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Editorial

Tim Murray’s patronage politics show deeper problem in Mass.

TO HEAR Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray tell it, if Michael E. McLaughlin hadn’t been looting the Chelsea Housing Authority for a $360,000 salary, and if his son Matthew hadn’t been carrying a ridiculously bad driving record, then, well, there would have been nothing wrong with helping the younger McLaughlin get a state job with the board that reviews driving cases. And there would have been nothing wrong with the elder McLaughlin introducing Murray at fundraising events. Never mind that McLaughlin, as an appointed housing authority official, was banned under both state and federal laws from helping political candidates raise money.

Indeed, Murray showed uniquely bad judgment in aligning himself with McLaughlin, a notorious political grifter. But the larger system of alliance-building through state and municipal government, greased along by dubious fundraising and the awarding of patronage jobs, is a deeper threat to Massachusetts. Murray has rejected McLaughlin, but he and other elected officials need to be far more forthright in declaring that the system of rewarding political supporters with jobs is morally wrong, unfair to other applicants, and damaging to the credibility of the state government. It simply shouldn’t happen.

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But rather than promise to change the system, elected officials try to hide behind it. Everyone’s heard their alibis: How political supporters and their friends are merely “referred’’ to hiring officers, rather than hired outright; how rewarding a political crony is no different from any other managers putting their own people in positions of authority; how some of those hired through political contacts are actually hard workers who get unfairly stigmatized.

These explanations can sometimes muddy the waters, and Murray, in seeking to extricate himself from the McLaughlin mess, is drawing deeply from this well of excuses. But voters know what’s going on, and so do honest government employees and business people looking to locate firms in Massachusetts. And the effect is toxic.

When Massachusetts faces a real crisis, like it is right now in groping for a way to finance the MBTA, voters are highly skeptical, assuming that waste and fraud account for all shortfalls. When outside firms consider whether to locate in smaller urban areas in Massachusetts, they quickly suss out which local governments seem to exist solely for the benefit of those in them, and steer away.

This is the legacy of Chelsea, Springfield, Lawrence, and other municipalities that have been so hobbled by corruption as to require state oversight. It’s the legacy of the Probation Department, the Legislature’s patronage dumping zone. And it’s the legacy of elected officials who played the game, either tolerating it as a price of entry or participating in order to build a network of supporters.

Murray belongs to the latter category.

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Before running for lieutenant governor in 2006, Tim Murray had never been elected to anything outside his Worcester base. He approached Boston City Councilor Stephen Murphy for advice on how to build a statewide network, and Murphy helpfully pointed to McLaughlin, a Merrimack Valley power broker who had skirted corruption investigations going back to the 1980s.

McLaughlin’s bad reputation was so entrenched that Guy Santagate, the city manager who took Chelsea out of state receivership, reportedly resigned rather than work with McLaughlin as director of the Chelsea Housing Authority. Indeed, McLaughlin’s appointment to the housing authority was such a fateful warning of a return to corruption that the Globe editorialized against it back in 2000. Yet Murray, who turned 32 in 2000, says he was too young to know of McLaughlin’s past.

McLaughlin’s reward came when Murray became lieutenant governor and Governor Patrick made the former Worcester mayor the state liaison to municipal officials. Matthew McLaughlin, who had six speeding tickets and a suspended license for refusing a breathalyzer test, got a $60,000 per year job on the Board of Appeals, which reviews drunken-driving convictions. McLaughlin’s recommended candidate got the state seat on the Dracut Housing Authority, and proceeded to try to oust the executive director, in a move widely seen as clearing the way for a friend of McLaughlin’s.

A McLaughlin associate told the Globe that the housing chief bragged about his ties to Murray, and funneled other job candidates toward the lieutenant governor. After it became known that McLaughlin was earning $360,000 per year, making him among the highest-paid government officials in the state, Murray, who says he did not know of the salary, tried to minimize their relationship.

But records showed 193 phone calls between the two in 2010 and 2011. Chelsea Housing Authority employees told the Globe they felt pressured by McLaughlin to give money to Murray’s campaign. There were 11 calls between McLaughlin and Murray’s fundraiser Kellie O’Neill in the weeks leading up to one fundraising event, at which McLaughlin introduced Murray. And yet Murray and O’Neill insist McLaughlin did not help raise money, which would violate state and federal ethics laws.

Their denial is not credible.

Referring job candidates in exchange for political help is not, of course, the only facet of Tim Murray’s career. The lieutenant governor has been a sincere advocate for moving homeless families into public housing, extending commuter rail, and making the fate of mid-sized cities a higher priority - initiatives for which he deserves credit.

But in defending his relationship with McLaughlin, Murray speaks of receiving hundreds of requests from mayors and state representatives - often for favored candidates to be appointed to housing-authority boards. Having individual housing authorities in small cities and towns is a waste of money, but municipalities won’t combine services because mayors and city councilors are loath to give up jobs; many of those officials who lobbied Murray for favored appointees to housing authority boards were doing so in order to control hiring at the authorities.

What’s necessary in such a situation is for a decision-maker to have the political judgment and strength of character to say no to local officials who are bent on patronage, and to recognize the system for what it is: An enormous threat to the credibility of state government. Without personal judgment and character, it’s easy for officials to turn a blind eye, to figure that the mayors and state representatives can wrestle with their own consciences, to see a little favoritism as the price for worthwhile initiatives.

But a friends-and-family approach to local government is part of the reason why those smaller urban areas that are so dear to Murray’s heart are suffering, while comparable cities across the border in New Hampshire are thriving. It’s why many dedicated government workers are so often derided unfairly as hacks.

Tim Murray has shown, through his relationship with McLaughlin, that he lacks the judgment and character to make these decisions. And Patrick, who controls all the levers of the executive branch, still sees fit to keep Murray as his personal liaison to municipal government.

Murray, who has called for an investigation into McLaughlin’s alleged fundraising, will have to answer for any illegality. But the greater scandal isn’t what’s illegal. It’s what’s tolerated every day.

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