If only there were no mysterious car crash.
If only he weren’t embroiled in a possible fund-raising scandal.
If only Governor Deval Patrick resigned and left the job of acting governor to his lieutenant governor, Timothy P. Murray could be the Democrat to beat in 2014.
Murray’s ambition — always grander than his profile — felt more delusional as time and controversy dragged on.
Beyond the Golden Dome, the former Worcester mayor came across as a bit player. But through an ever-distorted reflection in Beacon Hill’s looking glass, Patrick’s lieutenant governor was a chief executive-in-waiting. He had access to the crucial building blocks of any statewide run — money and influential people.
Hello, reality. On Wednesday, Murray announced plans to resign and take a $200,000 a year job as executive director of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. He’s heading home to central Massachusets instead of to a future White House dinner for the National Governors Association.
Murray announced earlier this year that he would not run for the corner office. But his best shot at the job would have come if Patrick had handed it off to him — just as Governor William F. Weld handed the job of acting governor to his lieutenant governor, Paul Cellucci; in the next election cycle, Cellucci won office in his own right.
Patrick always denied he considered leaving office before completing his term. Yet, if he ever contemplated an early exit, it became far too complicated given Murray’s political problems.
Questions relating to Murray’s early-morning crash when he was supposedly checking out storm damage in November 2011 might not have been enough to derail a gubernatorial run. But the lieutenant governor’s ties to Michael McLaughlin, the disgraced former director of the Chelsea Housing Authority, created more serious and lasting problems for him.
In February, McLaughlin pleaded guilty to four felony counts of concealing an inflated salary from federal officials. A state grand jury is also investigating McLaughlin’s fund-raising on behalf of Murray and other politicians. As a federal official, McLaughlin was prohibited from political activity. A critical issue is whether politicians, including Murray, knew that McLaughlin was raising money on their behalf.
Murray, who was questioned under oath by state and federal investigators, has publicly denied knowing anything about McLaughlin’s fund-raising activities. He said he was betrayed by him. But what McLaughlin tells investigators about their relationship could put Murray at risk of criminal prosecution.
The Massachusetts Republican Party quickly pointed out similarities between Murray’s exit and that of former House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran. While under federal investigation, Finneran resigned as speaker to take a $400,000 a year job with the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. He was subsequently indicted on federal charges and eventually pleaded guilty to obstructing justice.
“Only time will tell if Murray follows the Finneran playbook to the end,” said Nate Little, the state GOP’s political director.
From controversy to resignation, Patrick remains loyal to Murray, his go-to person on transportation and development — and patronage.
Murray’s willingness to lobby for jobs for the politically connected was an important source of power. Although the ultimate responsibility for such hires rests with Patrick, Murray’s role in making them happen exposed him to even more controversy.
Murray was one of several politicians linked to Sheila Burgess, the state highway safety director who was hired despite a driving record which included seven accidents, four speeding violations, and two failures to stop. Murray also recommended McLaughlin’s son, Matthew — whose license was suspended for failing to take a Breathalyzer test — for a $60,000 a year job on the state board that hears appeals from drunk drivers.
Murray insists his resignation is unrelated to any scandal. The move back home to Worcester simply makes financial and personal sense. Meanwhile, he isn’t ruling out a future run for office. If nothing comes of the McLaughlin case, maybe there’s a second act for him.
But Murray would have to dramatically change voter perceptions of his time on Beacon Hill.
He sees himself as a leader on issues like affordable housing and as Patrick’s popular liaison to cities and towns. The public sees something different.
He’s the state official who crashed his car and his reputation on the highway of political ambition.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.