The hardest part about running for Governor’s Council, say candidates running for Governor’s Council, is that they are running for Governor’s Council.
“So many people don’t know what this is,” said Eileen Duff, a Democrat from Gloucester. “They say, ‘Oh, that’s great, what is it?’ I tell people it’s the most important thing they’ve never heard of.”
While most people have never heard of it, not everyone is convinced that it’s the “most important thing.”
“I’m the only candidate running who is calling for the abolishment of the Governor’s Council,” said David Eppley, also a Democrat, and an attorney from Salem. “We need to study what other proposals are out there.”
For years, the eight-member Governor’s Council has approved judicial nominations made by the governor. It is also responsible for approving Parole Board nominations, notaries public, justices of the peace and members of the Industrial Accidents Board. It also rules on pardons and commutations. But it’s the judicial review that has focused attention on the council in recent years, with one longtime member in particular becoming a lightning rod for change.
Mary-Ellen Manning, a Salem attorney who is leaving her post in a quest for the state Senate seat being vacated by longtime Peabody lawmaker Fred Berry, made a career on the council of asking hard questions, demanding answers and sometimes changing the course of what seemed like slam-dunk nominations from the governor’s office.
“It’s a part-time job with full-time implications,” said Manning, who will have spent 12 years, or six terms, on the council when her term expires at the end of this year. “It’s a job you can make as much or as little of as you choose. I’ve made a lot out of my role on the Governor’s Council.”
Prior to her arrival, most appointments were given rubber stamps by the Governor’s Council. Then Manning began speaking up, and others followed.
“I speak up and speak out for the average man and woman,” she said. “I went from being the only person to speak out, then there were two, then three and four. There’s been a sea change, and the Governor’s Council is now a force to be reckoned with. They’ve had to withdraw nominations, and there have been more tie votes than in any other time in modern history.”
Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation said she used to think the Governor’s Council was a waste of money. Each of the eight councilors makes around $26,000 a year, gets a free parking spot at the Statehouse and is eligible for benefits. But they only meet once a week.
Anderson said that kind of largesse would, ordinarily, be a target of her organization, which has railed against waste and corruption at the Statehouse. Then Manning came along, she said, and all that changed.
“With Mary-Ellen there, you knew about things before they happened,” she said. “She was on ‘The Howie Carr Show’ all the time, telling people when things were coming up. She was standing for things and blocking things. If used the way it’s intended, it’s another tool for transparency in government, which has been completely shut down.”
That’s what former state Rep. Barry Finegold wanted to do to the Governor’s Council: shut it down. Now a state senator up for re-election himself, Finegold, an Andover Democrat, still thinks the council should be abolished. As a state representative, he filed legislation year after year calling for disbanding of the Governor’s Council.
But it never took, he said.
“Most states have abolished their governors’ councils,” he said. “Only a handful of states have kept it. Even though it was all Democrats at the time, I still wanted to abolish it. It’s not a partisan issue.”
As one alternative, he said he supports having a strong, rigorous exam by a panel appointed from various branches and departments within state government.
But getting rid of the council would be no easy task, as it is a constitutionally established board going back to the early 1600s, when Massachusetts was still part of the English monarchy. Over the years, the council has evolved into what it is today: The eight councilors are elected every two years, and the lieutenant governor is president, but has no vote except to break a tie. Each councilor represents a huge area of the state, composed of five contiguous Massachusetts state Senate districts.
Despite the lack of attention this race gets in the face of other, more popular contests, the candidates for the 5th District Governor’s Council have taken off the gloves, with some calling for change while others like the status quo.
Eileen Duff, the only non-attorney in the Democratic primary, said attorneys have a vested interest in getting on the council, so they can approve their colleagues if they come up for an appointment.
“Lawyers know about this board,” she said. “They want it to stay in the old boys’ network.”
She said she’s the only candidate with real experience vetting candidates through various jobs she’s had.
“I’ve got a Ph.D. in ministry from Wisdom University,” she said. “I get irritated by their (lawyers’) sense of entitlement to this job. This was not meant to be a panel of lawyers. It is supposed to represent citizens so the judges represent the people.”
Eppley said he wants to abolish the council because judicial appointments should be in the hands of state senators or the Legislature, not in the hands of people who don’t necessarily know what they are doing.
He was drawn to the race, he said, after Manning attacked and nearly derailed the appointment of one of his former colleagues.
“I believe Mary-Ellen Manning is part of the problem,” he said.
Because of Manning, he said, “the council hearings have gotten bad press and are more centered on getting a headline in a conservative newspaper or going on a conservative talk show rather than actually vetting people.”
“I want to restore civility to the Governor’s Council as long as we’re going to have it,” he said. “We need to do it in a responsible, meaningful and civil way, not just to grab headlines.”
George O’Brine, a Democrat from Salem who is an attorney in Peabody, said it’s a “crazy” idea to abolish the council.
“This is the only thing the average Joe or Josephine has on judicial appointments,” he said, adding that while Mary-Ellen Manning “was not willing to be the governor’s errand girl,” he wouldn’t vote to deny an appointment just to deny it. “But if somebody, after my investigation, shouldn’t be a judge, then I’d vote against them,” he said. “I’m 63, I don’t care about the pressure. I’ll do my job.”
Donald Bumiller, a Beverly attorney, agreed, saying the Governor’s Council provides an important check to executive power.
But, he said, the members have to be “independent thinkers focused on the qualifications of a particular nominee.” He added that it should also be nonpartisan.
“If individual councilors use it as a partisan platform to advance their own views or partisan views, then the criticism is valid,” he said. But, he added, sometimes it helps if a councilor knows the nominees professionally.
“That doesn’t mean they’ll put their buddies on the bench,” he said. “If you look at history of the judiciary, there are some former state representatives who have become really good judges. They came from a political background, but they made good judges.”
Maura L.P. Ciardiello, the only Republican running for Governor’s Council, doesn’t have a primary so is automatically on the November ballot. The Haverhill resident and stay-at-home mom said she’s running because “we need to get qualified people on the bench. It is essential.”
She said she wouldn’t be a rubber stamp.
“I’m just going in as a citizen to make it more transparent to the public,” she said. “I want to let people know who’s coming up.”