Out of office

Just because nobody pays attention doesn't mean a guy can't make a royal mess of things.  
By AL DIAMON  |  May 27, 2009

It's only fitting the news media seem to have missed James J. Walsh's death. Even when Walsh was alive, the rare instances when he attracted publicity never worked out too well for him. The only reason he had any kind of political career was because he mostly flew so far below the radar that he had to pick earthworms out of his teeth.

Let that be a lesson. Just because nobody pays attention doesn't mean a guy can't make a royal mess of things.

Walsh moved to Maine from Boston in either the early 1950s or the early 1960s — his accounts tended to contain an above-average amount of wiggle room. He got married and divorced, hung around Scarborough Downs racetrack and the old Geno's Bar on Portland's Brown Street, managed a store, sold vinyl siding and radon-detector devices, and drifted into Democratic politics, where he worked on a few campaigns. In 1978, he ran for Cumberland County register of deeds against Republican Edward Bernstein.

Bernstein had been the register since shortly after the king of England's last appointee to the post was unceremoniously ousted. He ignored Walsh — with his mumbling speaking style, gnome-like features, and mutant-Elvis hairdo — and easily won re-election.

In 1980, Walsh challenged Register of Probate Francis Mulkern, He again lost, but during the campaign he complained to the Portland Evening Express that whenever he called the probate office, Mulkern was "never there." That comment got Walsh noticed and would return to haunt him.

In 1982, Walsh was once again the Democrats' sacrificial lamb against Bernstein. He fumbled his way through an unmemorable campaign, but this time — for reasons no one has ever adequately explained — he won.

Walsh had the same qualifications to oversee an important public office as he did to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Although, as it turned out, his staff did all the work, and he just had to show up, sign the occasional document, and collect his pay. Any idiot could do it.

Well, almost any idiot.

Complaints began trickling in. Some title searchers said recordkeeping at the registry had gotten sloppy. Walsh proposed a solution: He should get a big raise.

The county commissioners politely declined. After Walsh won re-election in 1986 (no mystery there — Republicans nominated a scary, right-wing kook), the commissioners cut his pay, because he "devot[ed] little time to the job."

In response, Walsh devoted even less time. For three months, he refused to show up at all. During that period, $16,000 in county money went missing. Walsh finally reappeared, saying he'd locked the funds in his filing cabinet for safekeeping. A couple of Republican legislators attempted to impeach him, but the move was blocked by majority Democrats. And everything went back to subnormal.

In late 1988, an Evening Express reporter discovered Walsh hadn't been seen in the deeds office for more than two months, and his staff didn't know how to get in touch with him. After stories about his second extended absence appeared, Walsh called in. He'd been "out on personal business," he said, and had tried to phone, but the line was busy.

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