Massachusetts Stirs Memories of Maryland Politics

PETER A. JAY

September 13, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace -- Years ago, boys and girls, before you gre up and became voters, Maryland's government wasn't as boring as it is today. It used to be much more colorful, corrupt and controversial, as well as significantly less expensive.

In those not-so-long ago days, hardly a week passed without a public official being sent off to a federal corrections facility. Prosecutors and defense lawyers became celebrities, grand juries were constantly looking into the doings of politicians and the businessmen who had purchased them, and we all got to know the racketeering statutes by heart. Our state acquired such notoriety that comedians could make Maryland wisecracks national television.

It was a little embarrassing, true, but it was also fun. And even when the indictments were flying thick and fast, the state's good old Triple-A bond rating stayed solid as the sidewalks under our feet, and every budget year ended with a healthy surplus.

For an exhilarating rush of nostalgia in quiet 1992, Marylanders -- can browse in old newspaper clippings or, as I did last month, visit Massachusetts. I'd recommend the latter. It's a trip in every sense of the word. The political cast of characters is right out of the comic books.

This coming Tuesday is primary election day in the Bay State, and the voters are offered quite a collection of targets. Take, for example, the 6th District congressional race, where Democratic Rep. Nicholas Mavroules -- "Nicky Pockets," to the Boston Herald -- is having some unexpected difficulty in winning an eighth term.

A federal grand jury recently indicted Mr. Mavroules, once the mayor of Peabody, for a variety of commonplace seedy transgressions. Most of them involved influence-peddling; the congressman is alleged to have accepted cash, cars and a summer home in Gloucester from folks who wanted him to do favors for them.

He had the delicacy not to accept all the goodies himself, however. In one instance, according the the Herald, a one-fifth interest in a Peabody bar was transferred to his daughter, who was then aged 9.

Mr. Mavroules says it's all a bunch of lies. To defend him in his travails he has retained former Massachusetts Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti, a silver-haired smoothie who has been around forever but whose main contribution is a snide remark he once made about former Governor Endicott Peabody. The governor, Mr. Bellotti said, was the only man to have three Massachusetts towns named after him -- Endicott, Peabody and Marblehead.

Down the coast a way from Mr. Mavroules's North Shore district, you find Cape Cod and the 10th District. The 10th has been represented for 20 years by Congressman Gerry Studds, who attained some national recognition in 1983 when the House of Representatives censured him for having sexual relations with a male page. He had made "a very serious error in judgment," Mr. Studds declared contritely.

The House, which weighs these moral issues with a very sensitive scale, punished Mr. Studds more severely than it did his 4th District colleague Congressman Barney Frank. In 1989, Mr. Frank confirmed that one of his aides was a male prostitute and had been carrying on his business in the boss's apartment. He had been shocked to learn of this, Mr. Frank said, and made the ritual confession of poor judgment. After a year of mulling it over, the House let him off with a reprimand.

It's a fact worth noting that a visitor's delight in following Massachusetts politics these days is heightened by the tabloid vigor of the Herald. It's also a reminder of how much those of us who live in a one-paper community are missing.

Years ago the Globe, today Boston's biggest daily, was a scrappy working-class paper, and the Herald, in various guises and under various ownerships, was a tedious thing written more or less for the upper crust. Now there's been a wonderful switcheroo -- journalistic cross-dressing, you might say, although wouldn't -- and the two papers go around in fetchingly different outfits.

These days the highly-successful Globe is the effete one, oozing political correctness and fashionable intellectual attitudes, and the Rupert Murdoch-owned Herald raises holy hell.

If the Herald were the dominant newspaper, it would not have the same character; if it were the only newspaper, it probably wouldn't have much character at all. But as the number-two daily, it provides a lively counterpoint that gives Boston a much clearer sense of itself as a city.

Just as, for years, it was the Daily News and not the splendid Times that spoke for New Yorkers, today the Herald is the only voice for large segments of greater Boston. If it goes it will leave a void. Baltimoreans who grieved for the News American can understand that, perhaps, but the Herald's loss would be greater because by the time the News American's end arrived, it gone quite gaga and lost all sense of what it was and who its readers were.

In any event, for those Marylanders seeking an educational immersion in a different political culture, a trip to modern Massachusetts is just the ticket. It will remind them how advanced we are here, and help them appreciate that our state's latest multi-million-dollar budget deficit is an example of good government, not bad.

Peter A. Jay's column appears here each week.

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