An accidental governor

November 30, 1997|By George F. Will

BOSTON -- William Weld adorned the governor's office with a portrait of a predecessor, the always raffish and occasionally felonious James Michael Curley. Paul Cellucci, who acquired the office when Mr. Weld resigned in boredom to accept nomination as ambassador to Mexico, replaced Curley's portrait with that of John Volpe, the state's second Italian-American governor (the first was Foster Furcolo). Volpe came close to being the first Italian-American president.

Nixon's man

In 1968, Richard Nixon narrowed his vice presidential choice to two governors, Maryland's Spiro Agnew and Volpe. Eventually, Nixon eliminated Volpe because he had run poorly as a favorite-son candidate in the Massachusetts primary. But for that, Volpe might have been elevated when Nixon resigned.

Mr. Cellucci, who was elevated by Mr. Weld's ennui, enjoys the Volpe example of history's vagaries almost as much as he is enjoying being another example. He bears a striking resemblance to Robert De Niro and is starring in an unlikely role for a Republican -- an accidental governor who is well-positioned to be elected in a state where only 14 percent of the voters have the temerity to register Republican.

Undefeated in a political career that began when he was 22, Mr. Cellucci, now 49, knows the secret -- secret? -- of political success in these salad days of America's economy: cut taxes. At least 23 times.

Last July, on his first day as governor, he proposed the largest tax cut in Massachusetts history. Debate about this will dominate next year, a gubernatorial election year. And the legislature will deliberate while a citizens' group attempts to make the deliberations irrelevant by enacting the tax cut by initiative. So either the legislature or the electorate is apt to reduce the state income tax from 5.95 percent to 5 percent.

It was 5 percent until 1989. Then the legislature raised it as a ''temporary'' measure to pay off the bonds that were floated in the 1980s to fund the operating deficit produced by Gov. Michael Dukakis' spending binge that added 20,000 employees to the state payroll and gave Massachusetts the lowest rated of all the states' bonds -- one notch above junk bonds.

Mr. Cellucci's proposed income tax cut would be tax cut No. 22 of the seven-year Weld-Cellucci era. Mr. Weld signed into law the first 19, and Mr. Cellucci already has signed Numbers 20 and 21 -- ending the sales tax on Internet services, and exempting veterans' pensions from income taxes.

The 23rd cut he favors would reduce from 12 percent to 5.95 percent the rate on dividends and interest, a tax particularly disliked by the 13 percent of the Massachusetts population over 65.

Democrats dominate the legislature (33-7 in the Senate, 130-29 with one independent in the House), so Mr. Cellucci argues that a Republican governor is indispensable to two-party competition.

To stimulate educational excellence in grades K-12 Mr. Cellucci would like to undo something the Know-Nothings did in 1855. He favors a voucher system to enable parents to choose among public and private schools, but that will require ridding the state constitution of the language that forbids the expenditure of any public money in private schools.

This language came from the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, a semisecret organization (when asked about it, members were supposed to answer ''I know nothing'') dedicated to the proposition that immigration should be restricted, the residency requirement for citizenship should be 21 years and all foreign-born citizens and all Catholics should be ineligible for elective office. A rousing debate about this legacy of nativism, as well as about taxation, would banish boredom from Massachusetts and make Mr. Cellucci into more than a governor that boredom made.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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