Our Stubborn Governor

The ongoing controversy over Governor Patrick’s handling of the problems at the state’s Department of Children and Families helps provide some political science insight into the running of bureaucracies and perhaps into the governor’s own managerial approach.

Governor Patrick stuck by Olga Roche, the DCF commissioner whose resignation he finally accepted on Tuesday, about as long as he possibly could. Just a week ago, when the body of the missing 5 year old Jeremiah Oliver was found, the governor was still backing Roche, according to a report in the Boston Herald. He stressed that DCF has a difficult job most of us don’t understand and that it needs more “resources and people and technology” but no criticism of management. He stuck with Roche right up until Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray stated that Roche should go. The speaker and president made their announcements in the wake of yet another tragedy, the death of four week old Aliana Lavigne. Grafton police had notified DCF by fax of possible abuse or neglect in the infant’s home, but the agency misplaced the fax and no social worker was sent to investigate.

As James Q. Wilson wrote in Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, “When criticized, some organizations hunker down and others conduct a searching self-examination.” Hunkering down seems to have been the governor’s approach in the DCF matter.

That brought me back to research I had done for my book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting, and the Department of Justice, which in part reviewed Patrick’s tenure as Chief of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. In a case in which CRD (originally under the first Bush administration) had required Louisiana to draw two majority-minority congressional districts, the federal district court threw out the two-seat plan as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. The legislature was back at work when a letter from Chief Patrick went public stressing that only a two-seat plan would be acceptable to the DOJ, which had to “preclear” any Louisiana election law change under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Given DOJ’s position the Louisiana legislature passed a two seat plan which the court again vacated as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. The court imposed a one-seat plan but the governor called a special legislative session which passed its own one-seat plan. The state sent the plan to DOJ for preclearance and sure enough Chief Patrick signed a letter objecting in favor of a two-seat plan, this time under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, using a legal theory that had already been rejected by four other district courts (the Supreme Court eventually rejected the theory in 1997).

Say this for Governor Patrick, when he thinks he is right on something he is a real bulldog. This can be a strength too. For instance, I admire his unbending approach to the manufactured EBT card controversy. On the other hand, when Auditor Suzanne Bump issued a report revealing poor management practices at the Department of Transitional Assistance, the governor wasn’t exactly on administrative reform like a bulldog, either.

Before leaving the topic of hunkering down, let’s pause to consider the performance of the Grafton police department in the Aliana Lavigne case. Grafton PD sent the fax to DCF, which was then misplaced for six crucial days. DCF criticized Grafton PD for not also verbally notifying the agency, as it argues is required by regulations. The Grafton police chief, reports the Herald, “angrily” defended his officers: “They’re (DCF) trying to deflect off their office,” Grafton Police Chief Normand A. Crepeau Jr. said in an interview at his home yesterday. “I take offense to that, our officers did what they were supposed to do.”

And that is our final word on public administration for today.

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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