By Kyle Cheney
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, DEC. 29, 2011…..Tales of human frailty and natural fury generated most of the buzz on Beacon Hill this year, but the odds-on favorite, the introduction of casino gambling in Massachusetts, ran the table to become the top political story of 2011.
The scribes who make their living reporting on what goes on under the dome have watched an often agonizing, Shakespearean drama play out over the fate of expanded gambling legislation for years. With personal conflicts among top decision-makers resolved and the political stars aligned, the huge policy shift was enacted and casino gambling became the law of land, ending a streak of many failed attempts.
Unlike most recent years, there was no runaway winner for top story, and headline grabbers like the felony conviction of the third House speaker in a row and an ongoing investigation into patronage in state government edged out other stories that, at times, captured the attention of reporters in hyperventilating fashion.
Gov. Deval Patrick’s enhanced out-of-state travel and profile-elevating moves as a surrogate for President Obama earned mentions but failed to crack the top 10. So did the bankruptcy of heavily subsidized Evergreen Solar, Lt. Gov. Tim Murray’s mysterious car crash, and even the Occupy Boston movement.
A percolating, unpredictable feud between former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Murphy and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and budget writers’ ability to exorcise a demon known as the “structural budget gap” also drew the eye of some in the press corps. So did a sporadic economic recovery.
The top 10 list, as ranked by Massachusetts state government reporters and scored based on cumulative rank, is as follows:
Expanded gambling becomes the law (80)
DiMasi tried/convicted/jailed (74)
Tornadoes, a tropical storm, a freak October snowstorm (49)
Elizabeth Warren vs. Scott Brown (44)
Redistricting comes and goes (36)
Probation scandal simmers (29)
A crackdown on repeat violent offenders takes shape (21)
U.S. Reps. Barney Frank, John Olver announce retirements (19)
Municipal health care sets off Dem-Labor feud (16)
After 16 years on the lam, Whitey Bulger arrested (10)
PRESS SECRETARY OF THE YEAR: Although he left the job mid-year to lead Gov. Deval Patrick’s political committee, Alex Goldstein, the former head spokesman in the governor’s State House office, was selected as this year’s press secretary of the year. In an age when written or emailed statements are the norm, phone calls often go unreturned and a growing army of spokespeople seem intent on keeping reporters at arm’s length from their bosses and themselves, Goldstein stood out as a regular visitor to the State House’s fourth floor newsroom, willing to engage the Fourth Estate. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Goldstein was, effectively, the administration’s top spokesman, setting the tone from the top for his often hard-to-find rank-and-file flacks. Goldstein has had a long and varied history with Patrick, doing press for his 2006 campaign, for the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development and as a deputy in the governor’s State House press office before assuming the top job at the outset of Patrick’s second term. It’s the second time in three years a Patrick flack topped the ballot – Kimberly Haberlin, who succeeded Goldstein as administration press secretary, claimed the title in 2009 as a deputy. Last year, House Republican Leader Bradley Jones’s press secretary Sarah Scalese earned the distinction.
BREAKING DOWN THE TOP 10:
EXPANDED GAMBLING BECOMES THE LAW OF THE LAND
In 2010, the failure of lawmakers and Gov. Deval Patrick to come to terms on widely supported casino gambling legislation ranked among the top stories of the year. A year later, the opposite story took the top billing. Riven by bitter acrimony in the fallout of the failure to pass expanded gambling last year, top Beacon Hill officials professed job creation as an urgent priority but were slow to revisit the issue in 2011. But Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray worked quietly behind the scenes to thaw any chilled relations and, more importantly, to craft contours of a gambling bill they all agreed upon. What they came away with was a unified proposal to sanction up to three resort-style casinos, spread geographically throughout the state, and a single, competitively bid slots-only facility. The new expanded gambling industry will be overseen by a Gaming Commission with sweeping authority to build and monitor the establishment of casinos. Proponents have relied on years-old estimates to predict that three resort casinos will create about 15,000 jobs and generate $300 million to $400 million in annual revenue to support a variety of government programs. The expected timeframe for casinos to be operational, possibly as late as 2015, ensures that expanded gambling – and the prospective battles over how to properly facilitate it – will remain a top story for years to come.
SPEAKER DIMASI GOES TO JAIL
The lurid side of Beacon Hill came into sharp relief during the six-week trial of former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, who was convicted of selling his office for kickbacks and bribes. With prosecutors aided by the help of a cooperating co-defendant, DiMasi and longtime Hill lobbyist Richard McDonough were found criminally responsible for the elaborate scheme, but it also shed light on a non-criminal, seamy underbelly of state government. The trial highlighted rank-and-file lawmakers’ willingness to bend over to appease leadership, a compliant and malleable Patrick administration, and a system in which lobbyists enjoy easy access to the most senior officials in state government. DiMasi and McDonough were convicted on a count of conspiracy, two counts of mail fraud and three counts of wire fraud. DiMasi was also convicted of a count of extortion. DiMasi’s accountant Richard Vitale was acquitted of all charges, and a fourth co-defendant, software salesman Joseph Lally, pled guilty to the scheme in March, was a prosecution witness at trial, and is serving an 18-month sentence in Fort Devens. DiMasi, 66, was sentenced to eight years at a Kentucky prison, and McDonough, also 66, received a seven-year sentence he is serving in New Jersey. DiMasi became the third straight speaker convicted of a felony charge, but the first of the three to spend time in jail for it.
MOTHER NATURE WALLOPS MASS, UTILITIES GET FRESH LOOK
An April snowstorm. June tornados. An August tropical storm. An October blizzard. All four events shredded various regions of Massachusetts, especially the central and western portions. The wacky weather was responsible for tens of millions of dollars of property damage, several deaths and injuries, and disruption in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Bay State residents who lost power for extended periods. The storms also followed a 2010-2011 winter that buried much of the state in record-setting levels of snow, collapsing roofs and draining snow and ice removal budgets. Outrage following utilities’ response to the storms led to ongoing investigations of power company performance during the cleanup efforts and discussions about a paradigm shift in the way Massachusetts deals with weather emergencies.
ROUND 1: WARREN VS. BROWN
Underwhelmed by a low-wattage cast of candidates preparing to take on U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, Massachusetts Democrats hope they’ve found a game-changer in Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard University professor who made her name helping President Barack Obama implement one of the key components of a financial services reform law he signed last year. Warren helped build what is now known as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency meant to police the financial services industry. Ironically, Brown cast a pivotal vote in support of the law shortly after his lightning-quick ascent to the Senate in 2010. Warren entered the race in September, and her Democratic rivals for the nomination headed for the exits, leaving her and a pair of long-shot candidates – Marisa DeFranco and Jim King – as the last three standing. State and national Republicans have trained steady fire on Warren from the moment she entered the race, blasting her for proclaiming she laid the intellectual foundation for the Occupy Wall Street movement and labeling her a radical. Warren supporters have sought to tie Brown to Wall Street and label him a pawn of Republican Party leaders.
IF A REDISTRICTING MAP FALLS IN A FOREST…
Redistricting, an often dirty and dangerous process fraught with political peril, came and went this year with barely a whimper, surprising cynics and delighting advocacy groups who pleaded for racial equity and corrections to the imbalanced, gerrymandered political districts of yore. Rep. Michael Moran (D-Brighton) and an ailing Sen. Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst) helmed the hazardous, constitutionally required effort to redraw boundaries for 160 state representatives, 40 senators, nine Congressmen and eight Governor’s Councilors. Their challenge included the elimination of a Congressional district, the result of national population shifts. Even that hurdle was simplified by the announced retirement of veteran Congressman John Olver, who will forfeit his western Massachusetts-based seat in a year. In the end, silence was the most beautiful music of all for those involved, punctured only by U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, who blamed redistricting for hastening his own decision to retire after a 30-year House career. Frank lost New Bedford to a new, compact southeastern Massachusetts district, and he gained a portion of the Blackstone Valley that he said he wanted no part of getting to know. He only planned to run for one more term anyway, he added.
AN ‘ONGOING’ INVESTIGATION LOOMS OVER THE HILL
Beset by recent scandals involving colleagues, Beacon Hill lawmakers spent a good deal of 2011 anxious about the potential for an already-explosive patronage scandal within the state Probation Department to net more perpetrators. The scandal pierced the public consciousness in 2010, when a Boston Globe spotlight series prompted the Supreme Judicial Court to appoint a special investigator on the matter. That investigator, attorney Paul Ware, produced a devastating report that highlighted “systemic” patronage hires and promotions within the Probation Department, goaded on by lawmakers, who Ware said dangled budget increases in front of the probation commissioner in exchange for his pliability on personnel decisions. Former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien has since been indicted, and just last week a chief probation officer was charged with intimidating a witness in the ongoing investigation, confirming what many on the Hill believed to be true: prosecutors are still digging. Ware’s report named names
identifying powerful lawmakers who made frequent, and successful, recommendations on behalf of job applicants, many of whom happened to be political supporters. While waiting for investigatory conclusions, the House and Senate responded by passing governmentwide, anti-patronage hiring reforms.
A RESPONSE TO TRAGEDY, REPEAT OFFENDER CRACKDOWN ADVANCES
The violent December 2010 death of Woburn Police officer John Maguire at the hands of a repeat felon dislodged a long mired Republican proposal to end parole for habitual offenders. That plan, nearly unchanged, passed the House and Senate with only one opposing vote between them. However, the Senate included the plan as part of an omnibus crime package – complete with changes to drug laws, sentencing for certain nonviolent drug offenders, gun possession statutes, judicial options to include pets in restraining orders, and wiretapping authority for state prosecutors. The competing plans are the subject of deliberations among six conferees – three House members and three senators – charged with ironing out a compromise. The Senate has shown no willingness to retreat from its more sweeping package, while House members have expressed reservations about supporting a plan – conference committee bills are not subject to amendment – without a chance to vote on each of the provisions. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray have emphasized that it’s their goal to act on a compromise plan early in the New Year. The long-stalled three strikes bill made its longest strides ever in 2011.
U.S. REPS. BARNEY FRANK, JOHN OLVER ANNOUNCE RETIREMENTS
Most members of the Massachusetts political establishment can’t remember a time when Barney Frank wasn’t an omnipresent force in the Bay State’s Congressional delegation, rankling foes with his acidic wit and heartening allies with his propensity to deliver cutting blows to the opposition. Frank has represented a Congressional district that includes his hometown of Newton, neighboring Brookline and the cities of Fall River, Taunton and New Bedford since 1981, the year President Reagan took office. Five presidencies later, he’ll depart as one of the nation’s most recognizable House Democrats. The ranking member of the Financial Services Committee, Frank chaired the panel when Democrats ran the House in the last Congress – and his name is on the sweeping financial services law President Obama signed in 2009. Olver, meanwhile, has represented his western Massachusetts district since 1991, and his district was merged with the one occupied by U.S. Rep. Richard Neal in a redistricting effort completed in November.
AMID NATIONAL CLASH ON UNIONS, MASS. DEMS FIRE SHOT ACROSS THE BOW
In the spring, organized labor exploded in anger over a plan by newly elected Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to severely curtail the collective bargaining power of public sector unions. His plan was matched closely by similar efforts in Ohio and Indiana and became flashpoint for liberal anger at newly empowered Republican legislatures and executive branches. But it was a decision by Massachusetts leaders – urged by Gov. Deval Patrick, Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray – to follow suit, albeit on a smaller scale, that perhaps proved most jarring to a labor movement that counts the Bay State among its staunchest allies. The leaders, with strong support from rank-and-file lawmakers, voted to empower city and town leaders to make unilateral decisions about the cost of employee health care, with negotiations limited to how to apportion the savings. Although ultimately the AFL-CIO joined Patrick and DeLeo at the bill signing, the organization’s former president, Robert Haynes, had already declared his relationship with many House Democrats as destroyed. His successor, former Sen. Steven Tolman, voted against the plan, but it remains to be seen whether the anger that prevailed at the time of the House vote will spill into the 2012 election cycle.
BULGER CAPTURED IN SANTA MONICA, HAULED BACK TO BAY STATE FOR TRIAL
James “Whitey” Bulger, the infamous gangster, notorious for alleged brutality and a string of murders, was forcibly returned to Bay State custody after 16 years in hiding, ending a saga that landed him atop the FBI’s most wanted list, second only to Osama bin Laden until the 9/11 mastermind was killed in May. Bulger’s capture resounded in political circles largely because of his brother, William, who was president of the Massachusetts Senate while Whitey built his brand in South Boston. Over time, Whitey Bulger became a symbol of law enforcement failure, frustrating agents who traveled the world to pursue tips on his whereabouts. In the end, a frail Bulger, 81, was discovered with his girlfriend Katherine Grieg, 60, in an unassuming apartment complex in Santa Monica. The two were arrested, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and weaponry was confiscated from their apartment.