Bill McDermott and me

The Boston papers today carry stories of the sudden death of William A. McDermott Jr., a 67-year old attorney from South Boston who has long been recognized as one of the state’s election law experts. McDermott died Wednesday night when he was struck by a car after leaving his South Boston gym.
My relationship with McDermott was a simple one: I once was his client.

Towards the end of March 1994, the incumbent Middlesex North Register of Deeds Edward Early announced that he would not seek re-election. I and ten others jumped into that race, nine of us in the Democratic Primary. The district consisted of ten communities – Billerica, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Dracut, Dunstable, Lowell, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, Westford and Wilmington – and the campaign attracted much attention that year. When the preliminary primary returns were tallied after the polls closed on September 20th, I found myself in the lead by just eight votes. The second place finisher, Karin Theodoros, filed for a recount.

I had worked as an attorney/volunteer on a previous recount, that being the Governor’s Council race in which Lowell’s Bob Kennedy defeated Herb Connolly of Newton by just a single vote, but for this recount I needed experienced counsel. I quickly asked around and the name “Bill McDermott” kept coming back. I called his office but he was on trial in Suffolk Superior Court. I drove into Boston, found the courtroom and watched him in action as the trial rolled up to the lunch break. There, I introduced myself and told him my situation. He replied that he had already committed to work on a recount in another race but that he would be willing to come to Lowell to train my recount “observers” and would handle any follow-up litigation in court. I hired him on the spot.

On a Friday night I gathered about four dozen family and friends at the Knickerbocker Club in Lowell. McDermott arrived with sample ballots of all the types in use in the ten Middlesex North towns (punch cards, fill-in-the-dot, old fashioned paper). He then gave us a fascinating hour-long lecture on ballot law and the role of the observer. His most memorable exhortation: “remember, we’re here to win; not to be fair” (the context of this was that if you saw a count discrepancy in your candidate’s favor, scream about it but when you spotted one that favored your opponent, keep your mouth shut and let that person’s observers point it out).

The recount worked out well. My lead increased to something like 45 votes and I won the November election against a Republican candidate and an unenrolled candidate by a comfortable margin. I’ve been the register of deeds ever since. Maybe I would have prevailed in that recount without Bill McDermott but I never looked at it that way. I always saw him as the guy who gave me that final boost across the finish line and I was always grateful for that. I fortunately never needed his services again but I would occasionally see him at state Democratic conventions and always said hello although I know he made a much more lasting impression on me than I on him. I’m sure that’s not unique because he was one of those figures who leaped off the pages of The Last Hurrah and who helped make politics a fun activity. His passing is a big loss for Massachusetts.

2 Responses to Bill McDermott and me

  1. Marie says:

    Thanks for telling this story. Bill McDermott was a great guy – a sharp, savy guy.! I knew him through his Democratic party activities – he was a fellow State Committee member. He will be sorely missed. (I was one of those observers!)

  2. kad barma says:

    “We’re here to win, not to be fair” is such a rich point for reflection and discussion. Coaching young kids on the soccer field, I found there was a point of maturity where they were able to grasp that the role of the referee was to enforce and ensure fairness, while they were the competitors whose goals were more direct. (Bad pun, yes, I’m sorry…)

    The challenge is always to recognize the moral responsibility of the competitors to respect their opponents as well as their more personal and selfish goals. For example, it is never right to seek to injure an opposing player in pursuit of victory, even though injuring an opponent possibly improves your odds of winning. Likewise, I am thinking there are lines in an electoral process where willfully lying about an opponent to smear them in an attempt to win votes crosses a line that shouldn’t be excused by the “we’re here to win” rationalization.

    But where to set the line?

    Trusting impartial election administrators to do their jobs is important. Competing fairly to win is the basis of our democratic election process. But somewhere in all this calculation, separate from school-aged athletics and possibly unique among all the many competitions sponsored by our culture, is the bedrock principle that the public’s collective wisdom is the most valuable asset We the People possess, and subverting it by denying another candidate’s rightful victory is potentially dangerous. No, “collective wisdom” is hardly compelling in any particular direction at 50.0001 to 49.999 percent, so this really has very little to do about this particular story. But our potential for fraud and/or abuse is magnified well beyond single ballots now that we’re going to automated counting systems and other “technology”-oriented solutions, and there’s a part of any discussion that bears reminding ourselves that fair elections are our most precious national asset.

    Great story, and I’m grateful we have such an effective and well-run Registry of Deeds here in North Middlesex to show for it. Thanks!