The Download: Pondering patronage

Former Senate president Billy Bulger practiced the trade with such abandon that MBTA was said to stand for “Mr. Bulger’s Transportation Authority,” an only partially tongue-in-cheek reference that seemed to make him beam, not cringe.  One of his Senate president successors, Robert Travaglini, spoke of it as something more akin a solemn duty when he defended landing jobs for East Boston residents at Massport as mitigation for a community saddled with all the negative impacts of having an international airport in its backyard.

But whether they made light of it or defended it with utter sincerity, Massachusetts politicians have played at the patronage game for about ever, and many people have probably accepted it as the way the world works.  Which begs the question, will the unfolding scandal at the state’s Department of Probation change any of this? 

The findings of independent counsel Paul Ware of rigged interview ratings and other gross misconduct paint a picture of patronage politics operating at a level of venality that may well lead to criminal proceedings. But when it comes to the overall issue of elected officials helping people secure public-sector jobs, the picture is painted much more in shades of gray than in black or white.

On Blue Mass Group, veteran human services lobbyist Judy Meredith suggests that that in looking to build support from a pol on a given public policy issue, for example, what some may regard as unseemly cozying up to a lawmaker is, by another reckoning, an act of savvy “civic engagement.” And when it comes to pols helping constituents in a job search, she points to the common themes in recent comments from two state reps with very dissimilar profiles, Will Brownsberger, a good-government type liberal from Belmont, and Marty Walsh, a pro-labor, constituent-service guy from Dorchester.

Speaking to the Dorchester Reporter, Walsh says of the Probation Department, “there clearly were abuses in that office.” But he also declares flatly, “my job is to help people,” and he defends writing letters or making phone calls on behalf of constituents who he believes are qualified for jobs. 

In a commentary piece on Wicked Local, Brownsberger decries Ware’s findings of went on in the Probation Department, allegations that he says “deserve further attention from prosecutors.” But, he continues, “in some instances, legislators may have simply attempted to serve constituents.  That’s the deep problem — it is, in fact, an important role of legislators to help their constituents fight through state and private bureaucracy to obtain fair treatment — sidewalk repairs, storm drain clean up, health care benefits, housing, employment. Sometimes there is a very thin line between fair treatment and unwarranted privilege. In the case of the probation department, it is clear that line was crossed routinely.”

The clear line-crossings may be easy to deal with, especially if they end up as material for prosecutors.  But when it comes to reform proposals for further steps to rein in abuses, figuring out where to draw the line in the gray area between fair treatment and unwarranted privilege may prove more vexing.

                                                                                                                                                                 –MICHAEL JONAS

MIDDLESEX SHERIFF

Maine police have impounded a five-page suicide note written by Middlesex County Sheriff James DiPaola. Meanwhile, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s investigation into DiPaola’s alleged campaign finance improprieties will continue.

On Hub Blog, Jay Fitzgerald says it’s only natural reporters have some emotional struggles over DiPaola’s suicide, and admits he even has some pangs of guilt about a post he made last week about the emerging allegations. But he says everyone was just doing their jobs, which is what Globe editor Marty Baron tells the Herald’s media writer Jessica Heslam.

PENSIONS

WFXT’s Fox Undercover team shines a light on administrative personnel in the Department of Correction who chuck the desk job to become corrections officers in an effort to pad their pensions. The switcheroo allows workers to take their entire pension at the higher Group 4 rate and retire early, all because the new jobs are deemed more dangerous than pushing papers.

ECONOMY/ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

The Boston Sunday Globe editorial page devotes its entire voice-of-the-paper editorial spread on the left column to the plight of the state’s Gateway Cities, the first in what the paper says will be a series of Sunday editorials on the topic.  Yesterday’s initial installment offers a shout-out to CommonWealth publisher MassINC for putting the Gateway Cities issue on the public policy radar. (Come to think of it, our think tank colleagues coined the “Gateway Cities” name, too.)

It’s the perception, stupid. Jay Cost argues in The Weekly Standard that the economy may not be the factor everyone is predicting for the 2012 election given historical returns and uptick indicators but says a good GOP salesman-as-candidate to bring home the message that it can be better is the key.

WELFARE

Marion Barry, darling of the right? Seems the former District of Columbia mayor and current city councilor has endeared himself with the folks who read the National Review with his proposal to place a five-year cap on welfare benefits for city residents.

HEALTH CARE

Mayors plan to push for more control over health costs and reduce power of public section unions in new legislative session, according to a report in the Salem News. 

Lynn, where 40 percent of school children are either overweight or obese, lands a $20,000 grant to target the problem. One suggestion: A walking bus, reports The Daily Item.

EDUCATION

Globe Ideas section Brainiac columnist Joshua Rothman, a Harvard English department graduate student, reflects on the pseudonymously bylined pieces by “Ed Dante” that have been running recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which the mystery author recounts his work as a ghostwriter for college students. The shady business of college paper-writing-for-hire was teed up last year in CommonWealth in this piece by Colman Herman.

North Andover ‘s School Committee is preparing to change start times at local schools to let adolescents sleep a bit longer, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

UMass-Dartmouth goes Hollywood. A veteran producer has been hired to make four short films to tell the story of the school and its alumni. No word on cost.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The Eagle-Tribune reports on a five-acre National Grid solar installation in a residential area of Haverhill, but never mentions the cost of the electricity being produced.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to help the New England Cottontail, a native rabbit threatened by habitat loss, WBUR reports.

NATIONAL POLITICS

Charles Rangel would like his House colleagues to reprimand him, rather than censure him, for lacking ethics. He says he deserves a lighter slap because he didn’t take any bribes or get into any sexual misconduct. 

“Cheap bastard” congressmen-elect tell the Wall Street Journal they will sleep on the couches in their offices, because they are cheap, and also serious about doing the people’s business.

The recent election, where Republicans swept out many Democrats, means the New Hampshire presidential primary will be conducted in an atmosphere that has changed substantially, writes David Shribman in the Salem News.

MUNICIPAL AFFAIRS

A Cape Cod Times editorial takes a look at the towns that have enacted a meals tax and argues that voters should be able to “revisit the tax” regularly.

REAL ESTATE/ESPIONAGE

The feds are closer to taking ownership of a lovely Harvard Square condo formerly owned by Russian spies Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova.

MEDIA

Richard Reston sells the Vineyard Gazette to wealthy seasonal residents Jerome and Nancy Kohlberg for $3.5 million. Here is how the Gazette covered its own sale.

Salon.com is seeking a buyer or merger partner because the economics of online journalism are none too friendly.

Talking Points memo tees up FoxNation.com for reposting a story about President Obama from The Onion, the news satire website, without a disclaimer.

R.I.P.

Radio reporter Kevin McNicholas, dean of the State House press corps and universally known for both his tenacity and decency, died on Thanksgiving after a short battle with bladder cancer. He was 61.