It was the height of the Rules Reform crusade, and Bill Bulger was in his ornate inner sanctum, listening to a fresh-faced newcomer to his Senate talk about change. George Bachrach was trying to convince Bulger to lead, not block, the campaign for open government.
“You could be a hero, Mr. President,” Bachrach cajoled. But the Senate president just shook his head.
“You guys from Cambridge can be heroes, but guys like me can’t,” Bachrach recalls Bulger replying.
“I’ll always be a redneck mick from South Boston.”
A redneck mick from South Boston. An old-school pol. A person of small mind and narrow view. That is the image that Bulger feels is indelibly and unfairly imprinted on the public psyche, the legacy of his 1970s opposition to busing. No matter how much good he might do, he cannot erase it. Even when he wins, he loses.
It is an ironic image for a man who, by many accounts, is the most powerful politician in the state, an orator who entertains crowds with humor and references to the classics, a man considered wittier and smarter than almost any of his colleagues.
But there is also an element of truth in it, and much of it is of Bulger’s own doing during his 10 years as Senate president.
For Bulger’s political bent is local, his legislative agenda often parochial, his willingness to play hardball legendary. Bulger’s us-versus-them view of the world, and his “never take an insult” vow, seem drawn directly from the streets of turf-conscious South Boston.
Some call it his dark side.
”There are two Billy Bulgers. If you are going to be just his friend . . . he’s very polite, very proper, a very nice person. A good host, all that,” says House Speaker George Keverian. But, he says, there is the other side: “He gets steely-eyed, he gets cold.”
With Bulger, it is often one or the other, a stark choice between loyal friend or disloyal foe. If Tip O’Neill’s credo is “all politics is local,” Bill Bulger’s might read “all politics is personal.”
When Keverian took over as speaker of the House, he quickly got a taste of dealing with his counterpart in the upper chamber. “He would call me and more or less expect things to happen.
“ ‘I’d like that bill out today.’
“I would say, ‘No, that bill’s not coming out.’ And I would argue the merits, and when I was through, he’d say, ‘You just don’t like me.’
“. . . He personalizes everything.”
Bulger’s reputation statewide is of a man addicted to autocratic power, someone who rules with the iron fist of a ward boss. “The word that I heard most often from my constituents was ‘dictator, ’ ” laments one puzzled senator, who admires Bulger.
Earlier this year, a poll circulated among Republicans showed that for every voter who has a positive view of Bulger, almost three others have a negative view. Another recent survey, done in the Boston area, found that a candidate who called for Bulger’s ouster as Senate president was more likely to get elected than someone who did not, although a majority had no opinion.
It is a vexing image problem, the kind usually reserved for rough-edged politicos, not an Irish jokester whose charm disarms, a proper Senate president who disdains drink and dalliance.
But those who think that Bulger spends his hours cracking the whip on Beacon Hill are wrong. He prefers to nurture consensus rather than rule by decree. Only on rare occasions will he exploit the super-concentrated power that is vested in him by Senate tradition and rules. When he does, it goes down in Senate lore as a warning to would-be foes: Do not mess with Bill Bulger. Just as Bostonians used to hang the bodies of pirates near the mouth of the harbor as a warning to would-be buccaneers, it is the deterrent effect that counts.
“An important part of his power is the myth of revenge. An important part of every single effective public official is that perception and myth,” says lobbyist Judy Meredith. “And the longer the memory, the more scared people are. Revenge is a dish that tastes sweetest cold.”
Says another friend, referring to Bulger’s sharp verbal skills, “Bulger at times personifies the iron hand in the velvet glove, and the velvet is very, very deep and plush.
”And the stiletto in that hand is so slim, slender and sharp that it’s only after it’s withdrawn that you feel that you know what happened.”
Personally attesting to Bulger’s power are, among others, Supreme Judicial Court Clerk John Powers, who says Bulger froze his pay after Powers eliminated the Senate president’s brother Whitey from the Suffolk County Courthouse payroll, and Judge E. George Daher, chief justice of the state Housing Court. Daher had his authority diluted and his pay cut after he refused to carry out an appointment that Bulger had, in response to a deathbed wish, said he would try to secure for the son of a friend. See accompanying stories. Responds Bulger, “No one has been punished by me. I wouldn’t punish anyone.”
In fact, most days Bulger is content to sit passively before his decorous chamber, allowing his members to do what they will, as they will. They are left to guess at what he wants, and then act accordingly. His is a strange sort of control, a power that comes more from what might be than from what is.
It is, says assistant GOP Senate leader David Locke (R-Wellesley), “like someone holding a gun on you. They don’t have to use it, but it’s there, and as long as you can see it, you act accordingly. Even though the person at the other end of the gun has not said a word, might not use it under any circumstances. It may be empty . . . but you don’t know that.”
There is no doubt the 31 Democrats in the Senate are loyal to their leader. ‘’I liken them to tigers or lions in the circus, each on their stool,” says Locke. “He doesn’t even have to use a whip to get each up on their stool, he just has to look at them, and up they go.”
While Locke’s partisan rhetoric may be overdrawn, few dispute that the Senate has become a chamber known for closed-door decision-making and lack of debate. As one veteran legislator put it, power has become so concentrated that “all you need is (Senate Ways and Means Chairman) Pat McGovern and Bill Bulger. The rest can go home, absolutely don’t have to be there.”
Indeed, only a handful of senators are likely to be found in attendance during regular sessions, which have become pro forma exercises. Bulger is said to control all, from the agenda to the distribution of typewriters and pencils. He expects that anyone with complaints will air them privately. Such matters are not appropriate for public discussion in Bulger’s Senate.
Sen. Paul Harold of Quincy, who had a celebrated run-in with Bulger in 1979 that cost Harold’s district part of the appropriation for Quincy Junior
College, says that only insiders know what is happening during a Senate session. “A lot of the negotiations in the Senate take place at the president’s desk . . .” he says, “unless you are part of that little gaggle of senators, you really don’t know what is going on.”
Yet despite the chilling effect of the past, the Senate is slowly shifting toward more open proceedings. And Bulger is credited with removing some of the stigma of the 1970s when three senators were jailed for extortion. Says Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Bulger: “There has never been any question about the integrity of the Senate since he has been president.”
Bulger maintains a personal lifestyle that does not suggest wealth. His picket-fenced home in South Boston is modest, as is his summer home on the Cape.
Both stand in sharp contrast to Bulger’s imposing and stately office, with its burnished woodwork and carpeted floors made all the more regal by a recent $160,000 investment in redecorating.
His income -- a combination of his Senate salary (now $75,000) and a private law practice -- has fluctuated over the years. He reported a minimum 1986 income of almost $200,000, but the next year it was less than half that amount. Bulger is guarded about the details of his finances. He says his higher income in 1986 reflected legal fees paid to him for mediating a protracted contract dispute, but declined to identify the case.
Asked about what appears to be his major speculative investment, participation in a trust that recently bought a building across from the Columbia Point housing development, he could not remember if he had to borrow money to buy in. “I don’t know quite how Tom structured it,” he said, referring to old friend and former law partner Thomas Finnerty. “This real estate stuff is complicated.”
Until last year, Bulger’s income was regularly augmented by up to $30,000 in honorariums, but he recently discontinued the practice, which has been widely criticized for drawing money from vested interests.
Many senators express open admiration for Bulger, particularly his wit and his “family values,” saying that any problems stem from the “system,” not Bulger’s use of it.
When George Bachrach entered the Senate in 1982, he tried to change the rules, open up the process. At the time, he saw Bill Bulger as part of the problem. Now, from his downtown law office, the ex-senator praises Bulger as ‘’an extraordinary leader” caught up in “an extraordinarily bad system.”
“I keep trying to resist this notion . . . that he’s a bully, or that he dictates. He does not. Or that he twists arms. He doesn’t. He is, in fact, charming and wonderful in many ways,” says Bachrach.
“But it’s clear that the affirmative, the positive exercise of power he reserves for those who are loyalists . . . so it’s not that he kills your bill. He just leaves it to its own devices, leaves you to try to shepherd it through, and by and large, most people know that unless you’ve gotten a green light somewhere, it’s not going to go anywhere. So you shepherding it through is pretty much a dead-end process.”
Last session, supporters of a little-noticed elderly care bill were counting on Bulger’s assurances that the bill would get a final vote. Instead, it was left to die in the final hours of the session, just one routine vote short of victory. By some accounts, it was passed over in retaliation for House defeat of a special interest bill of considerably less importance.
The apparent tit-for-tat incident may cost hundreds of Massachusetts’ elderly a substantial portion of their life savings. Critics say the episode illustrates Bulger’s tolerance for vengeful pettiness in the Senate.
At issue was a bill allowing elderly couples to keep half of their life savings and still be eligible for state assistance in paying medical bills. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Robert F. Jakubowicz (D-Pittsfield), won final approval in the House and a final, routine vote in the Senate. Then, inexplicably, it stalled.
Jakubowicz implored Bulger to move the bill along. “Each time he’d smile and say, ‘Oh, haven’t we taken care of that? We will, don’t worry,’ “ says Jakubowicz.
Also in the final days of the session, Jakubowicz helped kill a bill legalizing the sale of Fourth of July sparklers -- a bill that public safety officials said endangered children. The bill had been backed by, among others, Bulger’s majority leader, Sen. Walter Boverini, who was working at the behest of Walter Dropo, a former Red Sox player who has owned a fireworks business with his two brothers and served as a consultant to an Alabama distributor of firecrackers.
Jakubowicz made no connection between the two issues until he was called to the Senate hours before adjournment. There, Boverini wanted to know why he killed the sparkler bill. He explained his reasons for doing so and again urged action on his elderly relief bill.
But later that day, the session adjourned. The report from the Senate: There was no time to get to final approval of the elderly relief bill.
Jakubowicz says he believes -- although he has no proof -- that his bill died in the Senate because he helped kill the sparkler bill favored by the Senate leader. “Apparently the Senate president will smile and say he will get something done . . . and then he won’t do it because of other reasons,” says Jakubowicz. “I have to assume that someone in the Senate personally had difficulty with me, and because of that, he personally didn’t act on it.”
A spokesman for Bulger denies that elderly relief bill was killed to avenge defeat of the sparkler bill. “It was just one of hundreds of bills that didn’t get through at the end of the session,” says aide Paul Mahoney. Boverini, too, says there was no connection. He has arranged to sponsor a new version of the elderly bill.
Still, the episode reflects the worst of the Senate, say critics.
”Because that sparkler bill was killed in revenge, it could affect the lives of thousands of people. . . people who are most vulnerable, most dependent on the state for assistance. They would devastate these people’s finances for a firecracker bill! It is obscene,” says one lobbyist.
“Bulger has created a climate where people around him feel free to be their worst.”
The lobbyist declined to be identified, as did many other people questioned about Bulger. Some refused to talk at all, hesitant to incur the Senate president’s wrath. Others spoke only with his permission, limiting on-the- record comments to praise.
A political consultant who admires Bulger -- a person who swears that Bulger has never leaned on a senator to vote contrary to conscience -- had this to say when asked if Bill Bulger has a dark side: “Oh, absolutely. Mean. A mean side . . . but he would not see it as a mean side. He would see it as his righteousness.”
Asked the same question on the record, the consultant replied: “No. Absolutely not . . . you think I’m crazy?”
Even those officials who have in the past been prominent critics of Bulger’s Senate are now strangely quiet on the topic.
Former Sen. Allan McKinnon of Weymouth, now the chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, is remembered for his eloquent challenge to questionable Senate practices during the now-famous 1982 “feeding frenzy.” But he won’t talk about it today.
Equally reticent is former state Sen. Chester Atkins of Harvard, now a congressman. Atkins startled Beacon Hill when, after years of doing Bulger’s bidding as Ways and Means chairman, he criticized the president’s style. He was denounced as disloyal, too interested in his own standing in the polls as he contemplated running for governor. His office says that he fears talking about Bulger would “only make things worse.”
Bill Bulger was on his way to speak to a dinner of distinguished people. He was in a car with other guests and they were running late. But on the way, Bulger insisted on stopping at a nursing home to visit a 95-year-old woman who was celebrating a birthday. The nursing home’s visiting hours were over, but he convinced the staff to let him in for a few minutes. She was delighted to see him, and they chatted for several minutes before he returned to the car and headed for the dinner.
When he arrived, he joked about being late, but told no one the reason. Making political capital out of such small acts of kindness, says a friend who relates the story, “is not his style.”
Bulger’s Senate may fail to act on the elderly relief bill, but Bulger rarely fails to be attentive to the needs of individuals from his district.
From the $75,000-a-year lifetime tenure Convention Authority job that went to former top aide Francis X. Joyce, to the nursing home bed he arranged for the elderly mother of the Jesuit who taught him Greek at Boston College, Bulger takes care of people. If someone comes to Bulger’s office with a legitimate problem, the Senate president is there to help, and the service extends to his family. When the head clerk’s job in Boston Juvenile Court opened up, it went to his brother John.
Bulger makes no bones about his ability to find people jobs.
“I would prefer that there was nobody around looking for a job, but since they are, and that’s their need, I try to help out,” says Bulger.
“I think I have been pretty good at the patronage.”
Bulger can also take jobs away, as he did when his Senate wrested control last year of the Science Resource Office, an obscure research bureau funded by the Legislature at $225,000 a year. When Bulger got control of the office, he demanded that each staff member sign a letter of resignation, which they did. He then hired back all but three of the staffers. One who lost her job was Rita Frankel who, according to sources, was axed because she was a friend of a talk show host Jerry Williams, whom Bulger detests.
“When he (Wiliams) talked before the Committee on Taxation, she gave him a cup of coffee. And the word got out: She knows him, she’s his friend,” says a State House observer. Bulger’s response, said the source, was to get rid of her. “You can’t have her around here,” Bulger was said to have declared.
Bulger aide Mahoney says that Frankel was not re-hired because she had orignally been hired by the House, and Bulger kept only staffers hired by the Senate. The Williams connection had nothing to do with it, he said.
Bulger’s dislike of the media is not limited to Williams; until recently, he has refused to talk to reporters, making him an anomaly among politicians. He has been the polar opposite of Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, another up-from- the-ranks success story from South Boston, a man whom Bulger is said to disdain.
Bulger has seen no need to talk to reporters; his obligation, he says, is to talk to his constituents, and no one else. It is an attitude that has, by most accounts, contributed to Bulger’s tarnished public image, since he has stubbornly refused to explain himself. And, his colleagues say, it has rubbed off on the Senate itself.
”Billy Bulger’s greatest disservice to himself, until very recently, has been his decision not to share his decision-making process with media people,” says political consultant Michael Goldman. “A good example of what I mean is that Bill Bulger should have gotten a tremendous amount of credit for giving a woman (Sen. Patricia McGovern) the first position of real power in the history of the commonwealth. Unfortunately, because of the relationship he’s had in the past (with the press) the significance was lost.”
From the beginning, Bulger has simply not seen the need to share his thoughts with anyone until he is ready to speak publicly. James Michael Curley never explained himself and neither would he. Shaking his head, Bulger speaks of a columnist who has lamented that the Senate president “never tells us what he’s thinking.” Exactly says Bulger. “I don’t think I have any obligation to tell him what I’m thinking.”
Even those who praise Bulger, human services lobbyist Judy Meredith among them, has limited patience with Bulger’s pique with the press. “ ‘If you choose not to learn how to use the press . . . then don’t whine about the bad press, pal, OK?’ -- that’s what you want to say to him,” says Meredith. “You are in public life, you chose public life, you’ve got it.”
Meredith is rueful about Bulger’s negative image because, as a lobbyist for the poor, she sees a fast friend in Bulger. The Senate president may be conservative on social issues, such as abortion and the death penalty, but he understands what it is like to grow up in a housing project in a way that Michael Dukakis never could.
“Bill Bulger gavels stuff through,” says Meredith. “I’ve watched him on a number of unpopular things, for state prisoners, state welfare recipients, state dependents. . . . I’ve watched him gavel them through, and people, Republicans, would stand up and scream about the process, and he would grin. And that would be it.”
Bulger’s friends and enemies agree that he has almost total control of the Senate. His friends say that is because he has treated the senators well, so they willingly offer up their loyalty. Enemies would say it is through unspoken intimidation. But both agree that Bulger’s influence does not always extend to the House, a fact that is often a point of frustration for him in his prickly dealings with Keverian. He had far better luck trading off bills with Keverian’s predecessor, Thomas McGee, who was toppled in 1985.
Over the years, one of the few bills that Keverian wanted badly would have built a new sports arena at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst campus. It had been a pet cause of his House colleague and friend, Bill Mullins, who had lobbied for more than a decade for the all-purpose recreation center that would restore college hockey at the school. After Mullins died in 1985, Keverian took up the cause and pushed for the 10,000-seat facility. As a posthumous tribute, he urged that it be named after Mullins.
Soon after Mullins’ death, Keverian walked across the third floor to the Senate president’s office and, swallowing his pride, asked Bulger to cosponsor the bill that would honor a man they both had known and respected.
Bulger willingly signed the bill as a cosponsor -- but then held it in committee for three years, captive of a legislative standoff over Bulger’s convention center bill, held by the House, which would have the state pay off the Hynes Auditorium’s deficit of more than $3 million.
Whenever Keverian’s office inquired about when the UMass sports center bill would be freed, Bulger’s answer has been: Where is my convention center bill?
As the session was ending in 1987, there was a conference telephone call between the speaker’s office and the president’s. There were several senators gathered in Bulger’s office and some aides in the speaker’s office. The conversation went like this: ‘’Mr. Speaker, I have a group of our colleagues here in the room. You’re on the speaker phone, is it all right?”
“How is my convention center bill coming?”
“Well, Mr. President, you know there are some problems with that bill.”
“By the way, maybe what I should do is name the convention center after somebody who is a colleague of mine who died. And then maybe we could get the bill moving, isn’t that a way to do it? That’s what you do. Shouldn’t I do that?”
Keverian, who could hear laughter in the background as Bulger played to the crowd of senators around his desk, said no, that would not be necessary.
An aide to Bulger denied that the Senate president ever used this tactic to move his convention center bill out of the house.
As television crews set up for a news conference at the foot of the State House, one of the cameras picked up a hesitant figure at the top of the stairs, bobbing between two of the Doric columns that line the entrance way.
The lens caught Senate President William Bulger in a rare moment of indecision, still debating with himself whether to crash a media party called by the mayor of Boston, Raymond Flynn, who had come to criticize Bulger. Suddenly, Bulger bounded down the stairs and up to the gaggle of microphones. ‘’Welcome to my press conference,” he said with puckish Bulger brass.
For 45 minutes, the two dominant Boston politicians jousted and joked, but it ended with Bulger refusing to sing an Irish song with Flynn, a sure sign that the banter had done little to assuage the hard feelings. One of the few spontaneous media events in memory ended with the two men walking grimly back to their respective offices.
Unresolved was the feud of the day: where should Boston dump its trash in the 1990s.
Their growing estrangement had been fueled earlier in the week by Bulger’s unexpected derailing of the Boston incinerator plan backed by Flynn. Bulger had stopped the $185 million project with a favored tactic: a last-minute, late-night budgetary amendment that held up some funds for Boston if the incinerator was built at South Cove as planned.
The mayor had countered by using the State House as a prop in a public relations battle to get the controversial waste-to-energy plant back on track. The nimble Bulger, wearing his cherubic smile and wielding his verbal stiletto, ran circles around the nonplussed mayor.
But such incidents cut two ways: Bulger may add to his legend as the consummate State House infighter, but, at the same time, those beyond Boston political circles see him as heavyhanded, a man at the center of power who is unwilling to give an inch to those on the perimeter.
He wins and he loses.
In the conference’s wake, Bulger was pressed for an alternative to the South Cove site. He had an “irresistible” place in mind, he said cryptically. A few days later he announced the site should be in Weston, the wealthiest community in the state.
It marked the point where Bulger lost the war after winning the battle.
Inside the State House, the aficionados loved the show, chortling in the corridors about how “cute” it is to propose putting the incinerator in Weston. Outside, though, it simply fed the notion that Bulger has a vindictive streak that showed itself as legislative mischief.
Many Massachusetts voters do not like Boston or its trash. The enduring image is that Ray Flynn was ambushed in a turf war trying to do the right thing: Keep Boston’s trash where it belongs.
Says Bulger of the episode: “I don’t know that it did me much good.”
Thus, the paradox of William Michael Bulger: when all is said and done, he is frequently seen for something he is not: just another Irish pol from South Boston.