Holidays fight touches on ethnic politics (the Irish kind)

Debate over a pair of state worker holidays, until now publicly confined to a struggle between good government and historical value arguments, veered this week into the touchy realm of ethnic politics as lawmakers engaged in uncommonly heated exchanges over a Republican-sponsored bill repealing the holidays.

Sen. Michael Knapik, a Westfield Republican, brought his bill eliminating the paid holidays to the Judiciary Committee for an afternoon hearing, where a pair of veteran Democrats with heavy district stakes lay in wait. Knapik called the bill, wiping Evacuation Day and Bunker Hill Day off the books of Suffolk County holidays, “legislation whose time has come.”

That remark brought a challenge from South Boston Sen. Jack Hart, who repeatedly questioned Knapik on what he meant. Hart found an ally in committee House chair Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, who mocked Knapik repeatedly before turning serious in closing out Knapik’s testimony.

“We hope that you don’t mimic anyone’s accent or brogue on the floor of the Senate,” O’Flaherty told Knapik, with a tone and demeanor that hushed a capitol hearing room.

O’Flaherty, the Chelsea Democrat whose district includes Charlestown and Bunker Hill, was referring to Knapik’s session remarks last May, when he briefly adopted an Irish brogue during a floor fight over revoking the holidays. O’Flaherty is the son and brother of Irish immigrants and he attended grammar school in Ireland, an aide said.
At issue are March 17 and June 17, two days Suffolk County state and local government workers are granted vacation. Other state workers are compensated with a pair of floating vacation days.
Evacuation Day commemorates the British evacuation of Boston at the end of the Revolutionary War. Bunker Hill Day marks the Battle of Bunker Hill, a pivotal early battle in the war. Derided as “hack holidays” by critics who call them unwarranted public sector perks, the holidays are defended as apt recognitions of history by proponents.
Tuesday’s back-and-forth was an unusually tense one for legislators, who usually hew to an occasionally stilted manner of addressing or discussing one another during formal meetings. Hart repeatedly told Knapik that he had “engaged in histrionics.”
“That’s all you’ve done on this issue,” said Hart, whose district features a St. Patrick’s Day parade and who hosts the annual holiday breakfast, one of the state’s marquee political events.
Knapik, in turn, told the panel, “I think the line of questioning from committee members today has not given the issue the respect it deserves.”

Privately, Irish-American lawmakers have complained that arguments against the holidays, particularly Evacuation Day, which coincides with St. Patrick’s Day, have been tinged with an anti-Irish bent, a charge critics of the holidays have called unfair.

“I guess that’s his first opportunity to say something about it. I think I probably would not use the brogue again,” Knapik said after the hearing of O’Flaherty’s remarks. “I am Irish and I will … disclose that fact as well. As a fellow Irishman, I think we’re trying to do what’s right for the taxpayer, and I think that goes beyond any ethnic affiliation whatsoever,” Knapik said.

The state decreed Evacuation Day a day off in 1938, a move Knapik said smacked of cronyism. “The history of why they were even created harkens back to favoritism, probably politic
al favoritism of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s,” Knapik said.
O’Flaherty drilled Knapik for claiming the repeal would save money but not offering a dollar figure, and said that on the rare occasions he testifies before legislative committees himself, “I generally try to educate the members to the best of my ability.”

Knapik largely stuck to his argument that the holidays constituted “exclusive deals for a group of public employees” the public found “irrefutably indefensible on the part of legislators.” With statewide unemployment above nine percent, he said, it was inappropriate to carve out public employee vacation days for the historical observations.

That led Hart to quiz Knapik on why Patriots’ Day, marking the seminal Revolutionary War Battle of Lexington and Concord, should be exempt from repeal. “Why aren’t you going for the third? You could probably save a whole lot of money with that,” Hart said, in apparent mockery of Knapik’s earlier stumble over the fiscal note attached to the holidays.

A perennial proposal by GOP lawmakers, the debate flared last year amid a string of unflattering news stories about public employees. After the Senate voted 17-22 against abolition, in an atypically narrow vote, the House, with Speaker Robert DeLeo holding off a final tally to permit Democrats to rustle votes, deadlocked, 78-78, preserving the holidays.

Hart said he expected the repeal would fare “better than it did last year.” He said “the chances of success I suspect are good because of the economy and the frame of mind people are in.”

Noting the bill had been filed in January 2009, Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei said, “It’s a bit suspicious and surprising it would take a year and a half to have a hearing on the bill. Clearly, what they were doing was trying to prevent the issue from coming up in a way for it to affect the holidays at least this year.”

Tisei (R-Wakefield) said Senate Republicans would look to push the bill as a rider to the first legislation that provided an opportunity. “I think they were just trying to time it out so that they wouldn’t have to consider the bills ever,” Tisei said.

Knapik told the News Service he expected a critical mass to build in opposition to the holidays. “I think there’s a subject at hand that, deep down, most people realize we need to do,” he said. “I think it’s getting greater currency as people scrutinize it more.”