The Curse of the Big Dig

Tthe mere mention of the Central Artery Project can derail one's hopes for higher office. Charlie Baker is finding that out now.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  March 17, 2010

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Call it the Curse of the Big Dig: virtually every politician with statewide significance who has over the years become intertwined with the Central Artery Project (as it is officially known) has seen his or her dreams of higher office dashed.

Martha Coakley is its latest victim. After tackling Big Dig–related prosecutions and settlements — which some felt were insufficiently harsh on the companies involved — as the state's attorney general, Coakley was denied in her bid to be elected US senator.

This is not to say that the Big Dig was what did Coakley in (although it may have contributed to the perception of her as "cautious"). But she joins a long list that includes former governor Bill Weld (who lost his race for the US Senate) and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidates Scott Harshbarger, Tom Reilly, Shannon O'Brien, and Joe Malone — as well as the many auditors, inspectors general, agency directors, board members, and legislative committee chairs who have never gone on to win higher office.

Now gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker, former secretary of administration and finance under Weld, will try to break that curse — but already finds his opponents hanging the Big Dig albatross around his neck.

The Massachusetts Democratic Party has even launched a Web site (bigdigbaker.com) dedicated to speculation about the role Baker played in the project's financing more than a decade ago.

This is surely a measure of the political potency of the Big Dig in Massachusetts. Indeed, anyone who thinks that the state has moved beyond our obsession with the cost overruns and fiscal shenanigans of the Central Artery Project need only look at the role it is playing in this year's elections.

The open race to succeed Joseph DeNucci as state auditor features former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board member Republican Mary Connaughton, who has been a vocal critic of the project and related transportation oversight and funding. And Malone — who tried to make the Big Dig an issue against Paul Cellucci in 1998, but who can also be faulted for signing off on the funding plans as treasurer — is expected to enter the race for Congress, to replace Bill Delahunt. Their depiction of their respective Big Dig roles may be key to whether voters view them as change agents or participants in the flawed system.

Meanwhile, in the spotlight race for governor, Baker's Republican-primary foe Christy Mihos — another former Turnpike Authority board member — uses his long-time Big Dig opposition track record as his calling card. Tim Cahill, as state treasurer, has been and will continue also to be at odds with Governor Deval Patrick over funding the Turnpike Authority's Big Dig–related debts.

Baker's opponents have been trying to tie him to the Big Dig ever since he announced his intention to run for governor last summer. Their argument is that Baker, as the top budget officer under Weld, bears much of the responsibility for the financial fiasco. In addition to the Democratic Party's Web site, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray has been particularly aggressive — at Sunday's St. Patrick's Day breakfast in South Boston, Murray sang a ditty called "Pothole Charlie," which charged that Baker "baked a Big Dig funding scheme."

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