Friday, July 14, 2006

Big Dig, Constitutional Convention make Rep's job tougher

For the most part, an incumbent state legislator has it made in Massachusetts. Especially a Democrat. Chances are he or she won't face any opposition in a primary, and in most districts the general election will either be uncontested, or the Republican opponent will be too weak to make a difference.

But first-term Rep. Jennifer Flanagan doesn't have it nearly so easy. While she isn't facing a Democrat in the primary, she is facing a former Democrat in the general election. City Councilor Claire Freda, who lost a close race for the Democratic nomination in 2004, left the Democratic party in February in order to run against Flanagan in the general election.

Things had been quiet for a couple of months, and then an incumbent's worse nightmare, one of those events that can cause a "Throw the bums out!" groundswell among voters: the collapse of a Big Dig tunnel.

Flanagan will try to distance herself from the Big Dig and by all measures, she should be able to. By the time she was elected in 2004, the project was nearly complete. But still, she is an elected official and if the situation surrounding the Big Dig gets worse, the pressure on incumbents will increase. Many voters won't pay close enough attention to differentiate between a a 10-term rep and a freshman.

And if that weren't tough enough, Flanagan may have to defend the legislature's actions at this week's Constitutional Convention, specifically the votes to table the Health Care amendment and to recess before taking up the anti-gay marriage amendment.

Frankly, I found Flanagan's vote to kill the health care amendment baffling. She has made healthcare issues her number one priority and I would have expected her to support the measure. Even if she didn't support the measure, I am a big believer in letting the process run as it was intended, and killing the amendment on a procedural vote to prevent it from getting the 50 votes necessary to advance is difficult to defend.

A Blue Mass Group commenter suggested that the leadership may have twisted arms to make sure it was killed. I'm not sure voting against yourself for that reason is defensible, but at least I understand. If you want to live to fight another day in this legislature, you'd better pick your battles.

On the other hand, Flanagan courageously voted not to recess the convention in order to postpone the gay marriage debate until after the election. She was prepared to put it on the line Wednesday, and she seemed peeved when the Sentinel and Enterprise asked for her reaction: "It's exactly what it seems to be," said Rep. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, who said she wanted to stay and vote to put the measure on the ballot. "It's right after the election."

It was good to see her speak frankly about the delay. It's obvious that the vote was taken so that the legislature wouldn't have a up or down vote to defend in this election cycle, and it was right of Flanagan to say so. It was also good politics. Leominster is a heavily Catholic city and while most voters are either Democrats or unenrolled, I'd expect the gay marriage ban to pass in our town. Flanagan is against the ban, and voting to deal with the issue now signals that even though she may not agree with the voters on this issue, she at least believes the process should go forward.

It's also possible that she voted no because it was a free vote. Knowing that her vote wouldn't matter in the final outcome allowed her to vote with her constituency, despite her position.

Whether Flanagan's vote was based on conviction or expediency, it was the right vote for this election cycle. If she is to retain her seat, she has to defend her right flank.

Freda has staked out the "conservative" position in the race. When she announced her candidacy in April, she told the Sentinel that "[Flanagan's] priorities are not our priorities. They're not mine, anyway." When she left the Democratic party, she told the Sentinel "I'm still a Democrat at heart. Some of the philosophies of the Democratic party seem to lean a little bit further (to the left) than where I am. It's just not the Democratic party that I grew up with." She also described herself as "a 'conservative Democrat,' who is concerned with 'working man's values, family values' and 'affordable housing...I'm basically one of the JFK Democrats."

(As an aside, seems like Freda and Joe Lieberman both read from the same script. You'd think a long-time Democrat would have the conviction to run within the party, not run from the party.)

Then a couple of days after Freda's announcement, The Sentinel teed Flanagan up by turning Flanagan's announcement of $1 million for school nursing into an opportunity for colleagues and opponents alike to criticize her for not sharing "our priorities."

Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella said, "I don't know that (school nursing money) is my number one (priority). It's obviously her number one. It can't always be mine." Fitchburg rep Emile Gougen weighed in with "I don't know if that (priority) should be at the top, but it should be in there." And Freda piled on with this mind-boggling criticism: "It's going to be an added cost," she said. "It will be an added burden to the retirement system. I would not want it to be mandated to have a nurse in every school when you could better have a teacher." You would have thought that Freda herself ran the Sentinel's editors' meeting that day.

Rep Flanagan has her work cut out for her. She's running against a more conservative opponent in a moderate district. Her one huge advantage is incumbency. But she can't afford too many more weeks like this one if that is to remain an advantage.

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