The grinding gears of government, ratcheted down a notch by the public school winter vacation, left a void this week quickly filled by the cacophony of thousands of chanting voices hoping someone was left on Beacon Hill to hear them.
Hundreds of seniors came to Boston to protest more than $55 million in budget cuts proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick to adult day care services. Teenagers turned out in mass to rally for youth jobs funding. Lawyers visited to demand adequate funding for civil legal aid for low-income residents. And the unions staged a massive demonstration on the steps of the State House to show solidarity for public-sector workers in Wisconsin.
The customary winter break inevitably lured most lawmakers back to their districts, their families, and, in some cases, a retreat to Florida or other warmer climes.
The flight from Beacon Hill, however, was nothing compared to what was transpiring 1,140 miles away in Madison, Wis., where Senate Democrats left their capitol for Illinois to avoid a vote on Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal to strip most union employees of their right to collectively bargain wages and working conditions.
In response to the Wisconsin Republicans' quest to curtail bargaining rights in the name of spending control, Bay State union organizers staged a rally Tuesday that drew over 1,000 protesters to the foot of the State House. Organizers, unsure of what to expect for turnout after pulling the rally together in just three days, were pleasantly surprised.
Cue Rep. Michael Capuano, the self-described "fighter" and potential U.S. Senate candidate, who stumbled headlong into a political firestorm after tripping into the comfortable zone of political rhetoric that so often equates policy debate to mortal combat.
"I'm proud to be here with people who understand that it's more than just sending an e-mail to get you going. Every once and awhile you need to get out on the streets and get a little bloody when necessary," Capuano said, firing up the largely pro-labor crowd that either missed or didn't care that Capuano's sanguine remarks violated the post-Tucson-massacre code of speech.
Capuano said he regretted his word choice the following day, but not before state and national Republicans pounced. By the end the week, the National Republican Congressional Committee was questioning the seven-term Democrat's "temperament, judgment and self-control" to serve.
The congressman's call, however ill-conceived, was not delivered entirely out of context. The union rally, which forced police to shut down Beacon Street for over an hour, had its moments of battleground tension starting with union supporters advancing across the street to swallow up the much smaller Tea Party counter-protest staged hastily in response. There was spitting, finger-pointing, and even a knockdown of former 3rd Congressional District candidate Marty Lamb, but to everyone's relief the skirmishes never ignited the powder keg.
While the Legislature was still busying itself with preparation for the growing to-do list piling up on staffer desks, Patrick was making the rounds trying to sell his health care reform bill to providers with stops at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, South Shore Physician Hospital Organization in Weymouth and Brockton Hospital.
Salesman is a roll the governor said he didn't play enough of during his first term, but he's taking the opportunity over the next three weeks to work on that part of his game as he begins a leg of travel that will take him from Boston and Washington to Denver, Israel and the United Kingdom for political and state business.
And unlike his predecessor Mitt Romney who spent 212 days out of state in 2006 when, Patrick said, he traveled to disparage the state and boost his own political credentials, Patrick said he plans to be a cheerleader.
"It's not a bad thing to raise our profile, to brag about the fact that our budgets have been balanced and on time," Patrick said on WTKK-FM, defending his suddenly busy travel itinerary from potential criticism that his interests are veering away from the immediate jobs at hand.
While Patrick is away, it remains to be seen whether the House and Senate will spring to life to begin debating some of the many proposals the governor has laid at their feet, including efforts to raise the retirement age for public employees, reform sentencing laws and cut health care costs.
Still organizing legislative committees report that hearings on bills are unlikely to begin in earnest before mid-March, and Patrick won't be around to use his bully-pulpit going on two months after declaring that the "time for action is now."
The in-action on Beacon Hill thus far, however, appears to be OK with Patrick when it comes to reviving casino gambling negotiations. Despite the appetite in both House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray to strike some type of accord on gaming that would create jobs, Patrick is in no rush to start that debate for the third time in just over four years.
"It'll happen when it happens," Patrick said, when asked when the big-three might convene to tackle gaming face-to-face for the first time and try to find a compromise.
The week also brought a conclusion to former Sen. James Marzilli's trial on sexual assault and harassment charges, landing another former member of the Great and General Court behind bars for 90 days. Marzilli's sentencing, after the Arlington Democrat pleaded guilty, makes it a trio of one-time colleagues meted out prison time over the past several years, joining former colleagues Dianne Wilkerson and Anthony Galluccio.
Former House Speaker Sal DiMasi's trial starts in April.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Capuano's Capuano moment.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Gov. Deval Patrick offered a reporter a bit of good-natured advice after said scribe inadvertently conflated the governor's administration with that of President Obama when asking a question about the Defense of Marriage Act. Leaning forward to look the reporter in the eyes, Patrick gestured between himself and the reporter. "Focus, my brother," Patrick said, a lesson the press, the governor, the House, the Senate and, yes, even Capuano, would do well to heed.
This program aired on February 25, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.