Joe DeNucci, a onetime prizefighter turned Massachusetts politician, steps down this month after 34 years on Beacon Hill: 10 years as a state representative, followed by 24 years as state auditor. He is being celebrated in some circles as the last of a political breed -- an unpolished, down-to-earth, working-class guy who made good, had a big heart, and took care of his pals.
"To the end, championing others," ran the headline over a Globe story last week marking the end of DeNucci's long run in politics. The retiring auditor "is of the old school and makes no apology for that," the Globe observed. "He is the product of a culture that prized helping those around you, which has permeated Massachusetts politics for as long as anyone can remember, but is under attack now." The story makes clear that DeNucci sees nothing wrong with patronage. "We all did it," he says. "It was about helping people; some I knew, some I didn't."
A lot of people have a soft spot for DeNucci; there's no denying he has a certain rough-around-the-edges charm. On the whole I imagine that Massachusetts state government would be a little less fetid if it contained fewer glossy lawyers and consultant-crafted professional operators, and more unpolished, down-to-earth, former boxers.
But frankly, state government would be a lot less fetid if it weren't for that "old school" mindset that sees something commendable in using public office and public payrolls to hand out favors to supporters and friends. DeNucci may not be the worst offender, but who in Massachusetts politics should be held to a "Caesar's wife" standard of integrity if not the auditor, the state's top fiscal and ethical watchdog? Yet the conviction that public office is a public trust has scarcely been the lodestar of DeNucci's political career.