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State House Roundup: Exeunt Delahunt, Et Al.

U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, left, with then-House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi in October 2008. (Josh Reynolds/AP)
U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, left, with then-House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi in October 2008. (Josh Reynolds/AP)

Electoral intrigue is, just like money in politics, like water on pavement.

And just when the voyeuristic horde — junkies, operatives, reporters, aspirants — thought that Massachusetts’ elected class was going to let them down, Congressman Bill Delahunt rose to the occasion.

Certainly, the ascension of U.S. Sen. Scott Brown had roiled the issue of incumbency plenty, frightening officeholders into wondering whether they could stave off voter discontent and, alternately, whether they could share in the Brown legacy, which has proved so desirable that it’s engendered a comical parade of efforts to carve out a share.

But what was really needed was a prominent pol in a prominent office — not the state Senate — to jet, and unleash a gusher of consequences.

And the Delahunt decision not to run again, after 40 years in politics, provided precisely that. Calls flew from Provincetown to Quincy, voting patterns were scrutinized down to the precinct level, fundraisers were enlisted, and sabers rattled. For just the third vacant U.S. House seat this decade, the race is also the second one this year for an open federal office — heady, nearly hedonistic times for the commonwealth's oft-staid political chain of being.
Calls flew from Provincetown to Quincy, voting patterns were scrutinized down to the precinct level, fundraisers were enlisted, and sabers rattled. For just the third vacant U.S. House seat this decade, the race is also the second one this year for an open federal office.
Similarly, House Speaker Robert DeLeo assented Thursday to the inauguration of a different sort of donnybrook, one that'll probably be uglier than the congressional race. DeLeo says he wants two casinos and four racetracks featuring slot machines. This is what is known in games of chance as an “ante,” and over the next several months will shift shapes numerously.

Gov. Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray were both a bit chilly toward the speaker’s plan, Patrick warning that DeLeo, who has long sought slots for Wonderland and Suffolk Downs, must traverse a “steep climb” to convince him of their worthiness. All three support expanded gambling.

It's the sternest test to date of DeLeo’s skills, which he plied a year ago between the lethal shoals of gas taxes and toll hikes to the island oasis of a sales tax hike. He’s got a chamber to persuade, and opposition by two other leaders who don’t face the same instability — and, to be fair, general lunacy — among their own troops, whose ranks will look vastly different next year, as incumbents this week continued trucking for the exits.

“We’re kind of on novel ground here, and I think it’s going to be a hard sell,” said one senior House Democrat, speaking anonymously to discuss the speaker’s prospects with the bill. “If (Patrick and Murray) line up against giving slots, and it looks like they already may have, then it’s going to have to be a concession they give to DeLeo, and the concession will only be if they really want casinos. I’m not sure they do.”

During the bill’s lengthy gestation, DeLeo had time to line up a few arguments. Unemployment hit 9.5 percent this week — gambling is his answer. Blue collar jobs have evidently not been aboard the boats floated by major investments in life sciences and elsewhere — the speaker’s manufacturing fund filled with gambling dollars is his answer. Legislative lethargy during recent months on big-ticket items, January’s education bill a notable exception, becoming an issue — and gambling is his answer.

“If DeLeo rolls this out as his major initiative and it falls flat, major injury there,” the House member said. “People are skittish on this. If it looks unpopular on this, they’re going to get real skittish.”

On the pedestrian front, the Legislature continued its onslaught of raging populist causes like authorizing longer leases for yacht clubs on state land (Senate), harmful material transmitted to kids via text and email (Senate), and banning the practice of cutting out vocal cords of dogs, also known as ventriculocordectomy or, more gently, debarking (House). After hours of pleading for empathy with canines over the gruesome devocalization efforts, some lawmakers confessed they wished their colleagues had a bit more firsthand experience with the procedure.

The House also passed, 100 to 56, a bill empowering the financially puckered city of Lawrence to borrow $35 million and work with a state overseer to recover. Passage came only after lengthy debate, and GOP complaints that leadership had quashed discussions of a stricter proposal to place the city under control of a state board. The bill moves now to the Senate, where Democratic leaders look more askance on Law-town.

The Senate voted to target risky driving by permitting police officers to pull over texting drivers, banning handheld devices for teens behind the wheel and subjecting seniors 75 and older to recurring mental and physical screenings. Interesting election-year legislation, and one subject to change when it goes into conference with the House bill, which goes further in outlawing handheld devices for all drivers, but does not crack down on the vehicular activities of the Greatest Generation as aggressively as the Senate.

On Wednesday, Patrick budget chief Jay Gonzalez informed lawmakers the state’s AA bond rating, a good one, had been affirmed by all three relevant bond ratings agencies. On Thursday, the state received word it had passed the initial round of vetting for access to as much as $287 million in additional federal education aid.

The busy week helped avert reproachful eyes from the administration’s fumbling of the additional $5 the Registry of Motor Vehicles started charging Monday for in-person transactions that could have been conducted from afar. Gov. Patrick about-faced on Tuesday, suspending the fees, probably a shrewd move, deciding not to tax folks already engaged in one of the least enjoyable services offered by state government.

STORY OF THE WEEK: DeLeo re-opens the bidding.

BUY ’EM, COLLECT ’EM, TRADE ’EM WITH YOUR FRIENDS: “Unlike my past letters on the horrible economy and dire fiscal situation of the Commonwealth, I am writing to ask for your assistance,” House budget chief Charles Murphy wrote to committee colleagues Monday morning.

Murphy, whose aides have also invited members to “join him for lunch,” continued: “As you know, I have been Chairman for about a year now, and I have spent countless hours in my office taking meetings and trying to craft the best budgets possible. Over the past year, I have noticed the framed portraits of past House Committee on Ways and Means members hanging throughout the Ways and Means offices.”

The framed portraits do, indeed, adorn the budget panel’s walls, handsome depictions of fiscal mandarins past. “To my knowledge, the most recent portrait was done in 1985. I believe it is time for an update. I have arranged with the House photographer for the design and production of a 2009-2010 House Committee on Ways and Means portrait.”

No taxpayer dollars will be expended in the effort, Murphy said. “There is where I need your help,” he went on. “Over the next few weeks, I would kindly ask you to arrange with the House photographers to have your headshot taken at your convenience and no cost to you … Once all of the committee members’ photos are taken, I will deliver prints to each of you.”

Unaddressed in the missive are inevitable interest in whether or not constituents can purchase these handy mementos, whether they could be offered in a set — own the Ways and Means Committee! — and what fair market value might be. For instance, Murphy did not discuss whether a portrait of Rep. John Quinn, Democrat of Dartmouth, in mint condition might be more valuable than one of Rep. Thomas Conroy, Democrat of Wayland, in fair condition. Stay with the Roundup for ongoing coverage of this and other committee activities, such as its efforts to close a budget gap somewhere in the $3 billion neighborhood.

RATE OF RETURN: Rep. Karyn Polito, long eyed as statewide GOP candidate, on Monday made her top-line proposal in a newly announced campaign for treasurer the exclusion of future elected state officials from the public pension system, and said she would pull her own contributions from the centralized fund and deposit them in a private investment account.

Only problem, it seems, is that she probably can’t do that without changing the law. “Right now, active employees or active members of the state retirement system can’t withdraw their money until they sever their employment or leave,” said State Retirement Board Executive Director Nicola Favorito. “Elected officials have a choice of joining, if they’re not already in, but once they’re in their funds are with us.”

Polito said Friday that she was working to determine whether she could withdraw, and said she would file legislation if it turned out she couldn’t. Polito also appeared to gaffe Monday when a reporter asked whether she might not make out better with the private account. Polito, who as treasurer would oversee all state pension funds, replied, "You'd have to ask my husband about that. He's probably better able to answer that."

Unsolicited campaign tip: When a reporter asks a question about the candidate’s personal life that directly pertains to the candidate’s suitability for office, it is nearly always best for the candidate not to defer promptly to a third party. Polito explained Friday that her husband has a 401(k), while she does not, instead banking with an IRA. She said Friday she wanted to establish a “private retirement account” similar to a 401(k). She added that 401(k)'s are “a solid and good tool for individuals to prepare and have a nest egg in their retirement.”

URL WINNER: Eric Steinhilber, the Barnstable Republican who was challenging Sen. Robert O’Leary for the Cape and Islands District, and who now finds himself running for an open seat in a field that will likely populate rapidly now that O’Leary has been stricken with Potomac Fever, is rocking the euphonic Web address electeric2010.com as his campaign Web site.

This program aired on March 5, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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