Another Massachusetts governor’s decision to stock state agencies with political supporters has come back to haunt him. Governor Charlie Baker squirreled away some of his campaign backers in the Department of Conservation and Recreation, following in the dubious footsteps of governors of both parties, where they proceeded to embarrass him. Cleaning up DCR is a start, and the administration announced encouraging new hires on Friday, but the long-term solution is for Baker and his successors to end the patronage tradition altogether.
The practice of stuffing the payroll with political supporters takes a toll on public faith in state government, even when it doesn’t result in problems. For example: How, exactly, does driving the governor’s car qualify someone to be a top official? Both Baker and former governor Deval Patrick appointed their drivers to senior positions. But shouldn’t taxpayers have a right to expect that those salaries go to the best-qualified professionals?
And even though many political hires undoubtedly work hard, as a group they do seem to have a special aptitude for generating embarrassment. Remember Sheila Burgess, the Democratic fund-raiser hired by Governor Patrick for a highway safety job? Or when former lieutenant governor Tim Murray recommended the son of a political supporter to a state board whose meetings he then failed to show up for?
Now add to that list Jared Valanzola, a low-ranking DCR personnel officer who is being fired after an investigation found that he told another official that she could face retaliation because her fiance planned to run against a Republican state senator. Another DCR official, Republican state committeeman and Baker campaign volunteer Matthew Sisk, was forced out after he used the siren on his state vehicle to avoid a Boston traffic jam.
DCR manages the state’s park system, including golf courses, beaches, and swimming pools. It’s become a haven for patronage hiring, the Globe reported, especially with the loss of old favorites like the Massachusetts Turnpike, which was subsumed into another state agency, and Massport, where cronyism at the agency that runs Logan Airport no longer seemed so acceptable after 9/11.
Baker didn’t invent patronage, but he’s been an astute enough observer of Massachusetts politics over the decades that he surely knows how it works, and the damage that even middling scandals like DCR’s can do to public confidence. Hopefully Baker’s hiring on Friday of two well-regarded officials, Nick Gove and Priscilla Geigis, will put the agency on stable footing, but it’s up to the governor to prevent patronage-related fiascoes from cropping up again at DCR or anywhere else in his administration.