NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 31, 2012

Warren win tops list of year's biggest political stories

By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

---- — BOSTON — Unforeseen public health and safety crises generated a great deal of public scrutiny and interest in 2012, but neither could beat out the campaign-year story lines of Mitt Romney running for president and Elizabeth Warren’s successful quest to knock off Sen. Scott Brown.

Warren’s victory over Brown to become the first woman elected from Massachusetts to the U.S. Senate easily captured political story of the year honors on ballots cast by the reporters who spend their days toiling under the Golden Dome chronicling Massachusetts politics and government.

But there were no shortage of other events demanding ink and Web space to keep reporters busy in 2012.

The ongoing investigation by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz into Massachusetts Probation Department patronage, the financial woes of the MBTA that forced fare hikes and legislative bailout, and the debate over a “three-strikes” sentencing reform law all earned votes, but failed to crack this year’s top 10 list.

Hurricane Sandy, persistent economic woes that have ripped open another mid-year budget hole, and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s lengthy illness also pinged on the radars of the State House press corps. So did the election results, in general, that saw Democrats increase their numbers in the state House of Representatives and U.S. Rep. John Tierney narrowly hold on to his seat in Congress.

The following is the top 10 list of 2012 political stories, as ranked by Massachusetts state government reporters and scored based on cumulative points:

1) Warren beats Brown (94)

2) Romney Loses Again (76)

3) Dookhan Drug Lab Crisis (74)

4) Meningitis Outbreak Traced to Local Pharmacy (52)

5) Health Care Payment Reform Law Passes (33)

6) Tim Cahill Goes To Trial (28)

7) Kerry Nominated for Secretary of State (26)

8) Patrick’s Rising National Profile (26)

9) Medical Marijuana Approved (21)

10) Casino Startup Efforts (20)

COUNTING DOWN THE TOP 10:

10) BRING CASINOS TO MASS. PROVES TRICKIER THAN EXPECTED

The top story of 2011, the long-debated passage of an expanded gambling law, fell to the bottom of the charts in 2012, but still cracked the Top 10 as the Massachusetts Gaming Commission got to work trying to turn a law from words on paper into actual casino establishments. It’s proving more complicated, and time consuming, than maybe anyone expected. After Beacon Hill leaders came together and agreed on three resort-style casinos spread across the state and one slot parlor, Gov. Deval Patrick got down to negotiations with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe for a tribal gaming compact to bring a casino to Taunton, and the Gaming Commission, chaired by Stephen Crosby, started the process of hiring staff, consultants and setting the parameters for applicants to bid on licenses. The Legislature approved a compact with the Wampanoag, but the feds rejected the terms forcing the administration and tribal leaders back to the negotiating table. Casino developer Steve Wynn’s plan to partner with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft on a Foxborough casino fell apart when voters in that town shunned the idea of casino, and Gaming Commission members tried to stoke a little competition within eastern Massachusetts where for a while it appeared Suffolk Downs might be the only suitors. Applications for licenses are now due in mid-January. Actual casinos are still a long ways off.

9) MEDICAL MARIJUANA SANCTIONED BY VOTERS

First, Bay State voters decided to decriminalize possession of under an ounce of marijuana. Now, Massachusetts is poised to become the 18th state to allow medical marijuana to be sold within its borders. Voters overwhelming approved a ballot question sanctioning up to 35 medical marijuana dispensaries to be licensed and regulated by the Department of Public Health. The measure passed with 63 percent in favor to just 37 percent opposed. The law, set to take effect on Jan. 1, would allow patients suffering from cancer, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other afflictions to receive a certification to possess and use marijuana to treat their symptoms. The DPH is currently working to develop regulations to control the implementation of the law, while some lawmakers are seeking a delay to provide more time to figure out how to safeguard against abuse and prevent the drug from getting into the hands of those who don’t have a medical need for it. While some out-of-state doctors with experience in dispensing medical marijuana are already moving to the state to capitalize on the new law, some municipal leaders have resorted to changing their zoning bylaws to prevent dispensaries from opening in their city and town. The implementation of the legalized medical marijuana promises to be a storyline to watch for 2013.

8) SEN. KERRY MOVING ON TO STATE DEPARTMENT

After giving President Barack Obama in 2004 the platform from which he launched his star-struck political career, U.S. Sen. John Kerry was rewarded in December with a nomination by the president to become the country’s next secretary of state. For many reasons, Kerry’s pending nomination before his colleagues in the Senate vaulted into the ranks of the most important political stories of the year. Kerry’s departure from the state’s Washington delegation after 28 years in the U.S. Senate not only puts a familiar face into the position of the nation’s top diplomat, but promises a potential shakeup throughout the tiers of the political establishment. With Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren about to get sworn in to the Senate, and a new senator perhaps five months away from being elected, Massachusetts will quickly see its experience and clout level in the Senate drop to the least senior delegation in the country. Sen. Scott Brown, who lost his re-election bid, could have an opening to return, while Democrats will try to hold on to Kerry’s seat. Depending on whom the party nominates and whether they can fend off a Republican challenger, voters could be hearing about special elections for quite some time. U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, the dean of the Congressional delegation, was the first Democrat to openly declare his intention to run and quickly drew Kerry’s support. Other House members are mulling candidacies, and if one should run and win, it would open up a rare vacant seat in Congress that could draw interest from state legislators and others. The permutations are endless.

7) GOV. PATRICK BECOMES A NATIONAL NAME

Iowa, Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire and South Carolina. In 2012, there was barely a swing-state that Gov. Deval Patrick didn’t visit to stump for President Barack Obama in his ultimately successful quest to win a second term in the White House. Patrick’s frequent-flier status – which his aides are sensitive to note took place mostly on weekends – helped stoke the speculation that Patrick could himself be a contender for the White House in 2016. Coupled with a fiery speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Patrick put his name at the top of pundit lists to become everything from a Democratic presidential candidate in four years, to Obama’s attorney general or even a Supreme Court nominee. The governor insists he is staying put in Massachusetts to finish his second term, which runs through 2014, and says he will return to the private sector, but he has never ruled out a return to public life someday.

6) CAHILL GOES TO TRIAL, WALKS FREE

For former Treasurer Tim Cahill, a large part of 2012 meant reliving his drama-filled, ill-fated quest to become governor in 2010. Indicted by Attorney General Martha Coakley on charges that he conspired with campaign aides to spend taxpayer dollars to fund ads promoting the Lottery to boost his flailing campaign, Cahill, of Quincy, went to trial in Suffolk Superior Court, where he was forced to relive the beating he took at the hands of the Republican Governors Association who attacked his management of the Lottery. Cahill contended that he decided to run the ads late in the campaign out a responsibility to the people of Massachusetts who depend on revenue from the Lottery to fund schools and municipal budgets. It worked. After acquitting his former campaign manager Scott Campbell, a jury deadlocked on the charges against Cahill, unable to reach a consensus verdict and causing a hung jury and mistrial. While Coakley has yet to decide whether she will retry the case, Cahill declared himself vindicated and is an innocent man for now.

5) PATRICK AND LEGISLATURE TRY TO “CRACK THE CODE” ON HEALTH CARE COSTS

While many bills became law in 2012, none garnered quite the amount of attention as Gov. Deval Patrick’s push to reform the health care system and change the way patients and insurers pay for medical care. Six years after Gov. Mitt Romney signed a law forcing residents of Massachusetts to purchase health insurance and successfully expanding coverage to over 98 percent of adults and nearly 100 percent of children, the long-awaited follow-up to address rising costs in health care consumed almost two years of attention. By setting caps on cost growth and encouraging doctors and insurers to move to a system of paying for health outcomes rather than the number of services they provide, lawmakers are hopeful they can save an estimated $200 billion over 15 years. Rep. Steven Walsh and Sen. Richard Moore, the co-chairs of the Health Care Financing Committee, led the effort in the Legislature to get a bill done, and in August Patrick signed a bill, claiming, “Today we become the first to crack the code on cost.” Only time will tell if he’s right. But after being the first state to experiment with a health insurance mandate that became a model for national health reform, Massachusetts officials put themselves out there again to try to rein in cost, and there are no shortage of supporters and critics watching to see how it turns out.

4) COMPOUNDED DRUGS, COMPOUNDING PROBLEMS

A nationwide outbreak of fungal meningitis landed on the doorstep of public health regulators in Massachusetts after the source of the infections was traced to the Framingham-based New England Compounding Center that had been manufacturing injectable steroids for widespread distribution in violation of its state pharmacy license. To date, the contaminated steroids have led to 620 cases of infection in 19 states, contributing to 39 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Though no one in Massachusetts was treated with the contaminated drugs, the public health crisis exposed wide gaps in the federal and state regulatory structure for compounding pharmacies and led to the issuance of emergency regulations by Gov. Deval Patrick to improve reporting and start more random spot checks of pharmacies located in Massachusetts. The Board of Registration in Pharmacy also got an overhaul in its membership, and state lawmakers embarked on a series of oversight hearings to explore the reasons why NECC was able to operate undetected as a compounded drug manufacturer in violation its state license. The stage is now set for lawmakers to pursue changes in state laws governing pharmacies in the session that starts on Wednesday.

3) “ROGUE CHEMIST” SETS HUNDREDS OF DRUG INMATES FREE

In 2012, Annie Dookhan became a name that won’t quickly be forgotten. Described as a “rogue chemist,” Dookhan admitted to State Police investigators to tampering with drug evidence while employed as a chemist at the Hinton Laboratory in Jamaica Plain from 2003 to 2012, doctoring results to produce false positives on drug samples and failing to test at all other samples that were used to convict thousands of drug offenders. A grand jury in December indicted Dookhan on 27 counts of altering drug evidence, perjuring herself on the witness stand and falsifying her resume. She pleaded not guilty. But while Dookhan’s fate plays out in the court system, state officials are dealing with the fallout from the fiasco that has jeopardized as many as 34,000 cases the chemist worked on. So far, more than 160 inmates have been released to the streets, and the governor and Legislature are looking at a hefty bill to pay for the investigative and legal fees mounting to pay prosecutors and defense attorneys for their time sifting through and resolving each case, not to mention the cost of providing re-entry services for inmates given get-out-of-jail free cards. Attorney David Meier has been hired to sift through the records to make sure each impacted defendant gets their day in court, and Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach was forced to resign his job as a result of Dookhan’s actions. While Dookhan’s motives remain unclear, lawmakers and the Patrick administration are searching for answers as to why this chemist was able to get away with faking test results for as long as she did.

2) ROMNEY BECOMES LATEST MASS POL TO RUN FOR PREZ AND LOSE

Massachusetts is used to producing candidates for president, just not often of the Republican variety. 2012 was different. After running unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in 2008, former Gov. Mitt Romney got the nod in his second run, attempting to knock off an incumbent president perceived as vulnerable due to the struggling state of the national economy. Given its reliably Democratic voting tendencies, Massachusetts often gets overlooked during presidential contests. But while Romney may not have spent much time courting Bay State voters, the state became a centerpiece of the election-year narrative. Obama carried Massachusetts with 61 percent to Romney’s 37 percent, and Romney fell 64 electoral-college votes short of the presidency. Pundits have blamed Romney’s loss on a variety of factors, not the least of which was Romney’s inability to connect on a personal level with voters. The campaign, however, gave local Democrats ample opportunity to share the national spotlight as Gov. Deval Patrick and a handful of state legislators were called upon by the Obama campaign to travel the country and tell the story – mostly a negative recollection – of Romney’s four years as governor in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, state GOP leaders were treated to the rare red carpet treatment at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

1) ELIZABETH WARREN DEFEATS U.S. SEN. SCOTT BROWN

The unquestioned top story of the year, according to scribes who spent the better part of 2012 chronicling the ups and downs of the campaign cycle, was the victory of political newcomer Elizabeth Warren over popular incumbent U.S. Sen. Scott Brown. As one of the most watched and expensive U.S. Senate races in the country, the contest between Warren and Brown drew national attention, culminating with a historic eight-point win on election day that made Warren the first female to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. It also marked a redemptive moment for Democrats who felt they had been caught flat-footed by Brown in 2010 when the little-known state senator from Wrentham defeated Attorney General Martha Coakley to claim for the GOP the seat long held by Edward Kennedy. Warren, a Harvard law professor and founder of the Consumer Protection Bureau, had never run for public office, but overcame early stumbles to capitalize on her national popularity as a sharp critic of the banking industry. She was able to overcome a huge money advantage that Brown carried into the race by raising over $40 million, and countered questions raised by her opponents about her claimed Native American heritage and legal work for large corporations by painting Brown as someone who sides with the rich and would vote with GOP leadership in Washington. Warren will be sworn in to the Senate in the coming days, and could quickly become the state’s senior senator with Sen. John Kerry preparing to leave Congress to become the next secretary of state.

CO-PRESS SECRETARIES OF THE YEAR

It’s a tie. Always an intensely lobbied for honor, this year’s award for press secretary of the year goes to two first-time recipients in Alec Loftus, communications director for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and Treasurer Steven Grossman’s spokesman Jon Carlisle. Several Beacon Hill flacks earned votes this year with no clear favorite among the press corps. Loftus started the year as a deputy press secretary for Gov. Deval Patrick before shifting over to become the principal spokesman for HHS Secretary JudyAnn Bigby. In his new role, Loftus was instantly challenged with crises at a state-run drug lab and a national meningitis outbreak linked to a state regulated pharmacy. A Wisconsin native who cut his teeth working for that state’s Democratic Party, reporters did not hold his Cheese-state roots against him. Loftus is also a veteran of the 2010 Tim Murray campaign. As for Carlisle, the Grossman spokesman is no stranger to government reporters, having spent years speaking for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Turnpike Authority before going into private communications. Carlisle returned to Beacon Hill to work for Grossman and has helped keep the press-friendly treasurer in the news and available to reporters as he gears up for a potential gubernatorial run in 2014.