BOSTON — A memo Republican Charles Baker wrote 12 years ago sounding alarms about state transportation financing has not only shaken up this year’s Massachusetts gubernatorial race but rekindled a debate about the outcome of the 1998 campaign.
In a mass e-mail this week, Democrat Scott Harshbarger — who as attorney general lost the 1998 race to acting Gov. Paul Cellucci — said Baker’s secret warning about skyrocketing Big Dig costs and their effect on other transportation projects bolstered his own campaign criticisms.
And Harshbarger said Baker’s recommendation the administration undertake “draconian” measures — yet only after the election — belie Cellucci’s 1998 statements that the Big Dig was “on time and on budget.” During that campaign, Baker was winding down his tenure as Cellucci’s administration and finance secretary, or budget chief.
Harshbarger, now a Boston attorney, said in an e-mail Monday to a group of reporters and former campaign advisers: “Forgive me for this comment, please, but the `scar’ has not yet fully healed, I guess.” He consented to the e-mail’s publication during a conversation with The Associated Press.
“Can I now officially complain about the coverage of this issue in 1998?” he wrote. “My recollection is that we repeatedly pointed out, and challenged, that the Cellucci claim that the Big Dig was ‘on time and on budget’ was BS, and warned of consequences?”
Harshbarger went on to concede “other factors” may well have cost him victory, “but that’s my story and I’ll stick to it.”
Then, in a jab at Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and former House Speaker Thomas Finneran of Boston, two fellow Democrats who nonetheless were lackluster in backing his candidacy, Harshbarger claimed he lost by fewer than 3 percentage points, “which still may still exist in ballots tucked away in City Hallgiven the ‘support’ I had from the mayor and the speaker!”
Official returns had Cellucci winning by 65,317 votes, just over 3 percentage points.
In an interview, Cellucci denied misleading Harshbarger or the voters.
“Both he and (Republican primary challenger) Joe Malone raised it, but I was relying on what I had been told, and I wasn’t getting any different information from A&F or the state treasurer, who had to sign off on bond issuances,” the former governor told the AP. “It wasn’t until late 1999 or early 2000 that concerns were brought to me, and I acted on those concerns.”
Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, said she couldn’t comment on political issues but added: “That was several years and several administrations ago. The mayor is focused on moving the city forward.”
Finneran, now a talk show host on WRKO-AM, said he wasn’t campaigning for any particular candidate during the 1998 race, though he recalls two major rallies where he spoke for the entire Democratic ticket.
“I’m a state representative from Dorchester and Mattapan,” he said, downplaying his stature at the time. “I have nothing to do with ballots at City Hall.”
Cellucci was challenged in the 1998 GOP primary by Malone, then the state’s treasurer. Malone complained during a Sept. 1, 1998, debate that spending on the Central Artery highway project, also known as the Big Dig, was out of control. Cellucci insisted it was “on budget, on time,” prompting Malone to say, “Unbelievable.”
Yet in an Aug. 26, 1998, memo, Baker said the rate of spending on the Big Dig was “simply amazing,” would force “draconian” cuts for other state transportation projects and should be addressed Nov. 5, 1998 – two days after the general election. The memo was placed in state files rather than delivered to any specific person.
Harshbarger emerged as Cellucci’s rival after winning a three-way Democratic primary for governor. Cellucci also was boosted by Democratic defections, but Harshbarger closed sharply at the end, in part by criticizing Big Dig costs. In a late-October debate, he challenged Cellucci to “tell the truth” about his budget proposals.
Cellucci, a movie buff, shot back with a line made famous by Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men.”
The acting governor said: “You can’t handle the truth.”
Harshbarger closed his e-mail with one more jab at his former rival.
“I hope my 1998 campaign chair now gets the benefit of the `truth’ Cellucci claimed, in his inimitable way, ‘we just couldn’t handle!”‘ he wrote.