Was Tom Reilly channeling Al Haig in last week’s debate?

During last week’s Gov debate, the moderator asked the candidates “what, in your personal experience, has prepared you to lead should another catastrophic event affect Massachusetts?”  (She had prefaced the question by mentioning 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.)

Deval Patrick gave a pretty good answer – he said that “before 9/11, the largest criminal investigation in American history was the investigation into the attacks on black churches and synagogues in the South,” which he had led in President Clinton’s Justice Department.  Patrick also came up with one of the evening’s most memorable sound bites:

The worst thing in the world, in my view, that the president did after Katrina, was fly over in Air Force One. Get out of the plane, walk around, talk with people, show up.

Chris Gabrieli booted the question, IMHO.  Dropping out of medical school to start a business doesn’t exactly qualify as preparation for leading the state through a major crisis, especially if even that fairly run-of-the-mill experience led to “a few panic attacks at the beginning,” as Gabs said it did.  I’m not saying that Gabrieli had no effective answer to that question.  I am saying that the one he gave didn’t really work.

Tom Reilly’s answer, at first blush, sounded pretty good.  Here’s a chunk of what he said:

I came right back to Boston and there was an effort made to close and stop the election for the seat of the late congressman, Joseph Moakley. I stepped up and made a decision immediately. That election was going forward, I ordered that it would go forward. If there was one day that we were going to show the strength of our democracy, it was going to be that day. That election went forward because of the decision that I made.

Problem is, that’s not a very good description of what actually happened.  Here’s a news report dated 9/11/01 reporting on that very situation:

Earlier this afternoon, [Secretary of State Bill] Galvin was poised to ask the Supreme Judicial Court to suspend voting after hearing reports that at least two polling places in Boston had been closed, but acting Governor Jane M. Swift and Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly said the voting should continue.

After speaking to Swift and Reilly, Galvin abandoned his effort.  “I can’t do it without their consent,” said Galvin, who said he was concerned about fairness to voters who were unable to vote or traumatized by the spectacle in New York.

At a press conference from the state’s emergency bunker in Framingham, Swift argued strongly that shutting down the polls would send the wrong message.  “The best thing the citizens of our good country and great commonwealth can do today is to send a very strong message: We will not bend to terror,” Swift said.

The NY Times reported similarly (reg. req’d):

Secretary of State William Galvin of Massachusetts said he considered asking the state’s highest court to suspend polling because of the terrorist attacks. He ran into opposition from acting Gov. Jane M. Swift and Attorney General Thomas Reilly.  “We will not bend to the terror that has been inflicted on our citizens and our nation,” Ms. Swift said from a state emergency bunker in Framingham. “The election will continue.”

So, yes, Reilly was clearly opposed to delaying the special election.  But so, apparently, was then-Acting Governor Jane Swift.  Swift was the one making the public statements, at least the ones that got picked up by the press.  And Reilly’s claim that he “ordered” the election to go forward seems to be, at best, an overstatement.  It looks like what he actually did was to tell Bill Galvin that he wouldn’t represent him in court to get an emergency order delaying the election.

Al Haig famously declared himself “in control” immediately after President Reagan was shot in 1981 – an assertion that was both legally incorrect and hugely embarrassing, as Haig is now probably remembered as much for that one self-aggrandizing sentence as for anything else he did in his long career.  Lesson: politicians need to be careful not to claim authority they don’t have.  Tom Reilly didn’t have the authority to “order” the election to go forward on 9/11, nor did he have the authority to “order” that it be delayed – the former was the status quo, and the latter would have required a court order.  What Reilly did was decide not to seek the court order Galvin was looking for.  Nothing wrong with saying that, instead of embellishing.

UPDATE: Peter Porcupine has expressed similar thoughts!

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8 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. David! That was MY line! :~)

    • it was?

      • Last Week...

        Since you mention Jane Swift... (0.00 / 0)  ...did you find Reilly's statement that he took charge and made certain that the Lynch-Jacques primary took place right after 9/11 a litte ODD?  Sort of an Al Haig moment? My recollection is that it was SWIFT who announced that the primary would take place, as any other course of action would simply be caving in to terrorists.  I remember she took a lot of flack from the Jacques people at the time, who claimed that she was trying to stack the primary with a pro-life candidate to run against pro-choice Sen. Joanne Sprague.

        Of course, if it WERE true, it WOULD go a long way towards  explaining why Lynch decided to get involved in the race....

        Yr. Obedient Servant, Peter Porcupine, Republican

        by: Peter Porcupine @ Thu Sep 07, 2006 at 22:05:17 PM EDT 

  2. I think you're digging for a Reilly bash that just isn't there.

  3. Seems like AG Reilly $quot;Recommended$quot; (along with others)

    the the election go on.

    Ordered implies that the AG has Jurisdiction.

    Reilly could "order" and investigation of the Big Dig for instance, but elections are out of his jurisdiction, unless he was defending Governor Jane Swift in court, or SOS Bill Galvin.

    I agree sounds like a Big OVERSTATEMENT. 

  4. Quibbling. . .

    By rejecting Galvin's request, Reilly effectively put an end to the Secretary's effort to suspend the election.  Galvin admits as much.  Governor Swift may have had an advisory role, but the ball was squarely in Galvin and then Reilly's courts.

    The Governor was expected to be visible in the aftermath of 9/11, as a Chief Exective should be.  If Reilly had been highly visible, i.e. holding press conferences, on this particular issue at that particular time, it would have been in bad taste.  To now criticize his good discretion in not making public statements then, is patently unfair.

    The Haig comparison, while cute, is major league hyperbole.


  5. Reilly was right, Galvin was wrong

    I am by no means a Reilly supporter, but in this case Reilly was absolutely correct and Galvin was wrong.  There was absolutely no reason to cancel or delay an election in Boston because of an event in New York City.

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