Monday, February 25, 2002

It seems that a lot of bloggers are belatedly discovering my fine Commonwealth's current governor, Jane Swift. They know her only as the woman who upheld the sentence of the last prisoner in the notorious Fells' Acres "ritual child abuse" case, twentieth century Massachusetts' answer to the Salem Witch trials. But she's so much more.

Since Bush nominated the elected governor, Paul Cellucci, to the vital and important post of Ambassador to Canada, Swift (his former running mate) has been presiding over the affairs of the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts with the perpetually befuddled air of a third grader in a school play who is achingly eager to please, but doesn't see why her doggy can't join in the fun, and just can't remember her lines.

Even before acquiring the corner office, Swift entertained the public with such Stupid Politician Tricks as the use of a state helicopter for personal business, having aides from her office babysit her kid (it was entirely voluntary, she protested; the kid was so cute no aide could resist!), and a sinecure teaching appointment at Suffolk University Law School (a very short walk from the State House) which involved very little work. Her marriage license application failed to report two of her husband's three previous marriages, apparently to try to keep her budding political career from stumbling over awkward questions about them. Which worked, in a way; nobody cared about the divorces, though the local press had plenty of questions about lies on a public document.

As acting Governor, she has raised eyebrows by commuting three hours each way from her home in the Berkshires, near the state's western border, refusing to move closer to Boston, even though this arrangement obviously must be placing a little stress on a family which includes her well-publicized infant kid. (She says the commute is working time, since someone else is driving the SUV). September 11th threw unwelcome light on the culture of political patronage at Massport, the agency which runs Logan airport, among other things, and Swift's connections to it.. Her other achievements include a ridiculous catfight with two members of the state Turnpike authority over a toll increase, which she wants and they don't; she's trying to fire them, and they won't go. I actually think she's right about this one, but the way it has played out in the courts is just embarrassing.

And yet, Swift is only one of many striking characters in Massachusetts state government. Where she (and her predecessor, Cellucci, a nonentity who will mostly be remembered for proclaiming October to be Italian-American Heritage month) created a power vacuum, the Speaker of the Massachusetts House, the dictatorial Tom Finneran, has rushed in to fill it.

Finneran has, in recent years, been giving his own state of the State address, billed as the "Speaker's address to the citizens of the Commonwealth", to complement the governor's. Finneran's address generally gets more attention from people who actually care what state government is going to do, since Finneran controls the Massachusetts House with an iron hand, and no legislation can pass without meeting his approval. In public, he defers to small-d democratic sensibilities by using "the members" as his royal "we", but members of the House who oppose him in any significant way generally find themselves pondering their new, worthless committee assignments in a dank, windowless basement office.

So, for example, when the voters passed a referendum mandating public funding of campaigns for state office, Finneran's house simply refused to fund it. A state court recently ruled that the legislature had to either fund the bill or repeal it. Finneran's response, so far, has been to pass a "compromise" bill which would have the effect of providing some public funding --- enough for the two candidates for minor state office who had gone through the motions needed to qualify for funds when none were available, but not enough for, say, opponents to his pet house members.

Finneran is also a large-D democrat, but he isn't expected to run in this year's election for governor. Presumably, he has looked over the flyweights who are already in that field (see John Ellis's summation), and decided that there's just no point; whether the corner office goes to the Republican Swift, or to one of the Democrats, he'll still be able to run state government without interference from pretty much anybody.

The Libertarian response to all of this (next up, if I really want to lose readers, Boston's Mayor, "Mumbles" Menino) is to point out that government attracts people of, how shall I say, slight merit, and that that's a reason for getting rid of it. They're wrong.

What's right is that people of slight merit are attracted to money and power. And not just in government. Congressman John LeBoutillier recalls how a classmate named Jeff in the Harvard Business School responded when asked what he would do if he discovered that his company's products were dangerous. The response? "I'd keep making and selling the product. My job as a businessman is to be a profit center and to maximize return to the shareholders. It's the government's job to step in if a product is dangerous." Jeff Skilling went on to put that philosophy in practice as CEO of Enron.

The sleazebags will always be with us. They're an integral part of the human condition. In the public sector, with sunshine laws and public record requirements, at least they're easier to keep an eye on. In Libertopia, with everything in the private sector, they'd be harder to track.

And why deny ourselves the entertainment?


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