Friday, October 31, 2008

Ethnic's Ethics on Beacon Hill

It was the Deval and Sonia show at the State House today. Each came at ethics from one angle. First in his office, Gov. Deval Patrick announced a voter placation task force to scramble for ethics and lobbying reform measures for January's legislative session. An hour later, almost certain Second Suffolk Senate winner Sonia Chang-Díaz got to be gracious about her disgraced write-in opponent, incumbent Dianne Wilkerson.

Individually, these press events were fine. Together, they frame the current and lingering public concerns well. Assuming that the resulting legislation Patrick wants to file and have passed in the first 30 days of the new session have substance and penalties, it could be an ethics boost. Diogenes knows, we could use honesty and ethics around here.

Patrick remains as always attuned to public perception. He said dramatically that "I do think there's some air to be let in this building and some light that needs to be shone..." He also attempted to distance himself and the legislature from what he repeatedly referred to a few who cast a pall on the many good ones.

Then in response to a question about transparency and open meetings, Patrick added, "I do think there's some air that needs to be let in this building, some light that needs to be shone on our work.

Perhaps his best line was in response to another question implying that Wilkerson needed swift and full punishment. He said that "being a leader is not leading a mob." He would not be backed into scapegoating Wilkerson.

More rules with harder penalties

The task force will have until New Year's (a two-month drill?) to produce a package for Patrick. The idea is to examine existing ones, fill in the gaps, and make sure the penalties are nasty enough to prevent evil doing.

The bipartisan group will have Ben Clements as head. He is Patrick's legal counsel and has been a federal prosecutor. He served four years in the Public Corruption and Special Prosecutions Unit among other tenures. Patrick did not announce the rest of the panel, describing them only as "experts and other distinguished participants."

That panel seems to be an effort to distance the administration from the likes of Senators Dianne Wilkerson and Jim Marzelli, as well as allegations that Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi is loose getting and giving favors. Interestingly enough, Patrick was slick in not naming names. However, some press members were quick to bring in all three of those and ask Patrick if he had to bear responsibility for their alleged actions. It wasn't hard for him to brush those aside with a no or two or three.

Surprise in the box

What caught everyone's attention was an ancillary proposal for reforming home rule. Of course, here that oxymoronic phrase means the opposite, that cities and towns have to beg the state for permission to rule themselves per case.

From his statement on this, Patrick's refreshing take on this is:
The current home rule structure dates from the 1960s and guarantees that the Legislature and the Executive spend an inordinate amount of time deciding when and how localities can tax, borrow, regulate private and, and make rules for municipal elections. Forty percent of all legislation passed over the last two years was local laws that affect only one community. Sponsors of home rule bills are often forced to expend a great deal of time and political capital to get non-controversial, purely local matters moving and enacted, rather than working on matters of broader concern.
Governors have been loath to give up such childish power. Yet, Patrick noted that we need to be about the business of enabling economic development as well as streamlining government. He's willing to let municipalities get on with it, or so he claims. I hope that's straight and it happens. He said accurately and candidly that home-rule petitions presently are bargaining chips that the State House and various city halls play. It's time to stop.

Civility's back in town

Following Sen. Wilkerson's disgrace, the Senate's vote to ask her to resign, and her subsequent stoppage of her sticker campaign, Chang-Díaz must have felt like she was on a carnival ride, whiplash. She hit the well in front of the big steps to the State House all conciliatory and sweet.

She does need to mix up her phrasing a bit. Much of her message was in the same words of the campaign — like the voters shouldn't have to choose between progressive politics and responsible representation. On the other hand, she's four days from victory and is wary of appearing to change anything.

She hit the perfect tones, including:
  • She was shocked and saddened by "the events of the last few days." She didn't accuse Wilkerson of anything nor blame her.
  • She praised Wilkerson for deciding to announce she was stopping her write-in/sticker campaign. "Today, Senator Wilkerson did act with the best interests of our community at heart, setting us on the path to rebuilding confidence, and for that I thank her."
  • She reached out to disappointed and confused Wilkerson people. "I want to take one moment to speak especially to the voters and activists who've supported Senator Wilkerson over the years. I want to ask for your partnership too. We've all worked so hard on both sides of this election because we all feel keenly the needs of our community and are moved to be part of the solution rather than bystanders. I salute your activism and I ask for your help, your expertise, your experience, your agenda in the weeks and months to come."
Surely it must have been tempting to stick a thumb in the eye of the Wilkerson people who have accused Chang-Díaz of not being dark enough skinned, or those delusional types who want to believe that Wilkerson was framed. I hope it lasts because right now Chang-Díaz is a earnest progressive voice with social skills we rarely see around here.

At question time, the broadcast types around her were gentler than the print types upstairs at Patrick's show. One fellow (coincidentally the only black man in the corps) did remind Chang-Díaz that regardless of Wilkerson's statement, people would be writing her in or using stickers. She responded that she took nothing for granted and would be campaigning right up to the election. In fact, she was combining trick or treating and campaign doorbell ringing this evening.

As for Patrick, a couple of self-important reporters asked ethics question that were as subtle as a Fung Wah bus coming at him from across the parking lot. Did he bear responsibility for DiMasi's allegations or Wilkerson's charges and such. Of course, he sidestepped those with negative responses as easily as though he were avoiding that big old bus.

Now it seems to fall to us. First, we can watch the reforms Patrick will introduce, weigh them and see if they make a difference. He concluded his remarks with his standard fare of calling for involvement. This time, he asked citizens to:
  • Run for office locally or at the state level
  • Tell their officials what they want and hold them accountable otherwise
  • Vote
He turned all high minded, claiming he expected and welcomed challengers in 2010. He said officials all have to earn their office each election. Also, as a sideline in response to a question, he said he definitely would not be headed to D.C. if his friend Barack Obama becomes president elect next week.

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