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Joan Vennochi

Patrick doesn't get the politics of outrage

By Joan Vennochi
March 19, 2009
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GOVERNOR Deval Patrick doesn't get it.

People are losing their jobs, their homes, and their hope.

Patrick promised to deliver hope plus change. If he is no longer the person who can do it, the fallout is inevitable. Voters are bound to be disappointed and angry.

But unlike his friend, the president of the United States, Patrick doesn't understand the anger, or the symbols that stir it.

When President Obama denounced $165 million in bonuses paid to AIG employees, he knew they add up to a small part of the $173 billion in taxpayer money that is funding the AIG rescue. But the president also knew that bonuses are easy to understand, unlike much of what happened at insurance giant AIG.

Bonuses reward good performance. Handing them out to people who turned AIG into a disaster feels more than wrong. It's outrageous.

Obama understands the politics of outrage. Patrick does not.

The Massachusetts governor is presiding over a local version of the larger, national disaster that is chipping away at confidence in government and the economy. But Patrick's instincts for the symbols that enrage taxpayers are poor, and so, apparently, are the instincts of those who report to him.

Massachusetts must close an approximately $6 billion gap between available revenues and projected spending for the current and upcoming fiscal years. The governor also faces a transportation mess that exploded into crisis on his watch. He is trying to convince a dubious public that more taxpayer money is a necessary part of the solution.

To make his case for reform and revenue, Patrick chose an insider with a long history of involvement with transportation policy issues. That insider, Transportation Secretary James A. Aloisi Jr., is turning into the issue, instead of Patrick and the reform proposals he is trying to advance.

The latest twist involves the news that Aloisi's sister has a job in the House of Representatives that pays $60,000 a year. For an extended period of time, the job apparently did not require her to work to earn that salary, according to an article by the Globe's Andrea Estes.

Aloisi and his sister declined to comment for the story. On the day it was published, the governor was in Vermont, participating in a national forum on healthcare.

The story reverberated over talk radio and television news. At day's end, Aloisi responded by blog on bluemassgroup.com. He described the story as "unfair and inaccurate and clearly designed to take a shot at me through her." He said his sister "repeatedly and in writing asked for a prompt reassignment" from the job of chief of staff without a staff, but did not dispute the basic facts of the Globe story.

Many bloggers responded sympathetically to Aloisi and his smackdown of the big, bad mainstream media.

But understanding what it takes to placate the liberal blogging community is different from understanding what it takes to placate the general public - or understanding what it takes to anger them.

A governor deserves a vacation. But vacationing in Jamaica with a State Police detail while the talk back home revolves around new taxes is guaranteed to rile up the folks back home.

State Senator Marian Walsh is a fine legislator who chaired the taxation and banking committees and bravely backed gay marriage despite pressure from constituents and the Catholic Church. But picking her to fill a $175,000-a-year job at a state bonding authority that has gone vacant for 12 years will be controversial at a time when state budget cuts are underway - especially if it's not clear that her salary isn't paid by taxpayers and the job won't enhance her pension benefits.

The governor is telling taxpayers that a 19-cent-per-gallon increase in the state gas tax is an absolute requirement for fiscal survival. He also insists he will fix the broken-down transportation bureaucracy. Then it turns out the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which pledged in September to begin laying off 100 toll collectors, has yet to fire any workers. But the Turnpike Authority did find a way to hire two managers at an additional cost of nearly $250,000.

Meanwhile, the sister of the state transportation secretary toils as chief of staff in an office that has no staff.

It's the symbolism, governor.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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