Nobody calls state gambling commissioner James McHugh a media star or a quote machine.
Throughout his two years on the casino panel, the 70-year-old former judge has been content outside the spotlight, steadily supplying clear-eyed analysis and wisdom gained from 27 years on the bench, while leaving the public relations and salesmanship duties to the board’s gregarious chairman, Stephen Crosby.
But with Crosby out of the debate over the Boston-area casino license, McHugh, as acting chairman, takes on a much higher-profile role, and at a critical time.
Hundreds of millions of dollars and the future of two communities will be at stake when the commission convenes without Crosby later this summer to choose between a Wynn Resorts casino plan in Everett and a Mohegan Sun proposal in Revere.
The commission is preparing for these critical deliberations at a time new polling suggests Massachusetts voters have lost confidence in the board, after a two-year tenure marked with delays, lawsuits, and accusations of bias.
McHugh concedes the job of awarding up to four gambling licenses has been harder than expected.
“It has had more, ah, more — how to express this? More pathways off the center than I thought it would,” he said in an interview.
Rebuilding public confidence in the casino industry, and in the government’s ability to regulate it, may depend on how the gambling panel handles the award of its most lucrative license.
“We need to concentrate on fulfilling the plans that we’ve made for dealing with these license applications and have that be our primary focus,” McHugh said. “Just move forward and show we can move forward efficiently and transparently. And I think confidence will come from that or it won’t.”
The analysis is vintage McHugh: Careful and measured. He is never hyperbolic or inflammatory.
He rarely speaks in pithy sound bites and can seem like the kind of person more likely to be home re-reading the Federalist Papers than whooping it up at a casino.
“There is a general feeling that McHugh is a fair, evenhanded player,” said Tony Cignoli, a Springfield political strategist. “That’s on both sides: I know that from some of the anticasino folks and the pro side as well.”
McHugh, who lives in Charlestown, was born in South Dakota. The family moved to New Jersey, and then Rhode Island, where McHugh grew up in a pastoral beach community on the state’s southern coast. His mother was a teacher; his father a sales manager for a company that made potato salad. The future judge explored the coast in a little boat and fished for striped bass.
He is an Ivy-Leaguer — majoring in political science at Brown University – who put himself through college by driving a Coca-Cola truck. While serving two years of active duty in the US Navy, he began to read and think seriously about the power of the law.
“That was the era in which California Rural Legal Assistance was working with Cesar Chavez in the vineyards,” McHugh said, referring to the civil rights and labor leader. “I began to think about the law as a pathway to bringing about social change.”
He graduated from Boston University School of Law in 1970, and the next year joined the law firm of Bingham, Dana & Gould in Boston. He represented The Boston Globe for about a decade, beginning around 1975.
In 1985, Governor Michael Dukakis appointed McHugh to the Superior Court bench. Governor Paul Cellucci appointed him to the Massachusetts Appeals Court in 2001. He retired in 2012 and accepted an appointment to the gambling commission.
After working with McHugh to create a new state agency from nothing but a law, Crosby considers McHugh “irreplaceable.”
“He’s just an incredibly thorough, methodical, careful thinker and analyst,” Crosby said.
As chairman, Crosby has been the commission’s link to the public, its explainer-in-chief. He surrendered that role in the Boston-area license debate and recused himself from the deliberations because of questions about his impartiality.
McHugh has not shown Crosby’s breezy comfort with plunging into a pack of reporters. Judges don’t normally do media scrums after handing down their decisions.
“It’s an adjustment,” McHugh admits. “But I always tried when I was a judge to explain everything I was doing. The format is different; the idea that you have to be prepared to explain yourself isn’t.”
Detractors have raised the possibility of a tie vote without Crosby and called for him to be replaced. None of the other commissioners has turned on Crosby, and the call for change has appeared to give the board extra incentive to push for consensus.
Said McHugh, “The goal really is for the four of us — and I think we’ve all bought into this entirely — to be a group of four that is working tirelessly at every step of the way to find grounds to agree.”