Rest assured, Massachusetts voters, it was all in the public interest: legislators taking a free trip to Israel, floating in the Dead Sea, lounging in a nearby spa, wandering through ancient markets, partaking of "ethnic tasting" tours, exploring historic ruins along the Mediterranean shore, and getting a glimpse of Jesus' birthplace.
Ignore those pesky good government doobies who claim that state lawmakers' accepting the $4,000 to $6,000 expense-paid tour of the country poses ethics concerns just because the tab was picked up by a registered State House lobbying group, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.
After all, they disclosed the junket in public filings with the State Ethics Commission, and that makes it legal, according to the commission.
To be sure, JCRC is not your typical fat-cat lobbying outfit. It spends several hundred thousand dollars a year lobbying, much of it for funding social services. And its lobbyists don't go on the trips. But it does buttonhole legislators for funding issues it promotes.
And just two months before the 10-member Senate delegation went on the trip, the group got the Senate to pass a resolution "rejecting efforts to isolate and target Israel.''
The Senate trip was last month. House members made a similar tour the year before. The lawmakers noted on their disclosures forms that their purpose for the trip was "serving a legitimate public interest" and "to promote the interests of the Commonwealth."
But from a review of the intineraries, it is difficult to discern just where the Commonwealth's interests were at stake in a majority of stops.
There were some meetings that could, with a stretch, fit that description. There were visits to Israel's entrepreneurial center; a tour of a desalination plant; meetings with Knesset members; and a look at a charter-like school for Arabs and Israeli kids. There also were serious talks with Israel security officials, briefings with experts on Israeli politics, and meetings with municipal officials and Palestinian officials — not that the Commonwealth's immediate interests are at stake in that area and its conflicts.
What was missing from the schedule were meetings dealing with the economic ties between the state and Israel. Or mutual economic development issues. There was nothing for the promotion for Massachusetts tourism (another exemption for taking free trips).
The Senate insists that the senators' exposure to Israel's business, political, and government officials — and its security issues — is important for the state. But it sidesteps the issue of whether senators should accept a free trip from a registered lobbying group.
"Citizen diplomacy, where we can learn directly from other cultures, businesses, and government officials by traveling to their country is a valuable tool in strengthening and promoting these ties between Massachusetts and Israel," Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg said in a statement.
At City Hall, a splash of pink
The drab concrete of Boston City Hall can be as soul-sucking as a sunless day in January.
Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George decided to brighten the walls of her new office with a splash of color. To be accurate, it was several gallons of "hot lips" pink paint from Benjamin Moore.
Essaibi George has a thing for "hot lips" pink. It is the color of the logo of her knitting store, the Stitch House on Dorchester Avenue. Last fall she deployed thousands of "hot lips" pink campaign signs in her successful bid for a City Council seat.
On inauguration day earlier this month, Essaibi George accessorized her black dress with pink high heels. The color just made sense when she was asked about a fresh coat of paint for her new office. "Why would you go boring and usual?" Essaibi George asked. "I happen to think my pink is cool."
Teachers’ union pushes back
News that a business-backed coalition with ties to Governor Charlie Baker could spend up to $18 million on a campaign to increase the number of charter schools in Massachusetts drew a reaction from teachers' unions this week.
A strong one.
American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts president Tom Gosnell released a statement Tuesday calling the planned spending — which kicked off with direct mail to Democrat-controlled districts, including that of Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg — "a downpayment on the over $100 million in public funding they could rob from our locally controlled public schools every single year."
The campaign, run by the Great Schools Massachusetts coalition, is seeking to pressure lawmakers to consent to legislation that would raise the cap on charter schools. But organizers are also preparing, if the legislative results don't go their way, for a November ballot question. AFT, which claims 25,000 members, and its allies are gearing up to fight both measures.
Continued Gosnell, "If they think they can rip off Massachusetts voters and taxpayers with sleek mailers and slick ads, they're wrong. If they think they can come from out of state and tell legislators and communities in the top-ranked state for education how to improve our schools, they're wrong."
Play nice, everybody.
Pataki’s loss is Trump’s gain
When it comes to Donald Trump's campaign for president, should anyone really be that surprised about anything?
Take this past week when two New Hampshire supporters of former New York governor George Pataki, who recently dropped out of the presidential race, decided to back Trump.
Pataki was the ultimate establishment candidate, a moderate Republican three-term governor of a major state. Pataki backed comprehensive immigration reform, while Trump has based his campaign on not doing that. Pataki formed a political action committee that for years opposed the Affordable Care Act on the grounds it expanded government, while Trump calls for an entirely government-run program.
As Pataki and Trump traded insults during the campaign, it appeared the only thing they had in common is that they were New Yorkers.
But for Windham town Republican chairman Bruce Breton and Manchester real estate developer Ben Gamache, it's all about relationships. Breton is tight with Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who lived in Windham. Gamache had a personal relationship with Pataki from the candidate's previous flirtations at running for president. But this year it was Trump he really thought was the right candidate.
"I know it must seem like there is a wide difference between Pataki and Trump, but deep down I think both would bring Republican and Democrats together to solve problems," Gamache said. "But, yeah, Pataki would have probably done it in a softer way."
At pot seminar, no free lunch
DENVER — A FOX 25 anchor and cameraman, a WBUR-FM correspondent, a Boston Globe scribe and photographer, and eight Massachusetts state senators walk into a retail marijuana dispensary filled with jars of green buds and pot-infused edible treats.
Who takes the first bite?
Just kidding. No one tested the wares.
But the senators — on a fact-finding trip paid for by a nonprofit — were mostly at ease as they asked about various strains of marijuana and brownies and balms at RiverRock Cannabis. All the while, cameras clicked and reporters scribbled notes. Norton Arbelaez , a part-owner of RiverRock, who helped organize much of Tuesday's itinerary for the senators, began to deliver remarks to a silent room, scented by cannabis.
Arbelaez, also a consultant to New England Treatment Access, which has two medical marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts, was interrupted by one senator, who shall remain nameless, thanking Arbelaez for a working lunch on pot policy the senators had just attended.
Suddenly the sound of seven senators talking at once echoed through the store. The message was unmistakable: They picked up their own tab.
"Let's be clear! Let's be clear! Please! The senators paid for their own lunch," said Senator Jason M. Lewis, the leader of the trip and the chairman of the special Senate committee on marijuana.
Senate counsel Jennifer G. Miller , the top lawyer in the chamber, looked stricken. Then, with the authority of a powerful attorney, she loudly affirmed: "We paid for our lunch."
New role for longtime consultant
Dan Cence, who not long ago was mucking around precinct politics, is taking his career to a new level, joining a major Boston public relations firm to create its government relations/lobbying division.
Cence, the new senior vice-president at Solomon McCown & Co., will bring more than half a dozen corporate clients with him, including Boston Beer, the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, and the New England Livery Association.
According to the firm's announcement, Cence will, in addition to his lobbying around the State House and City Hall, "provide high level strategic P.R. counsel" and will be a member of the firm's "crisis management team."
Cence learned his politics working with political figures including Mayor Martin J. Walsh, former mayor Thomas M. Menino, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley and former city councilor Tom Keane . He also has close ties to some of the House leadership.