Patrick aims at more than housing authority woes

Proposal exposes awkward partnership with Murray

PUSH HAS FINALLY COME TO SHOVE. The oil that is the lieutenant governor’s back-slapping, patronage ways has met the water that is the reform impulse the governor rode into office six years ago.

Gov. Deval Patrick stood before reporters this afternoon at the State House to outline his proposal for sweeping reform of the state’s local housing authorities. The legislation calls for eliminating the state’s 240 separate housing authorities and replacing them with six regional offices as part of a plan aimed at increasing efficiency and rooting out corruption.

It marked a muscular response from the administration to news stories documenting local housing authority offices rife with mismanagement and, in some cases, corruption. But it also represented an awkward repudiation of a brand of Massachusetts politics that has practically been the calling card of Lt. Gov. Tim Murray. That approach, far from being scornful or dismissive of the often labyrinth layers of Massachusetts government, sees the scores of local authorities, commissions, and councils as its lifeblood, the foundation upon which successful statewide campaigns are built.

Local housing authorities, which ultimately come under the purview of state government, have been the subject of a series of scathing stories in the Boston Globe.  In the most searing indictment, the Globe reported that the former executive director of the Chelsea Housing Authority, Michael McLaughlin, was being paid $360,000 a year by a local board that was not even aware how much he was earning. McLaughlin is now under federal and state investigation related to the apparent diversion of millions of dollars in federal funding from construction projects, the Globe has reported.

The reason the Chelsea story was so damaging to the administration, however, was the close ties McLaughlin had to Murray.  McLaughlin was a key member of Murray’s network of local supporters across the state, serving as master of ceremonies at Murray fundraisers. Murray, in turn, was good to McLaughlin, helping McLaughlin’s son land a $60,000 a year job on a state board that hears appeals of drunken driving convictions – despite having had his own license suspended for refusing a breathalyzer test and piling up a raft of speeding tickets.  As Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes.

It’s an open secret that Murray has been the point-man for patronage in the Patrick administration. The McLaughlin saga, however, presented Patrick with little choice but to call for big changes in the operation of the state’s local housing authorities. Only Texas has more local housing authorities than Massachusetts, highlighting what an outlier the state is when it comes to central oversight and management of public housing.  In laying out his reform proposal today, the governor is trying to strike a blow against a system where who you know is seen as at least as important as what you know.

It is an attempt to “modernize, simplify, and professionalize the Commonwealth’s public housing system,” Patrick said at today’s announcement.

The state association of public housing authorities voiced strong objection to the consolidation proposal, saying elimination of local authorities would short-change public housing tenants. The group vowed to fight the plan in the Legislature, and there is sure to be considerable opposition to a plan that would mean the elimination of more than 1,000 politically-appointed local housing commissioners.  There is no doubt that the proposed reforms will be “a heavy political lift,” Patrick said. “But I think the point is not to figure out not what the easy politics are, but how to get this right.”

Murray was notable by his absence at today’s briefing.  He had “another set of appointments,” Patrick said when asked why the lieutenant governor wasn’t there.  Patrick said Murray “absolutely” had contributed to the proposal in discussions within the administration. But it’s hard to see this kind of shake-up of local governance as the sort of thing Murray would ever embrace eagerly.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Patrick and Murray have always been something of an odd couple, the smooth, corporate-trained lawyer with a gift for soaring oratory and the work-a-day Worcester pol who is well-connected throughout the state. The partnership has mostly been one of complementary skill sets, with Murray filling in what Patrick lacked in deep ties to the ground-level world of city and town politics.

Sometimes, however, the contrasting backgrounds and impulses collide. Today was one of those days.