Thursday, May 24, 2012

Newton Reinvented

In the good old days, before the advent of campaign finance reform, a stretch in prison was no bar to election. Mayor Michael Curley of Boston, a colorful mob-connected figure in Massachusetts politics who made good on his campaign pledge to get the washerwomen of the city off their knees, ran the city from prison. Mr. Curley later rigged out all the washerwomen of Boston with long handled mops.

It may well be the case that a stretch in jail was the booster that rocketed Mr. Curley into a long and eventful career in politics.

Mr. Curley received news that he had been elected to Boston’s Board of Alderman in 1904 while cooling his heels in prison on a fraud conviction: He had fraudulently taken a civil service exam for two men applying for postmen in his district, and the stint in prison helped to burnish his reputation among the poor Irish of Boston as someone who was willing to go to the mat for those in need. During his career in politics, both as Boston Mayor and a U.S. Senator serving in the Congress from 1943 ton 1947, it was not uncommon for the city’s poor and unemployed Irish to line up outside his house in the mornings to speak with him about getting a job or to get a handout of a few dollars to see them through the week.

Running for the Congress against blue-blooded Tom Eliot, the son of a Unitarian minister, grandson of Harvard president Charles Eliot and a former New Deal attorney of sterling reputation backed by Franklin Roosevelt, Mr. Curley anchored his campaign in unvarnished appeals to ethnic, class and religious bigotry, shaking the  communist spook stick against  the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Yankee Eliot: “There is more Americanism in one half of Jim Curley's ass than in that pink body of Tom Eliot." Having won a spot in Congress, Mr. Curley proceeded to compile a voting record in support of the Roosevelt administration that was the envy of New Deal pinkoes everywhere.

Mr. Curley’s long political career ended in 1951 when he suffered an erosion of electoral support. Following his death, two statues honoring Mr. Curley appeared in Faneuil Hall; a bar called “The Purple Shamrock,” one of the mayor’s symbols, popped out of the ground nearby; his house, known during his time as “the house with the shamrock shutters,” became an historical site; and he was immortalized in the film “the Last Hurrah” as the protagonist, Frank Skeffington. Disappointed with the film, Mr. Curley, a shameless self-promoter but always the best guardian of his own reputation, initially threatened to bring legal action against Edwin O’Connor, the author of the novel, but on reflection thought better of it, telling Mr. O’Connor that he most enjoyed “the part where I die.”

Somewhere in Bridgeport, where the old-guard Democratic Party structure still lives and breathes, there may in the future be a spot for a couple of Ernie Newton statues.

An ex-felon and ex-State Senator from Bridgeport, Mr. Newton surprised Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo  when he won the endorsement of the Democratic nominating convention for the 23rd State Senate District, which comprises 75 percent of Bridgeport and a bit of Stratford.

"I have to say I am surprised," Ms. DiNardo said, adding when asked by a reporter if she would discourage voters from returning Mr. Newton to the General Assembly, “I think that's up to that district to make that decision, not me."

Governor Dannel Malloy, known for having in the past actively participated in the campaigns of Democrats formally nominated by his party, appeared to be consulting a similar script.    

When queried by Hartford Courant reporter Jon Lender, Mr. Malloy characterized the race in Bridgeport as “local issue, first and foremost.” He urged voters in Bridgeport to “take into consideration all of the abilities of the people that they have to choose from. It looks like there may three names on the ballot. And so I think the people of Bridgeport have a decision to make. I have to say to you that I’ve long been an advocate of a second-chance society. As a prosecutor, as a governor, as a mayor I’ve advocated for second chances. But ultimately in the political arena that’s a decision for the public to make… I think the public has a balancing act. They have to decide whether … the person has paid a sufficient price, whether they’ve expressed sufficient remorse, whether they have the skill set necessary to do the job. … That’s why we have elections, and I would urge all the voters to vote.”

Mr. Newton offered a much abbreviated concision of the governor’s remarks: "The governor said, `It's the people's decision.’”

Mr. Newton launched into a defense of his record in office, minus the four years he passed in prison for having solicited a $5,000, one of three felonies he was convicted of in 2005: "Felons are people too. They can't say anything about my record in the House or Senate. It was impeccable. If people truly are forgiving, you judge a man on his work ... I paid my debt to society. I ought to be a free man to do whatever it is I want to do with my life."

He told a reporter, “Listen, I still got friends in Hartford.” His Democratic comrades in the legislature “know the (legislative) process. I'm a team player. I know how to get things done." Surely, fellow Democrats in the General Assembly and the governor’s office understand the important role Bridgeport had played in statewide elections. After all, Mr. Newton stressed, the city helped Mr. Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford, win a slim victory in 2010.

"The governor needs to get re-elected, and he's going to need my help to do it," said Mr. Newton, according to a CTPost report.

Apparently, the governor, the titular head of the Democratic Party in Connecticut, and Ms. DiNardo, the nominal head of the party, have for the moment taken a hand’s off approach to what may well be Mr. Newton’s “Last Hurrah.” Maybe they saw the movie.

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