Analysis: Turbulence Rocking Baker’s Admin. Crosses 413 Senate Race…
UPDATED 9/25/16 9:30PM: To reflect a correction. An earlier version identified Lewis’s workplace as the Department of Environmental Proection, on the belief the Environmental Police were subunit. The police, Lewis’s employer, are, in fact, a separate unit under EEA. Earlier update to include comments from Mass Dems Executive Director Jay Cincotti and related clarification.
A burgeoning controversy over Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration spilled into the 413 Thursday morning amid revelations a state employee’s job was in jeopardy due to her fiancé’s campaign for state senate.
In a July letter, lawyers for Cynthia Lewis claimed her superiors at the Massachusetts Environmental Police told her she would be relocated to Fall River from Boston if she could not convince her fiancé, Jerome Parker-O’Grady, to drop his challenge to Westfield Republican Senator Donald Humason.
Earlier accusations of misfeasance and patronage at the state Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) had mostly drawn shrugs, but today’s allegations sparked a statewide political maelstrom that could affect Humason’s bid for reelection in the 2nd Hampden & Hampshire Senate district.
“I personally thought they wouldn’t follow through,” with threats made “the day I took out papers,” Parker-O’Grady, a Southampton Democrat, said in a phone interview.
The 2nd Hampden & Hampshire District includes Agawam, Easthampton, Granville, Holyoke, Montgomery, Russell, Southampton, Southwick, Tolland and four precincts in Chicopee.
The allegations against Baker staffers and appointees within EEA include interference with Lewis’s sick-leave and broader politically-based hiring based on political party affiliation in apparent violation of federal law.
Both Baker and Humason have condemned the alleged actions.
This summer two top officials at the Department of Conservation and Recreation—a sub-agency of EEA as Environmental Police is—were suspended for throwing a party on the taxpayers’ nickel and Baker was accused of stacking EEA with political hacks. However, claims that EEA employees threatened and harassed Lewis presents a far thornier dilemma for Baker and his administration.
— Jamie Eldridge (@JamieEldridgeMA) September 16, 2016
Lewis’s allegations were first reported by The Boston Herald.
The faceoff between Humason and Parker-O’Grady is among the few competitive general election races in the Pioneer Valley, but it has not been a high-profile race. Despite its purplish hue balanced by the blood-red Hilltowns and indigo-blue Holyoke, the seat has not been competitive historically.
Michael Knapik who held the seat for nearly twenty years, rarely had opposition. Although Humason faced opponents in the 2013 special—when Knapik resigned to take another job—and in 2014, his more conservative profile did not disrupt the GOP’s winning streak in the district. Moreover, Humason, a former Westfield State Rep from 2003 until his senate election, has a solid base in his hometown that blunts Democrats’ ability to run up the score in Easthampton and Holyoke.
Both Lewis and Parker-O’Grady have worked for Republican legislators, the latter on Knapik’s staff.
But the Herald story thrust the race and Parker-O’Grady into the spotlight. In an interview with WMassP&I, he was calm, but discernably upset at the tactics aimed at his fiancée and, by extension, himself.
“We kind of brushed it off,” Parker-O’Grady told WMassP&I, “It is outrageous. Nobody makes those [threats].”
Baker called the allegations “unbelievably disturbing” and promised a full investigation.
“I have no use for that stuff, I really don’t,” Baker said today according to multiple media accounts. “I am one of the guys who says all the time ‘I want people to engage in civic endeavors.’”
In a statement to WMassP&I, Humason echoed the governor, “I share the Governor’s concerns about these allegations.” Condemning the behavior, he continued, “I expect that the EEA will conduct a thorough internal investigation to determine whether any improprieties have occurred; and, if so, that there will be a swift and appropriate response.”
Massachusetts Democratic party, executive director, Jay Cincotti, in a statement was blunter, “The allegations of intimidation and harassment are incredibly disturbing.” He continued, “if this indicative of Republican leadership at the State House, then the public trust has been violated and change is imperative.”
In The Herald Cincotti also called for the firing of EEA staffers who allegedly threatened Lewis, and EEA head Matthew Beaton.
In Western Massachusetts, the most pertinent question is about the impact on Humason’s reelection bid. If nothing else, it might make the next seven weeks until Election Day less smooth.
Local Democrats and Republicans contacted for this article either did not respond or refused to discuss the matter on the record. There was, however, a consensus that Humason was unlikely to sustain much short or long-term damage, but the ballooning problems at EEA are an unnecessary distraction.
No evidence thus far shows the senator was aware of or condoned the alleged actions of EEA staffers.
The added attention drawn to the race perhaps creates the most headaches for Humason. Statewide interest could direct resources toward Parker-O’Grady’s campaign or increase scrutiny of Huamson’s voting record.
Cincotti said Massachusetts Dems are working with Parker-O’Grady to “ensure voters know that he will be an effective voice for them” and “the right choice to represent them in the Massachusetts Senate.” “When it comes to the Second Hampden and Hampshire District, that person is Jerome Parker-O’Grady,” Cincotti’s statement said.
While Parker-O’Grady has attracted some notable support in the district, many Democratic heavy-hitters have been noticeably absent. Whether these revelations will change that and whether there is enough time for it to matter is unclear.
Baker is likely to experience further turbulence as he confronts the questions hanging over the sprawling EEA office, which includes the agriculture and energy departments in addition to DCR and the police.
Despite Baker’s call for an investigation, what he knew and when is also under scrutiny as his office walks back claims he only learned of the issue recently. Letters about Lewis’s experience were sent to the governor’s chief legal counsel in June, suggesting Baker’s office waited three months before acting.
Emboldened Democrats have stepped up their criticism, which, until recently, had been largely confined to Cincotti and outgoing party chair Senator Thomas McGee.
These allegations also differ from the earlier scrutiny of EEA hires and parties, which were—beyond the taxpayer—victimless misconduct. Targeting Lewis humanizes claims that Baker has been running a less than tight ship.
Indeed, it is easy to forget amid the tremors this episode brought to Beacon Hill, a flesh and blood person may have been unfairly placed in the political crosshairs.
“She’s a strong person,” Parker-O’Grady said of Lewis, who has not wavered since the ordeal began. “She’s still standing with me.”