WEEKLY ROUNDUP: Outpartying the Tea Party

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 28, 2010…….Well, that should pretty well shelve for a while any debate over the utility of newspapers.

The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team said hello Sunday, lighting up the state’s probation department as a workforce whose best opportunities for entrée and advancement lie not in what you know but whom. The exhaustive, 5,000-word piece held varying degrees of trouble for Independent Treasurer Timothy Cahill, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Speaker Pro Tempore Thomas Petrolati, and it induced instant results, the state’s top judges suspending Commissioner John O’Brien. After some red-faced shuffling, changes passed the Senate side Wednesday in the form of an emasculation of the commissioner’s office, with the potential for a complete gutting punted until October.

The probation mess and attendant fallout and rear-covering owned the first half of the week – perp walks Monday for DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray – but not the second half, which belonged to social issues.

Gov. Deval Patrick, who last year famously embarrassed the Clover Club – an all-male, mostly Irish frivolity – by pulling out of a scheduled appearance last minute, last Saturday met with Muslim leaders at a Roxbury mosque, opening his remarks in Arabic, which he picked up while living in Sudan and Nigeria. Cahill waited five days and then ripped him Thursday as soft on terrorism and “pandering,” and resuscitated Patrick’s 2007 line that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 were “a failure of human understanding,” a rhetorical flourish that has not found its way into the guv’s stump speech.

Muslim activists hit back, hard, calling Cahill “bigoted,” “undignified,” and “anti-democratic.” Pretty obvious what the Cahill camp is shooting for, banking that the treasurer’s share of the Muslim vote was pretty limited anyway, with the anti-Muslim vote more likely to break his way.

And the House signed off Wednesday, quietly and with no debate, on rules changes to the state’s criminal offender records system, striking language loosening sentencing restrictions.

That was just for starters. In recent years, the Massachusetts state Senate could have made a pretty fair case for the most liberal law-making body in the land. But something funny happened on the way to the voting booth in November, and it had everything to do with outward alarm over anti-incumbent anger, a late-night meeting with Murray, Senate budget chief Steven Panagiotakos and Assistant Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a teary caucus, and the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Charles Baker. And there was the state Senate – conservator of gay marriage, original litigant for universal health care, progenitor of the three months of paid family leave – outpartying the Tea Party.

After a poll released Wednesday showed 84 percent support for a similar measure, the Senate voted almost 3-to-1 Thursday to impose a blockage against illegal immigrants’ access to state subsidies, including health care, housing and unemployment. Murray, who did not vote on the proposal, quickly called elements of the bill “unfortunate” but said the members wanted it, and members called it a recognition of voter dissatisfaction. These are the facts of a post-Scott (P.S.) political clime. The before-Scott (B.S.) Senate never would have voted this way – meaning that Scott Brown, who is now a U.S. senator, is more powerful in the state Senate now that he is gone from it than he ever was inside.

There’s even an anonymous hotline for people to call to report illegal immigrants.

The measure now moves to conference with the House, where it could evaporate. Or it could survive, pass the House, and set up the governor for a likely veto. On the other side of that veto are Baker and Cahill, who would likely unload on Patrick as a spendthrift insensitive to the disgruntlement of the taxpayer.

Tarr claimed an after-hours meeting with Murray and Panagiotakos resulted in leadership “capitulating.” That led to a closed-door caucus of Senate Dems that attendees described as strange and tense. Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who scorched the amendment on the floor, acknowledged Friday she got “choked up” while trying to build opposition to it in caucus. But the Blue Dogs pinned their ears back, and the thing sailed on the floor.

To get it done, Murray had to unyoke members to vote how they wanted, and gift-wrap a campaign issue for Baker, whose running mate, Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, she allowed to dominate a post-vote presser.

“This could be interpreted as a symbolic, a very important symbolic shift in the orientation of that body,” said one longtime Senate observer who was “for the first time in a long time disgusted” with the Upper Chamber dealings. It was, the observer said, an uncertain trumpet for the traditional progressive thrust of the Senate. “The Sonia Chang-Diazes, the Montignys, the Rosenbergs, the Eldridges … those guys don’t have any clout, and it’s evidenced by last night’s vote.”

Carried to freshly vertiginous heights, the conservatives in the Senate may not care if their rambunctious House cousins excise the language in conference. “The conventional wisdom is that they’ve really shot themselves in the foot in terms of getting anything through the House,” said Christen Varley, the Greater Boston Tea Party president, who noted that the bill went further than she’d hoped.

This roll call will stick. For the senators, and perhaps House members, needing to cull centrist support – 84 percent! – and all hopped up on emulating Scott Brown right down to the strategically placed hand, it’s a good vote. For the lefties, it’s a chance to cry havoc and charge up the base – rallies were planned.

The vote happened late in the afternoon Thursday, in the midst of the Senate’s 16-hour transformation into a policy-formulating apparatus of high, if messy, functionality. To review: Bunker Hill and Evacuation holidays nixed, defense of a state law that frustrates privatization efforts, new requirements for insurers to pay the first dollar of early intervention services aimed at minimizing disabilities, permission for sheriffs to impose new fees on inmates, and, with debate starting at 1:30 a.m., authorization for municipal officials to, sort of, bypass unions in structuring employee health insurance packages.

Organized labor, such as it is, didn’t right away go postal, as it sometimes has done in the past. “It’s kinda like a newborn baby,” said communications director Tim Sullivan Friday afternoon of the plan design amendment. “Too early to say it’s cute, but no one wants to say it’s not.” The unions’ ambivalence was exceeded on the other side by local officials, who derided the amendment as largely toothless. No one’s happy, which often means lawmakers are right pleased with themselves.

To keep up with this rampant activity, the State House press corps was treated to real-time updates from the nearly pathologically timely hands of Murray’s communications director, David Falcone. Legislative flacks, like their innumerable counterparts in the administration, are not widely known for voluntarily keeping the public abreast of governmental doings. But between 9:54 a.m. Thursday and 3:43 a.m. Friday, the seersucker-clad Falcone sent out some 34 blast emails to the Fourth Estate, blowing the doors off any prior record and boldly seizing for himself a spot in the pantheon of great communicators.

Sadly, the skeptics and the naysayers will argue that Falcone was merely rapid-firing to overload the system and mask the subterfuge – few of the emails celebrated the roughly $53 million dollars in new spending added mostly in the wee-smalls – but the Roundup believes in its heart that he was merely trying to partner in the unrelenting effort to bring the truth to the people.

The spasmodic election-year convulsions of the P.S. Era hit their highest pitch yet this week, manifested in tectonic-shifting Senate votes with destabilizing repercussions for the very personality of the institution. The question senators, and maybe House members, will have to answer is whether they voted their poll-driven demons or their better, taxpayer-guarding, angels.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Senate, to the center, and a bit further.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I’ve had people hang up on me because they don’t believe it’s really me.” – Sen. Ben Downing on the occasional reaction when he picks up his office phone. Imagine the startled constituent who finds himself or herself on the other end of the line from Ben Downing, THE Ben Downing, the Benator. Lucky indeed is the tingly-spined Berkshires constituent who has a story about dialing the State House and suddenly hearing the dulcet tones of the Benator.

TEXTING WHILE KAYAKING: Both the kayak safety and the texting-while-driving bills languish in conference committee, legislative measures hanging fire heading into a holiday weekend that is nuts for both. In a sign of the times, the Hill has been so busy getting this darned economy going again they’ve gone soft on texting kayakers.