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How Will We Find Out?

As DiMasi goes down, COM prof wonders about the next one

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Salvatore DiMasi is the third former Massachusetts speaker of the house in a row to be indicted.

Former Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi’s federal indictment June 2 on fraud and conspiracy charges marks the third consecutive time that the commonwealth’s speaker of the house has been indicted; the other two, Thomas M. Finneran and Charles F. Flaherty, were convicted. The temptation to make a joke about the succession of office is almost irresistible: representative, majority leader, speaker, felon, radio talk show host.

The more serious point is the strong evidence of systemic failure in the state’s legislative system. Massachusetts legislative elections are among the least competitive in the nation; incumbents run unopposed year after year. And many newly elected legislators come from a sort of farm system within the statehouse. A survey conducted by Boston University Statehouse Program reporter Jack Nicas (COM’10) found that nearly 20 percent of the state’s representatives and senators began their political careers as aides to state legislators. Indeed, the successor to DiMasi’s legislative seat was his legislative aide.

It is no surprise that this closed system gives rise to questionable behavior. There have been a series of cases where representatives and senators have strayed into the gray areas of the legislature’s relatively loosely defined and regulated ethics regulations. It can be argued that after years in the statehouse, some representatives develop a sense of power and entitlement, and ethics rules can be skirted or rationalized away. DiMasi’s claim that he has always done what’s best for the state is probably heartfelt. He has been a member of the legislature for decades. In the powerful office of house speaker, his decisions about what was best for the state could have clouded the reality that they were also good for his friends.

There is one more point to be made: the importance of the media as the public’s watchdog. It is doubtful that federal prosecutors would have taken up this case if not for the hard, often thankless spadework of both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. The media are the public’s eyes on Beacon Hill, but sadly, the number of reporters on the statehouse beat has been shrinking. The Cape Cod Times and the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence are the latest to pull their reporters out of the press gallery. There are no more television reporters assigned to the statehouse as a regular beat. More media outlets have cut back statehouse staffs. The once-bustling and crowded pressroom is now a quiet, largely empty space.

A number of years ago, in an American Journalism Review article about the decline in statehouse reporting, a North Carolina state representative recounted that when she began her term as a freshman legislator, she was told by a veteran lawmaker that she didn’t have to worry about what voters back home might think, because nobody paid any attention to what was going on in Raleigh.

Without the eyes of the media, that sad statement will become true in Boston as well.

Fred Bayles, a College of Communication associate professor of journalism, is director of the Boston University Statehouse Program.

5 Comments

5 Comments on How Will We Find Out?

  • Anonymous on 06.08.2009 at 9:08 am

    Sad State of Affairs

    It’s a sad state of affairs when there is no check-and-balance system in the Massachusetts state legislature. Residents only have themselves to blame; rarely is there a large turnout for local elections. Rather than throwing our arms up in the air with a defeatist attitude, we need to take a more active interest in State House activities.

  • Anonymous on 06.08.2009 at 9:36 am

    Then step up, BU

    Less academic hand-wringing and more academic involvement would seem to me to be appropriate. For example, why not fill the press gallery with aggressive BU journalism students looking for their first big story?

  • TJF on 06.08.2009 at 11:57 am

    Not surprised, actually!

    Of course I am not surprised by the lack of respect shown by our elected officials towards their constituency. I seem to remeber a referendum question about rolling the state’s income taxable rate down that was not fulfilled as promised. Then Speaker Tom Finneran circumvented the vote and kept in place the current tax rate, of course you can still opt to pay the higher rate of 5.8% rather than the current 5.35%. Of course as a student I am not supposed to say the ‘R’ word around these parts but I would be more willing to vote either Green or Libertarian the next time an election presents such an option. But oh yeah, there will be no competition because of the cronyism and the rampant IGNORANCE of the electorate to put somebody new into office anyway. Thank you representative Polito R-Shrewsbury, for the new vote that our reps will have to vote on. I hope they will vote in term-limits and then enforce them!

  • Fred Thys on 06.08.2009 at 12:43 pm

    Di Masi's successor

    Voters have yet to choose DiMasi’s successor. His legislative aide has won the Democratic primary, but he still faces Republican and independent candidates in the general election. It is telling of the dominance of the Democratic party in Massachusetts politics that we assume that the winner of the Democratic primary is the winner of the election.

  • Anonymous on 06.08.2009 at 2:02 pm

    @ Then step up BU: They do!

    @ Then step up BU:

    They do! That’s Bayles’ job:

    Fred Bayles, a College of Communication associate professor of journalism, is director of the Boston University Statehouse Program.

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