Ethnic politics may be declining in Massachusetts

The resignation of UMass president William Bulger signals a changed climate for traditional political cliques.

The resignation of powerful politico William "Billy" Bulger from the presidency of the University of Massachusetts may mark a subtle but significant shift in the political culture of the Bay State, a place that prides itself on being the birthplace of American democracy.

Politics here has long been a king-of-the-hill sport, where winners like Mr. Bulger gain great privileges of power.

As longtime chief of the state Senate, this Irishman, who liberally quotes Shakespeare and Greek myths, came to embody the potency of the Irish-Catholic political establishment.

But in the past year - as questions about dealings with his fugitive mobster brother, James "Whitey" Bulger, intensified - he has come under relentless fire from critics. Chief among them: the blue-blooded Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, a man propelled into office by independent suburbanites far removed from the old immigrant neighborhoods.

The saga is, of course, a partisan battle. But Bulger's resignation may also mark a larger shift. By forcing Bulger's departure, Governor Romney shows he's "committed to changing the old ways of Massachusetts politics," says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. It's no longer politically acceptable for Democrats, including Sen. Edward Kennedy, "to come to Bulger's defense, not because he's right, but because he's one of them."

Bulger announced Wednesday that he'll resign after seven years at the helm of the university system - and will take a severance package reportedly worth nearly $1 million. He said that a "calculated political assault" against him forced him to step down. Romney had threatened to continue his campaign to oust Bulger.

It's the latest twist in Bulger's long career. During most of it, he was widely viewed as a poster child for unfortunate siblings with black sheep in their families. Whitey Bulger, meanwhile, was seen as a shady but benevolent force in the old immigrant neighborhood of South Boston, or "Southie."

But eventually it became clear that Whitey had been more Godfather than Robin Hood. He conspired with the local FBI office in order to take down his Italian-mob rivals. He's now accused of 21 murders - and is on the FBI's most-wanted list.

Then William Bulger admitted to advising his fugitive brother not to turn himself in to authorities. And under questioning by a congressional committee in June, William - who's normally sharp and witty - was seen as being evasive and fuzzy.

The developments gave Romney the chance to position himself as an agent of change amid widespread harrumphing about the state legislature, which meets on Boston's Beacon Hill. "It's Bulger with his Southie and Beacon Hill constituencies versus Romney and the independents," says Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University. And Romney appears to have won.

On another level, this is also a sobering story of one brother being an albatross around the neck of another - and of not being able or willing to lift him off. "Here's a man who prided himself on being a student of the classics, but he ends up playing the role of fallen hero in a Greek tragedy," says William Fowler, director of the Massachusetts Historical Society. "It's a sad irony."

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