It’s Hard to Have a Two-Party System When One Party Won’t Play

Republican candidate for Governor Charlie Baker was surely hoping for guilty verdicts in the probation patronage trial, and as soon as those verdicts came down, he was ready to opine. The diagnosis: one-party rule has bred corruption, waste and crime. The prescription: more “balance” in government, in the form of more Republicans in office, starting with him.

So let’s consider his thesis (although, yes, it would seem that the briefest glance at the United States Congress these days would suffice to rebut the notion that the more Republicans you have the less waste you have).

The probation patronage mess was hatched in late 2001 and lasted until 2010, when John O’Brien and his deputies were removed from office. During that period, a Democratic governor presided for four years and Republican governors for six. So one-party rule as Baker defines it — control of the Executive branch as well as both chambers in the Legislative branch — was slightly more the exception than the rule.

And how was the machinery that allowed this scandal put into place back in 2001? Off we go to the Wayback Machine.

Negotiations between the House and the Senate on the annual budget that year, which usually conclude by early July, were dragging on and on. House Speaker Tom Finneran, whose budget proposal included the transfer of probation hiring power from the courts to his pal John O’Brien, and Senate President Tom Birmingham were engaged in what must be called a pissing match, and the probation issue was one of many on which they disagreed. July gave way to August, which gave way to September. Then came September 11 and suddenly the bottom was dropping out of the economy, complicating budget negotiations further. By the time the fighting stopped in late November, embarrassingly half-way through the fiscal year, many of the 139 Democratic House members had become thoroughly fed up with Speaker Finneran’s actions and autocratic style, including but not limited to his probation machinations. He had been causing problems for them for some time, like refusing to fund the Clean Elections law that the voters had approved and arranging for the elimination of the House rule limiting a Speaker’s tenure to eight years (he was in his sixth year at the time). Their public disaffection became the subject of press reports.

But the House Republicans, who had voted in 1996 to make Finneran the Speaker, remained quiet during what they described as a Democratic party squabble. House minority Leader Fran Marini told the Globe, “this isn’t a Republican fight; it is up to them (the Democrats) and we are going to keep our powder dry.” Likewise, the acting Governor, Republican Jane Swift, refused to become involved: “there is a lot of palace intrigue in this building and I am not going to wade into that,” she said. And so, despite the fact that Democratic unhappiness was providing this Republican governor with her best opportunity to have her vetoes sustained, she elected not to veto the change in probation hiring power but instead signed it into law. You can bet that the Baker campaign now wishes otherwise.

Of course, none of this is to say that the two parties share equal responsibility for the probation mess — the machinery that permitted it was the creation of the Democratic Speaker of the House. But it is hard to have a two-party system when one of the parties decides not to play.

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