Patronage Politics

I've been struck by something in the news recently: hazing. There have been a couple of incidents, in Needham and now Agawam, making the news. Hazing is one of those things that for many years was considered perfectly normal and acceptable -- people doing it might have been concerned with how it could look to some people, but didn't think they were actually doing anything wrong, or anything they could, or should, get in trouble for.

The parallels with the Massachusetts political patronage system are pretty clear, right? Patronage was how politics worked, particularly in urban areas -- read Rascal King, or any similar chronicle, for a clear taste -- for many, many, many years. If I take care of getting you, or your cousin, or your kid, on the government payroll, you'll be more than happy to, for instance, spend election day dragging ID'd voters to the polls for me.

It's the very essence of urban machine politics.

It's very hard for pols who have always known that system, and always been part of that system, to mentally accept that the behavior they have participated in for so long is not acceptable -- just as the same is true of those who have been part of the hazing cycle.

In both cases, you get a number of perpetraters and commentators -- be it a high school coach or a Ways & Means chair -- essentially defending the general practice, while condemning specific behavior that crossed a line; or talking about the changing public expectations between then and now; or proscribing better rules to make sure lines aren't crossed in the future.

Whatev, as the kids say. Bulletin: it's illegal, immoral, flat-out wrong to physically torture kids. Doesn't matter what you think, or used to think, or what rules were or weren't in place. Can't do it. Did you do it? Then you did something wrong. Next.

Bulletin: It is flat-out wrong for someone with political power to use that power to get someone a job, a contract, or other preferential treatment from the government that is supposed to be awarded by merit.

Can't do it. Did you do it? Bobby D.? Charlie M.? Therese M.? (And, in other contexts, Tom M., Tim M., and on and on and on.) Then you did something wrong.

This is a bitter pill for pols to accept. And not just the Petrolatis and DeLeos, but all of 'em: the city councilors, the mayors, everybody. Because it's the way it's always been done. It's hard for them to even imagine how their political machines would work without patronage.

They're going to have to. They can protest all they want that they did nothing but forward a name along; that won't fly. They knew full well that their recommendations carried (at the least) an implicit threat/reward component. They knew that their "recommendations" were being followed more than could possibly be explained by merit. They knew that they were actively fighting the loss of control over the department, with no serious excuse to hide the protection of their patronage haven. They knew -- oh, let's cut the bullshit, everybody in state government knew this was how it worked. Did they know how O'Brien was gaming the system? No, probably not most of them. Hey, you don't need to know how the jockey is tanking the race. They knew the system was rigged -- and they ran to the windows to place their bets.

You can't do that. They did it. They think they did nothing wrong. That's the problem.


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