Power corrupts; absolute power
— 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
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
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
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
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 2½.
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
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
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.