As politicos gathered in a local ironworkers hall five months ago, US Senator John F. Kerry welcomed the new governor, Mitt Romney, to the annual St. Patrick's Day breakfast and offered a prediction: "My money's on Bulger."
The crowd, in William M. Bulger's own South Boston for the annual fete of coffee and comedy, roared. After all, what chance did an outsider Republican have in prying the University of Massachusetts presidency from Bulger, the very icon of entrenched power? It just wasn't the way state politics had worked for as long as anyone in the room had been around.
That world changed last week, the facade fading away, when Bulger caved to the pressure brought on by Romney and announced his resignation. The last man standing from a legendary era of machine-driven Massachusetts politics was forced from his post by a fresh-faced outsider barely seven months into his first term in public office.
It was a shocking turn of events, and a major victory for Romney. Yet the episode is instructive on another level: Romney did not win this battle directly, through the Legislature, or the UMass board of trustees.
Rather, Bulger was brought down by a changing political culture in Massachusetts, where power that once resided reliably in the cities has dispersed to the suburbs. Fully half of the state's voters now register themselves as neither Republican nor Democrat. Ethnic loyalties and dependable platitudes of years past are less influential to the state's new voters than an overall sense of competent management and leadership. In the end, the perception of Bulger as a symbol of the old, and therefore a magnet for public outrage, forced him to step aside. "The people who are coming to this state don't have long sentimental ties to the Democratic machine, to Billy Bulger, to the Legislature, to anybody," said Elaine C. Kamarck, a former adviser to Vice President Al Gore who is now a public policy lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "Democratic lunch-pail politics are over in Massachusetts, because there simply aren't enough voters to relate to that anymore. The machines are gone."
The landscape of Bay State politics looks vastly different than it did at the start of this young century. Besides Bulger, towering local figures who have left the stage recently include Cardinal Bernard F. Law, once a powerful force in the political life of this most Catholic of states, and the late J. Joseph Moakley, the last of the state's congressmen to serve in World War II.
US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, 71, is the last from his generation still active in high levels of Massachusetts political life, but his family's near-regal status elevates him far beyond the nitty-gritty of state politics. And the family has no heir apparent in elected office in Massachusetts, with Joseph P. Kennedy II leaving Congress in 1999 and Max Kennedy opting out of a run for Moakley's seat two years ago.
New success formula The changing of the guard has come as demographic shifts in Massachusetts have remade the formulas for political success. That's opened the door to politicians who, like Romney, come from outside the combat zone of politics, owe few loyalties to old-guard Irish-Catholic power-brokers, and don't spring from historic geographic bases of support.
As suburbs surge in population, the reliably Democratic cities -- long the organized labor-fueled engines of machine politics -- have lost political importance. In last fall's governor's race, Democrat Shannon P. O'Brien carried the urban centers by 14 percentage points, but Romney's 30-point margin in the suburbs helped him cruise to victory. Romney bested O'Brien by 50 percent to 45 percent.
To outsiders, Massachusetts is a decisively Democratic state, with all 12 members of the congressional delegation Democrats and some recent Republican presidential candidates not even trying to campaign for the state's electoral votes. But Massachusetts has had a Republican governor for 12 years now.
The state's voters are still overwhelmingly Democratic, but less so than they used to be. The portion of registered voters identifying themselves as Democrats dropped from 43 percent in 1990 to 36 percent by last year.
Unenrolled voters -- those who choose no party affiliation when they register -- now account for roughly half the Massachusetts electorate, up from 44 percent in 1990. And more than half of those crucial independent voters live in suburbs that hug Interstate 495 and Route 128, the state's burgeoning high-tech corridor.
Romney beat O'Brien handily in both the I-495 and Route 128 regions, where waves of residents with few past ties to Massachusetts and its old-style politics have moved in recent years. The state's population was churning in the second half of the 1990s, with about half a million people leaving the state and another 450,000 moving in, according to a US Census report released last week.
"Massachusetts has still had the sort of old-guard, inner-circle, party hack politics that most states have moved beyond," said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who teaches at the Kennedy School. "Massachusetts has been atypical, and that's something Romney senses the public wants to change. They want reform."
Romney, 56, is hardly a typical Massachusetts resident. He's a Mormon, grew up in the Midwest, and spent time in Utah, where he ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He lives in a tony section of suburban Belmont, and he became fabulously wealthy in the private sector before attempting his first run for office: a challenge to Senator Kennedy in 1994.
The governor's politics are more moderate than many others in the GOP. He supports domestic partnership benefits for same-sex couples and hasn't taken a firm stand against abortion. His centrist views and national profile have sparked talk that Romney will seek national office, like his father before him, in 2008 or beyond.
As a candidate, Romney appealed to those with little nostalgia for bygone eras. As governor, Romney has sought to bypass the Legislature to bring broad, accessible themes to a public that's only marginally engaged: keep taxes low, reform state government, bring jobs to the state, and end the reign of Bulger, the former Senate president who has long symbolized iron-fisted Beacon Hill power.
`They want reform' Until Romney forced Bulger's ouster, no Republican had truly shown that a Republican governor could beat out the Democratic establishment on a matter as sacred as a sinecure for a legendary lawmaker.
"Bulger's demise should be fireworks going off for the Democrats, alerting them that times have changed and they need to change strategy," said Rob Gray, a GOP consultant who worked under then-governors William F. Weld and Paul Cellucci and has done consulting work for Romney.
Even Weld, who railed against Beacon Hill incumbents when he ran for governor in 1990, only won his biggest victories when he decided to play their game; he even engineered Bulger's elevation to the UMass presidency. Rather than concentrate his energies inside the State House -- where he has yet to earn his stripes -- Romney is appealing directly to independent-minded, well-educated suburban voters who boosted him to office.
But it may be too soon to know what the public really thinks. Some argue that the Bulger episode is too nuanced to serve as a pure test case of Romney's clout; it was complicated by a congressional inquiry into Bulger's ties to his fugitive brother, and Bulger left in part because Romney would have eventually controlled the trustee votes to oust him.
In any event, the Legislature remains the path on which most initiatives must move, and the political networks that dominated much of the 20th century are largely intact there. The Legislature by its nature breeds parochial politics, with the state carved into geographic districts. And the House and Senate are both led by men who, while a generation younger than Bulger and Moakley, came of age politically under the old system and have some interest in seeing it remain in place.
Romney's attempts to use his mandate from voters against the Democrats in the House and Senate have so far been glaringly ineffective in most cases. Aside from the issue of taxes, which Democrats have avoided at Romney's insistence, the Legislature has easily defeated his major plans to date -- including his bid to wipe out the UMass presidency. Lawmakers defeated his sweeping plans to restructure the state's executive branch, have ignored his attempts to eliminate the Boston Municipal Court, and have rebuffed his attempts to merge the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority with the Highway Department.
Romney's biggest challenge from here lies in influencing electoral politics at the legislative level, since Republicans have just 23 seats in the 160-member House and six in the 40-person Senate. Though he has begun the work of fund-raising and recruiting candidates, he'll be hard-pressed to shift those numbers significantly in next year's legislative elections.
The governor is the only Republican in statewide office in Massachusetts, but he's not the only politician who seems to be waking up to the changing tastes of the public. A group of reform-minded centrist Democrats is emerging in the House, and a similar group is in the works in the Senate. Plus, any number of would-be gubernatorial candidates are eager to tap into the same voters Romney made his last year -- the independent newcomers who have no more stake in Romney's success than they do in any of the Democrats', said Dan Payne, a veteran Democratic political consultant.
"The cohort here does not necessarily believe it has to be with Mitt Romney," he said. "The importance of that demographic is not lost on Democrats like Tom Reilly or Marty Meehan or Chris Gabrieli," Payne added, referring to the attorney general, the congressman from Lowell, and O'Brien's running mate last year.
But even if they eventually run for governor, Romney by then will have had four years of learning how to read the interests of new voters.
Rick Klein can be reached at email@example.com.