The Massachusetts GOP is becoming more extreme and authoritarian

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As the Massachusetts Republican Party becomes more extreme, it’s moving further and further toward authoritarianism in order to intimidate those with whom its leaders disagree.

Just a few weeks ago it seemed beyond the pale when a member of the state committee, Deborah Martell, wrote emails in which she said she was “sickened” that a gay Republican candidate for Congress, Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette, had adopted children along with his husband.

Since then, the party has targeted a Drag Queen Story Hour at the Plymouth Public Library under the caption “Is this really the new normal?,” republishing the library’s phone number on its public Facebook page just in case anyone wants to, you know, express their constitutionally protected views. And last week the party revealed the shocking (!) information that Emma Platoff, a recently hired Boston Globe reporter who’s been covering the party’s meltdown, is a registered Democrat.

“The Boston Globe’s nonstop negative portrayal of Massachusetts Republicans sure makes sense now,” wrote party chair Jim Lyons in an email to members. “Today I learned that the reporter assigned to cover us is a registered Democrat. Journalists, registered as members of the Democratic Party, working in news media, covering Massachusetts Republicans. Well, knock me over with a feather.”

For more details, I refer you to this Twitter thread by Ed Lyons, a political activist from the moderate wing of the Republican Party. As Lyons shows, the GOP makes it appear that finding out Platoff’s party affiliation was as easy as plugging her name into an online form in Connecticut, where she used to live. In fact, you also have to enter someone’s date of birth and town or city of residence, raising the possibility that confidential information was used improperly in order to discover that she’s a Democrat.

Now, a few words about a reporter declaring a party affiliation. It’s no big deal. Ethical codes would forbid a journalist from serving as an active member of a political party by, say, serving on a city or town committee. We can’t make political donations, put political signs on our yards, or take part in any other partisan political activity. But a party affiliation is meaningless. We can declare ourselves as Democrats, Republicans, independents, Greens, whatever. We can vote, although some journalists choose not to.

Up until 2000, I was a registered Democrat. I switched my party affiliation to “unenrolled” that spring so I could take a Republican ballot in the presidential primary. I decided I liked it and never switched back. But it made no difference in how I reported on politics.

It appears that Lyons and company are attempting to intimidate Platoff, just as they were attempting to intimidate librarians in Plymouth. The goal is to divert attention from their descent into Trumpism.

From time to time I tweet a humorous (but serious) message that it’s time for Gov. Charlie Baker to leave the Republican Party. To his credit, he’s been critical of the Lyons wing. But he needs to say and do more.

Salem mayor calls for the Legislature to be covered by the open meeting law

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. Photo (cc) 2020 by the office of Gov. Charlie Baker.

Well, isn’t this a lovely surprise on a Monday morning. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll has written an op-ed piece for The Boston Globe calling for an end to the state Legislature’s exemption from the open meeting law — a law that requires virtually all city and town boards and many state commissions to conduct their business in public. It’s a bit too late for Sunshine Week, but we’ll take it. Driscoll writes:

If 351 cities and towns can adopt budgets, engage in policy debates, hire and evaluate staff, and create local laws — all while meeting the rightly rigorous standards of the Commonwealth’s Open Meeting Law — there is no valid reason why our state colleagues cannot do the same.

Driscoll also notes that Massachusetts is one of only 11 states whose legislature is exempt from open meeting laws.

Similarly, the Legislature and the courts are exempt from the state’s public records law, and a succession of governors, including Charlie Baker, have claimed that their immediate staff is exempt as well.

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Last fall, our Northeastern journalism students contacted all 257 candidates for House and Senate seats and asked them whether they would support ending that exemption. Sadly, only 71 responded despite repeated emails and phone calls; but of those who did respond, 72% said they favored applying the public records law to the Legislature.

As with the open meeting law, Massachusetts is an outlier: it is one of only four states whose public records laws do not cover legislative proceedings.

The central argument Driscoll offers is unassailable. If cities, towns and state agencies can comply with the open meeting and public records laws, so, too, can the Legislature. It’s long past time to drag the proceedings of the Great and General Court out into the sunlight.

Charlie Baker’s missed opportunity

Walt Whitman in 1863. Photo via the Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images.

I thought Gov. Charlie Baker missed an important opportunity at the end of his State of the Commonwealth speech Tuesday night. Instead of calling out those among his fellow Republicans who’ve decided to support Donald Trump’s deadly insurrection, or announcing that he’s leaving the Republican Party to become an independent or to start something new, he — what?

Besides putting COVID in the rear-view mirror once and for all, my biggest wish for 2021 is for all of us to take Walt Whitman’s charge to heart. Be curious — not judgmental.

This was preceded by “Before I close, I want to offer some thought on the mood of the nation and the events of the past year.” And then he went into a long spiel about “Saturday Night Live,” social media and Walt Whitman. To put it mildly, he failed to deliver on the expectations he had raised. And it’s OK to be judgmental about a failed coup attempt.

Poynter shines a light on GBH News series about minority businesses and state spending

Gov. Charlie Baker. Photo (cc) 2020 by Josh Qualls / Governor’s Press office.

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Poynter has rounded up some of the highest impact local stories of 2020 — and among them is “The Color of Public Money,” a series produced by my friends at GBH. Paul Singer, investigations editor for the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting, recounts his work revealing that the state had failed to live up to its promises in helping minority-owned businesses. Singer writes:

We first established that the value of state spending with minority-owned businesses has DECLINED over the past 20 years (adjusted for inflation). We then established that during Baker’s administration, the state began padding those numbers, taking credit for a bunch of stuff that is not actually “spending” by state agencies.

As a result of Singer’s work, Gov. Charlie Baker created a new state agency and has promised improvements.

Other stories in the Poynter roundup include secrecy over inmate deaths in Montana, a foundation in Miami that provides bloodhounds to law-enforcement agencies, a motorcycle gang that incited violence at a Black Lives Matter rally in Ohio, child hunger in West Virginia, and fake news about a bus in Columbus, Ohio, that was falsely claimed to have been used by rioters.

The Poynter roundup underscores the importance of local and regional journlism. National news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal are doing well, but community news is shrinking. During these final two days of 2020, I hope you’ll consider a donation to NewsMatch, which will double what you give to support nonprofit news. I gave earlier this week.

This year, NewsMatch added a new feature — rather than trying to figure out which nonprofits you want to support, you can just give to NewsMatch and let them figure out where your dollars can be put to the best use.

COVID Diary #5: Gov. Baker gives the go-ahead for houses of worship to reopen

St. Nicholas Church, Transylvania, Romania. Photo (cc) 2014 by fusion-of-horizons

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

Every Sunday evening for the past couple of months, we get together with three other couples from our church via Zoom. Our church has been holding virtual services on Facebook Live, YouTube and local access. They’re doing a great job, but the audio is less than optimal and, needless to say, being together is the main reason why most of us attend services.

Last night we started talking about what church might look like as the shutdown starts to ease. Our 10 a.m. service tends to be cheek-by-jowl. How could we maintain social-distancing? Would we go?

A short time later we got a partial answer. According to new guidelines from Gov. Charlie Baker, houses of worship will be allowed to open as long as they are at no more than 40% capacity. Those attending will have to wear face masks and stay at least six feet away from anyone who isn’t a family member. I would imagine that singing and communion will be banned, too.

This strikes me as pushing the envelope. We attend an Episcopal church, and according to our diocese, churches will remain closed until July 1. I take that as a date when we will reassess, not necessarily reopen. My other denomination is Unitarian, and the Unitarian Universalist Association is telling congregations that they should be prepared to be closed until May 2021.

Through this crisis, Gov. Baker has taken a cautious, data-based approach, but this feels like giving in to loud voices among the religious community who want to reopen regardless of the health implications. I’ll be interested to see what medical experts have to say, but we’ll be sticking with Facebook Live for the foreseeable future.

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Let’s end the state’s casino gambling disaster right now

Steve Wynn. 2008 photo via Wikipedia.

There is nothing surprising about the serious charges of sexual abuse that have been reported about Steve Wynn by The Wall Street Journal. Wynn has denied the allegations. But this is what you get with casino culture. This is what you get with an activity that is accompanied by increases in crime, divorce, even suicide.

I’m glad that state gambling officials are looking into whether Wynn should continue to hold the license for the casino that’s being built in Everett. But Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature should go much, much further. The legalization of casino gambling pushed by Baker’s predecessor, Deval Patrick, was one of the worst decisions ever made in this state. It should be undone. The Everett property should be put to a better and higher use. Why not make it part of the region’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters? How about the facility that Apple wants to build?

Unfortunately, we know what’s going to happen. Maybe the license will be transferred to Sheldon Adelson or another casino executive. Maybe even that won’t happen — Wynn could “retire” from his company and life would go on as usual. It’s a shame. Ultimately the casino business will do for Greater Boston what it did for Atlantic City, laid low through the machinations of yet another sleazy casino operator, Donald Trump. And we’ll all be wondering what our state’s leaders were thinking.

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What if Trump were the Democratic nominee?

Mitt Romney on the campaign trail in 2012. Photo (cc) 2012 by Dave Lawrence.
Mitt Romney on the campaign trail in 2012. Photo (cc) 2012 by Dave Lawrence.

Alex Beam’s column in today’s Boston Globe got me thinking: What would I do if Donald Trump were the Democratic nominee? Alex confesses that he was a late arrival in the #NeverTrump camp. I’m not a Democrat, but I am a liberal. Because of the unique threat I think Trump poses to our democracy, I’ve broken with past practice and said whom I’m voting for this time around: Hillary Clinton. I have great respect for Republicans and conservatives like Mitt Romney and Charlie Baker, who came out against Trump early on. But what would I do if the shoe were on the other foot?

So here’s my little mind game. I can’t think of a Democrat who’s analogous to Trump, so let’s just imagine that Trump himself had won the Democratic nomination; it’s not that far-fetched given his chameleon-like political identity over the years. And since Trump is hardly a traditional conservative, let’s imagine, too, that there’s one significant issue on which he departs from Democratic orthodoxy. For the sake of argument, I’ll stipulate that Trump the Democrat holds the same views on immigration as Trump the Republican.

Now, then. There aren’t really any moderate Republicans left on the national stage, but there are rational, sane Republicans: Romney, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich to name three. So let’s extend this experiment by imagining that Romney had somehow won the nomination. How would I vote?

On the one hand, Trump the Democrat has promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who’d protect same-sex marriage and reproductive rights, to raise the minimum wage, and to reform Obamacare by seeking to add a public option. Romney has promised the opposite, and has vowed to repeal Obamacare, even though it’s based on Romneycare. On the other hand, Trump is Trump, with all the baggage we’ve seen on display throughout this campaign.

I would like to think I’d vote for Romney, but I’m honestly not 100 percent sure. Part of me believes that we could survive four years of Trump the Democrat, and that it would be worth it so as not to unleash the right. Then again, Romney’s a sensible guy, and maybe he could find some sort of middle ground.

It’s not easy, is it?

Is this any way to run a railroad?

I’ve tried to be optimistic about Gov. Charlie Baker’s management of the MBTA. But there are some ominous signs that he’s less interested in creating a world-class public transportation system than he is in reducing costs for his non-T-riding supporters. Three examples:

    • As Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung notes, officials are getting ready to pull the plug on late-night service, which she calls “expensive, impractical, and yet aspiring and completely necessary.” (She compares them to Manolo Blahniks, which Google tells me are shoes.)
    • The MBTA has decided to cancel art works that were going to be installed along the Green Line Extension, a project that may cost $1 billion more than first thought. It’s a short-sighted move that indicates we don’t care about our public spaces.
    • The new commuter-rail schedule announced by Keolis includes significant cuts in service. A number of legislators have written to the T and Keolis to express their concerns. I had thought the reworked schedule was aimed at coming up with a rational timetable that Keolis could actually meet — not at drastically reducing the number of trains.

People are moving to the city and the inner suburbs because transportation from farther away — roads and highways as well as trains and buses — has fallen apart. Baker’s agenda raises the specter that it’s going to become harder and harder to get around in urban neighborhoods as well.

Public-records reform: Start with weak tea; add water

Judging from the tone of coverage, it’s hard to tell whether the Massachusetts House’s unanimous approval of public-records reform legislation Wednesday was a step forward or a setback. But it sounds like the already-watery bill under consideration has been diluted still further.

Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and a staunch advocate of reform, is everywhere, telling Andy Metzger of the State House News Service that the bill is “a mixed bag”; lamenting in an article by Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe, “My concern is that the bill had just introduced an awful lot of ambiguities”; and describing the legislation as “one step forward and one step back” in an article by Shira Schoenberg of MassLive.com.

The problem is that even though Massachusetts’ public-records law is among the worst in the country (the Center for Public Integrity recently gave the state an “F” for public access to information), the bill passed by the House both giveth and taketh away. Here’s Wallack:

The legislation includes a measure designed to reduce the fees for copies. It orders government agencies to publicly designate someone to handle public records requests, and it gives citizens the opportunity to potentially recoup their legal fees if they successfully sue to obtain records….

But the bill also gives agencies significantly more time to respond to requests, allows them to outsource some requests to vendors, and did not go as far as some advocates had hoped to rein in labor charges and penalize officials who flout the law.

The bill also continues to exempt the governor’s office, the judiciary and the Legislature itself from the provisions of the law. A commission is going to study that — although, needless to say, it would be a major surprise if we ever heard about it again.

The only hope now is that the Senate will strengthen the legislation when it comes up for consideration early next year. The danger is that Gov. Charlie Baker will sign a weak bill into law, officials will pat themselves on the back for a job well done, and meaningful reform will be put off for another generation.

Guest commentary: Reform public-records law now

The following statement was released Monday by the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance.

The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance, a network of more than 40 groups committed to reforming the state public records law, today commended Gov. Charlie Baker for issuing guidance to improve state executive agencies’ handling of requests for information, but emphasized that significant changes to the law itself are still needed to achieve broad, enforceable access to public information throughout the Commonwealth.

Responding to widespread criticism that the Massachusetts public records law is among the weakest in the country and routinely flouted by public officials, Baker last Thursday issued a memorandum to cabinet secretaries providing guidance on how to “reduce delays and costs that burden accessibility.” The memo directs agencies to designate a records access officer to help streamline requests, to standardize fees for copying and staff time, and to set expectations for agency response time. The guidance applies only to state executive agencies, not municipalities, independent agencies, or other entities subject to the public records law.

MassFOIA commended the governor’s action but simultaneously called for legislative reform.

“We applaud Gov. Baker for providing leadership and direction to improve access to public information,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “But even the best-intended administrative guidance is inherently limited. It doesn’t have the force of law and it won’t have any impact on access at the municipal level.”

“The governor deserves credit for taking this step,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the ACLU of Massachusetts, “but we also need legislation to fix the law itself and ensure real accountability. Otherwise, Massachusetts will keep getting failing grades and officials will continue to treat freedom of information as a suggestion instead of a public right.”

Several of the provisions outlined in Baker’s memo may increase timely and affordable access, but they set no firm deadlines for complying with requests or overall limits on the amount of money that agencies can charge to provide information the public has a right to obtain.

“Even under this guidance, agencies can — and in all probability will — continue to charge a fortune for requests that they perceive as complex,” said Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “Time and again we’ve seen Massachusetts agencies demand huge fees when other states turn over the same information for a fraction of the cost. While this guidance is a step in the right direction, it won’t prevent abuses of the law.”

“One of the most important reforms is attorney’s fees for those wrongly denied public records, and that cannot be established by the governor,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “That takes legislation. We’re pushing for a vote on a strong comprehensive bill in the legislature in September.” Forty-seven other states provide attorney’s fees to hold officials accountable when they refuse to follow the law.

The state public records law grants the public the right to access information about government operations from the executive branch and municipalities, subject to certain exemptions. MassFOIA contends that the law is weak and needs updating for the digital age, having not been substantially amended since 1973.

In July, the legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight gave the nod to a bill supported by MassFOIA, which is now before the House Committee on Ways and Means. Key provisions would update the law to reflect advances in technology, rationalize fees for obtaining public records by having them reflect actual costs, and provide attorneys’ fees when agencies unlawfully block access to public information. It would also help government officials fielding public records requests by allowing them additional time for compliance and the ability to ask for other accommodations in “exceptional circumstances.” Legislative leaders have indicated a desire to vote on public records reform legislation in the fall.

The proposed legislation aims to improve access to information the law already defines as a public record. It would not alter the scope of the public records law or make any changes to existing exemptions, including those for personal privacy, criminal investigations, personnel records and trade secrets. Rather it would modernize outmoded language in the law and strengthen procedures for compliance and enforcement.

Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Promote access to records in electronic form.
  • Direct agencies to assign a “records access officer” to streamline responses to public records requests.
  • Lower costs for requesters and limit charges for redacting documents to withhold information.
  • Require attorneys’ fees when access to public records is wrongly denied, creating an incentive for agencies to obey the law.
  • Extend the time for compliance from 10 to 15 days.
  • Allow record-keepers to obtain more time or the ability to charge special fees when responding to frequent or unusually large requests.