State House Roundup: Now For The Hard Part

A tinge of fall in the air, a wisp of urgency on the campaign trail, the fleeting days of summer ushering forth a new reality for candidates across Massachusetts: The bell has been rung.

September is approaching faster than most people realize, and with it the primary elections that for months have been waged at neighborhood barbecues, summer parades and coffee klatches around the state.

But while Gov. Deval Patrick, who is watching these primary races from the sidelines, spent much of the week at his Berkshire retreat, the candidates who want his job are starting to sense it's go time, now or never. All clichés apply.

If you're wondering where things stand at this moment, you need not look much further than too see who's talking about whom. Treasurer Steven Grossman is attacking Attorney General Martha Coakley, Coakley is attacking Republican Charlie Baker and Baker is going after all of the above. But nobody is looking past their primaries, or so they say.

Treasurer Grossman found himself on a debate stage Tuesday night with gubernatorial frontrunner Coakley at Stonehill College, and he wasn't about to let the pitch go by. He took a vicious cut at Coakley's recent settlement agreement with former state senator and lobbyist Jack Brennan.

Grossman called Coakley's decision "extraordinary bad judgment" to settle with the Brennan Group for $100,000 out of the $370,855 it received from the Franciscan Hospital for Children through an allegedly illegal lobbying contract.

Surely, there will be more heat from Grossman to come.

For context, the Brennan Group entered negotiations with Coakley's office after being accused of having a contingency fee agreement with the Brighton hospital. Lobbying contracts based on commissions are barred under state law, though the Brennan Group denies that its contract was in violation of this code.

Coakley defended the settlement as "fair," suggesting she had serious misgivings about proceeding to court based on issues with the statute of limitations, a lack of legal precedent and the credibility of a key witness.

But with Brennan's status as a past contributor to her campaigns and a connected Beacon Hill lobbyist, the issue became a bit of a problem for the attorney general this week. Secretary of State William Galvin opened his own investigation and even her former assistant attorney general Maura Healey, now running for the top job, questioned whether Coakley "went far enough."

The bubbling controversy did little to alter the dynamics of the race, at least not yet. The latest weekly Boston Globe poll showed Coakley holding steady at 45 percent and continuing to enjoy a 21 point lead over her closest Democratic rival in Grossman, though Grossman did climb three points and the polling ended before the Brennan issue came to a head. The third Democratic candidate - pediatrician Don Berwick - still trails in third at 10 percent.

Grossman is not lacking in confidence with two full weeks of campaigning left and multiple debates on the calendar: "On the morning of Sept. 10 when I'm the Democratic nominee, I think I will be Charlie Baker's worst nightmare," Grossman told the News Service after the debate.

Meanwhile, when she wasn't defending herself Coakley went on the offensive against Baker who early in the week posted a new web ad warning voters that if they choose Coakley or Grossman, it wouldn't matter because their taxes would be going up. Baker's camp said the ad was the "most significant" online buy of the cycle to date.

Team Coakley responded Friday by going at Baker for his opposition to an earned sick time ballot question and his reluctance to embrace the idea of universal pre-kindergarten (which, by the way, is part of the $2 billion Coakley platform that Baker says will require tax hikes.)

When Baker wasn't taking it from the Dems, Tea Party Republican Mark Fisher told Baker during a debate in Lowell that the "Republican thing to do" would be for Baker to sign a pledge promising not to raise tax, but Baker continues to insist there will be no pledge, you'll just have to take him at his word.

When Patrick wasn't catching up on some relaxation in the Berkshires or dining with the POTUS and FLOTUS on Martha's Vineyard, he was tending to the bills still trickling onto his desk. The pace of lawmaking has slowed after the end of formal sessions, but the spigot has not yet run dry.

Patrick signed a bill, known as the PAWS Act, updating animal cruelty laws and another restructuring the development process for the former South Weymouth Naval Air Base known as Southfield. He also returned to the Legislature a bill that would have reduced the state's take on simulcast greyhound racing purses, worried it could blow a $600,000 hole in the state budget without an identified revenue stream to replace it.

The House and Senate also approved $1.85 million in supplementing spending for Bridgewater State Hospital that Patrick signed immediately after it received final votes of approval by a scant number of lawmakers who showed up for informal sessions this week.

The House lost two more members this week, with Salem Rep. John Keenan formally submitting his resignation as he prepares to decamp to Salem State University and Rep. John Binienda passed away early Friday morning after a lengthy battle with diabetes.

Binienda, who was not seeking re-election after a 27-year career on Beacon Hill, was fondly remembered by his past and present colleagues on Friday. Memorial services are scheduled for Tuesday at 10 a.m. at St. Peter’s Parish in Worcester.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Coakley feeling heat over settlement with Beacon Hill lobbyist as she tries to seal the primary deal with two weeks to go.


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