State House Roundup: Engagement Party

Every once in a while in government, just when the eyes start to glaze over and loll backwards at yammering about the consumer price index and biannual open enrollment periods for health insurance, a policy door opens and the political enters.

Deval Patrick (AP)
Deval Patrick (AP)

Gov. Deval Patrick emerged Wednesday from unremarkable testimony on his plan to check surges in health insurance costs, featuring twin "soft caps" on the rates insurers charge customers and providers charge insurers, to address a summoned throng of professional message filters and promptly strafed Republican rival Charles Baker by looking to indict Baker as a co-conspirator.

"My frustration has been, in the last three years, is that all of those players in the industry have come in and sat around my table, over and over again, and they've sat around other tables in this building and in conference rooms all over this town, and they talk about why it is they can't help but charge double-digit increases every year to small businesses and families. And those small businesses and families don't have a voice at that table. They have my voice at that table," Patrick said.

Charles Baker
Charles Baker

If that message sounds familiar — vilifying insurers and rhetorically adopting the standard of the small businesses and the families — it's because Patrick is matching the vocabulary of President Obama's concurrent push for a health care bill in Congress.

More: "Charlie Baker is one of those people who came up, and frankly, you know, I'd like to see him express himself and show some support here. I'd like to see the other candidates show up on this subject."

Call the tactic rope-a-dope, bait-and-switch, if-you-don't-like-what's-being-said-change-the-conversation. The conversation, in this case, having centered on the diminishment of the governor's lead over Baker, who enjoyed a nifty twofer in an automated poll that showed both him pulling into a statistical tie with the governor and unenrolled Treasurer Timothy Cahill sliding a few points — just the equation Baker needs.

Wednesday was a marked change in messaging for Patrick, who last month, after he announced the plan, was offered a chance to nip Baker over it and declined. This time, with mild inducement from a reporter and the spur of a worrisome poll, the governor lunged.

Patrick has also run into a rough patch with the Boston Herald, the city's tabloid of record, whose tough recent coverage of Patrick and his aides merited its own bullet point in Wednesday morning's super-secret confab of the highest-ranking figures of the administration's thickly populated and occasionally responsive communications army.

Their marching orders, and those disseminated to the Patrick campaign ranks and Twitter readers, are now shifting. It has become time for them, and Patrick, to engage with the enemy, define the battlefield, and, finally, launch a counterattack. Patrick will, for sure, loop in and out of the combat, sometimes opting to retreat to the general's tent and other times charge forth, but his performance Wednesday — naming names, dropping pretenses — signaled his return to the campaign trail, acknowledgment that this sucker's going to get spicy, and willingness to stand and throw that his admirers have worried has been lacking.

Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, for months the administration's Horatio-at-the-bridge against the onslaught of broadsides and barbs, has a posse.

Policy-wise this week, Speaker Robert DeLeo helped House members into their johnnies and wheeled them into the operating room Tuesday in preparation for what will likely be the uncomfortable procedure of informing local officials that, a year after tax hikes on the order of $1 billion, their assistance from Beacon Hill would likely sink this election year.

At the same time, the governor, speaker and Senate President Therese Murray were all cocking eyebrows at a plan by those selfsame local officials to circumvent them and appeal directly to the voters for authority to strike collective bargaining hurdles from the development of municipal health insurance plans, an idea the state's public employee unions absolutely abhor.

Privately, some capitol denizens said they were thrilled with the mayors' push, which comes as health care costs increasingly gobble municipal budgets. If the mayors go to the ballot and win, the Hill thinking in some corners goes, the state could score the savings without state officials absorbing the political damage inherent in making the AFL-CIO's head explode.

Meantime, the House and Senate circled each other over the depth of the local aid cut, upon which they agreed to agree before failing to agree, pub licly anyway, until Friday afternoon. In a process virtually entirely detached from the membership, consolidating what is perennially one of the Legislature's most contentious floor debates — with repercussions in 351 localities' trash disposal, police departments, classrooms — into the confines of a few offices, the barons of each chamber announced as the week ended, in a two-paragraph release, that they would cut state assistance to cities and towns by no more than $200 million, or 4 percent.

The Senate president wheeled out a fresh olive branch to businesses Friday, dangling corporate tax incentives along with the unemployment insurance rate freeze already in effect and the in utero Senate plan to consolidate the state's economic development bureaucracy. That last bit, it's important to remember, was the product of Murray's sting operation against Patrick's agencies. The idea was for Senate staffers to engage in a little cloak-and-dagger, telephonic inquiry into rumors about how ineffectual certain agencies were. Turns out, the espionage revealed, they were. "The system has been tested," Murray said Friday, downright clinical in her disappointment.

Murray has repeatedly diagnosed the system as broken, lacking cohesion, and in doing so delivered a scarcely veiled rebuke to claims of fulfillment for one of Patrick's campaign promises: "making government run at the speed of business." Uncomfortable for the governor, who must deal with both traditional election year razzing from the opposition and broken-promise chiding from party affiliates.

All of which will add to the already-groaning bill of fare at Sunday's St. Patrick's Day breakfast in South Boston. The incumbent attorney general in an ironic barn jacket? The lieutenant governor bursting into song? Scott Brown stoking 2012 chatter? Does anyone show up in pink leather shorts in tribute to the new senator's preferred attire during his bachelorhood? Could be Wacko.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Baker comes in range, Patrick belts him.

60 YEARS OF POP CULTURE IN 90 SECONDS WITH STEVE BREWER: "A few years ago, I spoke about domestic violence, 1950s, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, on 'The Honeymooners,' remember the funny things that made everybody laugh: 'One more time, Alice, and POW, to the moon.' Remember that show? … We don't accept that anymore … We've all heard how we can have instant parties now in high school and probably college, because you put it on Facebook and four minutes later there's 400 kids at a party, because we have the technology."

Sen. Stephen Brewer took to the small screen and the Internets on Thursday in discussing the anti-bullying bill, meting out at breakneck pace a complex analysis of how technology and social mores have evolved over time. Questioned about the discourse after the Senate passed the bill, Brewer acknowledged: "I wouldn't know a Twitter from a fritter." The Senate approved both the anti-bullying bill and the House-backed school nutrition bill reining in unhealthy food sales, meaning that if you're a mean kid who's been subsisting on Twinkies and butt-kickings, your life's about to change.

This program aired on March 12, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.


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