Hack in Action
John Binienda is a shuffling, wizened state legislator of 12-term vintage, prominent enough within his Worcester district to be attended to in life by a striking and significantly younger girlfriend.
Binienda also tends bar at the American Legion Main South Post in Worcester. One evening in March 2007, he was pouring drinks there while Congressman Jim McGovern, another Worcester Democrat, was holding a fundraiser down the street at Mechanics Hall. That event featured the state’s new governor, Deval Patrick, who at the time was being hounded by mini scandals: using a Cadillac as his state vehicle, purchasing expensive office drapes. But Patrick’s larger concern was the state House of Representatives. The governor had been battling the legislature over a tax package that would increase levies on corporations, hotels, meals, and telecommunications equipment. Most important, the change would finance the property tax relief Patrick had promised during his campaign. No matter how many times he stated his case, though, Patrick kept butting heads with Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi and the Revenue Committee, the House side of which Binienda happened to chair.
That night, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray saw an opportunity. He, too, is a Worcester politician, and he pulled Patrick aside after the McGovern event to see if the governor would be up for a diplomatic mission. Murray knew Binienda was tending bar at the Legion. “It’d mean a lot to him, probably shock the hell out of him, if you walked in,” Murray told Patrick.
“Let’s go,” Patrick said.
The governor’s four-car convoy wended down Main Street and stopped outside the post. Ed Augustus, a native of the neighborhood and then a state senator, pressed the buzzer, and Binienda looked at the security camera behind the bar. Once inside, Augustus said he had some friends who wanted to see Binienda. In came a pair of state troopers, state Democratic Party chair John Walsh, Murray — and then Patrick. Binienda dropped the beers he was holding.
Patrick strode to the bar. “Is this where I have to come to get your attention?” he asked. The governor bought a round for the place, then doffed his coat, rolled up his sleeves, and sat down to a game of pitch at a table in the corner. On the way out, Patrick and Murray stopped at the bar to push the administration’s tax package. “They said, ‘Can I see you next week at the State House?’” Binienda remembers. “I says, ‘Of course you can.’”
Though the visit didn’t achieve the intended goal—property tax relief lagged and then died — it had a lasting influence on Binienda, humanizing Patrick at a time when his administration was seen as imperious and insensitive to the needs of legislators. “Everybody talked about it for months after they had left,” Binienda says. He still refers to it as “the big visit.”
The night also showed the prudence and prescience of Murray, arguably Patrick’s most effective weapon. Murray is the administration’s go-between and translator, the man who knows not only the hours a moonlighting politician keeps, but also what effect a call from a prestigious visitor might have on him; the man who has managed to bring the governor from the boardroom quite literally to the barroom.
It’s important that Tim Murray is from Worcester. The scrappy afterthought of a city shapes all who have lived under its gray clouds, no one more so than Murray, who has spent a good chunk of his professional life trying to improve the place. As a member of the city library’s board, he used state money to help renovate the main branch downtown. As mayor, he secured federal grants to redevelop neglected industrial land. As lieutenant governor, he’s played a part in Massport’s takeover of the Worcester Regional Airport, the redevelopment of the 20-acre CitySquare parcel, and the process of expanding commuter rail service to Boston. Murray reels off these accomplishments with maddening regularity, during sit-downs in his office, while riding shotgun in his Crown Vic as he travels the state, and especially in response to attacks on the administration by Tim Cahill and Charlie Baker. “It’s about getting things done,” he says, with a twitchlike frequency.
That ethos pervades his life. On a Saturday morning in mid-June, Murray stands in a lab at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, discussing (or, more precisely, listening to a discussion of) osseointegration, which is the integration of bone with a surgical implantation. He’s here as part of another campaign stop, this one a statewide tour around veterans’ issues, a policy area he relishes. He’s joined by Tammy Duckworth, U.S. assistant secretary for veterans’ affairs, who lost both her legs when the Black Hawk helicopter she was flying was shot down over Iraq in 2004. Duckworth is well versed in the science talk. Murray, by contrast, knows the constituents. He laughs with a staff biologist who used to rent an apartment above his old law firm. Murray recalls how the biologist accidentally set off the fire alarm at 10:30 one night, and had to get Murray, then the city’s mayor, to turn it off.
To Murray, his central Massachusetts headquarters is crucial for getting things done. It affords him easy access to pockets of the state that other politicians see only during election cycles. “I’ve never seen a guy do as much as he does across the state,” says Peter Lucas, a Lowell Sun columnist who has patrolled the Hill in various capacities since roughly the powdered-wig era. “You can’t open a fucking gas station without this guy showing up.”
After leaving WPI, Murray hops in his car and does some math with Flash, the statie behind the wheel: There are 40,000 miles on the Crown Vic he inherited from Kerry Healey and about 60,000 on the new one. He travels about 600 miles a week, and the reelection effort hasn’t even entered its final months yet.
Murray relishes the role of the administration’s traveling salesman — in large part because he needs to. For an array of petitioners and interest groups, he is the familiar face in the executive office, the primary point of contact. If Deval Patrick has a deftness for the grand gesture, connecting with voters during even the most fleeting moments on the campaign trail, Murray is the guy carrying a small notebook, jotting down the constituents’ numbers, keeping the promises.
The Massachusetts Constitution grants minimal powers to the lieutenant governor, and most governors have treated their number twos accordingly. Ed King, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, did not speak to Tom O’Neill. Michael Dukakis kept delaying a 1990 trip to Berlin to prevent Evelyn Murphy from issuing executive orders in his absence. Mitt Romney never sullied his imperial image with any hint that Kerry Healey was more than a junior partner.
Patrick and Murray aren’t like that, which is kind of amazing considering their different backgrounds. While Patrick scaled Harvard, Harvard Law, the Department of Justice, and Texaco, Murray went to Worcester public schools, St. John’s High, Fordham, and Western New England College School of Law before joining a Worcester law firm. His mother was a nurse, his father taught high school, and both his grandfathers were union steelworkers (one a vice president of the state AFL-CIO). Murray traces his electoral enthusiasms to a 1974 congressional race for which his dad organized meetings on behalf of losing candidate John B. Anderson, who would go onto become mayor of Worcester.
In 1997 Murray won a Worcester city council seat, and by 2001 he was mayor. The city’s bylaws prohibit the mayor from having any real authority. Yet Murray managed to empower the position anyway by lining up votes on the city council, which in turn handpicked the city manager, who then took up the agenda Murray chose. Dubbed the “boy mayor” on account of his age (he was 33), dimples, and enthusiasm, Murray used the stint to vault himself into the circle of central Massachusetts power brokers.
By 2005 the state Republican Party had atrophied under Romney’s creeping unpopularity, and Democratic Attorney General Thomas Reilly became the front-runner in the race for governor. That summer Murray talked with Reilly at a picnic, where the AG pledged he would not choose a running mate. Murray opted to run on his own for the lieutenant governor slot.
But despite his promise to Murray, Reilly had been meeting for months with venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli about the number two position. Reilly offered the post to Gabrieli, then second-guessed his decision — only to extend the offer to someone else, State Representative Marie St. Fleur. She accepted, but then dropped out a day later amid revelations about unpaid taxes and student loans.
With St. Fleur gone and Gabrieli ultimately opting to take on Reilly and Patrick for the top job, Murray faced two women on his ideological left, Deborah Goldberg of Brookline and Andrea Silbert of Harwich, for the number two spot. Murray supported toughening high school graduation standards, which both Goldberg and Silbert opposed, but he won the race less on issues than on organization, his alliance with labor propelling him onto the ticket.
When Patrick won the Democratic primary, his followers were leery of Murray’s centrism and apparent blandness. “He might have been viewed as more conservative by people who didn’t know him,” says Phil Johnston, the healthcare lobbyist and former Dukakis aide who was party chair in 2006. “But there was a misreading of who he was.” Murray embraced the role of campaign aggressor, and came to be seen as the regular, the guy who had already sat through the countless meetings with the political class, an ex officio vetting of Patrick that reassured people who questioned the wisdom of voting for a governor with minimal ties to the establishment. Murray was far less interested in Patrick’s agenda on social issues than in things like infrastructure investment incentives and the municipal economic benefits of bonding legislation. No wonder he ran as a number two.
Once elected, Murray settled on the role of administration fixer, “someone you can talk to,” in his own parlance. He meets with top lawmakers Monday mornings, then translates the Hill-speak, a dialect in which Patrick professes limited fluency, for the governor. He chills out the offended or befuddled legislature when the governor pillories its inaction.
When Patrick failed to persuade lawmakers to get behind a criminal justice bill, it was Murray who had beers with Gene O’Flaherty, House chair of the Judiciary Committee. (After some “powwows,” Murray says, Patrick signed the legislation into law in August.) And when police unions threatened to make an ugly show of their anger about curbed benefits at June’s state Democratic convention in Worcester, it was Murray who convened a meeting of Patrick and the cops in his office. The convention was peaceful, Patrick says, because the police “didn’t want to embarrass Tim. They love Tim like I do.”
Murray’s most important role, however, may be as the administration’s fundraiser in chief. After Patrick proved surprisingly lackluster at the job, Murray banked over $1 million in the administration’s second year, nearly 50 percent more than Patrick himself. Murray says he throws three or four fundraisers per week. None are too small. “There are people who say you shouldn’t go to an event unless you [raise] $5,000 or $10,000 or $15,000. To me, if someone gives you $5, they’re just as invested in making sure that you’re successful.”
It’s not all house parties in New Bedford, though. Murray also has a coterie of check-writers in New York. And he’s third in command at the national Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association, a job that unshackles him for nationwide trips, during which he scoops up more reelection financing.
Some of this cash may be left in the bank after November, at which point it could be used to finance higher aspirations. Murray has raised more than $3 million since taking office, stratospheric receipts for a lieutenant governor. On a single day in July, which happened to mark the eve of a bill-signing orgy that ushered in major policy changes, Murray banked more than $38,000.
No one has ever run for lieutenant governor regarding it as a final destination. Murray is neither flagrant nor shy about his electoral ambitions. He is considering running for the U.S. Senate in 2012 but more likely he’ll run for the governor’s seat in 2014 — assuming, of course, that his current boss wins this November.
It’s actually the race after this year’s that will prove the toughest for him. If Murray is to advance, to whichever office, in whichever year, it will not be on charisma or outsize personality but doggedness, running a campaign oiled by the thousands of favors turned and phone calls returned. That’s the kind of campaign politicians used to run, and perhaps the only kind Murray can. He’ll somehow need to convey to voters that an insider can sometimes be more than a cynical bureaucrat, that a professional politician can be (gasp) good for politics — a lesson even Deval Patrick has come to appreciate.