Thursday was a day to mourn and remember Paul Cellucci, who rose from Hudson selectman to Massachusetts legislator to lieutenant governor to governor to ambassador, and who through it all remained an all-around good guy.
Those who memorialized Cellucci at the State House service spoke movingly about his character, his compassion, his commitment, his decency, his accomplishments, his twinkle-in-the-eye humor. But Cellucci leaves another important legacy that deserves to be recalled and honored because it’s increasingly rare in politics: his admirable independence of mind.
I remember being particularly impressed with it during a 1998 debate about hiking the state’s minimum wage. That’s an issue where one’s arguments often depend on one’s party. Democrats usually contend that a higher minimum wage will put more money in the pockets of the poor, helping them and, by increasing their spending power, also boosting the economy. Republicans often argue that raising the base wage will not only hurt a state’s competitive climate but also impede job-creation by increasing the cost of adding workers.
In 1995, Governor Bill Weld and Lieutenant Governor Cellucci had opposed a minimum-wage hike, so it came as a surprise when Cellucci announced his support for the 1998 effort. Asked why, Cellucci, by then the acting governor, was candid about the reason for his about-face: After the previous minimum-wage hike had been enacted over Weld’s veto, the predicted adverse economic effects simply hadn’t occurred. In other words, Cellucci had looked at the results and changed his mind. That’s a rare thing in politics.
Perhaps because he was a small-town guy with a strong Massachusetts accent, Cellucci wasn’t always seen as being much more than an average intellect. That view sold him short, however, because it missed the impressive fact central to his politics: He was an elected official who thought for himself rather than reflexively adopting his party’s positions.
He and Weld were famously eclectic. They were tax cutters driven by “Taxachusetts” worries, but also strong environmentalists because of quality-of-life concerns. Cellucci strongly supported Roe v. Wade abortion rights, but surprised the abortion-rights community in 1999 by backing a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion, a procedure he believed went too far. The two were vocal in support of gay inclusion back before it became a mainstream sentiment. Cellucci made curbing domestic violence a priority and was deeply committed not just to women’s rights but to promoting women. He was particularly proud of his successful effort to enact a state ban on assault weapons, an unusual cause for a small-town Republican.
“Paul had his own internal sense of integrity, and he had the strength to act on it,” said Steve Crosby, who served as Cellucci’s secretary of administration and finance for the better part of two years.
That’s an admirable quality. After all, it requires a real intellectual effort to reason through an array of issues rather than simply adopt the standard Republican or Democratic line, a line that is often more a function of constituency-group politics than careful analysis. It also requires courage and self-confidence to chart your own course.
Now, what you consider commendable iconoclasm often depends on where you stand on an issue. And yet there are certainly areas where an openness to evidence points to fairly obvious conclusions.
It’s a reason to respect Republicans who acknowledge that it will take more revenue to fully solve the federal budget deficit, and to respect Democrats who concede that that problem will also require some changes in entitlement programs. Both are telling hard truths that contradict their party’s standard political pitch.
It’s also a reason to admire Republicans who credit the strong scientific evidence on anthropogenic climate change, and to give points to Democrats who back high standards, accountability, and competition in education.
Neither side, after all, has a monopoly on the truth. Cellucci recognized that, and he had the determination to think for himself and the courage to act on his own considered conclusions.
In doing so, he set an example that should commend itself to politicians of both parties.