Voters need only look in mirror for source of Statehouse corruption
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Lord Acton, British author and historian, 1834-1902

Fortunately, a speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives doesn't have absolute power, or politics in Massachusetts would be absolutely worse.

We have a free, investigative press; the federal government has the power to indict; voters in his district could elect someone else; a majority of the House membership could remove him from the speakership.

Scratch those last two items. Many voters enjoy claiming a powerful legislator as their own, at least until they're embarrassed by him or her; and rank-and-file legislators invariably follow the leader.

My earliest understanding of Massachusetts politics came with the 1977 convictions of Sens. Joseph DiCarlo, a Democrat, and Ronald McKenzie, a Republican, for extortion during the building of the UMass Boston campus in Dorchester. It seemed to me that corrupt legislative power came from control over spending in an era of unlimited taxation.

The next year I went to work at Citizens for Limited Taxation and began to experience life on Beacon Hill myself.

I once observed to a Democrat who was part of the House "leadership team" during Cambridge Rep. Charles Flaherty's speakership: If you vote the way Speaker Flaherty tells you, then Cambridge has two representatives, and your city doesn't have any.

He seemed taken aback. Of course his city had a representative. He might not vote independently on various issues, but he was in a unique position, in "leadership" to bring money home to his district. Oh.

And wasn't it better, I was asked, when constituents visited the Statehouse, if you had a nice office and extra aides to deal with their constituent concerns? Not to mention the extra pay that comes with a committee chairmanship or other leadership position.

That's the reward-supporters-with-goodies strategy one employs to remain speaker, even if ethics concerns arise. The other side of this taxpayer-provided coin is the "fear factor" by which legislators are intimidated into going along in order to get along.

I learned that legislators who defied the speaker were in a unique position to NOT bring home bacon or state-funded firetrucks or bills their constituents wanted passed. To offend the powerful leadership was to quickly become powerless.

Here's something that happened after I became executive director of CLT: I don't recall the year or the issue, but we were supporting a constitutional amendment at a Constitutional Convention in which both branches of the Legislature participate with the Senate president presiding as chairman. The question before the body was whether to move several proposed amendments forward to the statewide ballot, or not.

The Senate president at the time was Bill Bulger, who procedurally prevented a vote on our amendment, noting that "the chair" did not support it.

Furious, I went back to the office and typed a scathing, sarcastic memo addressed to "His Royal Highness the Chair," and copying the rest of the Legislature and the Statehouse press corps. We printed it on yellow paper for the cowardly legislators who had allowed the chair to run roughshod over our issue.

The next time I went there, I found that people who were normally friendly legislators, staffers, lobbyists were avoiding me like the plague, walking in wide circles around me, turning down other corridors when they saw me in the halls. Mostly they were smiling, but they weren't coming anywhere near me.

Eventually, I learned that they feared the Senate president would see them talking to me and punish them for it. Silly, but telling, I thought about them more than him.

Bulger and I always got along well, personally; I think he enjoyed having someone talk back to him for a change. Certainly he never punished me for my memo; we agreed on education issues, and he remained generally supportive of CLT's Proposition 2.

That's when I began to formulate my theory, that it must be awful to spend one's workday surrounded by people on their knees kissing the hem of one's garment or a broad nearby body part. It seemed to me that someone might start out as a potentially great leader, but slowly lose respect for those around him, and finally lose respect for the voters who elect him.

Another story about the "fear factor": I was talking with a young Republican legislator when then-Speaker Tom Finneran came over to tell me about some issue he'd just forced through in the House. While I supported that issue, I let them know what I thought of leadership bullying, while the young legislator made a hasty exit rather than witness someone "talking back" to the speaker.

I was shocked, not by Finneran, who'd been OK until he became a tyrannical speaker, but by a member of the opposition party showing undue respect for the position. Later events proved that this subservience didn't do Finneran any favors since he, like both his predecessor and successor, ended up getting indicted. Finneran's crime was not extortion or, like his predecessor Flaherty, tax evasion, but a general hubris that led him to think he could lie to a grand jury.

It's similar hubris that convinced Sal DiMasi that despite the crimes of his predecessors he could get away with soliciting payments from a software vendor in return for certain favors.

DiMasi must be held accountable for his greed, but those who are ultimately responsible are the voters who elect compliant legislators who then give their leaders altogether too much taxpayer-funded power.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette.

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