I hope it will not unduly damage Shannon O'Brien's street cred as a liberal Democrat if I disclose that once upon a time, when we were both younger and thinner, she and I used to get together every couple of months to have lunch and solve the great mysteries of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Eventually those lunches came to an end, but not before I'd taught Shannon the tricks of the political campaign trade and she had taught me how to write for the editorial pages.
To be honest, I don't remember a whole lot about those lunchtime conversations -- with one exception. An exchange we had one day at a place in the South End has stayed with me all these years, in part because it was the only time Shannon barked at me in anger and in part because more than anything else, it made me realize how wide the political gulf that separated us really was. That exchange has been on my mind lately, and I don't think it will betray any confidence if I describe it.
I was then an editorial writer for the Boston Herald, and in a recent editorial I had slammed the state Legislature for once again letting hundreds of bills languish for an entire year, then trying to deal with all of them in a frenzy of 11th-hour lawmaking.
"In capitals across the US, legislatures manage to complete their business long before the onset of winter," the editorial said. "Some never stay in session beyond April; indeed, some only convene once in two years.
"But in Massachusetts, the Legislature routinely stays in session until the last minute, sometimes proroguing literally moments before the new Legislature is sworn in. Members pull all-nighters, ingesting rivers of coffee to stay awake so they can vote on legislation they've barely read, as committees that were constipated for months finally disgorge bills that were introduced at the other end of the year. It's sad that one of the oldest legislatures in North America conducts its business so farcically."
Shannon, who was then a state representative, was incensed. "I can't believe you wrote that," she snapped. "If you knew the first thing about legislating, you would understand why we have to do it this way. You can't just vote on a bill when it's introduced. It takes time to do it right." I'm quoting from memory so the wording is only approximate, but her meaning was crystal-clear: The Legislature was right, its critics were ignorant, and changing the system was out of the question.
The Legislature hasn't changed much since I wrote that editorial (though now it isn't always coffee the lawmakers are drinking during those crazed bottom-of-the-ninth sessions). And in at least one important way, I don't think Shannon has, either.
Anger can be a window into a person's character and convictions. In her flash of temper that day, the future Democratic gubernatorial nominee made it clear that there is something she deeply believes in, something she will instinctively defend, something that goes to the heart of who she is: the Massachusetts political culture.
I don't mean that she blindly insists that Beacon Hill is perfect in all its ways; she isn't stupid. She boasts -- reasonably -- of cleaning up the scandal she found when she became state treasurer. She makes much of the staggering cost overruns at the Big Dig. She regularly vows to "get rid of waste and mismanagement in state government." But that's boilerplate; it's what any candidate in her position would be saying.
What is significant about Shannon O'Brien is how deeply at home she is in the way politics and policy are done in this state. After years as a State House insider, she hardly notices what a fetid swamp the place can be. She's gotten used to the backscratching, the vengefulness, the pettiness, the lack of democracy, the code of loyalty, the antireform impulse, the wariness of outsiders. I don't imagine that she actually relishes the sour atmosphere, but it doesn't offend her. She's OK with it. What does offend her is the attitude that public employees are nothing but an incestuous "hackerama." What she's not OK with is the mindset that looks at Beacon Hill and pronounces it, as Bill Weld once did, "rotten to the core" and infested with "walruses."
Merely denouncing the commonwealth's political culture is no guarantee that a politician will change it. Weld proved far more adept at coining mocking phrases than at transforming state government. But with a candidate like O'Brien, there isn't even the hope of transforming that stale, sclerotic political culture. She was born and reared in it. She moves in it as easily as she breathes. It got her where she is today.
O'Brien is bright, able, focused, and energetic. She is also the embodiment of the Beacon Hill status quo. For an amiable lunch date, you could hardly do better. For sweeping out the old order and shaking up the establishment, you could hardly do worse.