November 18, 2014

Last week United States District Court Judge William Young imposed fairly light sentences upon the defendants found guilty in the Probation Department trial. As Commonwealth Magazine’s Jack Sullivan reported in Judge goes very easy on O’Brien, Young had harsh words that Massachusetts would “tolerate this political patronage for so long.” Unites States Attorney Carmen Ortiz described a system that is “thoroughly corrupted.” Presumably, patronage is now rooted out of Massachusetts government.

Let’s hope not. Some patronage is necessary to let government function.

I’m not cheering for the defendants’ scheme. When you engineer a process that relies on keeping two sets of books in order to systematically bypass meritorious candidates for political insiders, you’ve pretty much overwhelmed even Massachusetts’ tolerance for patronage.

No, what I mean are the common niceties of intercourse between the branches that oil the engine of government. Take Lou Nickinello, for instance.

Richard Gaines and Michael Segal explain the Nickinello saga in Dukakis and the Reform Impulse. In the final hours of the infamous “feeding frenzy” at the Ed King administration, King finally succeeded in gaining control of the board of the Massachusetts Port Authority. His appointees promptly fired the Dukakis era director and inserted the unqualified State Representative Lou Nickinello, a darling of House Speaker Thomas McGee. However, Dukakis announced that under a 1964 law that permitted the governor to rescind major appointments within fifteen days, he would vacate two of King’s late appointments to the MassPort board and lets the new board decide Nickinello’s fate. Before acting the governor placed courtesy calls to Senate President William Bulger and Speaker McGee – and let McGee know that a job would be found in the administration for Nickinello if he wanted one.

First term Dukakis was so hyper sensitive to the evils of patronage that people who worked on his campaign couldn’t get jobs. But as he explains to my students in his yearly class visits, he learned a lot from that experience. When he returned he was still the governor of unimpeachable integrity, but he was also a governor open to cultivating relationships with legislators.

Republican governors have special challenges and opportunities in dealing with the legislative leadership and Charlie Baker was an eyewitness to a master of the game, Governor Bill Weld. Weld gained office with persistent bashing of Senate President Bulger. In office though, the patrician governor and Irish senate president quickly developed a warm relationship that paid off legislatively. Governor Frank Sargent cultivated Speaker David Bartley and Senate Presidents Maurice Donahue and Kevin Harrington to the exclusion of Republican legislators, as Richard Hogarty notes in Massachusetts Politics and Policy. Sargent remarked: “I pissed off some Republicans, but there was no other way to get anything done.”

Building relationships between the executive and legislative branches is undoubtedly helpful to good governing; patronage is only one part of that effort. It will be up to our elected officials to exercise the judgment lacking in the “culture of corruption” evident in the Probation Department scheme. But as Judge Young stated in his jury instructions, patronage isn’t illegal. Ask Governors Sargent, Dukakis, and Weld; it can even do some good.

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