DeLeo bid to tamp down patronage talk does the opposite

Here’s how Charley Murphy rings out the old year, and rings in the new: The calendar turns, and the ambitious Burlington Democrat gets knocked down another rung in the House power structure.

House Democrats are meeting today to demote Murphy, a top lieutenant to House Speaker Robert DeLeo. It’ll be the second time in a year Murphy has lost a plum job in the House. In January, Murphy lost his post atop the powerful House Ways and Means committee. Today, he’s expected to be ousted as assistant majority leader.

The January leadership shake-up was meant to put an end to the jockeying between Murphy and Rep. James Vallee, each of whom was maneuvering to lock up votes to succeed DeLeo as speaker. (Never mind that DeLeo rose to the speaker’s office because he lined up his organization before the job opened up.)

Today’s demotion vote, on the other hand, is all about Murphy’s alleged disloyalty: The Globe previously reported that DeLeo was “seething over reports that Murphy, the House’s third in command, has been telling some members that an ongoing federal investigation into the state’s troubled Probation Department could topple the speaker and other top legislative leaders.”

It’s a dramatic turn that Murphy may be insinuating that DeLeo could be threatened, either directly or by association, by the two grand juries currently looking into the Probation scandal. Murphy was the House leader who had  the pleasure of offering DeLeo’s initial response to independent counsel Paul Ware’s blistering Probation report.

Ware found that favoritism and corruption dominated Probation hiring, but Murphy, speaking for House leadership, pushed back against Ware’s characterization of the nexus between political connections, campaign cash, and Probation jobs. Ware found “statistical evidence that “pay for play” was the reality” in Probation hiring and promotions. Ware has said he does not “believe Speaker DeLeo did anything inappropriate,” but he has also said that his charge was to investigate the Probation Department, not the Legislature.

Ousting Murphy from the House’s inner circle may help DeLeo consolidate his hold over the House, and it may squelch some distracting internal House personality politics. But to the world outside the House chamber, the act of demoting Murphy will do little to shine up DeLeo’s public image.

Murphy’s great crime appears to be reminding his colleagues that there’s a federal grand jury sitting in Worcester right now. That grand jury appears to be very interested in the relationship between the Legislature and Probation. It’s no secret that current and former members of the House leadership were named in Ware’s report. So the possibility that somebody close to DeLeo could get embarrassed by this grand jury, if not indicted, shouldn’t come as news to anybody.

If that’s the case, then, by demoting Murphy, DeLeo is doing little more than inviting another round of critical stories about his complicated relationship with patronage. Early in the year, the Globe hit DeLeo with a devastating editorial, saying the speaker needs to build a legacy that goes beyond slots and patronage. The former has been the House’s main focus for the past year; with today’s shakeup, DeLeo is unwittingly reminding the public that the latter hasn’t gone away, either. 

                                                                                                                                                        –PAUL MCMORROW


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