Irish Pols 2, Puritan Prosecutors 0

Lost in the wake of the Marathon bombing and the senate race was John O’Brien’s good news-bad news week. The good news for the former Probation commissioner was he was found not guilty of bribery charges brought in the state court. The bad news was a superseding indictment in federal court charging him with seventeen counts of bribery.

In the realm of political culture, is this just another case of Puritan prosecutors like Carmen Ortiz and Martha Coakley attacking Irish politicians like John O’Brien and Tim Cahill?

Yes, I’ve revived the Puritan versus Irish pol narrative — even though the federal prosecutor is a Latina and the state attorney general is Irish herself.  If we put aside the old identity politics though, political culture may have something to say about these cases.

I’m thinking of the work of political scientist Daniel Elazar as he described the political cultures in the American states. The individualistic culture “is based on a system of mutual obligations rooted in political relationships.” Politics is regarded by the public as a business, a sometimes unsavory but necessary business. “[T]here is likely to be an easy attitude toward the limits of the professionals’ perquisites. Since a fair amount of corruption is expected in the normal course of things, there is relatively little popular excitement when any is found unless it is of an extraordinary character.”

Politics as a business, back scratching, tolerance of minor skullduggery . . .  sounds like Irish working class politics to me.

But in a moralistic culture “There is also much less of what Americans consider corruption in government and less tolerance of those actions which are considered corrupt.” And who is more moralistic than the Puritans!

Cheering on from the sidelines is Cotton Mather, aka the Boston Globe editorial page. Today’s lead editorial acknowledges that jurors don’t seem too offended by political patronage but says that voters have to demand an end to Beacon Hill politics-as-usual.

I’m not saying that you’ll see Carmen Ortiz or Martha Coakley announcing their next indictments while wearing those wide-brimmed Puritan hats with the buckle in front. But the successors to the Puritans in terms of political rectitude are the Managers (in Edgar Litt’s terminology) and those upscale suburban professional attorneys are just appalled by the horse trading of politics. So impure. And the Managers have the law behind them, at least enough law to get indictments.

But do they have twelve men and women good and true behind them? I mean regular folk who did not graduate from a prestigious law school, maybe a juror or two whose local rep got Dad a job on the T, or whose kid got a boost getting into night law school and remain grateful.

Maybe that is what happened when Coakley’s prosecutors couldn’t convict O’Brien of bribery involving the former commissioner allegedly raising campaign money from his employees for State Treasurer Cahill in exchange for a Lottery job for O’Brien’s wife.

And it may be why Coakley was also unable to secure a conviction of Cahill for running Lottery television ads during his failing gubernatorial campaign in 2010. What might those pols do next – send out a press release announcing funds for a new community center or pre-K program?

Now the Boston Globe reports that US Attorney Ortiz has loaded up the indictment against O’Brien “with 17 counts of bribing state legislators by giving jobs to their supporters, friends and relatives in exchange for increases to his department’s budget and other political favors.” Pols recommended job candidates and O’Brien parceled out the jobs and appreciative legislators did the right thing for Probation in the budget and around and around we go.

Perhaps Ortiz will find federal jurors are made of sterner stuff. But so far the Massachusetts citizens have been unwilling to aid Puritan prosecutors in affixing the Scarlet Letter to Irish pols.


About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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