The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine ran a hopeful cover highlighting a Scott Helman story arguing that the legislature’s 2012 redistricting law shows a culture change on Beacon Hill. Perhaps. But one robin does not a spring make. Helman does see some additional robins and anoints some heroes but we may not be ready to throw off decades of political culture just yet.
The political scientist Daniel Elazar described political culture as “the political pattern of orientation to political action in which each political system is embedded.” It is “rooted in the cumulative historical experiences of particular groups of people.” Culture is tenacious but as a human construct can be altered.
Elazar found that Massachusetts has an “individualistic” political culture, a system that features trading of favors, politics based on relationships, politics as a market, and even some forms of corruption. The state also has a strong influence from “moralistic” politics, a form in which officials are high-minded and act for the public good. Presumably the transformation Helman sees is one that moves away from individualistic politics and toward moralistic politics. Helman wrote that:
The new maps signify something deeper, and potentially more lasting, than just better-looking districts. They reflect a broader cultural evolution at the State House, especially within the Democratic establishment, away from a machine-style approach to politics and toward a more modern, more progressive leadership.
Helman’s movement has heroes: Deval Patrick, Rep. Michael Moran, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, Senator Stanley Rosenberg. The story has more than redistricting; it has pension reform, ethics reform, a new law giving municipalities flexibility over health care for their workers.
Perhaps these changes signal an emerging reform culture. But it is at least as plausible that they were more pushed upon the legislature than instigated by the house or senate. As Helman recognizes the redistricting process has engendered litigation in the last three cycles (not always successful, either). But the last process resulted in a court judgment that the legislature had discriminated against minority voters, and a forced redrawing of districts. Not incidentally Speaker Thomas Finneran later pled guilty to obstruction of justice concerning his role in the litigation. No need to go through that again. Moreover, redistricting could no longer remain the back room game favored by insiders. Voting rights groups have easy access to redistricting software and the training to use it. So purity of heart may have been some motivation for the hero legislators, but not as much as Helman argues.
What about all these other reforms? Look back at ethics reform and pension reform and you will not see a legislature boldly ferreting out wrongdoing and moving proactively. Rather media attention and public distaste for a political culture that seems to enrich insiders at public expense goaded Beacon Hill to respond. Municipal contract reforms are recognition that public employees cannot expect the public to provide them a better health care package than taxpayers can afford themselves.
We’ve been down the reform road before. We had ethics reform and Ward Commission reforms spurred by public disgust in the wake of the MBM scandal of the Seventies. In the Nineties the Globe found leading state lawmakers frolicking on a beach in Puerto Rico at lobbyists’ expense while they were ostensibly attending a December conference for state legislators. Under pressure from the Globe, Common Cause, and the public, the legislature passed a campaign finance bill. A Special Commission on Ethics formed after the Puerto Rico vacation reported with reform recommendations in 1995, but without public pressure the reform suggestions died. In 1998 Common Cause backstopped a state ballot law change to allow public financing of elections. The legislature did all it could to resist that law and eventually repealed it.
Back in October in Democracy Inaction I noted that the casinos debates showed no sign of the legislative leadership loosening its stranglehold on policy making. Somehow, dozens of house members who thought casinos were a bad idea under anti-casinos speaker Sal DiMasi experienced a change of heart under pro-casinos Robert DeLeo. Two academic studies, one in 1981 and one in 1995, had asked legislators in thirty-eight states their perceptions of the most decisive players in their branches. In 1981, the Massachusetts leadership finished first. In 1995 it had slipped back to third. Could that have changed much?
Today’s Globe headline, Probation charges could be imminent: Case could involve a dozen legislators, others, lawyers say does not help Helman’s argument.
Sal DiMasi and Dianne Wilkerson. DiMasi being re-elected under the threat of indictment and handing the speakership off to DeLeo. Legislative leaders (even ones with federal records) moving out of the legislature and into lobbying firms. Bills being stalled in committee by chairs who might suffer in their outside careers if the legislation passes.
Redistricting is a positive development, and other recent reforms show legislative responsiveness to public concerns. But let’s take a wait and see approach to Helman’s thesis of cultural change sweeping Beacon Hill.