Hack Job

One winter afternoon in 1997, Peter Blute, then director of the Massachusetts Port Authority, received a fateful phone call. On the line was the man who had appointed Blute to the plum Massport job just weeks earlier, then governor William Weld.

Seven years before, Weld had ended years of political exile for Massachusetts Republicans by leading a stunning GOP takeover of three statewide offices and a fistful of seats in the legislature. Among the issues fueling that historic Republican resurgence was the arrogance of a Democratic establishment that had, under former governor Michael Dukakis, ballooned the state payroll with patronage hires and raised taxes to pay for them. Weld surfed the wave of citizen anger in 1990 with his promises to cut taxes and sweep out the “walruses.” Polls showed that an overwhelming majority of voters saw the Republicans as better suited than the Democrats to squeeze waste out of state government. Weld's winning campaign slogan: “Time for a Change.” But by the time of his phone call to Blute, the years in power had taken their toll on Weld's reformist zeal. The governor wasn't into brooming walruses anymore; he was busy finding homes for them.

“He said, 'I'd like to see Jane Swift over there,'” recalls Blute, now a radio talk-show host at WRKO. “It was well known that he thought highly of her, and she had given up her [state] Senate seat to run (unsuccessfully) for Congress. She wanted a position somebody else had: head of international marketing. I didn't want to fire a guy who'd been there three years and done a pretty good job, and I told him that. So he said, 'Well, if not that spot, then some other.' And I said, 'If that's what you want, Governor. You're the governor.'”

So Jane Swift became Massport's director of Regional Airport Development at more than $76,000 a year, a newly created post for which she had no apparent qualifications. She stayed eight months before moving on to head the state's Office of Consumer Affairs, leaving that job to run for lieutenant governor on the 1998 GOP ticket with Paul Cellucci, and finally becoming acting governor last April when Cellucci was appointed ambassador to Canada by President George W. Bush.

It was a lucky streak that hit a tragic snag, of course, on September 11, when two commercial jetliners hijacked out of poorly policed Logan Airport slammed into the World Trade Center. Overnight, the little-noticed fact that Massport had become a prime dumping ground for political patronage hires such as Swift became the focus of intense scrutiny. Joseph Lawless, Weld's former state police driver-turned-Massport director of public safety at $130,625 per year, lasted until October 3, when he was shifted to another Massport post by Swift. On October 11, the axe came down on scores of Massport deadwood, including former state representative Gus Serra ($129,000 annual salary) and former Revere mayor Robert Haas ($64,700), two Democrats whose endorsements of Cellucci and Swift had given a boost to the 1998 GOP ticket; former Cellucci elder affairs secretary Franklin Ollivierre ($82,500); and the entire international marketing department, the very office Swift once coveted. Seeing what was coming, Massport director Virginia Buckingham fell on her sword while Swift was out of town. (The pain will no doubt be eased by her $128,125 severance package.)

But no amount of damage control could obscure the fact exposed when that spotlight fell on Massport — that, for all their tough talk, the Republicans turned out to be every bit the pigs their Democratic predecessors were, and not only at Logan Airport. Observes Barbara Anderson, the anti-tax activist and veteran critic of government waste: “No matter what, the walruses thrive.”

The failure of Republicans to evolve beyond the porcine stereotype they once exploited promises to become a major debating point in the 2002 race for governor. “This is a fair issue to raise,” says state Democratic Party Chairman Philip Johnston, noting Swift's own history as a patronage hire. Swift's administration “continues to adhere to the practices of cronyism, of opportunity for their political supporters to make money,” says Secretary of State William Galvin, an unannounced candidate for governor. “Now, more than ever, people want qualified leaders who will put public safety ahead of political appointments,” adds another likely candidate, state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien. “Yesterday's crisis was the Big Dig; today's is Massport; tomorrow it will be something else,” says a third hopeful, former state senator Warren Tolman. “It's the same patronage-laden, business-as-usual approach to governing.”

That's a reformist mantra Massachusetts Democrats have tried to peddle before, most notably Dukakis, a classic good-government evangelist when he was first elected in 1974. In a story that has become part of local political lore, Dukakis's first-term appointee as Massport director, Dave Davis, told a young job seeker named Phil Johnston that “we don't do patronage hires at the Port Authority.” But it's instructive — and a warning sign to Democrats hoping to trash Swift as poster girl for the political spoils system — to note that Dukakis himself concedes he abandoned this stand when he returned to office in 1982 after losing his 1978 reelection bid, even though he can't resist putting a self-servingly noble spin on squirreling political insiders into government jobs. “There's no question that in my second term,” he says, “I was looking for people who had some public-sector experience.”

No, it won't be easy for anyone to claim the high ground on political patronage this time around. But that fact begs a question that illuminates the fundamental reason patronage will quite probably long outlive the political careers of any self-described reformist candidate: Why should anybody be surprised about this?

By the time legendary ward heeler “Boss” Tweed was turning the New York City Treasury into his personal slush fund, the spoils system was well entrenched in American political culture and had withstood many a reform attempt. Thomas Nast, the Harper's Weekly cartoonist who created the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey, eventually brought down Tweed under a merciless hail of ridicule of Tammany Hall patronage and graft. The Progressive movement of the early 20th century prompted legislation designed to curb the worst patronage excesses. In 1967, Congress passed a law barring members from the then-common practice of hiring their own relatives. Today, watchdog groups such as Common Cause and countless muckraking journalists regularly blow the whistle on dubious hiring practices.

But toward what end? In a moment recounted by historian Milton Rakove that speaks to the enduring appeal of patronage, Abner Mikva, a former Chicago congressman, once recalled wandering into the storefront office of the local Democratic ward organization and innocently asking how he could help the party. “Who sent you?” the local hack asked. “Nobody,” said young Mikva. Replied the hack: “We don't want nobody nobody sent.”

Legendary Chicago boss Richard J. Daley put it this way: “Some people have said that patronage is a bad thing. . . . I think patronage is just doing favors for friends. It would be a lousy world if you couldn't do a favor for a friend.” Daley's definition of the system is one even today's most ardent reformers embrace. “Who are you going to hire — your enemies?” wonders Anderson, echoing wisdom she heard from local Republicans at the start of her career in the '70s. “As long as the definition of patronage is hiring people you know and trust, then it can be a very good thing.”

“It's part of democracy,” agrees Blute. “When you win, your team gets in, and you'll be judged on your team in the next election.” The old rule, adds former Republican state treasurer Joe Malone, is that “as long as it doesn't hurt the taxpayer, take care of your friends. That makes some sense.”

And yet, as Chicago political activist Lynn Williams told Rakove in his oral history of the Daley years, “The only trouble with this . . . is the identification of friends becomes kind of confusing. A friend may turn out to be someone who has given you a thousand bucks. That's the way call girls make friends.” Or, if not a whore, a friend may turn out to be a bum, as Malone experienced when some of his employees wound up robbing the Treasury.

Which brings us to the distinctive political culture of Massachusetts, where whores and bums enjoy equal employment opportunity. For much of the last century, the patronage system provided one of the few avenues of social mobility open to waves of immigrants. But now that the descendants of those impoverished, ostracized newcomers of yesterday are the power brokers of today, explanations for the persistence of the spoils system are somewhat less romantic. “In certain neighborhoods, the 'hackerama' is considered the family business,” says the Herald's Howie Carr, who has been documenting the patronage paper trail for nearly three decades. “Culturally, patronage is so deeply rooted in this state,” says Malone. “Government is the employer of last resort, the employer of the politically connected, and that's been around longer than any of us have been here. We reward those keepers of the system. We name buildings after those who have fought to keep the system.”

But surely, with body parts still being plucked from the ruins of the World Trade Center, the specter of Massport as a patronage-stuffed “hackerama” that spends tens of millions of dollars a year but still couldn't protect us from terrorists will be enough to arouse serious public clamor for reform. Won't it? Perhaps, if the economic recession persists, the heat will stay high — for a while. “When you're making a good living and you've got stock options, the hack next door just looks pathetic,” notes Carr. “But if you don't have a job or you're worried about being laid off, and the guy next to you has a state car and doesn't go to work, it's more of a problem.”

The bottom line: People get what they vote for. And as Dukakis learned to his dismay in 1978 when Democratic primary voters dumped him, high-minded anti-patronage stance and all, voters here don't much care to befriend a politician who won't help a pal. So as the Democrats line up to kick Swift for her complicity in the spoils system at Massport, they'd do well to ponder Blute's advice to his fellow Republican. “If I was Swift getting whacked by this, I'd say to my opponents, 'Okay, I want to hear a pledge that you will hire no one who contributes to you. No supporters.' That will stop that.”