A spot of red in a field of blue

Every now and then, someone notices that Massachusetts — that bluest of blue states — has a governor with an (R) after his name, and has had for about 15 years. That is usually followed by “how the hell did that happen?”

The answer is literally a short one: Michael Dukakis.

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In 1990, Dukakis was the lamest of lame ducks. He’d run for president in 1988, winning the Democratic nomination (based largely on “the Massachusetts Miracle,” his name for a regional economic boom), but going down to crushing defeat to the first President Bush. His last two years as governor were marked by large tax increases to cover all the government expansion he’d overseen, moneys needed when the “Massachusetts Miracle” fizzled.

The race to succeed “The Duke” was a tough one. On the Democratic side, there was John Silber, the ooutspoken head of Boston University. The Republican was a Boston Brahmin with a fondness for beer and the Grateful Dead named William Weld. Silber lost his temper and blew up at a popular Boston news anchor on live TV, and the people decided they didn’t trust his temperament. Weld became Massachusetts’ first Republican governor since 1975.

Weld was very popular as governor. He rescued the Massachusetts economy from heading into the toilet (Dukakis left it in the bowl, and the handle was about to get pulled), restored some measure of sanity to state government, and handily won re-election in 1994, with 71% of the vote.

But then Weld started to get wanderlust. He took on John Kerry for the US Senate in 1996, but lost. It was clear he’d lost interest in governing the Bay State, so in 1997 he accepted a nomination to be Ambassador to Mexico. When Congressional resistance proved greater than expected, he resigned his office to devote more time to the fight — which he eventually lost.

Weld was succeeded by his lieutenant governor, Paul Cellucci. By all accounts, he was ineffectual at best. A career politician, he found his stance as an advocate for fiscal responsibility a tad undermined when it was revealed that he had over $750,000 in debts, a good chunk related to gambling. He still won re-election in 1998, however.

Cellucci, as was his predecessor, was tapped for an ambassadorship. He sailed through his confirmation, however, and set off north to represent us to Canada. The most notable thing that can be said about his tenure is that we did not go to war with Canada on his watch — despite his best efforts.

Cellucci’s successor achieved the impossible. She was even worse than he was. Jane Swift was a career legislator and confirmed hack. She was utterly ineffectual, always trying to curry favor with her enemies and punishing her allies. The most notable thing about her is that she was not only never elected governor, but never even appeared on any ballots for governor. In 2004, she was so inept and unpopular that she announced she would not even run for re-election the same day Mitt Romney announced he would run.

A brief aside: appearances and statements to the contrary, the Democratic machine liked having inept Republicans hold the governorship. They were more amenable to deal-making, and less skilled at getting what they wanted int return. They also served as useful “beards” to disguise the complete and utter Democratic domination of state politics. Jane Swift was the perfect governor for them: never elected on her own, so insecure on that; eager for acceptance, so she made all sorts of concessions and granted all kinds of favors; and never took it personally when she was slammed and blamed for everything.

Romney appears to have reversed the almost anti-Darwinian devolution of Massachusetts Republican governors. He possesses the easy confidence, aura of ultracompetence, and downright likability of William Weld, without any of Weld’s more boisterous habits.

One of the main reasons each of these Republicans kept getting re-elected would have to be, in my judgment, a slight sign of sanity in Massachusetts voters. They keep electing Democrats to every other office, but they seem to think that if they just keep a Republican as governor, things will keep from spinning utterly out of control. That’s why the Massachusetts congressional delegation (10 representatives and 2 senators) 100% Democrat, the state House has 138 of 160 members Democratic (86.25%), and the state Senate 34 of 40 members Democratic (85%). The Democrats in the Legislature can have one out of five of their members skip a vote, and still override a Romney veto on straight party lines.

Romney announced a while ago he won’t be seeking re-election, and is considering a run for the Presidency. He has considerable obstacles to overcome. For one, the nation might be sick of Massachusetts politicians running for president. They rejected Ted Kennedy in 1980, Michael Dukakis in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992, and John Kerry in 2004. (In his defense, they were all Democrats.)

Romney now finds himself in the national limelight, as he has finally siezed control of the Big Dig project after fighting the legislature over it for three years. (It’s too bad it took a construction failure that killed a woman to convince the Learned Solons that they didn’t really want to be associated with the $14.6-billion-dollar fiasco.) So far, he’s made a tremendous impression, as he’s educated himself on the finer points of construction and civil engineering in days, and mastered conveying what he’s learned to the public in regular press conference. Now it just remains to be seen if he can actually save the project and the city of Boston — or, at least, do a good enough job to convince the American people he’s worthy of being president.

(One factor in Romney’s favor is that four of the last five presidents were governors first, and the sole exception, George H. W. Bush, was a sitting vice-president — another executive office.)

The fight to succeed Romney is proving to be entertaining. There’s a three-way race on the Democratic side. There’s Tom Reilly, the terminally inept and charismatically-impaired Attorney General. There’s Deval Patrick, a former Clinton Administration functionary and darling of the Boston Globe. And there’s businessman and millionaire Chris Gabrieli. The Republican nomination is pretty much sewn up for the sitting Lieutenant Governor, Kerry Murphy Healey, who has to overcome her “Muffy” trophy-wife reputation. Complicating matters is an independent run, with Christy Mihos (a former Big Dig official who Governor Swift fired when he asked too many questions and pushed for some accountability) saying that Healey is too much of a lightweight to run the state.

Will Romney run for president? Can he win the nomination? Can he win the presidency? Should he? I don’t know.

The only guarantee I can see is that Massachusetts will continue to be, for all intents and purposes, a one-party state controlled by the Democrats. And it will continue to go right down the crapper until they give the Republicans at least a toehold to stand on and provide even a modicum of balance.

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  1. jeremiah July 23, 2006
  2. 914 July 23, 2006
  3. Gmac July 23, 2006