Politicians ready to party like it's 1990

Crisis, scandals revive electoral buzz article page player in wide format.
By Matt Viser and Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / July 9, 2009
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Governor Deval Patrick is fond of a well-worn political phrase, often telling those around him, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.’’

This week, other politicians and a notable business leader are acting on his words. The crisis they see is the state’s fiscal collapse, and they are wasting no time trying to turn it to their advantage.

Yesterday, it was Harvard Pilgrim chief executive Charles D. Baker, a Republican, who leapt full-bore into the gubernatorial race. Earlier this week, it was state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill who said he planned to leave the Democrat Party in a dramatic first step toward an independent gubernatorial campaign. Earlier this year, it was convenience store magnate Christy Mihos, who declared his candidacy as a Republican.

More than 16 months before Election Day, the rush illustrates a striking vulnerability for Patrick, who was elected overwhelmingly two years ago but now faces a political season in which he will be branded by his opponents as the governor who approved the first sales tax increase in more than three decades.

“This next election cycle, the one this year and next year, may be unlike any we’ve seen in a generation,’’ Cahill said yesterday. Then, in the spirit of the season, he added, “And that could be good for me.’’

By any and every measure, this has been an extraordinary week in Massachusetts politics. Nobody could remember the last time a statewide officeholder shed his party affiliation, as Cahill did.

His move spurred an onslaught of interest in the job of state treasurer that he currently holds, a field that could grow to a dozen people. And then Baker’s announcement interrupted yet another quiet, damp summer’s morning.

“I’m not ready to print the ballot,’’ said Secretary of State William F. Galvin. “But the campaign has started.’’

The announcements were made during the most contested mayoral race in Boston in more than 16 years, as other politicians across the region quietly weigh their options in the eventual departure of US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who is battling a brain tumor. All of it creates the kind of hyperpolitical atmosphere for which Massachusetts is well known, but for which, in recent years, it has rarely seen.

For several longtime political observers, the current climate is unlike anything they have seen since at least 1990, when incumbents were bounced from office in the wake of tax increases. In Charlie Baker, they see William Weld; in Deval Patrick, Michael Dukakis.

“It feels like 1990,’’ Weld said in an interview yesterday. “It feels like a time when a horse coming out of the pack, either on the outside or the rail, might have a shot.’’

“There’s an anti-incumbent feeling, and it’s pretty strong in Massachusetts,’’ said Holly Robichaud, a Republican political consultant.

Those analysts, though, may not have to go all the way back to 1990 to find someone who emerged from outside the establishment anti-incumbent feeling. Patrick came to office as a relative unknown who built a grassroots movement in 2006 with promises to cut property taxes, put more police officers on the streets, and invest more in early education. Many of his campaign pledges, though, have been overtaken by a downturn in the economy that has instead led to deep budget cuts, more than $1 billion in new taxes, and a new political opening for his challengers. The outsider as the inside target creates an interesting dynamic.

“It’s almost like blood in the water,’’ said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “There’s some musical chairs going on; there’s no question about it. People don’t know when those chairs are going to open up, but they want to make sure they’re part of the dance.’’

The current atmosphere, largely created by the fiscal downturn, is exacerbated by a series of scandals that have shaken public confidence in state government and sent panicky politicians seeking cover through a series of reform measures.

Three liberal Democrats are currently under indictment, two former state senators and a former House speaker, and Republicans are ready to pounce.

“I’m actually thinking that this could be a watershed year for Republicans in Massachusetts,’’ said former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, who was the Republican nominee in 2006. “There’s no [better impetus] for a grassroots revolt than corruption and taxation, and that’s what we are witnessing in Massachusetts right now.’’

Patrick aides and Democrats say it is way too early to judge how next year’s election will go, saying his approval ratings would rise with an economic recovery. And at this stage during the last gubernatorial election, they point out, Patrick was an unknown who registered 3 percent in opinion polls.

“Will he be as vulnerable a year from now as he appears to be now?’’ said Michael Goldman, a Democratic political consultant and Patrick supporter. “If the economy remains horrific and the governor continues to have to make vicious cuts and raise more income, then obviously his numbers are not going to improve,

“Most Democrats believe things will be a lot better next year,’’ Goldman said.

But the animated activity is sure to generate ample work of a certain kind. “It’s going to give a lot of pundits a lot of opportunity to prognosticate,’’ said Jane Swift, former acting governor.

“Maybe there’s hope for politics after all,’’ she added. “Well, actually, I don’t know if I want to stick my neck out that far.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at