Chaos Theory

2010 might be the year Massachusetts politics undergoes an unprecedented reshuffling.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  January 8, 2010

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In less than two weeks, when Massachusetts voters elect Martha Coakley to the US Senate — let's not pretend that Republican state senator Scott Brown has any chance of pulling off the monumental upset — they will trigger a massive domino effect that has the state's political class buzzing with anticipation.

It will begin with the state legislature appointing a temporary replacement for Coakley as attorney general, until the November election. Political oddsmakers believe it will be one of two state representatives: Charles Murphy of Burlington or Peter Koutoujian of Waltham.

But even before that appointee puts his name on the AG's letterhead, several other officeholders are expected to announce that they are running for the job — each leaving a vacancy for others to pursue. And so on.

The biggest of those chain reactions would be sparked if Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin decides to join that AG race, rather than run for re-election. Galvin has made clear his interest. Should he jump into that race, a year from now we'll have new faces at four statewide constitutional offices, since Treasurer Tim Cahill is running for governor and Auditor Joseph DeNucci has announced that he will not run for re-election.

As many as a dozen pols are expected to surrender their current jobs to chase after those and other openings. Consider that earlier this week Quincy City Councilor John F. Keegan opened a campaign account to run for state senator, on the assumption that incumbent Michael Morrissey will run for Norfolk County district attorney, to replace William Keating, who is expected to run for Coakley's AG position.

That kind of thing is happening in every corner of the commonwealth. It's an amazing shake-up, in a state that's been notable in recent years for its political stability. Fundraisers, campaign managers, and political consultants say they have been inundated with inquiries for their services.

It should make for a fun year for political junkies. More important, in a state where incumbents typically get re-elected in perpetuity without breaking a sweat — and often without another name on the ballot — voters will have real opportunities in 2010 to choose fresh blood and new thinking, through a raft of competitive elections.

The Kennedy factor
Speculation about impending shake-ups is a constant in Massachusetts politics. The merest rumor of a possible opening can prompt state pols to start spinning theories that make them sound like Jeff Goldblum explaining chaos theory in Jurassic Park: if Congressman so-and-so retires, they explain, it will start a chain reaction that opens a selectman seat in some faraway town.

But the chaos never seems to materialize. That has created "clogged pipelines" at every level of government, in the words of one officeholder, with people holding the same office for years, or decades.

That begins at the top, as there can be no "trickle-up" political movement if there is nowhere for aspiring pols to go. And this is a state where, until Ted Kennedy's death last year, even the state's junior US senator had held his seat for more than a quarter century.

Massachusetts's 10 current US congressmen have an average tenure of more than 15 years. The 25 sheriffs and DAs are not far behind, averaging 12 years in office. DeNucci has been auditor since 1987; Galvin has been secretary since 1994.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Deval Patrick, Massachusetts, U.S. Congress,  More more >
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