Bill Bulger is as reserved as John Powers is gregarious, as precise as Powers is convoluted. Their differences overshadow their common turf, South Boston, and their shared experience as Massachusetts Senate presidents.
They have long circled each other warily, but the animus spilled into public view in 1982, when Powers’ pay as clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court was frozen, as was that of his assistants. For five years, the freeze kept his pay at $44,000.
Powers says that the pay freeze was Bulger’s retaliation for having removed James (Whitey) Bulger, the senator’s brother, from the courthouse payroll years earlier. Bulger argues that Powers brought the pay freeze on himself -- although Bulger also says he was not displeased to see it happen.
Depending on who is assessing it, the feud is an example of Bulger as a vengeful tyrant or Powers as a jealous has-been.
Powers views Bulger as a lucky upstart who fell into the Senate presidency in 1978, a job that, 20 years earlier, Powers had wrested from GOP hands in a historic coup. Powers hints that Bulger lacks deference for those who went before him and helped pave his way.
The view from the Bulger camp is that Powers is a caricature whose moment quickly passed.
It is true that Powers did not last long at the top. In 1959, not long after he became the Senate’s first Democratic president, he lost his bid for Boston mayor to John Collins, then a little-known Probate Court registrar. It was one of the biggest upsets in Boston history.
The defeated Powers lined himself up with a pay raise and sinecure at the nearby Suffolk County Courthouse as clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court. He replaced another former senate president who was forced out due to his involvement in the Undercommon Garage scandal.
Bill Bulger, in his first public comments on the issue, maintains that his problem with Powers really began when he started getting word that Powers was planning to use the issue of Whitey Bulger’s job as a political club.
Whitey Bulger had left his custodian’s job in the courthouse in 1971 -- about the time he teamed up with a longtime Boston gangster named Stevie Flemmi, a major loan shark and gambler in Roxbury and the South End. But Whitey Bulger stayed on the courthouse payroll for another seven years, until Powers removed him in 1978, the year that Bill Bulger became Senate president.
Powers insists he meant no harm by removing a man who was on an unpaid leave for seven years. But his words rub the wound: “I came across the name on the payroll. James Bulger . . . I’m from South Boston and I know who the troublemakers are. He was a guy shortly out of prison for bank robberies and I knew about what he was doing in South Boston. A bank robber with all the keys to the courthouse. I saw the name and said ‘What’s this?’ There’s been problems ever since.”
If there was any small mystery about what had happened, it ended when John Powers and Bill Bulger had a chance encounter at a retirement party at Joe Tecce’s Restaurant in the North End in 1984. Powers spotted Bulger, who was sitting with former senator George Kenneally of Dorchester. “Why did you hold up my pay?” he asked.
“You’re saying bad things about my family,” said Bulger.
Powers rejoined, “If you’re talking about your brother, I did you a favor.”
That was four years ago. It has been silence ever since. “It’s not my fault, who his brother is,” says Powers.
For his part, Bulger struggles to stay above the fray -- “There’s no adrenaline flowing now,” he says -- and he regrets that the flap attracted attention for as long as it did. His posture on Powers moves quickly from ‘’it’s sad” to “it’s tacky” to “what else was I to do?”
Bulger says Powers wanted to intimidate him by publicizing the activities of his brother. But, says Bulger, he decided long ago he would never let that happen.
“I simply would not be intimidated by someone who thought he was the only one who could be president of the senate for South Boston. I did get my brother there after he got out of the slammer. I did what any brother would do. That’s all.”