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Probation saga could be a boon for Charlie Baker

Stage set for outsider message from GOP

Charlie Baker is no stranger to Beacon Hill.

Charlie Baker is no stranger to Beacon Hill.

Horse-trading for raw political gain. A system rigged for the connected. Jobs for their friends and relatives.

The real-life narrative of the Probation Department trial that resulted in guilty verdicts Thursday could be the text of a winning political ad for Charlie Baker, the Republican candidate for governor who rails against the failures of one-party rule on Beacon Hill.

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Republicans from William F. Weld to Paul Cellucci to Mitt Romney have captured the governor’s office by crusading against the excesses of Massachusetts Democrats, who have long controlled both houses of the Legislature.

Even though no lawmakers have been charged, the probation scandal, with its depiction of favor-trading and patronage by State House insiders, represents the biggest opportunity yet for Baker to break through with that time-tested attack against Democratic rule, political observers and strategists said Friday.

“The issue of one-party government is real, and he’s the beneficiary, and I would expect him to pound away at it,” said Maurice T. Cunningham, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “This is a bit of a test of how much people really care about this, because there’s only one way to address it: electorally.”

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Charley Manning, a Republican strategist unaffiliated with any statewide campaign, said the verdict could help Baker and other candidates who are campaigning as political outsiders.

“The political corruption issue has been simmering for a long time in our state, but with [Thursday’s] verdict it’s now boiling over, and it should be a huge issue in campaigns up and down the ballot this fall,” Manning said. “This is a great time not to be part of the political establishment.”

Baker is no stranger to Beacon Hill, however. He was health and human services secretary and budget chief in the Weld and Cellucci administrations in the 1990s. His record of crafting the finance plan for the Big Dig was a main target of attacks by Governor Deval Patrick in 2010, when Baker ran for governor the first time.

On Thursday, a jury convicted former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien and two deputies of running the department as a patronage haven for legislators, allowing them to dole out jobs to their friends and supporters over more qualified candidates. In return, prosecutors said, legislators boosted the department’s budget. Prosecutors named Speaker Robert A. DeLeo a coconspirator in the case, although they did not charge him and he has vigorously denied any wrongdoing.

After the verdict, Baker wasted no time trying to tie the crimes to Democratic dominance and, by indirect extension, to the two Democratic officeholders running for governor: Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Treasurer Steve Grossman.

Baker called the guilty verdicts for the three former probation officials “a victory for taxpayers who deserve better than the one-party rule on Beacon Hill where politicians trade favors and turn a blind eye to abuses of power.”

That slam echoed past attacks by successful Republican candidates for governor.

When Weld first ran for the office in 1990, he blasted Democratic power brokers in state government. Weld seized in particular on Senate President William M. Bulger, the powerful South Boston Democrat and brother of James “Whitey” Bulger, calling him a patronage king who controlled his own fiefdom in the court system.

Weld demanded that Bulger — who had endorsed his Democratic opponent, John Silber — step down, accusing him of rampant “abuse of power.”

Romney revived a similar strategy when he ran for governor in 2002. The former Winter Olympics chief campaigned as a squeaky-clean management guru who would “clean up the mess on Beacon Hill.”

He traveled across the state with three giant posters depicting the “Gang of Three”: Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, and Romney’s Democratic rival, state Treasurer Shannon P. O’Brien.

“It’s always been the path to success” for Republicans to condemn the sins of the Democratic establishment, Cunningham said, and with the Probation scandal, “the Legislature has just gift-wrapped them a new one.”

Once elected, Romney soon began contemplating a run for the White House and kept up pressure on William Bulger, finally forcing him to step down as University of Massachusetts president. Romney also forced Massachusetts Turnpike chairman Matt Amorello to resign after the Big Dig tunnel collapse.

This year, Democratic candidates have released their own statements denouncing the probation scandal and casting themselves as outside the tainted system. Coakley said the sham hiring system at the Probation Department “never should have been accepted as ‘business as usual.’ ”

Grossman said the trial revealed “reprehensible behavior” and added that it “demonstrates the urgent need to reform Beacon Hill and to restore confidence in our government and its leaders.”

A third Democratic candidate for governor, Don Berwick, had perhaps the strongest statement, reflecting his status as a former federal health care official with few ties to Beacon Hill.

Like Baker, Berwick tied the scandal not just to probation officials but to legislators who landed jobs for friends and supporters. “Legislative leaders who were complicit by their actions or by their silence have allowed taxpayer dollars to be wasted, and, worse, have once again damaged faith in government,” he said.

Mark Horan, a Democratic strategist unconnected to any gubernatorial campaign, said the scandal may help Baker cast himself as a reformer, but he argued that it would not harm the Democratic candidates since none of them was directly involved in the trial and all have their own offices separate from the Probation Department.

“I don’t think the public connects Coakley or Grossman or, certainly, Berwick with this probation problem,” Horan said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@
globe.com
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