In This Temple of Tradition, Everything Stops for the Ritual of the Maiden Speech

Friday, April 29, 2011

One cannot profess to understand the Massachusetts House of Representatives if he has never witnessed a maiden speech in the grand, wood-paneled oval that is the House chamber.

This past Wednesday, I had the good fortune to see not one but two representatives deliver their maiden speeches within an hour of each other. Sheila Harrington, Republican of Groton, was the first; Carlos Henriquez, Democrat of Dorchester, was the second.

Wednesday was the third straight day the House was in session for the purpose of finalizing its version of the new state budget, a project that requires legislators to take up and decide upon hundreds of proposed budget amendments.

These deliberations cover a tremendous range of programs, and often deal with line items running into the millions of dollars. Yet the process becomes uninteresting within 30 minutes and fatiguing within an hour. It's like watching a snow plow clear a perilous mountain road while travelling at one mile per hour. You know the thing could tumble off a cliff at any moment, but the tedious pace kills your interest. Against this backdrop, a maiden speech is a dose of excitement, a welcome reminder that politics is always about people even when (or especially when) the topic is money.

It's not the subject matter or diction of a maiden speech that make it noteworthy, it's the uniqueness of the moment.

Anyone elected to the legislature has been dreaming of the day he or she would enter the State House, be addressed as Representative or Senator, and shown to an office. Inauguration day, in other words. The next threshold moment comes when he or she rises to speak for the first time on the floor, when they finally get to add their official voices to the never-ending conversation of democracy.

Rep. Harrington gave her first speech in advocacy of an amendment (#590) she had filed in the hope of cutting spending in the public defenders program, which provides lawyers to indigent persons charged with crimes. This put her at odds with leadership; there was little chance her amendment would be adopted.

Nevertheless, House Speaker Robert DeLeo left his private office and came to the podium for the express purpose of introducing Rep. Harrington and encouraging members to give her a warm and attentive reception.

She spoke for about 10 minutes, earnestly and with patent conviction. Everyone in the chamber listened respectfully for the entire time she was at the mic, which is not what usually happens when someone is addressing the House, not by a long shot.

Then every member in attendance -- 154 out of 160 reps were there -- lined up in the center aisle to shake her hand, congratulate her, tell her what a good job she had done. Many embraced her and kissed her on the cheek. It actually took more time for Rep. Harrington to be extolled than it did for her to speak on her amendment, which went down to defeat anyway, 118 to 36, when action resumed.

The maiden speech of Rep. Henriquez was devoted to a section of the consolidated amendment on the judiciary adding $3 million to the community safety initiative named in honor of the late state senator, Charlie Shannon of Winchester, who entered politics after retiring from the State Police.

Again, Speaker DeLeo arrived to make the introduction. Rep. Henriquez spoke passionately but with careful self-control about how the "Shannon grants" had helped reduce violence and death while he was growing up on the streets of Boston. "Even a young man like me, raised in a loving household with two hardworking parents," he said, "was exposed to the reality of gang and gun violence, often tempted by fast money, peer pressure, or the camaraderie that gang life offers while parents may be at work."

Like Rep. Harrington before him, Rep. Henriquez commanded the attention of the pin-drop-quiet chamber throughout his remarks. And like her, he received a spirited round of applause from his colleagues, who then eagerly lined up to shake hands and congratulate him, and to prophesy for him a sparkling future at the State House.

Now, there were scores of budget amendments that had to be dealt with, and everyone knew the session would drag on into the warm spring night, but no one hurried. For a few minutes, they were happy to put aside partisan roles and maneuvering for their districts to follow an ages-old custom: the taking of the new one into the tribe.

Legislators who have served for two decades or more, and who have given thousands of speeches on the floor, can tell you still what their maiden speeches were like and who charged up to greet them first when they were done.

When the Mayor and Police Start Swinging at Each Other, the Public Has to Duck

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

One night back in 1974 or 75, the Malden City Council was holding its regular weekly meeting when a dispute arose over some action by the police department. I can't remember the details. It may have had to do with the ticketing of cars in a particular section and the councilor for that ward was complaining. Or it may have been a question about the number of officers patrolling the streets overnight and a councilor was demanding that the chief appear for questioning.

In any event, the temperature in the room shot up in a matter of seconds. It was obvious that a significant minority of the 11 councilors was ready for a fight. Some were unhappy with what the police had done, others were sticking up for the cops.

Malden's long-serving mayor, Walter Kelliher, a lieutenant commander in the Navy during World War II, was attending the meeting, as was his practice, and became uncomfortable with the critical examination of a subject that had not attracted any attention before that night.

He may have sent a signal to the council president or not, but all of a sudden the president banged the gavel and called for a 10-minute recess. People shuffled about as they do at recesses. Little murmurring groups formed at the back of the council chamber, in the adjoining council office, and in the hallway.

As a reporter covering the event, I sidled up to the mayor to hear what he was saying to a member of his staff, one councilor and a former member of the council who happened to be in the building. Kelliher had a distinct view, which has stuck with me all these years.

"You never want a discussion like this coming up in public just because somebody feels like talking about it," I heard him say. "The police are our first line of defense, they have the toughest job: guaranteeing public safety. You don't want to undermine the confidence of the public in the police, because if that goes, you'll have problems much worse than the one we're talking about now."

Whether it was the break in the action or the emergence of cooler heads, the mid-meeting idleness had the desired effect. When the council reconvened, there was a quick voice vote to table the matter until the police chief had time to investigate and report back to the council's public safety committee. I can't recall if such a report, verbal or written, was ever made, but I don't think the matter ever came up again, at least in public.

Kelliher's words have come back to me again and again as I've read recent reports out of Lawrence, (population 76,377), where the rookie mayor, William Lantigua, is fighting with the police. The friction has been caused by, among other things, a sharp reduction in the number of police officers due to departmental budget cuts. At the same time, Lantigua is reportedly under investigation by state and federal authorities for his dealings with Lawrence towing companies, nightclubs and taxi operators.

You don't have to be a professor of journalism to discern that (unnamed) members of the Lawrence Police Department are feeding the media some of the details of these investigations. Lantigua, for the record, denies having done anything wrong.

With its chronic financial problems, depressed local economy, high unemployment, and a now-rising crime rate, the last thing Lawrence needs is animosity and distrust between its mayor and police department. Long known as the "Immigrant City," Lawrence is one of several older, former industrial powerhouse cities in Massachusetts that are doing the heavy work of helping to turn poor newcomers into successful new Americans, work that benefits our society as a whole.

Politics, however, never takes a back seat to civics. So it was hardly surprising when a prominent elected Republican used the latest controversy in Lawrence to slam Lantigua and the mayor's fellow Democrats. "As far as I'm concerned, Deval Patrick and John Walsh (chairman of the state Democratic committee) own this guy (Lantigua)...They spent a lot of money to get him elected," the Boston Herald quoted this gentleman as saying.

If one party could turn the "ownership" of an urban dilemma over to another, this world would be a much neater place. But in the land of no-make-believe, we all own a piece of the Lawrences of America, and always will.

Legislators Are Not Fanatics When It Comes to Budget Discipline

Friday, April 22, 2011

You can say about "budget discipline" in the Massachusetts legislature what you can say about a lot of things in life: It's there until it isn't.

Legislative leaders naturally seek to impose discipline on the annual budget process. A budget could never get done if hard choices were not made and people at the top were not exerting themselves to make those choices stick.

One tenet of budget discipline holds that members of leadership cannot buck the leadership. For example, when Ways & Means puts out a budget, members of leadership are supposed to stand by and salute. They are not supposed to try to change it by putting their names on controversial budget amendments or taking contrary positions on policies that have a strong budgetary component.

That's how the system has always worked, at least in theory.

One must realize that leadership is a rather swollen concept in our legislature. The leadership team goes beyond the Speaker, Majority Leader, Speaker Pro Tem, Assistant Majority Leader and Second Assistant Majority Leader to include the chairs of some 30-plus committees and the chairs of the four separate divisions on the floor of the House.

With numbers and influence like that, leadership obviously has a big advantage in getting a budget through the 160-member House that looks a lot like the one issued by Ways & Means -- if budget discipline holds.

Expectation-wise, that's a lot of toes to get onto one line and keep there, though. And when budget discipline collides with political imperatives in a bunch of House districts, those toes can wind up elsewhere, as we learned again early this week.

No less than six committee chairs affixed their names to a budget amendment, backed forcefully by organized labor, which would undo a major feature of the budget released April 13 by Ways & Means.

The feature in question would allow cities and towns to make changes to employee health coverage without negotiating with employee unions, as they are now obliged to do. It was estimated that this one change, if enacted, would save cities and towns a total of at least $100 million in the next fiscal year.

South Boston's Marty Walsh, chair of the House Ethics Committee, took the lead in introducing an amendment that would replace that feature with a much weaker measure, one that would give municipal unions 45 days to negotiate proposed changes in health benefits, such as higher co-pays, and would turn the issue over to an arbitrator for a binding decision if the union and municipality were unable to come to a resolution.

In addition to the six committee chairs, more than 40 reps agreed to co-sponsor the Walsh amendment.

The AFL-CIO is pulling out all the stops to get the amendment through, and has let every House member know that it will watch, record and report on how they vote on it next week during the budget debate.

Given the firm, traditional emphasis on budget discipline, it was surprising that House leaders reacted to the Walsh insurrection so stoically as to appear more like philosophers than political potentates.

"Folks have differing opinions on how to get to reform," said Ways & Means Chair Brian Dempsey.

There could be a rip-roaring fight over this next week. Or Walsh & Co. could easily carry the day if most Democrats reckon it's better to frustrate their leaders than it is to tick off the AFL-CIO.

David Simon's Portrait of Inner-City Baltimore Is Mirrored, Tragically, Across the USA

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I'm recommending that all my friends read the interview with David Simon, co-creator of the HBO drama The Wire, in the current edition (April, 2011) of Guernica, "a magazine of art & politics." Find it online at

Recipient of a MacArthur Foundation $500,000 "genius grant," Simon is a former reporter at the Baltimore Sun whose writings formed the bases of two successful television series, Homicide and The Corner, before he turned his ferocious attention to the drug trade in Baltimore and the horrible effects it has had on the poor people who live there. The result of those efforts, which he undertook with Ed Burns, a former Baltimore police officer and public schoolteacher, was The Wire, which ran for five seasons on HBO.

Many consider The Wire the best TV program ever made, a judgment I happen to share.

Baltimore provided the canvas for Simon's devastating portrait, but the picture of inner-city life we encounter in The Wire is mirrored, tragically, in poor and neglected neighborhoods across the nation, including some in Massachusetts. These are places where the economy seems permanently depressed and where kids begin life 20 yards back from the starting line where most of us are launched from.

If you're not familiar with Mr. Simon -- the man and his works -- I encourage you, please, Correct that situation! And if my humble exhortation doesn't persuade you, perhaps these excerpts from his comments in the lengthy Guernica interview will:

"America now jails more of its people than any country, including all totalitarian states. We pretend to a war against narcotics, but in truth, we are simply brutalizing and dehumanizing an urban underclass that we no longer need as a labor supply."

"...The Wire was not a story about America, it's about the America that got left behind."

"These really are the excess people in America. Our economy doesn't need them -- we don't need 10 or 15 percent of our population...the ones who are undereducated, who have been ill-served by the inner city school system, who have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy, we pretend to need them."

"...they're not foolish. They get it. They understand that the only viable economic base in their neighborhoods is this multibillion-dollar drug trade."

"I am very cynical about institutions and their willingness to address themselves to reform. I am not cynical when it comes to individuals and people. And I think the reason The Wire is watchable, even tolerable, to viewers is that it has great affection for individuals. It's not misanthropic in any way."

"...I would decriminalize drugs in a heartbeat. I would put all the interdiction money, all the incarceration money, all the enforcement money, all of the pretrial, all the prep, all of that cash, I would hurl it as fast as I could into drug treatment and job training and jobs programs. I would rather turn these neighborhoods inward with jobs programs. Even if it was the urban equivalent of FDR's CCC -- the Civilian Conservation Corps -- if it was New Deal-type logic, it would be doing less damage than creating a war syndrome."

Ex-Senate Staffer Now in Municipal Government Experiences State Budget Differently

Monday, April 18, 2011

It was good to see the House Ways and Means Committee and its new chairman, Brian Dempsey of Haverhill, in action last Wednesday (April 13) during their press conference presenting the House version of the new state budget. Dempsey did a fine job running the show, especially when you consider that the $30.45 billion budget package he brought with him contains a number of items that are hard for some traditional Democratic constituencies to swallow. (Yes, that was the head of the firefighters' union at the front of the room, just steps from members of the Way and Means Committee, grimacing like someone about to be wheeled into an operating room.)

The budget blues are inevitable when you consider that (a) Ways and Means had to address a $1.9 billion deficit, (the difference between built-in expenses and projected state income for the fiscal year that will begin July 1), and (b) the federal government has turned off the recovery money spigot it opened in late-2008 to help get the states through the worst recession in 70 years.

But I would have found the press conference worthwhile if for no other reason than the chance conversation I had, as the event was breaking up, with a former longtime staff person in the Massachusetts Senate. This gentleman now works for the mayor of one of our older cities, a place that has seen better days. I hadn't bumped into him in several years. "How is it to be back in this building?" I asked. "Good, good," he said, as people patted him on the arm and shoulder as they walked by. "You are missed," I said, adding, "How does your job now compare to your old job?" He hesitated a moment and said, "When I was in this building, it was like being in the Pentagon. Where I am now is like being in a foxhole." Knowing the city this man helps to run and the kind of answer-defying problems they have to deal with there night and day, I didn't need an explanation.

"People make decisions at the State House, they have to make the tough decisions," I said, "but you have to live with the results of those decisions." "Right," he said, but it was not a mournful acknowledgement. To the contrary, he seemed to exude energy. "You look good! The work agrees with you," I said. "How do you like working for the mayor?" "Oh, I'd walk into a burning building for him," he said. I envied his strength and determination, even as I hoped that the fires awaiting him would be of the manageable variety.

I soon learned that the state is planning to cut funding to the venerable Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program by $2.6 million, from $12.4 to $9.8 million (20%!) in the next fiscal year. WIC provides supplemental food, nutritional education and health care referrals to about 130,000 low-income women, many of whom no doubt reside in the city where the former Senate staffer serves. My guess is his phone was ringing about WIC before he even got back to the front lines of public service...House Budget Tidbit: By the deadline for members of the Massachusetts House to file proposed amendments to the new House budget, (5:00 P.M., Friday, April 15), 758 amendments had been submitted to the House Clerk.

Nobody Will Jump the Gun on Gambling While the House Slogs Through the Budget

Friday, April 15, 2011

When the Massachusetts House of Representatives convenes on Monday, April 25, to begin formal deliberations on its version of the new state budget, there will be no back-door attempts to inject casino gambling into the debate. That's because the Order Relative to Special Procedures for Consideration of the General Appropriations Bill for the Fiscal Year 2012, the one-page set of rules adopted by the House earlier this week establishing the parameters of these deliberations, contains a stipulation that no amendment to the budget "that pertains to the subjects of casino gaming, slot machines or video gaming shall be in order..."

This was needed because legislators in both branches have often resorted to budget amendments and outside budget sections to try to get things enacted that have nothing to do, per se, with appropriations. The budget has, time and again, proven to be a good short-cut. Determined legislators will take it, if it's available to them. Were it not for the no-gaming rule this budget season, you can be sure at least a couple of reps with strong pro-casino and/or pro-slots credentials would have filed amendments advancing gambling in some fashion, if for no other reason than to show the folks back in their districts they were standing up for the jobs and putative economic benefits that a casino or three would bring.

But any pro-gambling amendment popping up during the April 25-29 work week would have led almost certainly to long, contentious hours of debate and parliamentary maneuvering. It would, once again, "suck all the oxygen out of the room," as legislative leaders lamented when describing last year's futile casino debate.

Today's Unveiling of House Budget Will Be Neat, But the Budget Process Is Not for the Squeamish

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Massachusetts House of Representatives makes public its version of the proposed Fiscal Year 2012 state budget today when the House Ways and Means Committee, led for the first time by Brian Dempsey of Haverhill, brings into the light of day the huge budget document at the State House.

That introduction will be followd by a frenzied two-day period when House members will be allowed to file proposed amendments to the budget. The 160 representatives in the House will file all kinds of budget amendments, not all having to do with money.

In the main, however, reps will be trying to get funds for local projects -- renovations to a senior citizens center, a new sprinklered playing field at a school, new computerized traffic lights at a particularly nasty intersection, etc. There will probably also be some fairly substantive policy issues they'll try to address through budget amendments: increases in funding for tobacco cessation programs, for example, or money for juvenile mental health facilities, or more staffing for a court where the caseload has gone through the roof, etc.

This Son of Gloucester Lived a Good Life, and Had a Good Story to Tell

Friday, April 8, 2011

There will be a funeral this Sunday, April 10, in Gloucester for Peter Prybot, a lobsterman who died less than two miles offshore from where he moored his boat in Pigeon Cove. While working alone, as was his practice, on the afternoon of Sunday, April 3, Peter became entangled in a lobster pot line, was pulled overboard into the freezing ocean, and drowned.

A lifelong resident of Gloucester, Peter was well known and well liked on Cape Ann. The turnout for his memorial service and funeral Mass at St. Joachim's Church in Rockport will be large.

I had the good fortune to make Peter's acquaintance a few years back as part of our company's work for the Fishing Partnership Health Plan (FPHP), a unique plan that provides health coverage to Massachusetts fishermen and receives financial support from the state and federal governments to do so. Part of our work for the FPHP is promotional in nature. I was assigned to interview Peter, a longtime FPHP subscriber and born storyteller, (he was a UMass Amherst grad and author of two books), and to write a testimonial to the Plan in his voice. It was one of the nicest and easiest writing jobs I ever had.

Unchained by Politics, Impervious to Pressure, Menino and Meade Will Get Some Big Things Done

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Put me down with the folks who believe Mayor Tom Menino hit one out of the park on Monday when he named Peter Meade director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Others have already enumerated Meade's accomplishments and extolled his strengths over the past two days; I don't have to do a replay.

Suffice it to say that the man has a five-star resume, with decades of experience in both the public and private sectors, and that he is one of the most respected public figures in Boston at this time. (Menino's no slouch in the esteem department either. Remember the 2008 Boston Globe-UNH poll that showed Bostonians were "smitten" with Hizzoner? His approval rating then was well over 70% and has remained steady ever since. There are probably fewer than half a dozen Bostonians who haven't met and talked with this mayor since he took office in the summer of 1993, when the Clinton presidency was in its infancy.)

What's really got me excited about Meade as BRA director is his age, 65. Meade, I mean to say, is at the point in life where he doesn't need this job. Not coincidental to this appointment, in my view, is the fact that Menino is in the same boat. He's 68 and in the second year of his fifth (!) term. It's highly unlikely he'll ever run for office again.

Would It Have Ended Differently for My Friend If He Had Never Been Bitten by the Political Bug?

Monday, April 4, 2011

It has been more than 35 years since the Sunday morning when I met Jim DiPaola at the police station in Malden, Mass. Our mutual lack of experience put us in the same place at the same time. He was a young patrolman, new to the force; I was a young reporter, covering the police and the courts for the Malden Evening News. Guys with more seniority could duck Sunday assignments, both in police and newspaper work. We couldn't duck it, nor did we want to.

Police officer and reporter were good jobs in those days. Both paid union wages. I don't want to suggest that the other officers on duty at that time were unfriendly, but Jim stuck out because of his friendliness and approachability. He had a great smile, a good sense of humor, was polite, listened well, and could talk with anyone. "When are you going to be the editor of that paper?" he'd ask. "When are you going to be the chief of police?" I'd answer.

Talking with him about this or that weekend incident, a big party that had ended in a brawl, for example, you could see that he had judgment, too. His inclination was to calm a situation down, not rough a person up. Jim was a Malden kid who had grown up, married a girl from the neighboring city of Everett, settled in Malden, and won a coveted spot on the local police force. Now he was patroling the streets where he grew up, and where so many people knew him and the members of his large, extended family. He was popular before he was on the force and worked to remain popular when he put on a badge and gun. It was important to him to be respected in the right way. In a few years, he was promoted to sergeant and was not around as much on Sundays. Our paths crossed less often.