reputation for ruthlessness. Galvin made an issue of the fact that Keverian, while in Atlanta attending the 1988 Democratic National Convention, had taken the daily $5 payments given to legislators to offset expenses incurred while working at the State House. A Boston Globe account of a televised debate between the two reports that Galvin described Keverian’s decision to take the per diems — even though he wasn’t in the State House on the days in question — as part of a “pattern” of dishonesty. Keverian demanded that Galvin disclose how he knew that the Speaker hadn’t been in the State House on those days. “Do you watch my office the way you watch Treasurer Robert Crane’s office? Do you enter my office 10 times a day the way you do his?” Keverian thundered. “Yes,” Galvin responded. “Of course you would, because you’re known as the prince of darkness,” Keverian shot back.

No one quite knows who gave Galvin the unflattering nickname. (Of course, both conservative syndicated columnist Robert Novak and Richard Perle, a former Reagan foreign-policy adviser and Cold War hawk, are also known as princes of darkness. But in the relatively liberal Bay State, Galvin is the only pol who’s referred to this way.) Most attribute the title to Beacon Hill colleagues jealous of Galvin’s skillful way with the media. When he was a state rep, many of his fellow legislators suspected Galvin of being the spring that irrigated Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr’s font of scoops. Former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, who was Carr’s rival at the time, described Galvin as “a walking whisper.” In a May 22, 1981, column, he wrote, “When not reciting his quips from memory, he is either on the phone or grabbing someone in a corridor and saying bad things about people.”

Today, Galvin says the moniker doesn’t bother him. “I’ve long since learned that people call you names; there’s nothing you can do about it,” he says. “My name is Bill. I’m one of these people, I could walk out the door here and have five people saluting me as Mr. Secretary. That’s nice, but I don’t insist on that. I don’t need to be called prince or secretary or king or anything else.”

GALVIN IS a loner in a profession filled with backslappers. To his colleagues, he remains something of a mystery — “an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a Democrat,” says one State House insider, playing off Winston Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union. But his long career in politics, which began when he was a teenager, evinces a theme: that of the crafty pol who knows all the angles and how to use them to get ahead.

Galvin was born on September 17, 1950, to Irish-American parents in the Faneuil section of Brighton. His father worked for the transit authority, and his immigrant mother was a nurse’s aide. He attended parochial school in Brighton and then, while many of his contemporaries went to Boston College High School, took two buses every morning to get to St. Mary’s High School in Waltham.

In the annals of celebrated Boston neighborhoods, Galvin’s Brighton tends to get short shrift. It’s no storied Southie or Charlestown or Dot, whose names alone have given rise to all kinds of lore. It’s not Jamaica Plain or West Roxbury, where so many lace-curtain Irish settled. At the same time Brighton doesn’t have much in common with the tony areas of Back Bay or Beacon Hill. In the public mind, Brighton is, well, Brighton — a place to live for a couple of years while attending Boston University or Boston College. But back when Galvin was growing up, there was a special section of Brighton that held influence: Ward 22, home of St. John’s Seminary and of proud single- and two-family homes. Our Lady of the Presentation Parish in Ward 22 is where Galvin grew up. Ward 22 is where the cardinal resides — and, in Galvin’s day, that was the influential and popular Cardinal Richard Cushing. This is Billy Galvin’s Brighton.

The way Galvin tells it, he didn’t stand out in the Brighton of the 1960s. He wasn’t much of an athlete. (His physical bearing hasn’t changed all that much. Observers remark that Galvin, at six feet, is taller — and, at 50, younger — than they’d imagined him to be.) But what Galvin lacked in athletic prowess, he seemed to make up for in political acumen. By his early teens, he was already holding signs and doing legwork on local political campaigns. Vincent McCarthy, today a lawyer at Hale and Dorr and an influential local gay activist, recalls Galvin working on his campaign for state representative from Ward 22 in 1964. “At the age of 13, he seemed about 33,” says McCarthy.

Galvin also worked for Herb Connolly, owner of a Buick dealership on Comm Ave and a pillar of community politics. Galvin parlayed the connection with Connolly, who eventually won a seat on the Governor’s Council, into his first big political job. Fresh out of Boston College and a full-time Suffolk University law student, Galvin joined the council, which approves gubernatorial judicial appointments and oversees public notaries, as a part-time aide. He stayed for the three years he spent in law school. Galvin learned two important lessons from his work there: how to research someone’s background (Galvin was responsible for helping to vet judicial appointments) and how to protect himself. (When Governor Michael Dukakis proposed getting rid of the council and its staff, Galvin worked ferociously behind the scenes to salvage his own job.) He also made political contacts that would help him in his subsequent political career, most notably, Representative Brian Donnelly of Dorchester, later a US congressman and a Clinton-administration ambassador.

Young and presumably impressionable, Galvin was also exposed to the dangers of crossing powerful politicians, such as Representative Thomas McGee, then a member of the Massachusetts House leadership. In those days, with the battle over busing raging, Governor Frank Sargent wanted to create the first minority Senate district. When legislators changed the districts to comply with Sargent’s wishes, it meant that council districts — which are made up of five contiguous Senate districts — also had to change. Galvin, as the staffer on hand, became the expert on what was going on and kept track of the conflicting maps. That put Galvin in the cross hairs of McGee, who wanted to protect an old political ally.

One day Galvin was in his council office, studying his maps, when the door burst open and in flew McGee, a cigar hanging out of his mouth. McGee began yelling at Galvin about the fate of a councilor named Tom Lane, a former congressman from Lawrence, whom Galvin had districted into Lowell. Years earlier, Lane had lost his congressional seat in an election when Lowell voters overwhelmingly supported Lane’s opponent. Naturally, Lane didn’t want to be saddled with Lowell again. As Galvin recalls, McGee shouted, “Tommy Lane, Tommy Lane. I’m not going to allow anything bad to happen to Tommy Lane.” McGee ordered Galvin to draft the district in a way that did not endanger Lane, and Galvin complied. When someone in the House realized that the new arrangement did not keep the districts contiguous, Speaker Dave Bartley called Galvin into the House chamber — while it was in session — to explain the mix-up. With McGee staring at Galvin, Galvin talked his way out of the mess — and Lane remained in office.

By the time Galvin finished law school in 1975, State Representative Michael Daly from Brighton’s Ward 22 had announced his retirement, which necessitated a special election to fill the seat. Galvin jumped into a nine-person field and won the race — largely by knocking on nearly every door in the district. Of course, it didn’t hurt that most of Brighton’s political veterans were tied up in that year’s epic mayoral battle: Kevin White versus Joe Timilty, round one. When Galvin was sworn in by Dukakis, who remembered Galvin’s energetic campaign to preserve his job on the Governor’s Council, the governor glared at him and said: “You’ve come in here the right way now.”

When Galvin took office, the state representative’s job resembled what we think of as a district city councilor’s job. That is, it focused almost exclusively on constituent services — getting streets plowed, making sure streetlights operated properly, and so on. Galvin wanted to do more legislative work, so he went to work devising a way to get the city council to take care of these services.

Boston, back then, was governed by an at-large council. That meant that all councilors ran citywide, and most came from politically potent areas such as South Boston and Dorchester. Community activists saw the lordly Kevin White as catering to downtown and neglecting neighborhoods such as Brighton, which had not had a city councilor since the last reform of the council 30 years before. Using the mastery of detail and procedure he had honed on the Governor’s Council, Galvin proposed a change. He circumvented the need to bring the proposal before the city council by creating in the legislature a new form of city government — Plan G — that incorporated a mayor as well as district and at-large city councilors. If it got through the legislature, the new arrangement would be put on the ballot in a citywide vote.

Galvin enlisted the support of the city’s liberal community: African-Americans thought the arrangement would make it more likely that blacks would get representation on the largely white and anti-busing council. James Kelly, then of the South Boston Information Center, helped spearhead the opposition. Governor Michael Dukakis, meanwhile, shepherded the “Galvin Bill,” as it was then known, through the legislature. Once the bill passed and the measure went before Boston voters, they rejected it in 1977 but approved it in 1981. The first district councilors, elected in 1983, included Thomas Menino and Kelly himself. The reform had, shall we say, unintended consequences: it sucked the air out of city politics. Before, every city councilor posed a potential threat to the mayor, having been elected citywide. But the new system seemed to weaken the council.

Galvin, however, stands by the reform. “I did it so I could spend more time working on legislation because I really thought these were city services,” he says. Of current complaints about the system, Galvin offers no apologies: “The power between the mayor and the council is dictated by the charter and it’s disproportionately in favor of the mayor and always has been.” But one thing is clear: it was the biggest change in Boston politics in a half-century, and it was made because Galvin didn’t want to have to worry about getting Brighton’s streets plowed.

ALTHOUGH GALVIN had already won a degree of fame for the bill that bore his name, the young legislator was still heavily rooted in the Church-dominated world of his upbringing. A young man, not even 30 years old, Galvin was a big enough figure in 1979 to serve as the state liaison for Pope John Paul II’s first visit to Boston — and to the United States. This put Galvin in charge of arranging who got seats to see the pope at Logan Airport, which gave Galvin access to a whole echelon of wealthy and powerful local Catholics. Yet Galvin was forced to broaden his electoral appeal beyond those circles when the number of state reps was reduced to 160 from 240. His district merged with that of Norman Weinberg — who chose to step down instead of fighting Galvin. Weinberg’s Ward 21 was more liberal than Galvin’s Ward 22 and encompassed Comm Ave, which was more liberal given its higher numbers of renters and Jewish families.

As he adjusted to the contours of his new district, a new Galvin emerged. He found that he now represented a large number of Vietnamese refugees, who were victimized in bias attacks in the early ’80s. Galvin, accordingly, sponsored the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act. That bill has subsequently been used to shore up abortion rights in the state.

Taking an anti-abortion position in the ’70s, when he launched his political career, was a matter of faith — so to speak — for a politician such as Galvin. Given this background, Galvin today holds a nuanced position on abortion, but it can still be characterized as pro-life. “Personally I oppose abortion, but I also support the Constitution,” he says, taking the view that the right of access to abortion is a constitutionally settled question in Massachusetts. “The question for those that are concerned about this issue [is], would they be more comfortable with somebody who says, ‘That was my position then, but my position now is different’? Or would they be more comfortable with somebody who says, ‘My personal position remains the same, but I’m committed to the Constitution, and even if I don’t agree morally with your decision on this procedure, in my view, you have an absolute civil right to access it and I’m certainly not going to interfere with it’?”

Pam Nourse, the public-affairs director of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts says Galvin’s stance “raises lots of questions in terms of what would he support and what wouldn’t he support.” But, he insists, “If there’s a statute that’s unconstitutional, I wouldn’t sign it.”

On other issues, Galvin’s record seems like that of a moderate Democrat. Generally speaking, he describes himself as “supportive” of gay rights, although he did not receive the Greater Boston Lesbian-Gay Political Alliance endorsement in 1994. Galvin was among those who opposed the statewide referendum on cutting income taxes in Massachusetts last fall, but he voted against most of the original tax increases while in the House in the late ’80s. Regarding the question of government money for the Red Sox’ effort to build a new stadium, Galvin, like House Speaker Thomas Finneran, opposes giving government money to a private business that does not serve a “public purpose.” (He remains open to funding infrastructure improvements, such as access roads, but opposes any team effort to reopen last year’s ballpark bill.)

Of all these issues, abortion is the most problematic for Galvin — in contrast with the leading state Republican official, Swift. It is what political consultants call a classic wedge issue. Among potential gubernatorial candidates such as Senate president Thomas Birmingham, former congressman Joe Kennedy, State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman, and former state senator Warren Tolman, Galvin is the only one who is pro-life. Putting aside Galvin’s other advantages, such his general political skill and his success at running statewide, Lou DiNatale, a senior fellow at UMass Boston’s McCormack Institute, says the abortion issue gives a sliver of hope to Swift: “We’ve got a classic confrontation between an urban ethnic Democrat who’s perceived as moderate to conservative on social issues and a classic pro-choice suburban woman. That is one of the few scenarios you can come up with by which Swift wins.”

Of course, if Kennedy gets into the race, all this could become moot. And it may not be fatal anyway. McCarthy, the progressive activist whom Galvin once worked for as a boy, minimizes the abortion issue: “If Bill Weld can say the Republican Party ought to be a big tent, then for Bill Galvin the Democratic Party ought to be a big tent too.”

SO IS Galvin going to run for governor? “It’s quite likely, I’m very interested,” he says, adding that he’ll make up his mind later this year.

One advantage Galvin would carry into a governor’s race is all the work he’s done for other candidates over the years as both a lawyer and an adviser. Galvin, for instance, helped design the strategy that Dorchester Democrat Donnelly used to get elected to Congress. “He analyzed the field very quickly. He realized the district was one-third Boston, one-third South Shore, one-third Brockton,” says Donnelly. If the candidate could dominate Boston and do well in Brockton, he or she would win, Galvin rightly advised.

Galvin, who as secretary of state has made close contacts with town clerks and registrars statewide, says he’s learned a lot from his previous statewide races, which include a failed bid for state treasurer against Joe Malone in 1990 and his successful 1994 and 1998 runs for secretary of state. In his first statewide race, for instance, Galvin spent the bulk of his money on a bargain August television-advertising buy. The reason it was a bargain, Galvin now recalls, is that no one’s at home watching TV in August. The rookie mistake cost him. “Come October,” he says, “I dearly wished I had that $100,000.”

When Malone beat Galvin, the lifelong politician went back to his law office in Brighton. Galvin says he had no intention of running again for political office. But slowly, over time, his attitude changed and an opportunity presented itself: then–secretary of state Michael J. Connolly decided not to run for re-election in 1994, leaving the position wide open. Galvin beat attorney and former Burlington state representative Augie Grace in the primary, using the lessons he’d learned from his previous statewide campaign: namely, spend money in the fall. He outraised Grace and bought plenty of television time, which gave him the winning edge. His ads also foreshadowed what kind secretary he would be — broadcasting his intention to help protect the elderly from securities fraud and, in general, to use the office on the people’s behalf. He easily defeated Republican Arthur Chase in the general election.

Since 1994, Galvin has been one of the state’s most visible secretaries of state — ironic for a loner like him. He’s advocated for a comprehensive health-care system and taken on the utilities — a hot-button issue during a burgeoning energy crisis. When the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company was required to contact policyholders as part of its plans to go public, his office compared voting lists with Hancock’s own lists, locating thousands of people the company said it couldn’t find. Galvin has also deluged the state’s airwaves with free public-service announcements — most famously popping out behind a mailbox to encourage people to register to vote. That ad, in particular, set tongues wagging about Galvin’s gubernatorial ambitions.

His performance as secretary of state has won the respect of Dukakis and Malone — who says, “I think Billy Galvin has gone through a maturation process and seems to be much more positive in his approach to politics than he was 10 years ago.” Former state representative Jack McDonough, author of Experiencing Politics: A Legislator’s Stories of Government and Health Care (University of California Press, 2000), agrees that Galvin has grown in office: “He has certainly changed his public persona enormously and used health care as almost a wedge issue to change his public profile — doing it in ways that are sometimes contradictory.”

But Galvin, who’s also described as shy, has never burned up the campaign trail. His career has been a story of mastering the details — and getting ahead by knowing more than his opponent. Which raises the question: what kind of gubernatorial candidate would Galvin make?

Well, observers might glean an answer from Galvin’s recent performance — as well as his own beliefs about his performance — in the recent presidential-election recount fight in Florida. The morning after the election, Galvin was on the phone to Nashville urging Al Gore’s campaign to make an issue out of the defective punch-card voting machines. He spoke with former Massachusetts state senator Lois Pines and Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe (now head of the Democratic National Committee), both of whom were in Nashville on Election Night. Galvin’s advice spread, and McAuliffe briefed Bill Clinton on what Galvin had to say.

Pines, who worked on the recount fight in Florida, came away impressed with Galvin. “He came up with the kind of resources we were going to need and the kind of arguments we needed to come up with,” she says. But Galvin downplays his role. Gore should have done things differently, he says: “Frankly I thought the decision not to federalize it immediately, and the decision not to pursue a statewide recount of all ballots by hand immediately before the so-called run through the machines again, were mistakes.”

In fact, he declares: “If I had masterminded it, he would have won.”

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

Issue Date: March 8-15, 2001