STATE SENATOR William Keating of Sharon committed the ultimate flip-flop 11 months ago when he announced he was challenging William Bulger for the presidency of the Massachusetts Senate. That wasn't just a flip, it was an inward 2-1/2 with a full gainer. In the space of one press conference, Keating reversed a course he had followed doggedly since entering Bulger's Senate in 1985 -- a course of doing Bulger's bidding, voting Bulger's way, obstructing Bulger's foes -- and enjoying Bulger's largesse.
Inevitably, other flip-flops followed. Keating grounded his insurgency in rules reform, emulating George Keverian's successful crusade against House Speaker Tom McGee in 1983-84. Now he finds himself denouncing rules he'd always defended and supporting changes he had always opposed.
Thus the same Bill Keating who had voted against forcing the Senate to adjourn by Dec. 1, against live TV coverage of Senate proceedings, and against giving individual senators the authority to hire their own staffs now favors all three. The same Keating who used to treat Republicans with a highhandedness that some haven't forgiven now wants to split the Ethics Committee evenly between the two parties.
On one issue, though, Keating hasn't changed. He has declined to embrace the one truly cleansing reform that not only would prevent the growth of political fungi like Bulger, but also happens to enjoy overwhelming public support -- term limits for all elected officials.
"I was wrong," Keating said in a recent interview. "I always opposed term limits, but what has occurred to me over the last several months has really taught me how power can be abused."
That's a switcheroo. In 1992, Keating was one of the Bulger flunkies who helped kill the Term Limits Constitutional Amendment, which had been proposed by more than 72,000 Massachusetts voters. When the House and Senate met jointly as a constitutional convention -- a "con-con," in Beacon Hill argot -- Keating was among those who voted to spike the amendment by moving it from the top of the agenda to the bottom.
That was the only vote on term limits that Bulger, who presides over the con-con, was to allow all that year. The amendment was killed, a parliamentary sucker punch was administered to 72,000 citizens, and the term limits trekkers were forced back to the starting line. (Happily, they persevered. A term-limits measure, Question 4, will finally be on the ballot in November.)
"On that con-con vote to move term limits to the end of the list," Keating now admits, "I was wrong. I wish I could go back and do it over again."
What turned Keating around, he says, is the education he has received since deciding to play Cassius to Bulger's Julius Caesar. Like the proverbial liberal who gets mugged and becomes a conservative, Keating was an insider who has learned what it's like to be treated as an outsider.
"People have come up to me who always contributed to my campaigns. They say they can no longer do that because they've 'gotten a phone call.' In one community in my district, a guy who routinely hosted fundraisers for me now says he won't do it because he heard from people close to Bulger that 'it wouldn't be a good idea.'
"People are intimidated. Anybody with a nexus to the state is afraid to get involved. Contributors don't want to write checks over $ 50, because then their names have to be reported."
Other anti-Bulger stalwarts tell similar stories. Senate candidate Jack Flood, running against Bulger loyalist Paul White in today's primary, was introduced as "the best friend small business ever had on Beacon Hill" during a recent appearance at the South Shore Chamber of Commerce.
"But when I started making calls to some of the members afterward, asking them to help me out, they all said, 'Gee, I'd better not. I'd rather sit this out.' They're afraid of what will happen to them if they go against Bulger. I can't blame them."
The lengths to which the Bulger mafia will go to crush opponents are a reminder of how savagely politicians with power will fight to retain it.
- A Senate staffer suggested that her boss ought to join forces with Keating. She was assailed almost immediately by Bulger enforcers. The pressure grew so unbearable that she was forced to leave her job. A whispering campaign began spreading the toxic rumor in pro-life circles that Flood and fellow-insurgent Sen. Michael Morrissey -- longtime abortion foes both -- have switched to favoring abortion. They haven't, but how many votes did the dirty trick cost them? A Turnpike toll collector who wrote some pro-Keating columns for the Canton Journal was threatened with the loss of his job by Sen. Marian Walsh of West Roxbury, one of Bulger's obedient foot-soldiers. "That job," she hissed at the guy, "can be taken away as easily as it was given out."
The reason to elect the reformers running in the primary today isn't to put Bill Keating in the Senate president's chair. It is to dislodge a 24-year incumbent so addicted to power that his people don't even balk at threatening toll-collectors with unemployment.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)