Baker’s victory tops press corps list of top stories for 2014

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, DEC. 14, 2014…..Election years guarantee no shortage of storylines for those who chronicle politics in Massachusetts, and so this year’s top story as voted by the State House press corps should come as little surprise.

But even as the statewide elections created strong demand for ink and bandwidth, 2014 had plenty to offer off the trail, from policy debates on gun control and welfare reform to controversial court decisions and a viral phenomenon that had everyone from House Speaker Robert DeLeo to Mitt Romney dumping ice on their heads to raise money for ALS.

The tragedy of last year’s unanimous top story – the Boston Marathon bombings – was replaced by a near unanimous one of personal political redemption in 2014, as Beacon Hill readies to watch Gov. Deval Patrick leave office after eight years and Republican Charlie Baker takes over.

Maybe because it felt a bit too much like a national story, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s rise to prominence as a darling of the left who continues to bat down overtures for her to run for president didn’t make the top 10 list this year, though she did receive votes.

The 2024 Boston Olympic bid, the House’s decision to vote former Rep. Carlos Henriquez out of office, the Legislature’s uncommonly quick response to the brief court legalization of “upskirting” and the Supreme Court’s rejection of the abortion clinic buffer zone law also earned votes, but didn’t make the list.

The same went for Scott Brown’s loss for U.S. Senate, this time in New Hampshire, the governor’s first pardons, the elevation of Ralph Gants to chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, and the upheaval in the health care and hospital industry.

So what did make the cut? The following are the top 10 political stories of 2014, as ranked by Massachusetts state government reporters and scored based on cumulative points:

1) Charlie Baker Wins Governorship
2) ACA Implementation and Connector Website Woes
3) Casino Licenses and Ballot Initiative
4) Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino Dies at 71
5) Department of Children and Families Struggles
6) 2014 Election – Healey Rises/Coakley Wins Primary
7) Probation Department Patronage Trial
8) Sen. Stanley Rosenberg
9) Democrat Seth Moulton Defeats John Tierney
10) Minimum Wage Increase

Counting Down the Top 10:

Among all the policy debates on Beacon Hill this past year, few had as clear cut and immediate impact on the lives of working residents in Massachusetts as the back-and-forth over the minimum wage. Knowing that activists planned to take the issue to the ballot if the Legislature didn’t act, the House and Senate came together to enact the first increase in the minimum wage since 2008. They voted voting to raise the rate incrementally over the next three years from $8 an hour to a nation-leading $11 an hour in 2017. Along the way, proponents of linking future wage increases to inflation lost out, while some business groups warned the hike could hurt job creation. The state will find out if they were right soon enough. The first increase to $9 an hour goes into effect on Jan. 1.

U.S. Rep. John Tierney’s 18 year career in Washington was ended by an upstart former Marine from Salem named Seth Moulton. The upset made Tierney Massachusetts’ first incumbent congressman since 1996 to lose re-election. Tierney, a Democrat, was actually one of the last newcomers to knock off an incumbent when he defeated Republican Peter Torkildsen the same year Rep. Jim McGovern bested Republican incumbent Peter Blute. But after surviving a stiff Republican challenge in 2012 at the height of his vulnerability after a scandal involving his brother-in-law and off-shore gambling, Tierney fell to a fellow Democrat. Moulton, a 36-year-old former Marine with a physics degree from Harvard, rocketed from obscurity and is now being looked at potentially as one of the future leaders of the Democratic Party in a polarized Congress. Moulton’s primary win also dashed the hopes of Richard Tisei, the former Senate minority leaders and GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, who thought he had a chance after coming close to beating Tierney in 2012, but got steamrolled against the fresh-faced Democrat.

It was two summers ago when Senate Majority Leader Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, made a decisive move to sew up the support of a majority of his colleagues and declared himself the Senate president-in-waiting. Yet once that was over, Rosenberg faded back into his role as top advisor to Senate President Therese Murray, doing little over the course of the past year to upstage or undermine her leadership, which after eight years is winding to an end. As his expected rise to power became more imminent, Rosenberg began to quietly hold meetings with fellow senators and advocates seeking advice, input and feedback about how he might lead the Senate and where he should put his focus in the new year. Then came the headlines over the past several weeks that have given Rosenberg his first challenge. Driven by reporting in the Boston Globe, Rosenberg’s relationship with his younger boyfriend Bryon Hefner has come under scrutiny after Hefner was reported to be behind a Twitter feed that mocked Murray, and other senators privately complained that Hefner was involving himself into Senate business, claiming to have sway over committee assignments and leadership decisions. Though Rosenberg promised a “firewall” between his personal and professional life, it didn’t stop Hefner’s employer Regan Communications from trying to transfer Hefner to Florida, prompting him to quit his job. So far, Rosenberg’s supporters have held firm, with the vote to make him president scheduled in Jan. 7.

For nearly three months from May through July, Beacon Hill functioned with one eye and one ear closely attuned to the happenings in federal district court where former Probation Commission John O’Brien and two of his former deputies were on trial for running a corrupt patronage hiring scheme. A jury convicted O’Brien of racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering and mail fraud charges, for which he was sentenced by the judge to 18 months in prison – actually a short stay compared to the maximum he could have received. Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III received lesser sentences for their roles, with Tavares sentenced to three months, and Burke given a year of probation. The trial, which can trace its roots back to a 2010 and an independent investigator’s report on patronage in the Probation department, was watched closely as much for the details of the hiring scheme as for the potential blowback on elected officials. Though no lawmakers were formally indicted, some were called to testify and others fell under a cloud of suspicion. U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s prosecutors used the trial to suggest House Speaker Robert DeLeo had divvied up jobs at Probation to secure the speakership, a charge DeLeo flatly denied as he engaged in public war of words with Ortiz. The investigation and trial have also led to new hiring practices in state government.

The 2014 elections had many storylines and personalities, from the passage of an earned sick time ballot question to the repeal of a law indexing the gas tax to inflation. But one of the undisputed stars to emerge from the election was Attorney General-elect Maura Healey, a former assistant attorney general who left her job to run her first campaign for public office and is now poised to become the first openly gay state attorney general in the United States. Healey started her campaign as a political unknown, but quickly energized voters on her way to a primary thumping of well-known former state senator Warren Tolman, who had the institutional backing and support from people like Gov. Deval Patrick that led many to think he was a lock. Healey went on to easily defeat Republican John Miller in the general election, and will now succeed her former boss Attorney General Martha Coakley. Which brings us to Coakley, who ran and lost for governor, but deserves credit now for something she did win – the Democratic primary. Coakley led from start to finish, eventually holding on to defeat Treasurer Steven Grossman and two other Democrats – Dr. Donald Berwick and Joseph Avellone – in a hard fought campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor. Before a hairsbreadth victory by Baker, Coakley managed to bury many of the demons that still haunted her from her 2010 race for U.S. Senate against Scott Brown and left many voters with a different image of her as a person and a candidate.

Institutional failings at the Department of Children and Families made headlines through the year, stemming from the case of a 5-year-old from Fitchburg, Jeremiah Oliver. He went missing in the fall of 2013 only to be found dead in April on the side of a highway in Sterling. Subsequent reports and independent investigations found severe management lapses at the agency as caseworkers assigned to the Oliver family failed to engage in the types of proper oversight and family visits required. The Oliver case led to the forced resignation of DCF Commissioner Olga Roche and sparked heated debates over policy and funding as Gov. Deval Patrick tried to improve the management and provide additional resources to reduce caseloads for social workers. The DCF situation also became a major focal point of the 2014 elections, and promises to continue to be a top issue for lawmakers and the new administration moving forward.

The “urban mechanic,” who just last year opted against running for a fifth term as Boston’s mayor, passed away after a battle with cancer. Thomas Michael Menino, who was settling into a life of retirement after 20 years running City Hall by working at Boston University and penning a memoir, announced in March that he was battling an advanced form of cancer. Coming just days before the election in November, Menino’s death shocked the city and the state. In the days that followed, candidates halted their campaigns, throngs of well-wishers waited in line at Faneuil Hall to say thank you and a televised funeral with a guest list meticulously crafted by Menino himself to include everyone from former aides to Vice President Joe Biden allowed a grieving capital city to say goodbye to its mayor.

Once again casinos have cracked into the list of top stories for the year on two fronts. Three years after lawmakers approved expanded gambling in Massachusetts, the Gaming Commission this year handed out the first licenses. MGM Springfield, the lone qualified applicants in western Massachusetts, walked away with the first resort casino license, while the battle for a license in Greater Boston proved a bit more contentious. Okay, a lot more contentious: after voters in East Boston rejected Suffolk Downs bid for a casino, the owners of the horse-racing track moved quickly to put together a new bid with Mohegan Sun for a casino solely on track property in Revere. But with Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn promising a glitzier resort with more and higher paying jobs, the license went to Wynn Resorts and their proposal for a casino on the Mystic River in Everett. One more major hurdle for developers remained – the voters of Massachusetts. Anti-casino advocates put a question on the November ballot to repeal the casino law, touching off an expensive and emotional debate over the pros and cons of expanded gambling, but one that voters ruled on decisively, voting 60 percent against repeal. A slot parlor has also been licensed at the Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville.

The state rolled out its first health exchange website as part of the Affordable Care Act in the fall 2013 – just in time to make last year’s list of top stories when the site built by contractor CGI failed to adequately function as a portal for residents to purchase health insurance. The fallout from the IT failure became a major storyline for the following year, as Gov. Deval Patrick’s team severed ties with the contractor, hired new web developers, and raced to build a new site that went live in November. While all this was happening, health officials worked to prevent residents from losing health insurance by extending existing plans and enrolling hundreds of thousands of subscribers into temporary Medicaid plans. At a meeting in February, Health Connector Executive Director Jean Yang broke down in tears at a board meeting under immense pressure as she spoke of the demoralizing effect on her staff. All told a $174 million project turned into a $254 million exercise, with the state’s share climbing from $16 million to $42 million. And that’s not counting the potential costs of keeping consumers enrolled in coverage while the site was rebuilt, which is now being eyed as a potential driver of a major budget gap heading into 2015.

1) Charles Duane Baker
The runaway top story the year is the rise of Charlie Baker and the return of bipartisan government to Beacon Hill. Baker, a Republican, defeated Attorney General Martha Coakley to succeed Gov. Deval Patrick as the 72nd governor of the Commonwealth starting in January. After eight years of Patrick, the governor did not run for a third term. That created an opening for Baker, who lost to Patrick in 2010, to run again. Campaigning as a new and improved candidate who felt that he did not do himself justice in his first campaign, Baker abandoned the “Had Enough?” mantra for a more forward-looking message and campaigned as a moderate who wanted to improve the management of state government, improve schools and invest in communities outside of Boston. The Republican also made inroads in traditionally Democratic and minority neighborhoods in Boston and elsewhere to build a broad coalition of support that even the strong Massachusetts Democratic machine couldn’t stop. The election of the Republican who got his start in government as a top aide to former Govs. William Weld and Paul Cellucci, has ushered in a wave of turnover on Beacon Hill and a lot of new/old faces with ties to previous Republican administrations. Those changes will continue into the new year when Baker takes office and must work with House and Senate Democrats to turn his agenda into reality.

It helps to be coming off a successful gubernatorial campaign when the voting takes place. This year’s press secretary of the year honors go to Tim Buckley, top communications hand and spokesman to Governor-elect Charlie Baker. Buckley, who previously worked for the MassGOP and in Baker’s field operation in 2010, earned a reputation during the campaign for being accessible and responsive. With campaign manager Jim Conroy keeping a tight hold on the purse strings, Buckley operated without a deputy to help deliver Baker’s message and navigate more than his share of gaffes and controversies. Buckley will be staying on in the new administration as communications director, and the press corps looks forward to the inevitable future sparring.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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