Duke and the Drivers


OVER THE PAST ten months Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis has done what many political experts thought was impossible. He reconciled his administration and himself to the state legislative leadership, mollified the press, and convinced people he would be more than just a one term governor. State Sen. Alan Sisitsky, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a vocal Dukakis critic remarked last week that "conventional wisdom says he can not be defeated" for re-election in 1978.

The main reason behind Dukakis' resurging political popularity, after two years of legislative opposition and voter disenchantment, is his improved relations with the legislative leadership. Senate President Kevin Harrington and House Speaker Thomas W. McGee run their legislative branches with Indira Gandhi's philosophy of democracy. The Republican opposition is virtually nonexistent--over 75 per cent of the Senate is Democratic--and through the control of committee assignments, patronage, and other traditional tools, the leadership controls the legislature on most major bills. Harrington and McGee get along well with each other and usually cooperate on most matters.

According to Hank O'Donnell, the head of Dukakis' legislative relations office, Dukakis inherited $450 million in unpaid bills and a $350 million budget deficit when he took office in 1974. The following two years were equally bleak: the promise of no new taxes was broken with a delayed but major tax increase, a severe slashing of such social welfare appropriations as those providing eyeglasses for the elderly and cost of living increases for welfare recipients; and an austerity budget that restricted many vital and popular programs. The budget cuts were a major reason why such fervent Dukakis supporters as Sisitsky and State Representative Barney Frant '63 became disenchanted, often bitter critics of Dukakis.

Dukakis' personal style--as well as the budget pressures--alienated Harrington, McGee and company. He pledged to eliminate patronage--an accepted legislative power--and tried to conduct a "management oriented" administration. The leadership accused Dukakis of being "rigid" and "arrogant," complaining that he did not consult them on state matters. During the 1975 legislative session, eight out of 16 of Dukakis' vetoes were overridden and he was defeated on several major bills including his campaign promise of abolishing the Governor's Council.

The nearly two years of bitter feuds made Harrington and McGee more amenable to a coldly intellectual, non-backslapping Governor. As State Sen. James Kelly, Chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee noted last week, "The unacceptability of the Governor's style is settled." But more importantly, as John Abbott, Harrington's press aide noted, Dukakis no longer considers himself the "sole repository of all wisdom and knowledge."


While the antagonists were cooling off after this past summer's budget crises, a complete reversal of Dukakis' fortunes took place. He stressed the pro-business attitude of his administration. He either downplayed his support or opposed liberal referendum questions such as the graduated income tax and electric rate reform. After extensive study and protracted debate, the administration opposed a nighttime curfew at Logan Airport as a means of solving the noise pollution problem.

The pro-business attitude has delighted the leadership. Harrington once suggested scrapping all environmental laws to stimulate industry and McGee is friendly to business enterprises, particularly the airlines. Although they admit the state needs to improve its business climate, Frank and other liberals have been further annoyed by what they feel is the governor's sell-out to business interests.

Two significant developments beyond Dukakis's control greatly strengthened his position. First, the state's economy improved significantly. A couple of years ago Massachusetts' unemployment rate was several points above the national average; now the two figures are almost equal. Inflation and federal cutbacks in military installations (a Nixon revenge tactic for Massachusetts' Democratic vote in 1972) have been slowed.

The second development is ongoing and seems almost to be contagious. All shades of opinion on Dukakis concede one point: he has impeccable integrity. He is probably the last politician in the state who could be accused of taking a bribe or tolerating a conflict of interest. Last August, State Sens. Ronald C. MacKenzie, the assistant minority leader, and Joseph J.C. DiCarlo, the Senate whip and Harrington's appointed heir, were indicted for extortion. Ways and Means Chairman Kelly was named an unindicted co-conspirator but cleared by the trial's judge. Other officials were implicated. Whatever the jury's findings, the negative publicity will probably have a lasting effect. Due to the ineffectiveness of U.S. Attorney James N. Gabriel, this is the only significant political scandal to break in Massachusetts in recent years. The case is receiving maximum exposure.

DiCarlo and Kelly have always been on friendly terms with Dukakis, but their role in the scandal has injured the entire legislature, indirectly increasing Dukakis' strength. Harrington is embarassed because his two top underlings are involved. The entire legislature has the stigma of corruption. And Dukakis, with his unquestionable ethics, shines as the daily courtroom testimony causes the legislators' integrity to tarnish. Administration officials and key legislators either declined to comment on the case or weakly denied its significance.

Having been dealt these two wild cards, Dukakis can look to the end of this present legislative session optimistically. Of the five major issues to be resolved, House redistricting, the annual budget and Boston's charter package should not cause any significant tension between the two branches. The two issues that could cause trouble, the Cox Report on judicial reorganization and McGee's amendments of the rules and regulations, will probably be resolved in Dukakis's favor.

The Cox Report is a crucial issue for Dukakis. Massachusetts desperately needs court reform. Passage of its recommendations would mark a major accomplishment for a management-oriented governor seeking re-election. Sisitsky, as Judiciary chairman, is one of the key figures on this bill. He is intensely ambitious and would no doubt like to be governor some day. But even if he were firmly convinced of its faults, Sisitsky would find it difficult to battle a popular governor over a reform issue. The scandal-ridden legislature cannot afford a bitter fight: the House will be obsessed wtih bickering over redistricting, and Dukakis' public image would swell at the expense of Sisitsky's, whether the governor secured passage or not.

McGee is moving to pass a bill that would give the legislature the right to oversee executive functions. An aide to McGee asserted that 22 states have similar rules of this nature. Critics of the move claim it is an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers between the two branches. McGee is recuperating from a skiing accident and the House has been occupied with the Boston charter plan. The reduction of House membership from 240 to 160 members for the 1978 election is creating many unexpected cleavages. McGee will have to struggle to hold the House together under these pressures and will find it too difficult to seriously challenge the administration on this issue. As Kelly said, "That move won't go anywhere."

After a jolting start, Dukakis has gained enough support to await 1978 confidently. He inherited a budget crisis that forced him to be responsible for the actions of his predecessor and preceding legislatures. Many spending liberals have been disillusioned by Dukakis. Although they agreed with him on many structural reforms like upgrading the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and reorganizing the Department of Community Affairs, Sisitsky, Frank and other liberal legislators have criticized Dukakis because of past disappointments as well as ideology.

Dukakis has compensated for the loss of liberal support by building on middle class issues: balanced budgets, reform and reorganization, and stimulating business. By resisting the demands of the state employees' union last summer, he won the favor and votes of those who instinctively think public employees are overpaid and underworked. Dukakis came into office at a time when it was chic to spend but necessary to slash--and he has emerged from this trying period with a rejuvenated career.

After paying other people's expensive political bills, Dukakis is benefiting from moves beyond his reach. Dukakis is a member of a growing class of liberal politicians for whom balanced books and effective organization take precedence over new social programs. Dukakis is succeeding because he is a unique and lucky politician, well-suited to the state.