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Q: What election is worth $50 billion?
A: The race for state treasurer. If that job is arguably the second-most powerful on Beacon Hill, why isn’t anyone paying attention?

PUBLIC CONFIDENCE in corporate leaders, we are told, has dropped to a low not witnessed since the dawn of the Great Depression. Simultaneously, the public’s distrust of Wall Street has reached an all-time high. If that’s the case — and it probably is — none of it is evident in the race to replace State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien as Massachusetts’s top financial officer. Perhaps distracted by the heated Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign — featuring O’Brien, Senate president Tom Birmingham, former secretary of labor Robert Reich, and former state senator Warren Tolman — the public is evincing little interest in the race to fill what is arguably the second-most-powerful position in the state. The treasurer’s office, after all, manages $50 billion among the state pension and lottery systems and collected revenues, such as taxes.

Even Democratic Party insiders haven’t given the race much attention. In June, at the state convention, in Worcester, delegates couldn’t be bothered to pick a nominee for the race. Instead, they put all four candidates on the ballot via a voice vote. And so Boston City Councilor Steve Murphy, former state representative Jim Segel, Norfolk County Treasurer Tim Cahill of Quincy, and State Representative Michael Cahill of Beverly head into the September 17 primary as ostensible equals in the eyes of the party. (There will also be a Republican primary for treasurer, in which former registrar of motor vehicles Dan Grabauskas will face off against Cohasset businessman Bruce Herzfelder. Green Party candidate James O’Keefe of Somerville will also vie for the office on the November ballot.)

Despite the public’s seeming lack of interest, important issues are at stake in this race. First and foremost, the outcome will decide who will oversee the state’s $30 billion pension system, a question that’s more than academic. The pension system provides a powerful bully pulpit from which to advocate greater corporate responsibility — perhaps the most important domestic issue this year. California’s state pension system, for example, has sponsored frequent proposals aimed at cutting back executive compensation and curbing corporate abuse. It’s an issue that resonates locally: when Enron famously imploded last fall, questions immediately arose about the state pension’s investments in the company. Four investment managers — Fidelity, J.P. Morgan, Legg Mason, and State Street Global Advisors — bought chunks of Enron on behalf of the state at various times (it should be noted that State Street was an index fund in which stocks are purchased automatically); two of these managers bought Enron as late as November 2001, just prior to the company’s bankruptcy in early December.

Last month, State Auditor Joe DeNucci released a report faulting O’Brien for not doing enough to recoup the $23 million that stock holdings in the now-bankrupt company cost the state pension. O’Brien, the report recommended, should pursue legal action against investment managers who purchased the stock even as it plummeted. New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer, for example, forged a $100 million settlement with Merrill Lynch over conflict-of-interest allegations last month. (New York’s investment in Enron cost that state $58 million. Spitzer claimed that Merrill Lynch rated stocks of companies with which it had a financial relationship more highly than the stocks of companies with which it did not.)

Of course, the state pension isn’t the treasurer’s only responsibility. The lottery system — a cash cow that funds a significant chunk of the state’s local aid to municipalities — also falls under the treasurer’s purview. It’s a responsibility that takes on greater significance during financial downturns because the treasurer will inevitably have to defend against the legislature’s attempts to raid the lottery’s coffers by reducing payouts — a self-defeating move that leads to a drop in lottery-ticket purchases, thus reducing overall revenue. Finally, the treasurer must prepare and sign off on the Commonwealth’s debt offerings. That’s usually a routine exercise, but sometimes it has a great impact on state politics and policy. O’Brien’s December 1999 refusal to sign off on a Big Dig bond offering until she was briefed on the project’s true financial state pierced the aura of invincibility surrounding Big Dig chair James Kerasiotes, who was found to have been hiding billions of dollars in cost overruns.

Responsibility, therefore, is the overriding issue at stake in this year’s election for a new state treasurer. During the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the office of state treasurer was presided over by Bob Crane; for 26 years, he expertly guided the department to heights of hackdom previously unseen in modern state politics. Indeed, the treasurer’s office was viewed primarily as a hack haven for thousands and did not enjoy a reputation as, um, a respected executive office. In 1990, voters elected Republican Joe Malone in part because he promised to clean up the Democrats’ political-crony establishment. His underlings, however, pulled off an extraordinary $10 million embezzlement scheme that wasn’t uncovered until he left office. Enter O’Brien, who set about cooperating with Attorney General Tom Reilly’s office to investigate the criminal activities that took place under Malone. She also did some digging into the Big Dig bond financing, performed an audit of the state’s lottery, and set a tone that brought respect back to the office — despite her stumble in March 2000, when it came to light that her campaign was soliciting small-dollar political contributions from lottery agents. O’Brien returned the money and renounced such contributions in the future. So it really does matter who replaces her. Electing the wrong person could easily return the office to its status under Crane — or worse.

With the future direction of the Treasury at stake, all four candidates and their respective entourages debated last Friday, August 2 at the Needham studios of New England Cable News. The debate was broadcast August 5 on NewsNight. Perhaps reflecting the public’s lack of interest in the race, there was just one print reporter — me —present to cover the debate, a fact that seemed to bemuse the various campaign teams.

AMONG POLITICAL insiders, conventional wisdom about the Democratic primary holds that it’s a two-person contest between Murphy, a six-year veteran of the Boston City Council, and Segel, a former state representative who now works as an attorney and lobbyist for companies including Kawasaki Rail Car and the Massachusetts Burglar & Fire Alarm Association. Murphy, whose first taste of city politics came when he worked as a driver for former at-large councilor Dapper O’Neil in the mid 1990s, has the backing of the traditional urban political machine that propelled former state senator Stephen Lynch into Congress last year. The AFL-CIO has endorsed him and Boston Mayor Tom Menino's confidante Ed Jesser is running his campaign. Murphy also cites his city-council experience in helping to manage Boston’s $2 billion budget as an additional point in his favor.

Segel, meanwhile, is a graduate of Harvard and of Boston College Law School who served as the former executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association and helped oversee the merger of University Hospital and Boston City Hospital. He’s won the endorsements of six of the state’s 10 United States representatives. (With the exception of Stephen Lynch — who, not surprisingly, has endorsed Murphy — the other three Massachusetts congressmen, Representatives Michael Capuano, Marty Meehan, and John Tierney, haven’t endorsed anyone. It’s relatively rare for congressmen to make endorsements in contested statewide primaries.) The support from the state’s congressional delegation isn’t surprising given that Segel, a member of the state legislative class of 1972 — a group of Beacon Hill representatives influenced by the abuses of the Vietnam era and Nixon administration to use their talents for good government — served with Barney Frank and Ed Markey. Indeed, both Markey and Frank introduced Segel at the June convention (Markey called him the "Jimmy Stewart of this race, an honest man with a spotless reputation") and serve as the co-chairs of his campaign. Some critics privately snicker that Segel is a throwback to the Dukakis era; but, with his deep understanding of the foundations of the state’s pension system and his inquisitive approach to the office, he’d make a good treasurer. Whether his connections and background give him enough political juice to capture the office is another matter.

Furthering the two-candidate-race analysis is what Tim Cahill calls "the two-Cahill thing." It’s a rule of thumb in politics that when two candidates in a single race have the same last name, both will fail. The oldest trick in the political book is for a candidate faced with a difficult opponent to get a third candidate in the race with similarities to the main challenger. So, for example, a man running against a woman might try to get another woman in the race. In 1982, when John Kerry ran for lieutenant governor against Evelyn Murphy, he famously let some of his convention delegates vote for Lois Pines, ensuring her place on the ballot and thus a primary win for Kerry. If the "straw" candidate has the same last name as the difficult opponent, so much the better. But no such chicanery is responsible for the predicament the two Cahills now face. They did it to themselves — they were the first two candidates in the race.

In any case, the analysis that this is a two-person race isn’t entirely accurate — and not just because there are, in fact, four candidates. Norfolk County Treasurer Tim Cahill, in particular, can compete with either Murphy or Segel. He’s aggressive — some might even say pugnacious. The former high-school wrestler’s mannerisms call to mind television tough-guy Bob Conrad, who famously dared people to knock the battery off his shoulder in 1970s Eveready ads. Cahill is well financed, having raised $500,000 (which compares favorably to the $300,000 Murphy has raised and the $473,000 Segal has brought in). This means he’ll be able to buy the television ads that are all-important in a statewide race. He has also managed to distinguish himself from the field with a radical plan to restructure the role the state treasurer plays in handling the state pension fund (more on that later).

Whether Tim Cahill will be able to distinguish himself from State Representative Michael Cahill, a telegenic, well-spoken candidate, is another matter altogether. If they didn’t share the same last name, the task would be easy. Of the four Democratic candidates, Michael Cahill has raised the least at $200,000, and he had just $9200 in cash on hand as of the end of July. More worrisome, however, is the impression that he, unlike the other three Democratic candidates, may not be seasoned enough for the job. When asked during an interview about his qualifications for state treasurer, a routine question if ever there was one, Cahill cited his work on the state budget. When challenged about what that role actually was — in light of the well-known fact that the process is dominated by House Speaker Tom Finneran and House Ways and Means chair John Rogers of Norwood — Cahill bristled, saying "nobody knows John Rogers outside of a certain base," without actually answering the question. He then trumpeted what the House did "collectively" to prepare for a time of financial uncertainty by building up $2.3 million in reserves. (It’s fair to point out that Cahill has been able to maintain his chairmanships while advocating Clean Elections — not an easy task in an anti–Clean Elections, Finneran-dominated legislature.)

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Issue Date: August 8 - 15, 2002
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