How different would Massachusetts politics be if Springfield were the capital city? Power would be split between the economic hub of Greater Boston and the more westerly political seat. Fewer politicians would live and work in Boston. And, conversely, fewer residents would have their eyes on the State House.
Most other states are organized this way, with the economic engine in one place and the political seat in another — think New York City vs. Albany, Philadelphia vs. Harrisburg, Olympia vs. Seattle, or Sacramento vs. San Francisco (or Los Angeles). And it turns out that the placement of a capital city matters a lot — to the way politicians behave and the kind of policies they support.
If the Massachusetts state capital were relocated to Springfield or Worcester, it’s likely that Boston’s problems would get less attention, the press would provide less political coverage, and Massachusetts politics would become more corrupt.
Despite what you may think, the Massachusetts political world is not particularly corrupt — at least not compared to other states. One reason may be that our state capital is also our biggest city.
Isolation breeds corruption: That’s what public policy professor Filipe Campante and economist Quoc-Anh Do found when they compared the 50 states. Places like New York, Illinois, and Louisiana — where the capital city is far removed from population centers — tend to see more than their share of federal indictments. States that put the capital in the thick of the population, like Massachusetts and Colorado, have less.
A key reason that corruption is more endemic in isolated capitals is that there’s less media attention. When Campante and Do looked at political coverage in various state and local newspapers, they discovered that coverage of state politics actually depends on distance.
As an example, they note the contrast between coverage of former House speaker Sal DiMasi’s corruption case here in Massachusetts and coverage of a similar scandal in New York, involving Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. The New York Times wrote 154 articles about the Bruno affair, far fewer than the 238 Boston Globe pieces about DiMasi. This general pattern holds for media markets all across the country.
Beyond these issues of corruption and media attention, there’s little solid research about how the placement of a state capital might affect state politics. But one area where it may show up is in lawmakers’ tendency to focus on what they see most and know best.
Here in Massachusetts, that means state leaders often think of Boston first, and everywhere else later. But if the capital were in Springfield, things might be quite different. The problems and challenges of those new surroundings would be personal and tangible in a wholly new way. And, by contrast, politicians’ attachment to Boston would become less immediate and less urgent. Such a shift in focus might have a substantial impact on some of the state’s most urgent, and most contentious initiatives:
■ Fixing the MBTA. When the T fails, it’s a political emergency. But underfunded regional transit systems and potholed roads across the state always seem less pressing. No doubt, that’s partly because Greater Boston really does make up a huge portion of the state’s workforce. But it’s also because lots of high-level state employees — along with their friends and family members — suddenly can’t make it into work.
■ The Boston Olympics. Some state leaders, including Speaker Robert DeLeo, have talked about turning the Boston Olympics into a statewide Olympics. Many more might be pushing in that direction if Massachusetts had a second center of power.
■ Economic development. Boston is such a dynamic city that it makes economic development seem almost inevitable, as if all that is needed is an occasional nudge. But other Massachusetts cities seem to need more than that. In Springfield, nearly 1 in 3 people live in poverty, the median income is 35 percent lower than in Boston, and the unemployment rate is still close to 10 percent. Traversing a less thriving city on a daily basis might give lawmakers a different perspective on the economic needs of the state.
In short, it matters a great deal that Massachusetts politics is staged in Boston. Were it different, we might have more corruption, weaker media coverage, and a totally different perspective on the needs of Massachusetts’ regions.