Governors Fill Register of Probate Vacancies, Artfully

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Gina DeRossi was far into her second six-year term as the elected Register of Probate for Bristol County when word came she was in line to be the next administrator of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.  This is a coveted, highly compensated ($161,180 per year) position in our court system.

Mark Green, Chief Justice of the Appeals Court, made the news official on Oct. 31, 2018, when he announced the DeRossi appointment.

A graduate of Providence College and the New England School of Law in Boston, DeRossi seems to have been contemplating a switch to the appointed side of public service for quite some time: in 2017, she earned a certificate in judicial administration from Michigan State University.

DeRossi moved on, her longtime second-in-command, Assistant Register of Probate Jason Catron, became acting register, and the world went back to ignoring what happens in the Registries of Probate in Bristol and in the 13 other counties of the Commonwealth...until Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, when Republican Governor Charlie Baker announced he was appointing Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye, a Democrat, interim Register of Probate in Bristol County.

The appointment was for the unexpired portion of DeRossi's term, which runs through 2020.  Hoye will have to run for the office next fall to hold onto it.  Most certainly he shall run.

The deadline for filing nomination papers for the fall 2019 elections in Taunton, including the office of mayor, was 5:00 p.m. on the day following Baker's announcement of the Hoye appointment, Tuesday, Aug. 6.

Immediately after Baker's announcement on Monday, Aug. 5, Taunton's Republican state representative, Shaunna O'Connell, announced she was running for mayor.

Democrats cried foul, claiming Baker had obviously given O'Connell a heads-up so that she'd be primed to obtain the signatures needed on her nomination papers for mayor and that other potential candidates would be disadvantaged, time-wise, in obtaining their signatures.

With typical hyperbole, Gus Bickford, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said Baker's scheduling of the Hoye announcement was "the kind of tactic preferred by dictators."

Marc Pacheco, Taunton's Democratic state senator, said, "I clearly believe that there was an attempt to remove the voters from the selection of the person that would hold the seat and the office of the mayor."

Democrats accused Baker directly of elevating Hoye to clear the way for O'Connell to become mayor, but Hoye eventually let it be known that it was Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito who initially approached him and inquired as to his interest in Register of Probate.  This was, I believe, a significant data point.

If the timing did give an advantage to O'Connell, it was small and not decisive.

Only 25 certified signatures are needed to qualify for a mayoral election in Taunton.  Any half-good politician can gather the signatures of 25 registered voters in his hometown in half a day or less.

By 5:00 p.m. on Aug. 6, O'Connell was one of four candidates who submitted nomination papers with sufficient signatures; the others were Estele Borges, a member of the Taunton City Council, Mark Baptiste and Peter Bzudula.

O'Connell and Borges finished number one and two in the Sept. 24 preliminary election. In the Nov. 5 final, O'Connell beat Borges by a better-than-two-to-one margin, 3,224 votes to 1,507.

For discussion purposes, let's say Charlie Baker does not seek a third term in 2022, in which case Karyn Polito would be the odds-on favorite to be her party's gubernatorial nominee that year.  A former state rep from Shrewsbury, Polito is a shrewd politician, keen strategist, and prodigious fundraiser.

Let's say also that Polito easily doubled the value of the political IOUs she's holding here.

A popular, trusted leader in Taunton (Hoye) will be forever grateful to her for getting a better-paying, less-politically-risky job than mayor, while another such leader in the same community (O'Connell) will always appreciate that Polito made it a little easier for her to get her mayoral candidacy quickly off the ground.

No doubt Polito would have supported her fellow Republican in the Taunton mayoral race regardless of the circumstances or the opposition.  However, she would have perceived (and been comforted by) the negligible impact upon her of offending O'Connell's most likely opponent in that race, City Councilor Borges.  Borges, you see, had challenged O'Connell when she last stood for re-election as state rep, in 2018, and had lost to O'Connell by 26 percentage points.  Borges was likely to lose another contest with O'Connell undertaken so soon after the previous one.  Polito did not have to worry much about ticking off a future mayor.  


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