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Published on Thursday, May 31, 2001 in the Washington Post
Giving Berth to Reform
by Mary McGrory
For a state that is often viewed as incurably Democratic, Massachusetts is having a most undemocratic moment.

The Commonwealth, where independents outnumber Democrats by half a million voters, has a weakness for Democratic presidents: It stood alone for McGovern in 1972 and in 2000 was second only to Rhode Island in its preference for Gore. Still, it is in the hands of a Republican acting governor, Jane Swift, who recently gave birth to twins and is running the state from her boudoir in western Massachusetts.

Swift succeeded Paul Cellucci, a humdrum Republican who gratefully fled the state and the fiasco of the "Big Dig," a humongous scheme for an underground highway in Boston, when the White House chose him to be President Bush's envoy to Canada. He was elected over Democrat Scott Harshbarger, the state's attorney general, who had performed admirably but irked the Irish by prosecuting some of their ethically challenged politicians. In the Massachusetts way, they bragged about knifing him. They enjoyed "sending a message" to Harshbarger just as they had shot themselves in the foot in 1978 by voting against Michael Dukakis and ended up with the embarrassing Ed King.

But the greatest mortification of Democratic state chairman Phil Johnston, a health official in the Clinton administration, is the impasse between the legislature and the people over campaign reform.

In 1998, the voters of Massachusetts approved by 70 to 30 percent a Clean Elections law that offered public funding to candidates who could raise contributions of no more than $100 apiece. Candidates had to accept spending limits, about $6 million for gubernatorial contests. But the reformers ran into a roadblock in the person of tyrannical Tom Finneran, the House speaker and a protégé of former Republican governor William Weld. He decreed that the $10 million needed to fund the bill could not be found in a budget of $40 billion.

For the legislature to thwart the will of the people is extremely awkward all around. To have Massachusetts Democrats acting like congressional Republicans, balking at change that would imperil their incumbencies, makes the national party, which has identified with campaign reform, look foolish.

To make matters worse, Gov. Swift, like her predecessor, has announced that she will veto any bill that does not contain funds for Clean Elections. She will not, however, run as a "clean" candidate and can expect millions in corporate contributions.

The president of the state Senate, Tom Birmingham, has vowed the Senate will pass Clean Elections. He is expected to be a candidate for governor, and he will probably not claim public funds either. He has raised several million dollars already.

Birmingham will be one of six potential contenders who have been invited to peddle their wares at the Democratic state convention this weekend. He has a compelling biography: A Rhodes scholar from working class Chelsea, who still lives in his old neighborhood. He has strong ties to unions.

Another convention speaker will be Rep. Martin T. Meehan, one of the key House backers of McCain-Feingold. Fellow politicians give him marks for edge and drive; he still blushes over reneging on a pledge to observe term limits.

Only one thing seems sure: Clean Elections will become a major issue in the gubernatorial campaign. Warren E. Tolman, who ran for lieutenant governor on Harshbarger's ticket -- Harshbarger is now the chief of Common Cause, which is dedicated to reform -- is promising to make Clean Elections his central theme. State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien favors reform, and so does Secretary of State William Galvin. Steve Grossman, erstwhile former Democratic National Committee chairman, is pro-reform but, since he comes from one of the state's most famous money-raising clans, may not take public money.

One way or another, campaign reform is destined to be what its most ferocious foe, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said it would never be: a voting issue. See state Rep. Cory Atkins of Concord, a Democrat and the wife of former U.S. representative Chet Atkins (D-Mass.). She argued and voted against funding for Clean Elections. She was inundated by protests -- by fax, phone and e-mail. She changed her mind.

Acting Gov. Swift is expected to run again. Criticism of her for ditsiness has subsided since the arrival of the twins, and the governor's council committed a terrible faux pas by suggesting the state Supreme Court be consulted about the constitutionality of governing the Commonwealth by speakerphone. Feminists who used to fault her for setting back the cause of working mothers by abusing official privileges now praise her for standing her ground and insisting that she could manage both twins and a state government.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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