BOSTON -- When it comes to good government, hope and change can only get you so far. That's the lesson being learned in Massachusetts of all places, as Barack Obama's mini-me, Gov. Deval Patrick, promised voters something new and instead delivered the sequel to Michael Dukakis.
It is not all Patrick's fault, of course. The return of one-party rule to Beacon Hill has unleashed the 90 percent Democratic legislature's worst tendencies, which include corruption and an insatiable hunger for tax revenues. So far, the damage has mostly been limited to a 25 percent increase in the sales tax to 6.25 percent and constitutionally dubious attempts to keep Massachusetts residents from fleeing to tax-free New Hampshire stores.
But that won't be the end of it: with the budget left unbalanced and the liberal legislators left unchecked, they'll come back to the gasoline tax and even the income tax. Welcome back to Taxachusetts, where a 2000 voter-approved reduction in the income tax rate to 5 seems dead and Patrick senses an "appetite" for a new graduated income tax.
During his 2006 gubernatorial campaign, Patrick successfully road-tested many of the same themes Obama later rode all the way to the White House. For example, Obama's "Yes We Can" was but a slight modification of Patrick's "Together We Can." The fact that the government can't may be enough to revive a nearly moribund Massachusetts Republican Party, which boasts no statewide elected officials, no members of the congressional delegation, just 5 out of 40 state senators, 16 out of 160 state representatives, and the worst showing ever against John Kerry last year.
Last week, health care chief executive Charles Baker announced he would seek the Republican nomination for governor. Well known on Beacon Hill for his stewardship of Harvard Pilgrim and service in both the Weld and Cellucci administrations, the Boston Globe described Baker as "a virtual stimulus package for the state GOP."
Baker joins convenience store magnate Christy Mihos, who took 7 percent of the vote running for governor as an independent in 2006. (Republican Kerry Healey, who served as lieutenant governor under Mitt Romney won 35 percent to Patrick's 56 percent.) This time the longtime Republican is seeking the GOP nomination.
A recent Rasmussen poll shows Patrick vulnerable to both men. Mihos takes 41 percent of the vote to the Democratic incumbent's 40 percent. Patrick gets 41 percent against Baker, whose 36 percent could grow with his name recognition. A WBZ TV/Survey USA poll earlier pegged the governor's disapproval rating at 56 percent.
Yet it's not just Republicans who smell blood in the water. Right before Baker told fellow Republicans "I'm in," Massachusetts Treasurer Timothy Cahill changed his party affiliation from Democrat to "unenrolled" in what may be a prelude to an independent run for governor. Cahill has also positioned himself as a fiscal conservative who believes Patrick and the legislature having taken the easy way out by raising taxes rather than cutting spending.
Cahill is no fringe candidate. The former Democrat has won two terms as treasurer, beating a credible Republican candidate in 2002 while the top of his ticket was losing to Romney. He is also a proven fundraiser with $3 million in cash on hand as of June 15, compared to the governor's $484,000. But is Cahill for real?
Predictably, Republicans say no. "The letter next to his name doesn’t make a difference," Massachusetts GOP spokeswoman Tarah Donoghue told the Globe. "It’s the same broken promises and disappointing leadership….Nothing will change." The state party was quick to add a "Tim Cahill -- still a Democrat!" section to its website, detailing what it characterized as sweetheart deals, solicitations of political money from companies doing business with the treasury, and votes for inflated pensions while serving as Norfolk County treasurer.
"In today's Boston Globe, State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill says 'I just feel like I don't fit' in the Democratic Party as he declares himself unenrolled," said the GOP statement. "The Massachusetts Republican Party says: 'Tim, you're still a perfect fit!' Just review Cahill's shady and dubious ethics record as part of the establishment.…The trademark characteristic of a Beacon Hill Democrat."
The commonwealth's most prominent advocate for lower taxes and less government, though an unabashed Charlie Baker fan, didn't dispute Cahill's fiscally conservative bona fides. "He says he's a fiscal conservative and I have no reason to doubt him," Barbara Anderson, director of Massachusetts' Citizens for Limited Taxation, told TAS. "Since he's been treasurer, he's said the right things: he's opposed tax increases and proposed reforms."
Baker, Anderson says, is "fabulous" and "someone so brilliant we thought he would be president of the United States, but he's got to start somewhere." Nevertheless, she says Cahill "has been a pleasant surprise" as treasurer.
"Is Tim Cahill a straw?" asked veteran Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr, using a synonym for spoiler. "Not a deliberate straw, of course, but there’s an old saying: The best straw candidate is the one who doesn't know he's a straw."
Anderson was skeptical that Cahill would spoil a serious challenge to Patrick, pointing to the commonwealth's history of tuning out independent candidates and focusing on the major-party gubernatorial aspirants as Election Day draws nearer. "The Republicans are going to have a primary and be in the news," she says, while Cahill's move also means the Democrats won't have a primary. Anderson also questioned how much of a mark Cahill had left with voters as treasurer.
Cahill's impact on the governor's race remains to be seen. But so far, it looks like Deval Patrick was the straw that broke the taxpayer's back.
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