Hanging Tough

It’s not easy to take the pulse of somebody who won’t sit still. And that’s the problem with trying to take stock of the Cellucci-Swift administration at mid-term. Of course, if you ask Gov. Paul Cellucci and Lt. Gov. Jane Swift, they’ll tell you they’re not going anywhere, apart from the trade missions that regularly–some say too regularly–take one or the other out of state, if not out of the country.

But the political hot-stove league has the governor with one foot out the door and Swift waiting in the wings, ready to change the first half of her job title from “lieutenant” to “acting,” whether before or after her double-maternity leave. That gives them, despite all protestations, the look of a moving target.

Not changing, however, are their first two years of rule, which they bill as a joint venture just like that of Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci. By any standard, though, theirs has been a rocky reign. The press clippings that Cellucci, Swift, and their hirelings have piled up are not the kind that inspire envy: the Massport booze cruise; Big Dig cost overruns hidden from federal overseers and the public; Cellucci’s 1999 veto of education funds overridden with the unanimous support of his own party’s lawmakers; Swift slapped with a $1,250 fine for using her staff as movers and baby-sitters; Hollywood producers, lured to Massachusetts by the state’s movie-buff-in-chief, allegedly shaken down by the Teamsters local run by George Cashman, a Cellucci ally. All in all, an unimpressive scrapbook.

Politically, the administration has lost ground with the public and in the State House. After he won election in his own right by a narrow margin in 1998, Cellucci’s approval numbers drifted downward, reaching 28 percent in a Boston Globe poll last February. Since then, he has recovered a bit in the voters’ eyes, with 45 percent viewing him favorably in a Boston Herald poll in December. Swift, however, remains in the doldrums, with a negative rating of 59 percent in the Herald survey. In the Legislature, the GOP’s ranks have dwindled, with Republicans now outnumbered by Democrats 136 to 24 in the House, 34 to six in the Senate. The home towns that once sent Cellucci and Swift to Beacon Hill–Hudson and North Adams, respectively–are now represented in both branches by Democrats.

The commentary that accompanied the administration’s downward spiral has been even worse. Cellucci had barely moved into the governor’s office on a permanent basis before media magpies began writing of “an administration adrift,” and “third-termitis,” suggesting that Cellucci was presiding over the fall of the Weld empire rather than building one of his own. The commentariat’s treatment of Swift has been particularly brutal, with columnists dishing out fat jokes and headline writers coining nicknames like “Jane Air,” for her beat-the-rush helicopter airlift to the Berkshires for Thanksgiving in 1999. When Cellucci put Swift in charge of efforts to boost student performance on the MCAS test, the Herald lampooned her as “education czarina,” picturing her with a tiara on her head. NOT SO SWIFT has been a headline in both major metropolitan dailies. And in December, Boston Magazine dubbed her JANE D’OH! (Not to disrupt this image of Swift as the Homer Simpson of Massachusetts politics, the magazine saved its elegant portrait of Swift–hair and makeup: Heidi Wells at Ennis–for after the page turn. The opening spread featured the lieutenant governor at her frumpiest, an old Herald photo of Swift with hair disheveled, wearing a mismatched dress-and-blazer combo, beads the size of golf balls, and sneakers.)

But even Cellucci, whose looks are unremarkable enough to nearly defy caricature, is not safe from the odd crack about his physique: He may be the only human being in history who has trimmed down only to be called “gaunt,” as the Herald’s Wayne Woodlief did (along with “pale and overpowdered”) in describing one of the governor’s television appearances to debate his tax-rollback referendum.

Through the scandals, the betrayals, and the ridicule, however, Cellucci and Swift have soldiered on. And signs are that the tide has turned.

Within the administration, the locus of power has seemed to shift from adrenaline-charged political pups to seasoned government hands, first the cerebral Andrew Natsios, who handled the Big Dig fiasco as well as it could be handled, and then Steve Crosby, who succeeded Natsios as secretary of administration and finance. A new office of research and development, set up by Natsios and maintained by Crosby, has brought renewed intellectual vigor to state government. Their thoughtful policy manifestos have pushed for reform of public-construction laws and the way the state doles out funding for school-building projects. Their work also helped Cellucci to recast the state’s housing problems from a crisis of money to one of bureaucratic impediment.

The stream of “gotcha” stories has slowed to a trickle, the disdain turning to grudging respect.

In the press, the stream of “gotcha” stories has slowed to a trickle, and the disdain has given way to a kind of grudging respect. The governor “has picked up his game in recent months on Beacon Hill. He’s been much more engaged and combative,” the Globe’s Brian Mooney observed just after the November election. Fellow Globe columnist Brian McGrory broke bread later that month with Massport director Virginia Buckingham–a symbol of Cellucci’s equal-opportunity cronyism when he installed her at the airport a year before–and pronounced her massport’s steady hand. In his Thanksgiving Day thank-you to the pols who give him grist for the column-mill, the Herald’s Woodlief praised Cellucci for “show[ing] the intellectual toughness to take a licking in the press and just keep ticking.” For all the talk of Cellucci’s barely passing resemblance to actor Robert DeNiro, it just may be that his true Hollywood likeness is Bruce Willis: unbreakable.

For Swift, esteem has proven harder to come by. The MetroWest Daily News reacted to the news of her twins pregnancy with an editorial cartoon of State Police helicopters delivering, stork-like, two little bundles of joy to the State House. But absent new material, the Jane jokes are getting stale. The Globe’s Joan Vennochi, who has pulled no punches against the administration, has suggested that the statute of limitations on Swift’s past transgressions is due to expire. “The press and the public have been very tough on Swift, and she deserved it,” Vennochi wrote in December. “But is it fair to make her the whipping girl of choice for political eternity?”

Perhaps it’s because they’ve been down so long, but things appear to be looking up for Cellucci and Swift. After all, when the political scuttlebutt is all about the exciting new opportunities that might fall your way, how bad can things be?

So even with so much up in the air, it seemed a good time for CommonWealth to check in with Gov. Paul Cellucci and Lt. Gov. Jane Swift. In a pair of interviews last fall, I tried to find out where the two years of tumult leave them–and their administration–today. The obvious question–where they’ll be tomorrow–was also in the air but, then as now, harder to pin down.

It was November 9, two days after Election Day, when I paid a call on Gov. Cellucci. I was under no illusion that the matter of the governor’s future would be settled by that time, though I did assume that the results of the presidential contest would be in. Little did I know that we’d be in the midst of the Election Without End. Not that it really mattered when it came to getting a bead on Cellucci. The various political fantasies, whether his or simply the gossip-mongers’, that had him moving on to bigger and better things would take weeks, if not months, to play out. For the foreseeable future, it seemed, Cellucci could be leaving the next day, or not at all.

But Election Day did settle some things locally. Even in the least-contested election in memory, the Massachusetts GOP managed to lose ground in the Legislature. But Cellucci got his way on the referendum questions that were the true matters of consequence on the state ballot last fall.

Cellucci’s play was a tricky double-cushion shot. There was Question 4, the income-tax rollback, which he initiated and campaigned for, and Question 6, the toll rebate proposal, which Cellucci opposed and spoke (if not exactly campaigned) against. There were all sorts of ways the two ballot propositions could have blown up in Cellucci’s face. If his cherished Question 4 had gone down to defeat, it could have been the nail in his political coffin. Cellucci had staked his reputation on this tax-cut initiative, which was not only the keystone of his political program but the culmination of a year-long “outside the building” legislative strategy. If Cellucci couldn’t sell a tax cut to voters, the Democratic Legislature would know that any future threat of taking his case to the people, on any matter, would be idle. If both measures passed, however, not only would state revenue be reduced by more than Cellucci had bargained for, but he would get blamed for the politics of pandering, playing into the public complacency that let voters line their own pockets at the expense of vital government services and give themselves a reward for commuting by car. But the electorate followed Cellucci’s lead, or at least echoed it: Yes on 4, No on 6.

But any hopes that I would find the governor in a mood of repose and reflection–or even smug self-satisfaction–after his big win were dashed as soon as we settled into matching chairs in his State House office. In an hour-long interview, Cellucci remained grim-faced and combative, seemingly still in full campaign mode. (Read the Full transcripts of the Cellucci and Swift interviews) He resisted any attempt to find political lessons in the voter approval of Question 4, preferring to reargue his case for it, and giving me a taste of the debating style he used to shout down his chosen Democratic adversaries–Steven Grossman, Shannon O¹Brien, Thomas Finneran, and Thomas Birmingham–in a series of pre-election tax debates.

“I fought for the rollback because it was the right thing to do,” said Cellucci. “I believe that we’re in a new economy, a new globalization, and for Massachusetts to keep its economy strong, you have to be competitive. That’s one of the things we’ve worked on for 10 years, making Massachusetts more competitive, taking a stake and putting it through the heart of the old label, Taxachusetts. The 40 tax cuts of the Weld-Cellucci-Swift years have really turned the economy around and made our state much more competitive. . . . I don’t think it was a good thing for Massachusetts to be the state that has the highest effective income taxes in the country. That’s not a good competitive position for us to be in.”

But the idea of Question 4 as a political gambit from which he personally had something to gain–or lose–made Cellucci bristle. “It continues to amaze me that people who follow my career in politics have no idea what makes me tick,” said Cellucci. “It just amazes me. I’ve been an elected official for 30 years now and my modus operandi hasn’t changed. I focus on doing the right thing. . . . I don’t worry about the political consequences. I really don’t worry about who gets the credit. I just focus on getting a good result.”

But it’s clear that the result he fought for was intended to send a political message, as well. “I can tell you, after 10 years of Republican leadership in the governor’s office, the Democrats are starting to push back a little,” said Cellucci. “We’ve cut the welfare rolls in half by emphasizing work and independence. Now some people want to change those work requirements. We’ve seen the crime rate decline eight years in a row because we’ve taken a tough law-and-order approach to crime. And now there are some in the Legislature who want to repeal some of the minimum-mandatory [sentencing] laws that we’ve put on the books. . . . And so when they refused to cut this income tax back to 5 percent, I felt it was so important for the future of the state that I should take it to the people, and I thought the people would agree with me. And they did. . . . This has been my modus operandi for 30 years. And for 30 years as a Republican in a Democratic state, I’ve never lost an election.”

It remains a mystery to Cellucci why this formula hasn’t worked as well for his fellow Republicans. “One of the things I liked about Question 4 is I believe it was where good government met good politics,” said Cellucci. “Not only was it the right thing for the future of our state, it was an issue that our candidates for the Legislature could run on. I cannot explain why the people of Massachusetts would vote overwhelmingly for Question 4, recognizing how important it is for our future, and at the same time elect people who disagree with them on that issue, and not elect people who agree with them on that issue. So we’ll be trying to figure that one out, because I think if we can figure that out, that might be the key to electing more Republicans.”

With the tax war won, the next big battle he’s gearing up for is education reform. “The top priority for me and Bill Weld and Jane Swift has been improving public schools, because that is even more important for the future of the Massachusetts economy than the tax cuts,” he said. He worries that the 1993 education-reform deal–more money to local districts in exchange for more accountability–is in danger of unraveling. But he vows to enforce the implied contract.

“Many in the education bureaucracy are saying, well, we’re going to renege on our part of the agreement, the accountability part of the agreement,” Cellucci said. “I sense a battle coming up and I’m going to be very firm on this. I know that as the high-stakes aspects of MCAS come closer and closer, there’s going to be a lot of weak-kneed people, and I’m not going to be weak-kneed.”

The next week, I went to see the person Cellucci has lately assigned the task of holding the line on education standards, Lt. Gov. Jane Swift. Quite apart from taking on that volatile portfolio, Swift has taken the fire for this administration, if not drawn it. And though she was far from crowing, she certainly relished the vindication that, in her eyes, the Election Day tally represented.

“There are at least 20 people for whom their primary reason to wake up in the morning is to make sure that Paul Cellucci and I aren’t here two years from now,” said Swift, settling in behind the enormous desk that dominates her office. “And they pretty much all share a political philosophy. I think they all had to wake up the morning after the election, having seen the results of not just Question 4 but every single ballot question that coincided exactly with the governor’s stated preferences, and be a little nervous. Maybe they should be rethinking their political philosophy rather than just trying to kill us.”

Whether any of the Democratic leaders who bedevil the administration on a daily basis or who salivate at the prospect of challenging him–or, better yet, her–for the governor’s office in 2002 are “rethinking their political philosophy” seems doubtful. But to spend even an hour with Jane Swift is to realize that she, for one, is not dead yet. She remains confident and articulate, quick to rattle off a brief on the administration’s accomplishments. Her admirers–and she has a few–say she carries around in her head the details of a dizzying array of projects she’s involved with and that she’s capable of delivering a stemwinder of a political speech, off-script and on.

Swift is a tough pol who’s now painfully aware that there are sharks in the water.

And though she’s taken her lumps over the past two years, they seem only to have toughened her up. There have been reports of Swift making the rounds of newsrooms and editorial boards delivering a contrite mea culpa for her past sins. But when I asked her about her troubles–even going so far as to suggest that she had violated the cardinal rule of Number Two-dom by embarrassing her boss–I saw little of that. I saw a tough pol who’s now painfully aware that there are sharks in the water.

“Well, I think I’ve learned a lot,” Swift began. “First of all, I’ve learned to keep my private life a lot more private and keep it well away from anything to do with my official duties. I think I’ve learned to handle the media scrutiny better. I hope I have. I hope I don’t go through a similar situation to have to test that.”

Perhaps more surprising, she asserted that living through the firestorm “wasn’t as difficult as a lot of people thought.” That, she said, is “because every single day the first phone call I got was from Paul Celluci, saying: ‘Do your job. Do the right thing, but do your job. The education issues you’re working on really matter and we need to make sure we head in the right direction on that. The school-building assistance reforms that you’ve been working on, the airport stuff. All this stuff that’s going on is important stuff.'”

She knows Cellucci could have played it differently. “There are a lot of folks who, on a lot of days, just expected that at any given time the governor was going to cut me loose. Probably most folks in his position would have at least distanced themselves. I think it’s a measure of his character [that he did not]. I think ultimately it’s allowed us to keep focused on our jobs and, through all of that, not to be distracted.”

Distraction may be the least of the administration’s problems. I asked her how she and Cellucci can drive a government agenda with such weak public support and few allies in the Legislature.

“First of all, just by the pure effort and initiative we put into these issues,” said Swift. “And by recognizing that there are powers that the governor has that don’t depend on the Legislature. He can set an agenda. He can set a course and in many cases”–she gives as an example providing free state-college tuition for foster children– “you can achieve things through executive order. Where you need legislative approval and you get none you can go to the ballot box, although you can’t do that on every issue.”

But taking the tax rollback to the voters was an easy call, she said. “I’ll tell you the day the governor decided. We sat there and decided to go to the initiative petition route the day the Legislature–thinking they control everything, it’s their world and we just visit it–decided not to hold a hearing on the governor’s tax cut bill. . . . They scheduled every single bill that had to do with cutting taxes for a hearing and refused to schedule the bill on the governor’s tax cut issue.”

Swift’s voice tightened. “I’ll tell you one thing: I’ll bet you when the Legislature goes to schedule hearings for bills this year they don’t try to stick it in the governor’s eye on one of his major initiatives. Because they could have saved themselves a lot of embarrassment.”

Finally, we did touch on the matter of Swift’s political future. Even before her announcement of twins on the way, the talk of her moving into the governor’s office in the wake of a Cellucci departure for federal duty began to be leavened with a rumor of a different nature–that, come 2002, Jane Swift would be campaigning for neither re-election nor election in her own right, but withdrawing to her Williamstown farmhouse to raise her family.

“I don’t know where that one came from,” chortled Swift. “I’m thinking my husband is starting to talk to reporters again.”

But then she went on to say, more convincingly‹and more meaningfully, in retrospect, since she must then have known about, though had not yet disclosed, her double pregnancy–that she doesn’t indulge in “these long-term scenarios of where you’re headed because I think in politics it’s a lot of wasted energy. . . . Life can find a way to, number one, kick you in the pants.”

“Paul Cellucci is what he is,” says Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees (R-Longmeadow). “He’s a nice guy and everybody knows it. What you see is what you get. That’s what’s got him through the building. He goes to the movies two or three times a week, because that’s what he likes to do. He’s no different today than he was 10 years ago. It’s served him very well.”

But Paul Cellucci’s regular-guy persona is also what makes him seem ripe for the political kill. The Republican administration that has been in office for a decade has always been outnumbered, particularly since 1992, when the GOP’s numbers in the Senate fell below the level that could sustain the governor’s veto. But Bill Weld carried authority in his own person. He was tall, smart, witty, charismatic, and had thick skin. To the politicians who jousted with him and the reporters who covered him, he was the walking reason why he was governor and you were not. Cellucci is a tough, intense politician who can stay on message with the best of them. But he does not impress in the same way.

“Bill Weld was mercurial and completely unpredictable,” says Senate President Thomas Birmingham. “Paul Cellucci is more pedestrian and predictable.”

And, given the trials and tribulations of his administration, vulnerable. Some would even say isolated, if not irrelevant. “This governor has no role to play on the Hill. He has no power to veto anything,” says Democratic consultant and talk-show host Michael Goldman.

But McCormack Institute senior fellow Lou DiNatale, himself an old-line Democrat, says you have to give Cellucci his due. “Cellucci doesn’t get as much credit for managing state government” as he ought to, says DiNatale. Even as lieutenant governor, Cellucci was the one who made the trains run on time, DiNatale notes. “Weld was the personality. Cellucci was the mechanic.”

“When you pull back the curtain, the state’s being run pretty well,” says Republican consultant Charley Manning. “You have to give credit to the people in charge, Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift.”

House Speaker Thomas Finneran is one Beacon Hill power broker who sees Cellucci as an improvement over Big Red. “The current administration has a leg up in terms of focus and follow-through,” says Finneran, who observes that Weld was “notorious” for toying with ideas then sending them “blowing down the street like a discarded piece of trash.”

But Birmingham sees Cellucci’s performance as a washout. “Obviously, the biggest failure was the Big Dig,” says Birmingham. “Then there’s the lack of leadership, even support of the Education Reform Act. I don’t think the governor has shown any leadership on how to deal with MCAS.”

Cellucci defenders like Lees say the greatest accomplishment of the Cellucci-Swift administration has been to “hold the line on spending,” even in the face of overflowing state coffers and growing Democratic appetites. But many observers give as much, if not more, of the credit for that to Speaker Finneran, a budget hawk who, unlike Cellucci, has the power to hold Democratic veto overrides in check.

More to the point, Cellucci has been able to maintain his fiscal-watchdog credentials while presiding over a steadily expanding state budget that has, among other things, extended health-insurance coverage and now prescription-drug benefits to more citizens than ever. It is, in its way, an enviable position to be in. Cellucci can claim political credit for every dollar he cuts from the budget, and also for every dollar the Democratic Legislature forces him to spend. “He was able to keep Republican pledges with a Democratic budget,” says DiNatale.

Indeed, it may turn out that what has seemed from the blaring headlines to be the worst of times for Cellucci and Swift has been the best of times for the not-so-dynamic duo. With the exception of round after round of tax cuts–the income-tax rate reduction to 5 percent being the only one he had to battle for–Cellucci has been stymied on the most Republican-branded of his initiatives, like the death penalty. But a booming economy has allowed Cellucci to continue his fiscal saber-rattling even as he presides over the most massive public investment in state history. Billions of dollars in Big Dig overruns, for instance, and all it will cost most of us is having to keep paying a motor-vehicle fee that otherwise would have disappeared.

The Cellucci-Swift team seems to have finally learned how to avoid embarrassment, but perhaps just in time for the real trouble to begin. In an economic downturn, which many observers are expecting, the tax rollback they’re so proud of may turn out to be the “headache” Finneran has predicted. And if the administration’s new education-reform activism (Swift’s high-profile push to recruit volunteer tutors has inspired little enthusiasm in the schools or among the public) turns out to be too little, too late, the coming MCAS crunch could be as painful for the Republican administration as for the high-school non-graduates.

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By that time, of course, Cellucci could be off to Washington–or, as former governor Michael Dukakis suggested, Fiji–leaving acting governor/gubernatorial candidate Jane Swift holding the political bag. If so, Brian Lees predicts that Swift, like her often underestimated predecessor, will be up to the corner-office challenge.

“If she ever does become governor, we will see a side of her we’ve never seen before,” says Lees. “A number of people said, if Bill Weld left, Paul Cellucci could never win on his own–never. He won, and he changed a lot of opinions in a short period of time.” By comparison, though, Swift may find that Cellucci had it easy.