January 29, 2015

Regular readers will note that I spend a lot of time talking about Massachusetts political culture. I wonder if I’ve been missing something: the culture of detachment between our elected officials and the citizens they serve.

I think of this as the Massachusetts House prepares to change its own rules that term-limit the speaker to an eight year tenure. The question of the speakership is a dicey one in this state because of the “three convicted speakers” narrative; a story that I have repeatedly written is deeply unfair. When the United States Attorney, at the last minute, named Speaker Robert DeLeo as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Probation Department trial that was also deeply unfair. Still, the story lives on.

In that sense I can sympathize with DeLeo perhaps being motivated to stay on as a sort for vindication. But as the news broke yesterday Commonwealth Magazine’s Michael Jonas tweeted “Re-instituting term limits Finneran had killed was DeLeo's first initiative as speaker. He called it vital to ‘instilling public trust.’”

Rules, shmules. But to paraphrase Bill Clinton, for ‘people who work hard and play by the rules’ it’s a bit hard to watch our political leaders change the rules when it suits them.

It’s pretty common though. Remember when the casinos legislation finally passed? The “Big Three” – DeLeo, Governor Deval Patrick, and Senate President Therese Murray went behind closed doors to hash out the final version. Why have a debate, it only gets the public involved and messes things up. Once upon a time the anti-casino (DiMasi) House would kill casino legislation. But DiMasi went and got himself designated as speaker number three and the bill went before the pro-casino (DeLeo) House. If you still opposed casinos and could get past Attorney General Coakley, well the gambling corporations had unlimited money to take care of that little referendum, didn’t they?

I can’t imagine anything similar could happen with the Olympics, do you? Although the powers that be haven’t leaped to the idea of a referendum and polling is weak. No matter. The head of the Olympic effort suggests that if a referendum shows the people don’t want the Olympics, we’ll just go ahead anyway. The attitude of the Olympic boosters was captured by the Boston Globe’s Scot Lehigh in his hilarious Olympic decision in the kingdom of Boston.

Lehigh’s column is not the only indication that opinion leaders recognize something is not quite right in our fair kingdom. In Commonwealth Magazine online yesterday former state transportation secretary and CW contributor James Aloisi posted It’s good to be king. Aloisi is concerned with the little guy and woman who can’t get their phone calls returned, and finds it especially galling when their voices are heard and then ignored. Aloisi writes:

“I found it particularly unsettling to witness how the clear vote of the residents of East Boston was callously ignored by powerful interests who were determined to keep a casino alive at Suffolk Downs. If there is one thing that ought to be sacred in this country, if there is one aspect of our political and social culture that distinguishes us from a kingdom like Saudi Arabia, it is that we respect the outcomes of freely held elections. The way in which the East Boston vote was ignored, the too-clever-by-half attempt to circumvent that vote with a ‘Revere-only’ bait and switch, remains a stain on our local democracy that will take some time to erase.”

Madison wanted the national House to have “an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people.” That doesn’t mean a slavish adherence to each change of public passion but it does mean a respectful attachment to and engagement with the people. It applies at least as much to state government.

How quaint.

Robert DeLeo, Massachusetts politics

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