Yvonne Abraham

Remarkably insensitive

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / May 27, 2010

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You have to wonder if officials on Beacon Hill can actually hear the words coming out of their own mouths. Because some of the things they’ve said lately go way beyond tone-deaf.

So much cluelessness, so little space.

Why don’t we narrow it down? Let’s pick a single day of unfathomably unenlightened utterances.

Monday. That’s the day state Treasurer Tim Cahill reacted to a Sunday Globe Spotlight report on the state’s probation system and its politically connected, patronage-happy commissioner, John J. O’Brien. According to the story, gubernatorial candidate Cahill has gotten loads of contributions from Probation Department employees, and O’Brien’s wife and one of his daughters work for Cahill.

If you were Cahill, running as the only truly independent guardian of the taxpayers’ money, you’d probably go out of your way to distance yourself from O’Brien. You’d probably want to condemn patronage.

But Cahill is Cahill. So instead of doing that, he said O’Brien was being villainized. On patronage, Cahill barely stifled a yawn.

“Does that not happen in government all the time?’’ he said. “Obviously, it is part of the political process.’’ Too late, he conceded the situation in probation is “unfortunate.’’

Unfortunate? How about detestable? How about some outrage on behalf of the taxpayers who fund this fiefdom?

House Speaker Robert DeLeo was similarly unable to muster any indignation, even though one of his lieutenants, Thomas Petrolati, is mixed up in the mess, stacking the department with an army of his own patronage picks.

You’d think a speaker whose three — three! — predecessors were indicted would want to be forceful in his condemnation of such shenanigans.

“Let’s see what happens with the process,’’ was the bloodless response he managed on Monday. Yesterday, Petrolati was presiding over House proceedings, a clear sign that his place in the speaker’s heart is safe.

As the probation fallout was hitting Beacon Hill, Governor Deval Patrick was at Suffolk University, decrying partisanship in one breath, then describing national Republicans’ obstructionism as “almost to the level of sedition,’’ in the next.

Afterwards, he called the term “a rhetorical flourish.’’ Here’s another description, governor: knuckleheaded. Why would you ever want to sound as crassly over-the-top as the critics you loathe?

But my favorite comment of the day came from Mike Travaglini, head of the state’s pension fund, after he announced his resignation.

He is paid a whopping $322,000 and, when the fund does well, can collect a bonus of up to 40 percent.

So why is one of the highest-paid people in state government resigning, when 9 percent of Massachusetts workers are unemployed and hundreds of thousands more are struggling? The money, of course.

“I have a wife and three children, and I’m going to provide for them,’’ he said with a straight face.

You see, the Legislature is thinking of paring his bonuses. That does it for Travaglini.

“Someone else can hang around for that, but it’s not going to be Mike Travaglini,’’ he said, managing to sound like the love child of Marie Antoinette and George Costanza.

All of this would be fall-down-funny if it didn’t have such serious side effects. When people on Beacon Hill make comments that betray them as tolerant of patronage or out of touch, it makes ordinary people cynical. Everybody’s motives are called into question.

It makes it easier for people to sit out elections and sneer at the many good things government does. And to conclude that politicians can hear themselves just fine, but that they don’t really care what we think.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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