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For the GOP, Massachusetts Is Looking Like an Elephants' Graveyard

Politics: With besieged executives and a controversial challenger for Kennedy's Senate seat, state's Republicans are under attack.

April 02, 2000|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — It may be a Grand Old Party, but in Massachusetts, top Republicans can't be having a lot of fun.

Bad enough that Gov. Paul Cellucci is under fire for overspending on everything from extravagant junkets to the Big Dig, the $12.5-billion highway project that has made Bay State drivers crazy for almost 10 years. Bad enough that his presidential pick-to-click, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, was creamed in the primary here by Arizona Sen. John McCain. Bad enough that the other day his transportation secretary threatened to punch out a reporter or that his lieutenant governor unapologetically turned staffers into unpaid baby-sitters, borrowed a state helicopter for personal use and disclosed that her landlord was in line to receive federal housing funds.

If the party leadership here didn't have enough problems, along comes Jack E. Robinson III, a 39-year-old entrepreneur and sixth-generation Republican who has anointed himself to challenge Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the state's top Democrat, in November. No stranger to controversy himself, Robinson last month declared at a press conference that "I am not a womanizer. I am not a groper" and released an 11-page document to counter allegations ranging from sexual misconduct to plagiarism to dubious business practices.

While Republican stalwarts raced to distance themselves from an upstart who moved into his father's home because he didn't have a Massachusetts address of his own, the Hotline, a news service that compiles political briefings from around the country, titled a recent entry: "Massachusetts: We're Not Making This Up."

The sense that no one could invent the party's misadventures here is shared by University of Massachusetts public policy professor Ralph Whitehead, who said the state GOP "has morphed from the Republican Party into the silly party."

John Bertwell, the governor's own top aide, called the Republican Party in Massachusetts an endangered species and implored: "It needs protection."

Former GOP state chairman James Rappaport agreed. "It seems to be one disaster after another," he said. "Our party right now is in danger of becoming the third party behind the conservative Democrats."

But not all Republicans think their party is moribund. John Brockelman, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party, pointed out that in a state where just 13% of voters are registered Republicans, commanding the statehouse for three consecutive terms is no small attainment. Cellucci sailed into office in 1998 with 61% of the Independent vote and 24% of the Democratic vote. Though resoundingly moderate in the face of an increasingly conservative national party, Cellucci nonetheless campaigned on a strong Republican agenda of reducing taxes and increasing punishments for criminals.

As for the state party's current vagaries, Brockelman said, "I think this is the nature of politics. Just like with the polls, you have your good spells and your tough spots."

One tough spot these days concerns Cellucci's habit of taking costly out-of-state jaunts. In mid-March, the governor was in China. He has also traveled to Europe, hoping to boost tourism. Hollywood is another favorite destination because Cellucci has said he wants to pump up the state's role in the film industry. Often Cellucci is accompanied by an ample and free-spending entourage.

The governor's excursions might be forgiven if travel in Boston were not such a full-time horror movie for residents and visitors alike. "Rome wasn't built in a day," announces a state billboard that attempts to assuage emotions surrounding the Big Dig, the largest public works project in America. "If it was, we'd have hired their contractors."

Compared in grandiose--but seldom loving--terms to the construction of the Pyramids or the Panama Canal, the Big Dig was launched in 1991 at once to beautify Boston and to increase traffic efficiency in a city where many roads began as cow paths. Even at its outset, the plan to sink the city's elevated Central Artery underground and connect it to Logan Airport was priced at $10.8 billion.

But after nine years of navigating combat-condition highways with exits that change by the week, the recent announcement that the Big Dig's price tag had jumped by another $1.4 billion threatened to send many residents over the railing.

It was Transporation Secretary James J. Kerasiotes who recently came close to getting physical when a reporter questioned the Big Dig's overspending. Earlier, the transportation secretary used the terms "moron" and "reptile" to describe two fellow Cabinet members.

In a telephone call from New York, where he practices law and writes mystery novels, former Gov. William F. Weld heatedly defended Kerasiotes. "He has probably saved the taxpayers $2 billion," Cellucci's predecesor insisted.

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