Water My Petunias

What is the point in having state legislators? What, if anything, do people expect from them?

The author Alan Rosenthal tells of a Massachusetts state senator (unnamed!) who said he would regularly pick up clothes that constituents wanted exchanged at Filene’s Basement in downtown Boston. An Oklahoma representative once responded to a constituent’s complaint about overgrown weeds on the median of a local highway, Rosenthal says, by loading up his own lawnmower, driving to the roadway, and cutting the weeds himself. A Colorado lawmaker was similarly helpful: While going door-to-door, he asked a constituent if there was anything he could do for her. She responded, “Yeah, you can water my petunias.” Whereupon, the legislator went outside, turned on the hose, and watered the petunias.

As generations of Massachusetts politicians have known, simple acts of good constituent service can buy a lot of leeway when it comes to how their supposedly more important public duties are discharged. A legislator’s voting record, in other words, may not be as relevant as the answer to the question, “What have you done for me lately?” One of the interesting tests of this dynamic will take place later this year in the 12th Essex District where Rep. John Slattery, Democrat of Peabody, will stand for re-election. Slattery is locally famous for casting the deciding vote last fall that prevented the return of capital punishment to Massachusetts. The Republicans have recruited a candidate to run against him, and one can guess there will be much discussion of the last-hour change of heart that led to Slattery’s dramatic vote.

Whose judgement matters most in the making of laws?
We will probably also see a disagreement about what the proper role of a legislator is. If opinion in his district strongly favors the death penalty, should he vote in a way that represents that opinion? Or should he follow his own conscience? If the people lead, should the leaders follow? Or is it the job of the leader to guide the people?

These are, of course, questions that run through our earliest debates about representative government. In arguing 200 years ago about what kind of republic we would have, Federalists put their faith in representatives who would exercise their best judgment on behalf of the people. They upheld the tradition of Edmund Burke, who said in a speech in 1774, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Anti-Federalists such as Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, spoke about the need to put decision-making more directly in the hands of the citizens.

People who study today’s legislatures (such as Rosenthal, whose latest book is reviewed on page 72) note that echoes of this great debate continue to be heard in modern halls. Political scientists have found wide disagreement among legislators themselves about whether they see themselves as “trustees” who act according to their own views, or as “delegates” who serve the wishes of their constituents. Of course, common practice has led most to realize that the roles can be successfully mixed: A legislator can sometimes stand on principle and sometimes perform as a tribune of the people. A calculation of the potential effects on one’s chances for re-election usually comes into it.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to muse on ways these questions continue to bubble up in Massachusetts politics, especially when it comes to the rising and falling fortunes of the two major political parties. There are many historical ironies tangled up in the New England political tradition. This has been, from the first, a stronghold of direct democracy because of the tradition of open town meetings — something the Virginian Thomas Jefferson revered and perhaps even envied. It was also home to strong Federalist and, later, Whig sentiment — which is the lineage of the modern Republican Party. Though Jefferson called himself a Republican, his party became the vehicle for popular democratic surges in the era of Andrew Jackson and changed from being known as the “Democratic-Republicans” to “Democrats.” Massachusetts entered this century as a stronghold of the Republican party and yet now is in its fourth decade of Democratic dominance.

As Democrats here have become accustomed to control of the Legislature, they have evolved in many ways into traditional “republicans.” Democratic leaders have kept the Legislature insulated from popular opinion. Their view of representative government is Burkean — they are not shy about exerting their wisdom over the people’s. This tradition can be seen in the resistance of the leadership not just to the death penalty but to most popular initiatives: term limits, tax cuts, anti-Turnpike campaigns, repeal efforts of unpopular laws such as those that raise the pay of legislators….

Meanwhile, Republicans in the Legislature are cast as “democrats.” Their role is to challenge one-party rule and to try bring the institution more in line with public opinion — at least on hot-button issues like crime, welfare, and taxes. The drift of the Democrats toward the political center has made the challenge more difficult for Republican leaders. They alternate between frustration, as Democrats seem to be stealing their thunder, and satisfaction, as parts of their agenda are being enacted. With the GOP down to a paltry 36 votes out of 200 in the Legislature, and with only 13 percent of the voters registering as Republicans, one might argue that the Republican party has almost ceased to exist in Massachusetts. Yet, taking solace from their seven-year hold on the governor’s office, some hardy Republicans insist that all is not lost (See “Happy days are here, for now“, CW, Spring 1998 ).

Can Democrats be good “democrats,” too? Progressive Democrats and good-government liberals have for years been uncomfortable with the anti-democratic aspects of legislative life, and yet they are in a box: For the most part they are happy with the results. Privately they complain about the heavy-handed techniques of Democratic leaders. They know that for the place to function more democratically, it would require a healthier balance between the two parties. But they also know that adding one or two more Republicans at this point probably would mean the return of the death penalty, and who knows what else.

As we noted last spring when our attention turned to the Legislature, liberal Democrats in the House have been marginalized under the rule of Speaker Tom Finneran. One of the cleverest things the Speaker has done to protect his power is to make sure the Republican minority has little common cause with dissident Democrats. Finneran continues to steer a centrist (some would say conservative) course, and keeps his own counsel. In these unusually placid times, most representatives play almost no significant role in passing major laws and steering public policy these days.

It’s an open question whether a quiet, well-oiled legislature is what the voters want. Many people tell pollsters that what they don’t like about politics is the constant conflict and partisan wrangling. In fact, this magazine and its sponsoring organization, MassINC, exist to fill the need for non-partisan, constructive, solution-oriented approaches to politics. We don’t pretend that the grimy side of politics will ever go away — or that issues such as capital punishment can be decided without passionate, winning-is-the-only-thing battles. But we are on the lookout for ways to add something else to the mix.

In this issue we present a special report by Associate Editor Carol Gerwin on the probation system in Massachusetts. This is an area of public policy that has suffered terribly from a lack of press scrutiny, a lack of public awareness, and a lack of legislative action. It’s also a place where changes in laws and court procedures can make a real difference in people’s lives. As well, it has the potential for being the kind of public-policy concern that need not get derailed by partisan warfare. Some of the state’s most prominent Republicans and Democrats have called in recent years for the reform of the probation system. Yet it is not currently a live issue in the Legislature.

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
Why not? Part of the reason may be that concern about crime has decreased in the last year as crime rates have dropped markedly. Yet that didn’t stifle the push last fall for the death penalty, which — whatever you may believe about capital punishment — is a classic case of the substitution of symbolic politics for workable reform. We submit that there are other ways than that roll-call vote to detect who is serious about controlling crime. One way is to see which state leaders are willing to come to grips with the fact that there are 60,000 convicted criminals who walk our streets and sidewalks in that legal limbo known as probation. There is a clear need for a statewide effort to improve the supervision of people on probation (and on parole, but that’s a story for another day), and especially to find ways of coping with the drug problems that are so much a part of this world.

Take a look at our cover story, and at Robert Preer’s account of a “drug court” in Boston, and at B.J. Roche’s profile of probation officer Lorna Burt in Springfield . See if you don’t agree that symbolic politics and silent legislators are of little use in the actual world where people live. Of course, there’s always constituent service. And it won’t be long before the petunias are blooming.