With all the really important stories in the national media (did Kobe or didn’t he; will Arnold or won’t he), the press outside Boston overlooked the TKO that ended a big political fight in Massachusetts. University of Massachusetts President William Bulger, former President of the Massachusetts Senate (a Democrat, natch), resigned last Wednesday night. Republican Governor Mitt Romney had been trying to get rid of “the corrupt midget,” as local columnist and radio host Howie Carr calls him, ever since his inauguration in January. Carr does not observe the niceties. Bulger is, as Carr puts it, “65 inches tall.”
In his resignation statement, Bulger said he had been under a “calculated political assault.” Indeed he had. And Mitt won. Mitt won a big one.
So who is this William “Billy” Bulger? He comes from South Boston, or “Southie,” an Irish immigrant neighborhood where barkeepers collect for the IRA, where neighbors watch out for their own, and where, if you’re an outsider, you’d better watch out. When we moved to Boston, in 1990, we toured the State House, and the guide, an elderly lady, showed us the Senate President’s opulent office. Our giggly guide was obviously infatuated with “Mistah Bulgah” and his educated Irish charm. (Bulger earned a Doctor of Laws degree from Boston College.) He was first elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1961. He moved up to the Senate in 1971, became Senate President in 1978, and served in that office till he was appointed to the posh billet at UMass in 1996. From 1961 to 1996 — that’s a 35-year career in Massachusetts Democratic politics, an arena wherein Bulger was known as a ruthless power broker — he never lost an election. Very little got done without his approval.
He might have made it nationally. He had the gifts. You could easily imagine him following Tip O’Neill to the House, or playing a role in the Senate like Tom Daschle’s. (The timing might have been attractive, too. We never would have had to deal with John Kerry.)
But he also had a brother, James “Whitey” Bulger, the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, the South Boston Mob. Whitey Bulger is under indictment for 21 murders, and has disappeared. The FBI names him as one of its ten most wanted fugitives. Billy has claimed, both in front of a grand jury and in testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform, that he has spoken only once to Whitey in about a decade. During four hours of questioning before the committee, Bulger repeatedly invoked protection from self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment.
Burton, Romney, and Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly, a Democrat, reasonably suspect that Billy Bulger is lying. A younger Bulger brother, John, known as “Jackie,” will be sentenced by a federal judge September 3. Jackie pled guilty to lying to a grand jury when he testified that he had not talked with Whitey, and knew nothing about a safe deposit box where Whitey used to stuff ill-gotten cash.
There is also the dicey matter of a senior FBI agent tipping off Whitey Bulger and accomplice Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi before they were about to be indicted. That agent, John B. Connolly, grew up in Southie, knew the Bulger brothers, and worked on several of William Bulger’s campaigns. Connolly “ran” Whitey and Flemmi as his informants. Connolly is currently serving a 10-year prison term for racketeering, obstruction of justice, and lying to an FBI agent in shielding the two gangsters.
On Thursday, the Boston papers and television stations were full of earnest stories about how Romney made William Bulger a symbol of the corrupt Democratic establishment that he (Romney) was determined to take apart. One is tempted to say, “No foolin’, Sherlock,” only using a less polite word. It required no effort to make Bulger a “symbol” of anything. Bulger is the Massachusetts Democratic establishment personified.
Romney first tried “restructuring” the administration of UMass, which, not coincidentally, would have eliminated William Bulger’s job, his staff, and his cushy salary and budget. That forced the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth to vote up or down on Billy Bulger, something the Democrat-dominated legislature really did not want to do. They voted to keep him, no surprise.
And that was supposed to be that. Mitt Romney did not stop. He promised to appoint three new members to the University’s board of trustees this fall. He can follow up with further appointments at intervals until, in 2006, on the eve of his run for re-election, he controls the whole of it.
Bulger, seeing the moving finger write, decided to move on while he still had a sympathetic board to deal with. In a meeting that, according to TheBostonChannel.com, was unknown to anyone, including the Governor, Bulger cut himself a last sweetheart deal last Wednesday night. “Million Dollar Bill!” blared the headline the next day in the Boston Herald, which loathes Bulger. That’s only a few dollars off. Bulger gets $695,000 in severance, plus $154,000 a month for a six-month sabbatical, and $111,000 in accrued pension benefits. His pension comes to $240,000 a year. For life.
Ian Bayne, Republican consultant, campaign idea man and gadfly (novembercoalition.com), points out that Bulger himself is not the issue.
“What’s going to happen now with this department, that the Governor has publicly identified as wasteful?” Bayne asks. “Yes, you’ve gotten rid of corrupt people, but you’re still paying the same amount of money for the people who replace them. They should gut that entire department.”
That question, Bayne predicts, will be the focus of the budget battle of 2005.
“It’s nice to say it’s Bulger versus Mitt,” Bayne points out, “but the administration’s mandate (from the voters) was financial — not to get rid of people they didn’t like.”
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