THE STATE HOUSE — There was a poll, a poll, a poll, a poll, another poll and a debate. And then there was the unfolding saga that is the state drug lab debacle.
Two storylines dominated the political landscape in Massachusetts this week, the first being the high stakes Senate contest between U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren fueled by a dim August jobs report and new Census data showing state poverty rose and income slid last year in Massachusetts.
Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach also stepped aside, the highest ranking casualty of a still deepening evidence tampering scandal at the now-shuttered state drug lab in Jamaica Plain, which is being probed on almost too many levels to keep track of. Gov. Deval Patrick said he was saddened to accept Auerbach’s resignation and wished him well on his way to a soft landing at Northeastern University where he will take up a professorship.
Warren entered the week flying high, with four polls showing the Senate race trending in her favor. Warren led by margins between two and six points, before a UMass Lowell/Boston Herald survey gave everyone something to think about with a survey showing the exact opposite: a four-point Brown lead among likely voters.
All of that served to set the stage for Thursday night and the first head-to-head matchup between Brown and Warren televised live on WBZ-TV and CSPAN for all the state and country to see, the media viewing room at the station’s Boston studio brimming with local and national flavor.
Not that it needed it, but Brown heightened anticipation for the event with a little game of “Will I, or won’t I show up.” Starting his day in Washington, Brown showed a flare for the dramatic by telling reporters mid-afternoon he couldn’t be sure the voting schedule, controlled by Democrats, would allow him to make it back to Boston on time.
Of course he did, driving his signature green pickup into the lot with cameras tracking his arrival like he was Doug Mirabelli, without the police escort – he’s only a United State senator after all.
The debate did not disappoint with both candidates proving to be more than ready and willing to engage, hewing closely to the attacks they have unfurled from a distance over months on the campaign trail. Warren attempted to paint Brown as a corporate suck-up unwilling to protect the middle class at the expense of tax breaks for the rich and powerful, while Brown’s message was short and sweet. “She’s obsessed with raising taxes,” he said.
Given the charges flying back and forth, voters would be forgiven if they turned off the television, unable to decide who to believe, but there will be three more matchups to help clear up any confusion.
As far as takeaways, Warren largely proved she was ready for prime-time with an even, confident debate, while Brown did little to tarnish his nice-guy, bipartisan image, even if some Democrats criticized the incumbent for being too aggressive and personal in his attacks.
Only time will tell if these two will be ready come November 7 to bury the hatchet over a pint of suds like Bill Weld and John Kerry. Brown did, after all, say Warren failed to pass the character test, and ended his week hammering her over her representation of Travelers Insurance in an asbestos case, while Warren basked in the glow of a long-awaited Tom Menino endorsement.
On the flip side of the political coin, having nothing to do with campaign season, Gov. Patrick and his public health and safety team spent another week wading through the mud of the state drug lab scandal. Following Auerbach’s resignation announcement, Patrick turned to former Middlesex and Suffolk County homicide prosecutor David Meier, who is now on the other side of the bar at Todd & Weld.
Meier set about immediately assembling a “boiler room” to begin assessing how many cases may have been impacted by compromised drug sample testing of Annie Dookhan. And Patrick told lawmakers they should be prepared for a supplemental budget request in the coming months to fund the efforts of the new central office, which includes Meier’s $12,500 a month salary.
Little new information surfaced about how deep the problems at the lab went, but the ramifications were already clear with two defendants already being released by a Norfolk County judge over concerns that their cases may have been tainted by the lab scandal.
And the layers of investigation just seemed to pile up, starting with criminal probes by the State Police and attorney general, a separate look by Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office into whether any failures at the lab impacted the results of cases beyond those 34,000 cases handled by Dookhan, and a House committee investigation led by Natick Rep. David Linksy.
While all this was going on, unemployment crept up to 6.3 percent after the Massachusetts economy shed 4,800 jobs in August, the end of an eight-month streak of job gains, and a “snapshot” officials said was not yet a reason to panic or change course.
Transportation Secretary Richard Davey and the MassDOT board readied to pick between two top Atlanta transit officials to become the next MBTA general manager next week. And with MassDOT hearings set to begin around the state to hear rider views on their transit needs, Davey confessed that he’s secretly crossing his fingers that T riders aren’t too jazzed about a connection between the Red and Blue lines because they’re petitioning the feds to let the state off the hook on that project.
Even the usual attention paid to the release of the state’s MCAS testing data seemed muted this week given the immediacy of the other developing events.
Overall progress for Massachusetts schools, with all-time highs achieved by high school students scoring advanced or proficient in math and English, were dampened by persistent gaps in reading proficiency at the third-grade level and continued struggles at many schools to meet the needs of students with special circumstances.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Warren-Brown race heats up, economy cools down, drug lab scandal sizzles.