News & Politics

Barrett: It Takes a Bulger To Understand the Mass. Massacre


When I got up this morning, I wanted to know what Billy Bulger thought.

After all, he ran Massachusetts politics for 35 years as the president of the same state senate that Scott Brown joined in 2004. Indeed, one of Brown’s few state senate achievements was his role in drafting a 2009 pension reform bill that made it impossible for state employees to define a state $29,000 housing allowance as compensation, like Bulger did, inflating his $179,000-a-year pension to $196,000.

It doesn’t hurt that Billy, now 75, has assumed legendary proportions on the screen. He’s brother to James “Whitey” Bulger, top man on the FBI’s most wanted list, a fugitive since 1995 after years of running the Irish mafia of Boston.

Showtime’s “Brotherhood” and Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning “The Departed” have made Whitey, and thereby Billy, larger in life than Fenway. Few in the state will forget the day Whitey showed up, before he became a fugitive but while he was godfathering the mob, with a $14 million winning lottery ticket and the state lottery director, unnerved by both brotherhoods no doubt, said that the only thing worse would have been “if my mother had won.”

Only Osama bin Laden has a higher FBI price on his head than the $2 million offered for Bulger, who is accused of killing 19 people. A third brother went to jail for lying about his contacts with Whitey, and Billy admitted talking to fugitive Whitey while he ran the state senate, retreating to a safe phone to do it. That call alone might have been enough to turn another state Republican, but in Massachusetts, it was almost as grand a gesture as buying a round.

Miraculously, I managed to reach the President, as Billy is addressed. He actually could be called the President President because he’s been one twice. While Democrats made him the longest tenured senate president in state history, it was a Republican governor Bill Weld who named him President of the University of Massachusetts in 1996, and another Republican governor, Mitt Romney, who drove him out of the president’s office in 2003, after he took the Fifth Amendment when questioned by a congressional committee about his brother. I thought that made him a bit of an expert on both parties in Massachusetts, and wondered if he might have bumped into Scott Brown somewhere along the road. Brown didn’t arrive in the state House of Representatives until 1998, two years after Billy left the state senate, but he was still early in his term as a scholarly university honcho. Bulger said, however, that he’d never met him.

Bulger said it was “rare” that someone as low on the totem pole as a state senator would be elected to a statewide office, especially one who just arrived. “But his election had nothing to do with his state senate service,” Bulger said, attributing it entirely to “national legislation.” He meant the health care bill, noting that Democrats had “certainly neglected to get a bill fashioned,” something he, apparently, rarely failed to do in the old days. “The electorate sometimes just wants to make a point,” he added and Scott was the perfect vessel. The scantness of his resume helped, concluded Bulger, calling the fact that Brown was “not well defined,” an “advantage.”

Bulger said he’d just returned from a Florida junket with other former senate presidents last weekend and that they’d all analyzed the polling results in Massachusetts together and they’d agree that the key question was which candidate was most likely “to toe the line.” Brown, they decided, “fulfilled the need” not to toe the line. A blank slate with balls was just what the voters wanted, he argued. He agreed with Mike Barnicle, the MSNBC analyst who Bulger called “a friend,” that other Democrats like Congressman Michael Capuano, who lost badly to Attorney General Martha Coakley in the primary, would have beaten Brown. Capuano, unlike Coakley, “would have taken any opportunity to advance his candidacy,” and would not have let the GOP define him.

He backed off his declaration that Brown and Coakley seemed “like nice people” when I offered one of the tidbits that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee came up with about Brown, posted on their blog, and otherwise kept secret. The DSCC blog reported on January 15 that Brown was one of three members of the state house to vote against a bill that would have given 15 days of paid leave to state workers who volunteered to join Red Cross efforts to help New Yorkers after 9/11. The bill passed in October 2001 by 148 to 3, offering an opportunity for an ad that featured Ground Zero shots and a heartless vote.

Somehow, it never became news despite DSCC peddling, even though Rudy Giuliani toured the Italian section of North Boston with Brown blathering about Coakley and terrorism, doing his johnnie-one-note expert impersonation while his Homeland Security secretary heads for the can, fresh out of the mental ward. Even Bulger, who said he’d “never heard about the 9/11 bill,” took a deep breath over that one.

It calls to mind how our own Chuck Schumer managed to add 14 Democratic senate seats in his four years as the chair of DSCC, but his replacement, Bob Menendez, has now lost the only race he’s run. When Chuck talks to you, his eyes wind up looking straight at your jugular. Menendez, after a career as a target in Jersey, seems to always be nervously focusing down at his own. Can anyone imagine that Schumer would have blown this race?

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