Summer 2012 Correspondence

Democracy is messy, but not a weakness

Your Editor’s Note, “Closed-door dem­ocracy” (Spring ’12), was meaningful to me. It’s human nature not to appreciate what we have until we lose it. I’m sure reporters on Beacon Hill don’t have deadline problems now because without debate there aren’t many stories.

Democracy’s very design makes it “slow, messy, and sometimes divisive.” When everyone has a voice, it takes time to air and resolve differences. In the 1980s, many bills in the Legis­la­ture, including at least two budgets, were forced back to committees for changes because of vociferous debate and dissent. That is how what we now call “transparency” works.

In 1980, voter anger focused on local and state government, which resulted in Proposition 2½ and 23 new members elected to the House who insisted on being heard. For the next four years, the new members and 42 Republicans created havoc for the dictatorial House leadership. In 1985, Speaker Thomas McGee was unceremoniously dumped for his autocracy.

Each member of that coalition had his or her own personal agenda. Some wanted to be heard and respected, while others wanted to fill the power vacuum and start their own autocracies. Fortunately, the new speaker, George Keverian, recognized members’ desire for respect and embraced small “d” democracy. Budding autocrats and reporters with deadlines grumbled that the speaker was “weak,” but the opposite was true. Under his leadership, democracy flourished. When he left, the House returned to autocracy and the trappings of power. Three successive speakers were convicted of felonies.

None of these people came to the House to do wrong, but they are only human. Almost anyone spending 15 to 20 years with the trappings of power, prestige, and adulating sycophants will have an unrecognized change of attitude. It is a weakness of human nature to succumb to temptation and a sense of entitlement. As stated in “Time Out” by Gabrielle Gurley, Rep. Ellen Story, who came to the House as a reformer but is now a member of the current speaker’s “inner circle,” said there would be “consequences” for members if they voted against the speaker on casino gambling. This is democracy?

Today, voter anger is focused on the waste, abuse, and corruption in Washington that threatens our nation.

Nothing will eliminate corruption, because it’s part of human nature, but term limits would substantially reduce it. However, we will never see it, because voters also have agendas. The common refrain: “My representative is great (i.e., got my kid into college, moved a utility pole, got our pond dredged, got my town a fire truck, etc.), but the others are bums!” If people are getting what they need from their elected officials, they will continue voting for them, and 20 years later will be shocked that their representative has been brought up on charges. But it’s part of the problem —the easy re-elections give many of the long-serving officials a sense of invincibility, as well as discourage other potentially great candidates from running against them. If we impose term limits on our president, why not on all elected officials?

If we ever return to the late 1980s democracy, I will guarantee one thing: Reporters will grumble about missing deadlines, because they are human, too.

Jack Flood
(Former Canton state representative, 1981-1990)

CW in the news

An article in CommonWealth’s Winter issue about private entities getting favorable land deals from the state became the basis for a WBZ-TV I-Team report and then fodder for WGBH’s Beat the Press. WBZ acknowledged after the fact the story was prompted by Colman Herman’s reporting for CommonWealth, but the station insisted it had added value that wasn’t there before, which is why the magazine was given no credit. The Beat the Press panel took the side of Common­Wealth, but without a lot of outrage. The panelists noted this type of re­purposing of stories happens all the time. The discussion is still available at