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1920s Election, 1990s Style

Michael J. Ring

The American nation has always struggled with the contrast between the Puritans and the party-goers. The Yankee work ethic and emphasis on societal intervention contrasts with the Jeffersonian ideals of personal liberty and individual freedom. Throughout the political history of our nation, these differences have manifested themselves not only in the conflicting ideologies of candidates, but also in conflicting backgrounds, personalities, and characters.

Perhaps no election underscores such character differences than does the presidential election of 1928. The Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover, was a quiet, shy Iowa Quaker. He was opposed by Al Smith, a loud, boisterous New York Catholic. The two candidates could not have come from more different surroundings or have had more contrasting dispositions.

On the question of Prohibition, one of the most important issues in that campaign, the two candidates' social and personal backgrounds influenced their political ideologies. Hoover, coming from a rural, largely fundamentalist environment, dubbed Prohibition "a great social and economic experiment." Smith, the governor of a state with large immigrant populations and the grandson of Irish immigrants, vigorously opposed Prohibition.

Seventy years later, the gubernatorial election of Massachusetts will offer the political spectator many of the same complexities and contrasts. The citizens of the Commonwealth, however, will also face several important differences between this race and the Hoover-Smith contest.

In this election, the Puritan is the Democrat, Attorney General L. Scott Harshbarger. He is expected to dispose of his three primary challengers. The party-goer is the Republican, Acting Governor A. Paul Cellucci, who will likely turn back a bloody primary challenge from Treasurer Joseph D. Malone.

Scott Harshbarger and Paul Cellucci could not be more different in style and personality. Harshbarger is the son of a minister while Cellucci the son of an auto dealer. Harshbarger went to Harvard while Cellucci studied at Boston College. Harshbarger is a member of the Church of the Brethren while Cellucci worships as a Roman Catholic. Harshbarger is perceived as a political outsider, having aggressively prosecuted both Republicans and Democrats during his tenure as Attorney General. Cellucci is seen as a political insider, having been continuously involved in Beacon Hill politics since his election as State Representative in 1976.

Many of their respective stances follow naturally from their backgrounds. Harshbarger has made tobacco crackdown a personal crusade; he has frequently challenged the industry in court. Cellucci is a follower, rather than a leader, on the issue. The two also strongly differ on gambling. Harshbarger is vehemently opposed to a Native-American-developed bingo hall in the economically depressed city of Fall River and has promised to make full use of the courts to stop gaming expansion in Massachusetts. Cellucci supports the Fall River bingo hall agreement reached by his predecessor, William F. Weld.

On this issue of gaming one can see a clear difference between the trustworthiness of the two candidates, and again our tale twists back to 1928. In that year questions of honesty dogged Al Smith, a son of New York's Tammany Hall machine. Smith himself was not a corrupt ward boss, but he paid dearly for the sins of political corruption and peddling committed by his predecessors, such as William Marcy Tweed and William Croker. In our modern-day examination, however, the ethical questions dogging Cellucci were not created by his predecessors but by himself. And there are plenty of questions to which the citizens of the Commonwealth should demand answers.

It is not surprising that Paul Cellucci would be a strong advocate of expanding gaming, because it seems Paul has a penchant for the ponies out at Suffolk Downs. And for a while he couldn't handle a credit card either: All in all, Cellucci rang up a cool $750K in personal debt, according to a Boston Globe expose from 1996. Remember, this is from a man who brands himself a fiscal conservative and claims to be able to manage a $19 billion per year budget.

There are many other examples of the trustworthiness, or lack thereof, of the Acting Governor. He paints himself to independent, upper-class suburbanites as Weld's co-governor, trying to keep one of Weld's core constituencies from defecting to Harshbarger. Yet on the issue of the environment, an issue of great concern to many of these citizens, Paul Cellucci takes a dive. Instead of towing Weld's good record on the environment, Cellucci crossed his former boss. His veto of the Cape Cod Land Bank bill, and successful pressure to defeat a related referendum, leaves the jewel of the Massachusetts seacoast with severely inadequate protection from further ravaging by development.

In his misguided fervor Cellucci not only ignores his self-touted role as "co-go governor" but also the moral principles which he personally espoused before being launched to higher office. When the death penalty bill was debated last year, Paul Cellucci ran around the State House screaming at supposedly out-of-touch state representatives voting against the bill. Yet, as a state senator, he provided one of the most consistent votes against the death penalty throughout the 1980s. Cellucci, in effect, criticized members of the General Court for deferring to their personal moral judgments on an issue when he himself used the same judgment for over a decade.

Scott Harshbarger offers a breath of fresh, honest air from the maddening insanity surrounding Paul Cellucci. He makes the tough decisions and sticks to them. The Attorney General is unafraid to go to Fall River and express his disdain for the bingo hall. He has relentlessly prosecuted dishonest politicians, both Republican and Democrat, during his tenure as Attorney General.

In fact, Harshbarger is disliked by many Democrats for the fair and honest way in which he executed of the office of Attorney General. Ray Flynn, former mayor of Boston and another Democrat gubernatorial candidate, is said to be furious at Harshbarger for his investigation of the Flynn machine, a probe which ended in the conviction of several members of Flynn's inner circle. But who among the objective citizenry would say Harshbarger was wrong to prosecute fellow Democrats if they were breaking the law? Indeed, the Attorney General is a man of valor and honor who executes his duties with a sense of justice and decency, not patronage or pay-back.

Like the federal election of seventy years hence, this year's Massachusetts gubernatorial election will offer two candidates who sharply contrast in personality and character. Seventy years ago, the American voters turned away from Al Smith because of the faint whiff of corruption and dishonesty which surrounded him and picked the more puritanical Hoover. Considering that surrounding Paul Cellucci is not a trace but an overwhelming stench of hypocrisy, broken promises, and ethical questions, we all must hope the citizens of this Commonwealth show the same disposition as those who employed presidential suffrage seventy years ago. The clear choice in this race for integrity, prudence, and discretion is Attorney General L. Scott Harshbarger.