Tuesday, September 07, 2010

It's... All About Steve...

Despite the widespread panic (or joy) that this year's midterms have elicited on the national level, 2010 is also proving to be an interesting if not particularly apocalyptic and/or providential on the local level.  A smattering of races are attracting some attention.  The lynch pin of these multiples is the cascading effect of someone announcing their retirement.  Longtime Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett announced his retirement spurring a rush of candidates, including State Senator Stephen Buoniconti.  Buoniconti's interest opened up his to a slew of candidates, including his successor in the House Tom Welch.  His seat, in turn, is also up for grabs now.

Our interest today, however is in the DA's race.  By far, it has attracted the most attention in the Pioneer Valley, and the reason is obvious.  A long time incumbent has taken himself out of the race.  The office's jurisdiction stretches from as far out as Blandford and Tollan in the Hill Towns to Monson and Holland out east.  It includes urban centers like Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke.  Moreover, as an executive position, it includes a great deal of power.  The level of interest the race has elicited should come as a surprise to no one.

The Hampden County District attorney, unlike a mayor, but like a state legislator or the Attorney General, is a partisan office and so the primary on Tuesday September 14 is important.  At the moment, there are six candidates for the office, but five are vying for the Democratic nomination.  Mark Mastroianni is running as an independent.  No Republican entered the race, although it is theoretically possible for a write-in candidate to assume the Republican nomination on the fourteenth.

Top left clockwise, Buoniconti, Goodhines, Kogut, Vottero, Spelman, Mastroianni(Masslive)
The candidate for the Democratic nomination include Buoniconti, James Goodhines, Michael Kogut, Stephen Spelman, and Brett Vottero.  Most are said to be former or current prosecutors in the Hampden Country District Attorney's office or elsewhere.  Following spirited debates and months of campaigning, there exists a perception that Buoniconti is in the lead.  If nothing else, Buoniconti has an overwhelming monetary advantage having carried over his money from his senate campaign.

Senator Stephen Buonicontin has been a fixture in West Springfield and later Springfield politics for some time.  Following admission to the bar after graduating from Western New England College School of Law, he worked in the District Attorney's office like many of his rivals.  In addition he was elected to numerous positions in West Springfield city government.  Ten years ago, he was elected to the Massachusetts House representing primarily West Springfield, but also pockets of Springfield and Chicopee.  In 2004, he succeeded Linda Melconian in the Massachusetts Senate, representing a district that encompassed West Springfield, Agawam, half of Springfield and part of Chicopee.  In that time, he no doubt built a network of supporters throughout his district and beyond.

Buoniconti in 2010 (Springfield Library)
That Buoniconti would seek the seat does not come as a surprise.  The ambitious prosecutor turned legislator is among the more visible of the area's senators, has cosponsored much legislation, and has risen rather quickly within the Senate's ranks.  He serves on many high-profile committees and his office, in one of the State House's wings is perched just above the building's main visitor entrance.  Although state senators' offices are often better than those of representatives, Buoniconti's--at least since 2006 not even a full term into his election--were always decent.

However, in a state where politicians often stay put for some time and primary challenges near-sacrilege, ambition is at the mercy of others' inertia.  Speculation has existed for years that Buoniconti would leap at the retirement of either Representatives Olver or Neal (West Springfield, Buoniconti's place of residence is in Olver's district, but technically, the US Constitution only requires a Congressman live in the state in which his district exists, not the district itself).

Stewart in 2009 (Wikipedia)
The easy response to this career is to slam Buoniconti for ambition and blazing a path to a future as an eternal politician.  However, under even the most idealistic of notions about public service, those who aspire to higher office cannot simply walk on stage from nowhere.  The exceptions tend to be independently wealthy figures who make a big to-do about being "outsiders" (who learn how quickly you become an insider and how much better it is to behave as one).  There is a reasonable concern about candidates who have held office using campaign money, but Buoniconti's money advantage does not a victory make.   Ask a Democrat running for reelection about else anywhere in this country.  As for raw ambition, that itself is not a vice.  Rather it is a cop out for opponents of any individual unable to muster a better argument against the latter's success.  Certainly it does not stop at politics.  Consider somebody like Martha Stewart.  Even before her bout with insider trading and prison, she was marked by foes and ill-wishers as an ambitious bitch.

Buoniconti has recently gotten some bad press, which has called into question his suitability for office.  Earlier in the race, Buoniconti was criticized for accepting donation from felons, including those convicted of tax evasion and gambling--felonies, but not violent ones.  Accusations have flown from candidate to candidate about receiving donations from defense attorneys.  That, too, is preposterous, since it is almost certain that the members of the Hampden County Bar Association are among the most likely to donate to candidates in just about any political campaign.  Buoniconti has been criticized for having a law practice with Daniel Kelly, a former Springfield City Councilor, whose own client list supposedly includes members of organized crime.  That connection is tenuous at best.  Given the pesky right of the accused to retain counsel and the level of crime in, well any Northeastern city, it is certain that almost ANY lawyer, especially criminal ones have had intimate dealings with those that have represented, well...criminals!

FBI HQ Washington, DC. (Wikipedia)
For what it is worth, one individual on the comment section (the great peanut gallery of opinion) of an article on the DA race, complained how the corruption of the state is due to bought politicians like DA.  In a state that at times chokes on its own corruption, only a little blame can be laid at the feet of district attorneys.  Since the cities and towns with the counties within Massachusetts operate autonomously from prosecutors' offices, it seems unlikely that police would and could legitimately investigate actual corruption only to have it buried by a district attorney.  Although a DA can direct the relevant police force to investigate something, if public corruption investigations are not coming to fruition it is likely that local or state police or unable (or unwilling) to sniff out the crime.  Realistically only the Attorney General could muster the authority to force an investigation.  If we have anybody to blame it may be corrupt FBI agents who defend their ethnically similar friends over the citizens of the United States (including Massachusetts) at large.

Spelman at a Campaign Event, (Candidate website)
What has arisen as the most potent shot at Buoniconti's DA campaign is the recent revelation that he received over $100,000 over four years as a legal consultant to the Hampden County Retirement board.  The income was not reported on his ethics filings, but he claims to have done the work in his capacity as a private attorney.  Despite these facts, made public by an individual angered by Buoniconti's denial of her pension request, Buoniconti's campaign is unlikely to suffer.  While opponent Goodhines called for Buoniconti to drop out, Spelman more realistically affirmed his call that Buoniconti release his tax returns, a concession to which Buoniconti has agreed.  The senator's failure to report the income as a public sector moneys was foolish, but not definitively unethical.  Even if the Ethics Commission had allegedly said he need not report the money, the goal of ethics is not only to avoid impropriety, but the appearance of impropriety.  On the latter count for Buoniconti: Fail.

Contributions from felons, professional relationships with legal counsel to mob, and legal consulting fees to public agencies are not the more troubling accusations leveled at Buoniconti.  Rather record show that he has received donations from the banking and insurance industries.  Buoniconti sits on the committees that governs them.  This could be more controversial if it were also unusual.  It may not make voters and certainly idealists too happy, but industries frequently shower money on the legislators that sit on the committees that affect said industries.  To some it is a chicken and the egg problem, but it is also an unfortunate symptom of a system reliant on private contributions.  For the record, the various arms of the insurance industry donates to almost everybody in Massachusetts.  Check out the Office of Campaign and Political Finance if you doubt it.

Historic Hampden County Courthouse (Wikipedia)
So what are we left with?  To read the comments on Masslive, the image of Buoniconti is one of a cynical, self-serving, career politicians, with little more than disdain for his constituents.  However, the anonymity of the comments section lends itself to those too cowardly or too overcome by anger to openly write a letter to the editor if not in the Republican, than in the Valley Advocate or Reminder.  Many others might express such views, but lose their credibility when one complains for example, should Buoniconti win the DA's race it will be another reason to move out of Springfield.  The poster "josdylan" may not realize that to make such a move worth it, a disgruntled voter would need to relocate to either near Northampton or into Connecticut.  Everybody in Hampton County votes for DA, not just those among Springfield's meager voter turnout.

Is Stephen Buoniconti what the cacophony of Masslive commentators condemn him to be?  The actual image is a little less clear.  While one could slam him for his closeness to the insurance industry, he has called for better efforts to investigate auto insurance claims fraud, most notably in the cities, which would benefit industry and ratepayer alike (assuming the insurance industry brings down urban rates appropriately).  If he were really as cold and indifferent as portrayed, bad constituents relations would have killed him sooner rather than later.

Although it may be a backhanded assessment, Buoniconti's record is no worse than that of anybody else.  The people who contribute to his campaign are typical of any politician in the Greater Springfield area, whether for office within or representing the city itself or any of its suburbs.  He has cosponsored legislation to address inequities in car repair and to end emergency housing in hotels (that program has since been ended) and has been an advocate for Springfield generally.

Martha Coakley, Mass Attorney General (Wikipedia)
This blog is unlikely to endorse anybody for the Democratic primary for district attorney or possibly anybody for DA in the general either.  As much attention as this race has gleaned, the office, while important, is somewhat limited in its purview if not in the size of its jurisdiction.  Unlike the state Attorney General, the DA is not an advocate in civil action on behalf of the people.  His only real tool is prosecution and therefore most potent threat is hard time, which can, depending on the crime, offer its own dilemmas over the social, economic, and political issues regarding prisons.  Certainly the DA decides, which cases are strong enough to pursue and how to prioritize the office's limited and legislatively appropriate resources.

Much of the attention this race is receiving is no doubt due to the attention crime receive in the cities and how their suburbs react.  Labels like war zone and debatable professional associations have colored the race, but it all really comes down to crime and how we address the feeling that it is escalating.  Whether or not it is (nationally this recession has not seen the typical rise in crime), voters cannot afford to be overcome by that fear, lest they forget other, perhaps more pressing issues, which the District Attorney has no power to remedy.

In the end, this conversation is not "all about Steve."  It is about the people of Hampden County, but what are they really interested in?  Like any election do they know what they are buying and realize the candidates' limits?  Only 8 days separates voters from narrowing the field to two candidates.  It would be foolish to call Buoniconti's victory a fait accompli, but indisputably he has the advantage.  A candidates forum will be held tonight, Sept 7, at Western New England College.  It could be the last word the candidates will have, taken together, until the general election campaign.


Jerold Duquette said...

You don't seem to appreciate the difference between a legislator and a district attorney. None of Buoniconti's rivals for DA have any of the ethical questions plaguing the State Senator.

None of them padded their resume's by claiming to have been a "chief prosecutor" when in fact he had merely filled in while the chief prosecutors were out of the office. None of Buoniconti's rivals has claimed (in only his Spanish language brochure) to have supported CORI legislation that he actually voted against. He makes no mention at all of CORI reform in his english language material.

Buoniconti's "qualifications" are entirely political, while his rivals have considerably more legal and executive experience. Buoniconti has been embarrassed at every debate and has added nothing of substance to the discussion of the issues in this race.

His only advantages are money and name regognition. If he wins, it will be because he drown out the substance of the campaign with vacuous media ads.

Matt S. said...

To the contrary, Jerold, I do appreciate the difference between the two positions.

I thought it was clear, but WMassP&I is not endorsing anybody. Perhaps because of Buoniconti, but just watching the debates it is clear that this contest has exposed itself to be an "every man for himself" food fight.

The decision to measure the vitriol aimed at Buoniconti's reputation and campaign is by far more explanatory than anything else. You may notice that I admit my defense of Buoniconti to be "backhanded." I sought, if nothing else, to dismantle opposition based on a sense that Buoniconti was a villain for being the cold calculating politician. Would voters feel better taken in by a folksy backslapping pol who draws vote on personality alone? Sadly, many good, if calculating, politicians fall to the folksy kind. I admit that was not clear.

Moreover, while I do not indict Buoniconti for his ambition, I only defended political ambition generally specifically sidestepping judgment on his.

I was not aware of, but not surprised to hear of the Spanish pamplets. That fact certainly casts him in a bad light. By far that is the most disconcerting. While his debate performance has been debateable, I find that some candidates have left a great deal to be desired.

While Buoniconti's money and name recognition may very well win him the DA's office, barring unforeseen circumstances, it seems likely that it may be his glass ceiling. A future race will have this tarnish added to it unless he does something superlative as DA. If he loses, Buoniconti's ambitious flame is likely extinguished.