The ongoing US District Court corruption trial of the former leaders of the state’s Department of Probation is getting some attention here in Lowell, partly because the case grew out of a Globe Spotlight expose so that newspaper is covering the trial extensively, and partly because several current and former Lowell political officials are supposedly on witness lists.
In my prior life as a criminal defense attorney, I learned that every case has its own dynamic and that if you’re not present in the courtroom continuously from the first day of jury selection until the announcement of the verdict, you really don’t know how the case is going. That said, if the reporting of the Globe is accurate, I’m predicting that this case will get tossed before it even reaches the jury. The gap between bad behavior and criminal activity is bigger than most people realize. The defendants and their unindicted co-conspirators may have acted improperly, unfairly, and even reprehensibly, but their actions still might not rise to the level of criminal conduct. Even if it did, how will this be proven? It seems like every whistle-blowing witness who has taken the stand has had to acknowledge under cross-examination that they too invoked the support of political patrons in obtaining and advancing their probation department employment. How much weight will anyone give to their testimony? Finally, the trial judge, William Young, has been on the District Court bench for nearly 30 years and was a state superior court judge before that. He’s known as a bright, energetic jurist who favors neither side and has a propensity for decisively cutting through the B.S. that often clutters up legal proceedings. My guess is that when the prosecution rests, the defense will move for a required finding of not guilty (on the grounds that by no view of the evidence can the jury find that a crime has been committed) and that this judge will allow that motion and throw out the case without letting it even get to the jury.
Whatever the outcome of this case, it won’t end of the debate on patronage. Patronage is a topic that infests our daily discussion of politics in Lowell. I’m not sure patronage – meaning someone in elected office helping another person obtain a job in government – is such a bad thing. In the perfect world, there would be means of quantifying job applicants and the “best person for the job” would always end up in the position, but isn’t that a little too utopian a view? How many of you have hired someone in any capacity and quickly come to regret it? A resume, an interview and a few reference checks are not the magical formula for putting the right person in the right job. Isn’t it safer to hire someone you already know, or to hire someone known and recommended by someone you know?
The flaw in the patronage system is that too many of the beneficiaries of the system (i.e., the people who get the jobs) feel bulletproof in their new position, beholden not to the tax paying customers who pay their salary or even to the supervisor who made the hiring decision but to the political patron who “made the call.” As former Boston Mayor Tom Menino once put it, filling a city job left him with nine enemies who didn’t get the job and one ingrate who did. Political patrons who recommend job applicants fail the system when they provide post-employment cover to poor performance. Patronage should only get the applicant through the door – once inside, he should be on his own.
There is an upside to patronage: it makes people more likely to get involved in the political process. That’s the thesis of Jack Beatty’s “The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley.” Beatty argued that in the days before the social welfare state, the urban political machine served as the social safety net with the caveat that assistance came at a price – you had to vote on election day – and suggests that if modern governmental aid had a similar quid pro quo there would be no complaints about poor turnout on election day.
A similar theme is explored in a book I’m reading right now. This book, “Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics” by Terry Golway, acknowledges that while there was vice and corruption in New York City politics, there was also a sincere concern for helping the less fortunate in society. This was a sharp break with the prevailing Anglo-American attitude that the poor were poor because of their own moral failings and that providing them with assistance only encouraged such behavior. Golway maintains that despite all its shortcomings, Tammany Hall in late 19th century New York City was the birthplace of progressive urban politics in America.
Even more striking about Golway’s book is the evidence he amasses that the “good government” movement that confronted Tammany Hall was motivated not by a sincere concern for good government but by virulent anti-Catholicism and disdain for immigrants from Ireland. What is especially noticeable is that so much of the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish rhetoric uttered by the Yankee-Protestants a century ago is being repeated almost verbatim in today’s political discourse. Ironically, today’s harsh rhetoric against the poor and the needy is often uttered by proud descendants of the same Irish who were similarly condemned a century ago.