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A Political Primer for Newcomers

Michael J. Ring

One of the best qualities about living in metropolitan Boston, and in Massachusetts in general, is the high degree of political interest and intellect displayed by their citizens. Throughout its history, Massachusetts has been a fertile spawning ground for political leaders. Four presidents -- John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy -- were Massachusetts residents at the time of their elections. And numerous other politicians, most recently Cambridge’s own Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., have served as our nation’s legislative leaders.

And government in Massachusetts is a very active organization, conducting many functions important even to new students. As students, we travel on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, get college loans from the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority (MEFA), and are responsible to the Office of the Jury Commissioner for service here, if selected.

Therefore, one of the most important lessons any newcomer to Boston should learn is the systems of government employed by the state and local cities. Knowledge of the structure of government is absolutely essential to understanding the actions of government which affect us all.

Massachusetts, like 48 other states, has a bicameral legislature (officially known as the General Court) consisting of a House (which contains 160 seats) and a Senate (which contains 40 seats). Executive power is vested in the governor and lieutenant governor, along with four other elected constitutional offices: secretary of the commonwealth, attorney general, treasurer and receiver general, and auditor. Additionally, an unusual eight-member body called the Governor’s Council holds power to confirm gubernatorial appointments and issue criminal pardons.

A veritable alphabet soup of quasi-public government agencies provide services to residents of the Commonwealth. The T and MEFA are two of these groups. Others include agencies to manage Boston’s ports, administer the state’s convention centers, and manage the region’s water supply.

Although Republicans have controlled the governor’s office since 1991 (the current officeholder is Paul Cellucci), Democrats are the dominant party in Massachusetts. Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in both houses of the General Court, and each of the Bay State’s 10 federal representatives and two senators is a Democrat.

But that is not to say that the Democratic Party is always united in the state. Indeed, Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran and President of the Senate Thomas Birmingham are famous for their intra-party squabbles, conflicts not unrelated to both men’s gubernatorial ambitions.

Massachusetts has traditionally been subdivided into 14 counties, but the state is in the process of phasing out county government. Since the 351 cities and towns have long provided local services like public safety and education, county government became a haven for patronage rather than for essential services. Middlesex County, to which Cambridge belonged, no longer exists as a political entity. Former county positions such as district attorney and clerk of courts are now actually state employees assigned jurisdiction over the cities and towns of the former Middlesex County. Thus city governments like those of Boston and Cambridge hold power over local services.

Boston city government is the archetypical plan for municipal government. The City Council serves as the city’s legislative power, and an elected mayor with strong powers is the city’s executive. Local politicians in Boston are consumed with development pressures from the South Boston waterfront to a new Fenway Park, and the weak Boston City Council is struggling to regain power from Mayor Thomas Menino, who is more pro-development than the council.

The City of Cambridge uses a very different government plan than its neighbor across the Charles. While Cambridge has a mayor, his powers are largely ceremonial. The city’s executive power lies in City Manager Robert Healy, who is appointed by the City Council. Additionally, councillors are elected by a system of proportional representation, by which voters rank their preferences for the council. If a voter’s first choice is eliminated from balloting, his or her vote may transfer to a lower-ranked choice. Development and housing are constant squabbles in Cambridge as in Boston.

Finally, it is critical to realize the importance of participation in these governments. Students often gripe about treatment from Cambridge and Boston boards, grumble about the lack of housing, and surely will not be happy with the T fare hikes. But unless we vote, write our elected officials, and lobby for change, we will continue to be ignored as a constituency. That is by far the most important lesson: knowledge of government should not be learned and forgotten, but used to effect beneficial reforms and changes.