Massachusetts may lead in the science of political arm twisting

Mar 25, 2008 6:00 PM

Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein | It wasnít the Boston Tea Party. It was a bloodbath, figuratively speaking.

The showdown between Massachusettsí governor, Deval Patrick, and the Speaker of the House, Sal DiMasi, was bizarre and short-lived, and resulted in a knockout by DiMasi.

On Wednesday of last week the Bay Stateís legislative Joint Committee on Economic Development met to consider the governorís proposal for three casinos, but no racinos at Massachsetts tracks. DiMasi did not like the bill and said so, and the committee vote wound up a tie, 9-9.

Well, not quite.

It was 9-9 as the end of debate approached, but a few minutes before the deadline the winds changed. Debate had been scheduled to end at noon, but nifty parliamentary maneuvering by the committee chairman, Dan Bosley, extended consideration and voting for four hours, Rep. Richard Ross, whose district includes Plainridge Racecourse, switched his vote from yes to no, defeating the governorís non-racino bill 10-8.

The economic committee sent a no pass recommendation to the House, which ended the governorís agony the next day, 106 to 48.

Ross first said he decided to switch by convincing arguments from Gary Piontkowski, president and CEO of Plainridge Racecourse, a harness track near Boston. The next day, confronted by a battery of television cameras and reporters, he expanded the credit, saying, "Ultimately, I started to hear from constituents I represent and the tracks I represent. Itís about doing the right thing for the people I represent. At the end of the day, thatís what it boils down to."

Boston is and has been, from revolutionary times to the present, a political cauldron.

Reporters asked Ross, if House speaker DiMasi had pressured him into changing his vote. DiMasi, a Democrat, was reported in the press to have used tremendous arm-twisting for weeks before the vote. Ross is one of the few Republicans in the Massachusetts House, and he showed speed on his feet in responding.

He said he had met with DiMasi and Bosley in the closing hours of the debate, but said, "I know the speaker would have taken wherever I went on this. There is not a lot the speaker has over me in terms of influence."

Track president Piontkowski told newsmen, "Iím hoping we can all get together now and the governor can say, ĎI need the revenue now because I lost casinos, and DiMasi will agree, too. Am I optimistic? Iím not doing cartwheels that I think weíre going to get this, but I know one thing. We wonít be muddied by the casinos and the casino culture argument."

Another bill still is pending in the House, this one with racinos at the tracks, but it may or may not ever see the light of day. Mr. DiMasi does not like gambling, and his support is questionable, even doubtful.

A senator has said he will introduce a bill calling for an amendment to the state constitution, but whether it could gain enough signatures in the time remaining until a summer deadline is unlikely.

While all of this was going on, another governor took it on the chin, this time in Ohio, under similar circumstances.

Gov. Ted Strickland helped kill a racino bill for Ohioís 10 tracks last November. Then a blanket of budgetary problems settled over the Buckeye State. Looking for revenue, Strickland drew a fine line between his opposition to racinos and an alternative expansion of gaming. He backed the idea of keno for everyone, including the tracks.

The legislators were pretty cute in refuting this one.

The administration has financially controlled the Ohio Lottery Commission in Ohio. The Republican legislature stripped that plum from the governorís tree, and entertained legislation that could lead to public hearings on the keno issue, and ultimately kill it. Strickland told reporters, "Iím not deliriously happy about it."

And then there was New York. The governor, Eliot Spitzer, resigned after admitting he sponsored a high-priced call girl from New York to a trip to Washington, where he was attending a meeting. She helped him resolve his problems at the ritzy Mayflower hotel. But that quickly became old news, as the new governor, David Paterson, was sworn in and quickly told reporters both he and his wife had extramarital affairs. He said he went public to avoid blackmail.

What happens in New York does not stay in New York. It goes worldwide, electronically and instantaneously.