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JOAN VENNOCHI

Reilly's judgment is suddenly suspect

DOES TOM REILLY really want to be governor of Massachusetts?

Lapses in judgment call his desire into question -- and his fitness for the job of chief executive.

As attorney general, Reilly never had charisma but he cultivated the appearance of competence. As a gubernatorial candidate, he shows neither.

On Tuesday, Reilly was standing in a Dorchester youth center promoting his choice of Marie St. Fleur, a Haitian immigrant and state representative from Boston, as his surprise running mate. Yesterday, the Globe reported that St. Fleur is delinquent on taxes and loans. By the end of the day, she was out of the race.

A decision that was supposed to make Reilly look bold reduced him, again, to bumbling.

The bad news about St. Fleur followed a lack of candor from Reilly about the sequence of events leading up to her selection. First, Reilly's choice was reported to be Chris Gabrieli, a smart, rich businessman who ran on the 2002 Democratic ticket with Shannon O'Brien. Then, pressed by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, among others, Reilly chose St. Fleur over the weekend, supposedly for her ability to relate to average citizens.

Last month, Reilly's judgment was seriously questioned when he acknowledged that he called Worcester District Attorney John J. Conte to remind him that the autopsy reports of two teenage sisters who died in a car crash should not be released to the public. The call smacked of political favoritism -- a Reilly fund-raiser approached the attorney general on the family's behalf. It also called into question the good sense of the state's chief law enforcer, given the state's quest to crack down on underage drinking. Before the crash, both sisters attended a party where alcohol was consumed by minors.

St. Fleur said she told Reilly she had ''some financial issues." But Reilly never asked for specifics, which include three delinquent tax debts in the last four years, including a 2005 federal tax lien of $12,711 against her and her accountant husband. St. Fleur also owes $40,000 in delinquent federally backed student loans. The state office of campaign and political finance also fined her $750 for trying to sell her six-year-old Honda to her campaign committee for $13,000 and continue to use it. (In an ironic twist, Reilly, as AG, is suing state Senator Dianne Wilkerson for numerous alleged campaign law violations.)

How could Reilly not sit St. Fleur down and demand to know: What is the worst that can be said about you? Tell me, because whatever the worst is, it will come out in a high-stakes campaign. Reilly's failure to grill St. Fleur amounts to political malpractice and criminal detachment -- and/or arrogance.

From the start, St. Fleur's selection had a slightly desperate scent to it; the political benefit was more promise than reality. Reilly said St. Fleur's up-by-the bootstraps life story convinced him. But gender and race were more obvious factors. In the Democratic primary, Reilly faces Deval Patrick, a black former Justice Department official who is tapping into the party's most liberal wing. The winner is likely to face Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey in the general election.

Massachusetts Democrats believed this was the year they could win back the governor's office. Part of the Democrats' argument is a pattern of Republican governors using the Bay State as a political stepping stone. But Healey is not the pushover Democrats envisioned. She effectively used the lieutenant governor's office to build bridges to Democrats. She is also cultivating ties to independent voters who like the balance of a Republican governor up against a Legislature controlled by Democrats.

Healey and her husband, Sean, are wealthy and prepared to spend their millions on her gubernatorial bid. The current lieutenant governor weathered one Massachusetts tax-related controversy, involving a $1.2 million tax credit that Sean Healey received for a business he relocated to Prides Crossing in Beverly. He eventually returned it.

As a candidate, Reilly was supposed to be thorough, solid, and thoughtful. Instead, his campaign has been none of the above. Can he win back a measure of respect from disheartened Democrats? The past few weeks could be an aberration, but the emerging pattern is starting to look like a disturbing flaw.

Reilly may be one of those candidates who simply cannot grow beyond the office he currently holds.

Or, maybe it's a matter of desire. Maybe Bay State Democrats covet the governor's office more than he does. Maybe Reilly should be the next candidate to drop out.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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