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COLUMN

The Great Mass. GOP Bust-Up

Michael J. Ring

It seems counter-intuitive to state that despite having elected the chief executive officer of the Commonwealth for three consecutive elections, the Massachusetts Republican Party is arguably at its weakest point ever.

Yet that is exactly where the party finds itself.

Take a look at the ballot this fall. For the first time since the Seventeenth Amendment provided for the popular election of senators, the Massachusetts GOP may be without a candidate for a United States Senate seat. Telecommunications executive Jack E. Robinson has only collected a dangerously low 10,139 certified signatures for the election, meaning a successful challenge to just 140 of his signatures would knock him off the ballot. While the Libertarian Party has managed to field a strong candidate to run against Ted Kennedy, the Republicans struggle even to meet minimal election law requirements.

Massachusetts will almost assuredly return an all-Democratic delegation to the United States House of Representatives in 2001. Several incumbents get a free ride, others a weak opponent. Only one representative, the First District’s John Olver, will likely have to break a sweat to win re-election.

Further downballot, Republicans will only have about 11 challengers for the 33 Democratic-held state senate seats and 59 challengers for the 130-odd Democratic-held state representative seats. Many incumbents will face no opposition; others will see only a token challenge.

And looking forward to the 2002 state constitutional officer elections, Republicans should be panicked by their glaring lack of a farm team. The party’s two rising stars, Peter Blute and Jane Swift, have been disgraced by scandal, and no one with their recognition and visibility is waiting in the wings. Clearly, the state Republican Party is in shambles.

Ironically, the party has no one to blame for its woes except its figureheads of the last decade, former governor Bill Weld and current governor Paul Cellucci. While the governors, particularly Cellucci, have talked a good game on rebuilding the Republican Party as a political force in the Commonwealth, neither of them has really cared to deliver. Candidate recruitment has been less than aggressive, and the governors have lavishly rewarded Democratic friends who crossed party lines to support them with cushy state jobs, positions that otherwise could go to feeding the younger ranks of Republicans in the state.

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with seeking out members of the opposite party to serve in one’s cabinet if one wishes to lead a unity government; such an act shows an important level of trust and comfort with the opposition. But if the governors’ goal was to build a Republican farm team, they only handicapped themselves with such appointments.

Cellucci’s adherence to personal loyalty has become his giant character flaw. The governor cannot see the capabilities in those with whom he has a cool relationship, and cannot see the shortcomings in those with whom he is close. Ultimately, these mistakes are costing him and the Republican Party precious political points in a state where it needs every advantage it can get.

Consider:

Ex-Big Dig boss James Kerasiotes, probably the most reviled man in state government, presides over several billion dollars’ worth of cost overruns, yet Cellucci continued to insist the Big Dig was well-managed until hit point-blank with a scathing federal audit. And this from a governor who preaches fiscal conservatism and responsible government spending.

Cellucci moved at light speed to dump Peter Blute, the former Massport chief with connections to Cellucci nemesis Joe Malone, the former state treasurer, after Blute’s now-infamous “booze cruise” cost the taxpayers about $800. Yet he continues to defend his lieutenant governor, Jane Swift, who used aides to baby-sit and took a helicopter home for Thanksgiving, despite her unwillingness to show remorse and her elevation of arrogance to an art form.

Similarly, Cellucci quickly dropped his support for Robinson after stories of the senate candidate’s checkered past were revealed. Yet he tolerates past and present reckless behavior from his own lieutenant governor.

The governor, an old friend of the Bush family, tied his presidential lot to George W. despite the candidate’s outrageous silence on the anti-Catholic views of Bob Jones University. Cellucci then watched John McCain steamroll his man in the Commonwealth, crushing the Texas governor by over 30 points in a state Cellucci said he would deliver to Bush.

And the people are clearly getting tired of it. Cellucci, who enjoyed favorable ratings throughout most of 1999, has watched his popularity drop in the wake of the Big Dig and Swift woes. The lieutenant governor herself has anchored her favorability numbers to the bottom of the Atlantic with a seemingly endless stream of miscues-du-jour.

History is fraught with cases where puppy-dog loyalty transformed into the road to political ruin; it is a lesson the Massachusetts GOP has not learned. If Paul Cellucci wants to continue his political career, it is a lesson he had better learn fast. His purported friends -- Jane Swift, James Kerasiotes -- have sunk his credibility with most voters. Already the vultures are circling around the corner office in 2002 -- over a half-dozen Democrats, any of whom can beat Cellucci in a general election, are considering the governor’s race. No wonder the governor is praying for W. to win this November so he can grab that Washington meal ticket.

And if welcoming intra-party debate and ending the culture of blindly rewarding loyalty is not something Cellucci himself can do, then the party rank-and-file will have to do it for him lest they go down with the ship. The party should rid itself of these unpopular leaders and find a white knight should it wish to remain competitive this fall and in 2002. Otherwise, another organization will quickly fill the vacuum -- the Libertarians, for example, are expecting their best year ever in Massachusetts thanks to the GOP’s ineptitude.

Once one of the strongest state parties in the nation, the Massachusetts Republican Party has rotted to the point of oblivion. Without a fresh infusion of leadership which rewards hard work and service over cronyism and personal ties, the GOP will be replaced by another party such as the Libertarians and cease to be a political force in Massachusetts.