It seems callous to talk about the political implications of Milena Del Valle’s death Monday night, which came when she was crushed by a three-ton chunk of ceiling inside a Big Dig tunnel. But a host of factors — Mitt Romney’s White House ambitions, the 2006 Massachusetts governor’s election, the Big Dig’s bloated $14.6 billion price tag — make the tunnel collapse that took the 38-year-old Jamaica Plain woman’s life an intensely political matter, both locally and nationally.
The stakes are highest — and the damage could be greatest — for Governor Mitt Romney, who aspires to run the United States but hasn’t been able to get a handle on the Big Dig boondoggle during his three and a half years in office. In that time, the governor’s Big Dig strategy has been simple: call for the ouster of ex–Republican state senator Matt Amorello — who, as chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, has had ultimate control over the Big Dig since his appointment in 2002.
It’s hard to argue with Romney’s basic premise. Amorello’s defenders invariably point out that most of the Big Dig’s problems existed before he took the reins. But the fact remains that Amorello has repeatedly promised the public that the Big Dig’s various tunnels are safe. Hell, he’s even accepted an award for his involvement with the project. Now, though, Amorello looks like an ignorant jackass — and any assurances he makes in the future are sure to ring hollow.
Unfortunately for Mitt, Amorello — who’s comfortably ensconced in the State House’s good-old-boy network — hasn’t been inclined to heed Romney’s calls for his resignation. And his former colleagues in the Massachusetts legislature have shown no inclination to dislodge him from office. So Amorello happily keeps his job, month after month, year after year.
But now that a woman has died, all that may change. At a press conference the day after Del Valle’s death, Romney announced he was starting legal proceedings to remove Amorello from his post. Romney wanted to do that last year, and asked the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for an advisory opinion that he hoped would give him the requisite legal justification. But when the SJC didn’t comply — “The governor is seeking approval from the justices for what is essentially a basic employment decision,” the court noted dryly — Romney opted not to push the issue.
Today, the governor expressed confidence that his current bid to boot Amorello would pass legal muster. “While I take this action in the immediate aftermath of last night’s tragedy, I don't take it solely because of that tragedy,” Romney said. “This has been a continuing and ongoing pattern of mismanagement. And I’m following the course set out in the law, to bring in new leadership that can restore the public’s confidence.... We believe that the series of steps and mismanagement of this Turnpike Authority leader have reached a level that we will be able to prevail legally in this removal effort.”
Here’s Mitt’s big problem: the SJC didn’t tell Romney he couldn’t demote Amorello last year; instead, the court simply refused to give the governor the legal reassurance he was seeking. Consider the following remarks made by Romney at Tuesday’s press conference, after the Phoenix asked if firing Amorello could have worked at an earlier date: “I don’t think it’s within the realm of my experience to predict what a court would or would not do, and what kind of challenge might be made. We’ve read very carefully the decision that was handed down when [acting governor Jane] Swift took action to remove two board members” — Christy Mihos and Jordan Levy, in a 4-3 ruling issued in 2002 — “and we tried to follow that decision as well as we can. But there’s always uncertainty in assessing where a court would come out.”
In other words, Romney could have forced the matter. But this would have meant looking foolish if Amorello managed to keep his job. So the governor played it safe and protected his well-burnished image. But now comes the uncomfortable question: if Romney had acted differently, might Del Valle’s death have been prevented?
Romney’s unwillingness to be more aggressive with Amorello hasn’t played well in local conservative circles. Last year, the Herald’s generally conservative editorial board slammed the governor for giving up too easily; just this morning, WRKO-AM talking head and right-wing raconteur John DePetro slammed Romney for his lack of follow-through. (“What do you say to that guy who lost his wife? ‘I tried, but Matt wouldn’t leave — sorry about your wife’?”) So just imagine how well Romney’s inability to pry Amorello loose — and the state of the Big Dig in general — are going to play nationally.
After all, the governor sells himself as a “Turnaround” artist, a man with a genius for taking bad situations and whipping them into shape. But as Romney looks back on his three and a half years in office, what real improvements to the Big Dig status quo can he cite? The price tag keeps going up. The project is coming apart at the seams. Despite all the tough talk, Amorello still runs the show. And someone just died. Talk about a treasure trove of opposition research.