The politics of disasters

Incumbents, challengers use Merrimack Valley explosions as campaign fodder

DISASTERS HAVE A WAY of defining politics and elections.

Many believe Hurricane Sandy, and then-Gov. Chris Christie’s embrace of President Barack Obama, helped push the president over the top for reelection because of his administration’s response. Likewise, many pundits thought President George W. Bush’s flyover and ham-handed handling of the relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina hurt him and his standing and caused firings and an overhaul in FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.

Last week’s gas explosions in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover are also making their way into the political narrative, especially by candidates who are having a hard time gaining traction against better known incumbent opponents.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez, who’s looking for any footing he can get in his uphill battle against Gov. Charlie Baker, has used the deadly explosions to put the blame on the Department of Public Utilities controlled by Baker appointees, for not exerting sufficient oversight of Columbia Gas. Gonzalez said the three commissioners have ties to the fossil fuel industry and claimed they are beholden more to the utilities than to residents.

“The people of this state deserve to know that even if we can’t prevent every single accident from happening, that their state government that is here to work for them, not for the utilities, but here to work for them is doing everything in their power to prevent disasters like what happened in the Merrimack Valley from happening,” Gonzalez said in a release.

Another statewide candidate, state Rep. Geoff Diehl who is looking to unseat US Sen. Elizabeth Warren, latched onto the tragedy to call for an end to the lockout by National Grid, which was not involved in the explosions but, hey, it’s election season.

“This lockout threatens the safety of homes and businesses that depend on National Grid,” said Diehl in a stance that will play well with unions. “At a time when National Grid is posting record profits, their actions are unconscionable.  I am especially appalled that they did not end the lockout on Friday after the horrific events in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.”

In fact, National Grid will feel pressure from a lot of sides to end the lockout because of the explosions, something other politicians have been unable to do so far.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

The fires have also given incumbents the platform to exhibit their leadership skills. Baker, who immediately declared a state of emergency and placed Eversource in charge of the recovery effort, and Warren have both been to the area and Warren has been giving more updates than Columbia Gas, including the news that pressure in the pipelines was 12 times greater than normal. Attorney General Maura Healey is holding her office out as a resource for those affected by the fires and displacements and said she will oppose any rate hikes passed on to customers by Columbia to pay for the repairs.

All, however, say they’ll wait until after the investigation by the federal National Transportation Safety Board is complete before determining the next course of action. Columbia’s donation of $10 million to the relief effort assuaged some of that concern, though much to the chagrin of the Boston Herald’s Joe Battenfeld, who says Beacon Hill pols are acting like sheep.