BOSTON — It doesn’t have to be election season for there to be political scandals, but they certainly heat up contests when the race is on.
Already, Rep. Jeff Perry, R-Sandwich, who is running to represent the 10th congressional district in the U.S. House, has been in the news for events when he was a police sergeant in Wareham 19 years ago. Perry is accused of standing by while a subordinate officer performed illegal strip searches of teenage girls.
WBUR’s political analysts — Democrat Dan Payne and Republican Todd Domke — offer their thoughts on Perry, scandals in Massachusetts and Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker’s attempt to distance himself from the infamous Big Dig project.
Dan Payne (D): Enabling teenage sexual abuse is not a survivable scandal. These days, with pedophile priests and teachers taking advantage of students, a police officer who silently witnessed illegal strip searches is in big trouble — even if he weren’t running for office.
Perry delayed reporting the incidents and made an unauthorized visit to one of the girl’s parents to say nothing had happened. On the way out the door, he said, “By the way, she pulled her pants down for us.”
“By the way?” — this is an amazing attempt to dismiss a very big deal. If the Republicans nominate Perry after this scandal, they deserve to lose.
There is no statute of limitations on condoning child sexual abuse by a police officer. Perry has admitted to several troubling actions — or non-actions. He didn’t report the incidents until another officer from another town heard about it and told his superior. He didn’t do anything to stop the strip searches. And today he still won’t own up to his terrible judgment and gross dereliction of duty.
In the State House, Perry has been leading the charge against illegal immigrants, but he turned a blind eye to illegal actions by a police officer right under his nose. Democrats won’t get into this because there’s a rule in politics that one should never commit homicide on an opponent who’s committing suicide. Perry’s enemy is the truth, not his political opponents.
For Sen. Scott Brown and Mitt Romney to continue to support Perry is incredibly risky; almost as careless as Perry saying at the time that he saw the strip searches as “good police work.”
The exposé in The Boston Globe about candidate Baker being the chief designer of the financing for the $15 billion Big Dig wasn’t a scandal, but it is very damaging. Baker was the top financial officer in the Weld administration for four years but he’s been saying he was “one of 50″ people responsible for Big Dig finances. But the Globe discovered that Baker’s fingerprints were all over every aspect of the deal — on memos, bond offerings and other documents. He now tries to pass the buck — or bucks — he was, as the Globe put it, “the chief architect of a financing plan.”
This exposé has the potential to hurt Baker: It undercuts his claim to being an outsider from Beacon Hill and it undermines his credibility and integrity as a candidate. Like Perry, he refused to own up to his role. Trying to weasel out of responsibility is bad news for Baker and Perry.
In general, we have become a nation of voyeurs. All politics is now personal. We feel the need to know everything about public figures.; the juicier the better.
And there’s been a shift in our cultural mores — it’s OK now for public figures to confess to infidelity, alcohol or drug abuse. The Internet means everything including rumors are on the Web for all to see and read. Campaigns employ opposition research firms to look into the backgrounds of opponents. Cell phones and video cameras capture any indiscretion or gaffe. And the news media doesn’t cover news conferences and position papers; they cover conflict and the salacious and titillating.
When pitcher Roger Clemens was accused of using steroids, it was relevant because he pitched into his 40s and won crucial games. But when Tiger Woods was found to have cheated on his wife multiple times, that had nothing to do with his occupation as a golfer. The bad publicity has hurt his game and the game of golf, but his marital troubles have nothing to do with his brilliance as a golfer.
So my advice for voters who learn of a political scandal is to decide, first, if the unflattering information has been credibly explained. Then if it’s true or likely to be true, does it materially affect the public figure’s ability to perform the job?
Todd Domke (R): The Rep. Perry scandal is disturbing. Every time he answers questions about this, it raises more questions. The facts of the case — as reported in The Cape Cod Times, Cape Cod Today and the Globe — contradict some of his earlier statements. He was either unbelievably incompetent, has an unbelievably poor memory, or is a terrible liar. In any case, he is not believable.
The scandal is a problem for former Gov. Romney and Sen. Brown because they endorsed him. I assume they will withdraw their support. Perry said this is old news, but did Romney know about all this when he decided to endorse him? It will be difficult for Romney to attack Democrats on scandals if he’s supporting someone with Perry’s record. It would become a political scandal for Romney. You can’t defend the indefensible.
Political scandal is not new to Massachusetts: For decades it has been competing with states like Illinois, Louisiana and Rhode Island for having the most political scandals. And the scandals here are not shocking for being new. State Sen. Anthony Galluccio had to resign because of drunk driving but James Michael Curley was known as “the hit-and-run governor.” State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson pled guilty to public corruption charges, but the last three speakers of the House were all forced to resign. Tom Finneran’s scandal was lying under oath about legislative redistricting, but it was here in the early 1800s when Elbridge Gerry redrew the map of a congressional district on the North Shore that resembled a salamander — which became known as gerrymandering. So political scandal is not new in Massachusetts, and what would be shocking is if we stopped having them.
The Big Dig was a scandal for both parties. It was the biggest boondoggle of any public works project in U.S. history. And part of the scandal was that the media did not expose the waste and cutting of corners at the time because it was supposedly great for the local economy. Republicans who publicly said it was not on budget and not on time were lampooned in the media.
Was Baker a part of the Big Dig? Yes, he helped engineer the financing. Has he downplayed his involvement while playing up other accomplishments? Yes, he is a political candidate and that’s what candidates do. It’s good that the Globe will spend the time and effort necessary to investigate and expose political claims like that, but let’s tell the whole truth: The Big Dig involved a lot of fraud and it was only when this state had to pay for it with its own money — instead of so-called free federal money — that everyone wanted to place blame. The scandal involves many politicians and special interests, including those we call watchdogs.
Baker has started running a TV spot to introduce himself to the many voters who don’t know him. It’s not just to boost name recognition, but personality recognition. He comes across as younger, not political, and there are many messages. It’s still early; he’ll build his image over time. But this is to establish credentials and credibility so voters are more receptive to later messages.