Deval Patrick-Tim Murray tandem has rare hiccup in Dracut housing spat

Governor Deval Patrick stands with his running mate, Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray, as the two returned to the State House after being reelected in November.
Governor Deval Patrick stands with his running mate, Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray, as the two returned to the State House after being reelected in November. –Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

*This particular posting appeared in the Sept. 25 edition of the Boston Sunday Globe. Subscribers had the opportunity to read it first. Check the newspaper and BostonGlobe.com each Sunday for another fresh “Political Intelligence’’ column.

While Governor Deval Patrick cruises along at a high altitude, thinking lofty thoughts, his wingman, Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, skims the treetops, peering through his gunsight for any enemy who may come within view.

Theirs is a unique partnership, teaming a one-time corporate executive with a street-smart former mayor, blending a buttoned-down conciliator with a bare-knuckle brawler.

They were joined in the 2006 general election, after Patrick and Murray won their respective primaries for governor and lieutenant governor, and the ticket won reelection last fall.

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The governor has ceded broad swaths of state government to his number two, from veterans affairs to homelessness issues. But, most important for him, Patrick has charged the lieutenant governor with maintaining the administration’s ties with the state’s 351 cities and towns.

That allows Patrick to monitor the municipal pulse. But, as has become apparent amid an uproar in Dracut during the past month, it can also cause heartburn for an unwitting governor.

Patrick has ceded broad swaths of state government to Murray, which works well – most of the time.

On Aug. 22, during his first meeting as a member of the Dracut Housing Authority, Brian Bond sided with two other commissioners to vote against renewing the contract of the executive director, Mary Karabatsos.

Her four-year tenure was set to end on Oct. 21, and Karabatsos had written to commission Chairman Kenneth Martin on July 22, seeking discussion of a new five-year agreement.

Less than a week later, though, the administration took steps that led to her losing her job.

On July 26, the governor signed papers appointing Bond to replace an existing commissioner, George Nangle. The administration made its sudden move even though Nangle had applied for reappointment, and although his original term had expired 18 months earlier, on Jan. 26, 2010.

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Karabatsos complained about being ambushed by the 3-1 vote at the Aug. 22 meeting, in which Martin, Bond, and a third commissioner, Ken Cunha, voted to seek applications for the executive director’s job.

A fourth commissioner, Gerald Suprenant, voted to keep Karabatsos, despite voting against her initial hiring in 2007. The fifth member of the panel, Russ Taylor, was on vacation during the meeting but later said he would have voted to keep Karabatsos.

Nangle, who was not on the commission when Karabatsos was first hired, said he, too, would have kept her.

The vote against her has prompted a wave of protest from authority residents, a group of whom picketed last week’s commission meeting.

Both Martin and Bond defend their actions, noting their vote merely opened up a public process for hiring an executive director.

Karabatsos, Martin wrote in a letter to the editor of The (Lowell) Sun, is free to reapply for her job.

Townspeople, though, see a conspiracy and accuse the administration of enabling it through its appointment. In Massachusetts cities and towns, the governor picks one member of the housing authority; the remaining commissioners are publicly elected.

This past week, aides to the governor waved off questions from the Globe, saying Patrick had no memory of such a low-level appointment.

But Murray, during an interview in the hallway outside his State House office, revealed an intimate understanding, speaking in granular detail about the appointment.

The lieutenant governor said state Representative Colleen Garry, the Democrat who represents Dracut in the House, contacted an administration aide and lobbied for Bond and another potential commissioner. Such legislative recommendations, said Murray, carry weight.

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But did Murray himself speak with Michael McLaughlin? He’s the executive director of the Chelsea Housing Authority, a longtime Dracut politico who is a close friend of Martin’s, and the person who some in town see as engineering the Karabatsos ouster – an assertion McLaughlin has denied.

“Mike McLaughlin?’’ Murray asked in a verbatim transcript of his answer. “Uh, maybe at some point he might have mentioned, you know, the, the, um, mentioned it.’’

And is the administration happy its appointee voted immediately against a housing director who seems to have the support of her residents?

“I don’t think anybody was aware of any of the dynamics, in terms of this woman’s timing of her contract or anything like that, or her appointment or the dynamics of the board,’’ said the lieutenant governor. “The people that best know that are the people in Dracut, the board and whatever else. And it’s not our job to micromanage those processes.’’

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