Three terms not enough for gregarious Massachusetts attorney general

Frank Bellotti seems unlikely to have much trouble getting the Democratic nomination for his fourth term as Massachusetts attorney general. But former federal prosecutor -- and former Democrat -- Edward Harrington hopes to challenge him as the Republican nominee. One of the Bay State's most durable public officials is providing little encouragement to would-be successors.

Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti has done about everything short of a formal ``I am running again'' declaration to make clear his fourth-term aspirations. And he is taking no chances that the work he is doing might get overlooked.

While nomination papers for the 1986 election will not be ready until late next February and the Democratic primary still is 17 months away, even the faintest shadow of a possible challenger from within the party has yet to appear, and there is nothing to suggest that he will have even token opposition for renomination.

But any prospects for a free ride all the way through next year's November election vanished last year when Edward F. Harrington, the former US attorney for Massachusetts, stormed out of the Democratic Party and registered as a Republican.

There is little doubt that Mr. Harrington would still be a Democrat if he had felt there was a real chance of blocking the party's renomination of Mr. Bellotti, whom he blames for blocking his appointment to the state Superior Court.

Certainly the Harrington prospects for reaching the final election ballot would seem to be much brighter as a Republican than as a Democrat. The former federal prosecutor, however, is by no means assured of the GOP nomination. But with the well-entrenched Democratic attorney general now sending loud signals he intends to seek reelection, other potential GOP aspirants for the office may back off.

In 1982 Mr. Bellotti, who beyond doubt is one of the best-organized politicians in Massachusetts, breezed to his current third term by a nearly 3-to-1 margin over his Republican challenger, former Brockton Mayor Richard Wainwright.

Four years earlier the attorney general similarly had an easy time besting GOP nominee William Weld of Cambridge. Mr. Weld, who is now the US attorney for Massachusetts and obviously a lot better known, was outdistanced by the attorney general on the 1978 election ballot, 1,532,835 to 421,417.

More than a few Republican activists had viewed Weld as a likely leading contender for state attorney general next year. The US attorney's candidacy seemed particularly formidable in the light of his successful prosecution of several cases involving political corruption, including that of James A. Kelly Jr., the former powerful chairman of the state Senate's Ways and Means Committee.

But Weld, despite urging by GOP colleagues, appears unlikely to take on Bellotti again, even were the Republican nomination handed to him without his having to lift a finger.

Were the Democratic attorney general not running, a second try for that important elective post would almost surely be enticing to Weld, who could present himself to the voters as an experienced prosecutor.

Even though they are members of different political parties, Bellotti and Weld have gotten along better in their somewhat similar prosecutorial roles than might have been expected under the circumstances. On the surface at least, the Bellotti-Weld relationship has been more cordial and cooperative than that between the same attorney general and the former US attorney, Mr. Harrington, who at the time was a Democrat, like Bellotti.

The attorney general's apparent decision to run again has to have disappointed several fellow Democrats who have been eyeing his chair for several years. These are known to include district attorneys Ronald Pina of Bristol County, William Delahunt of Norfolk County, and Scott Harshbarger of Middlesex County; State Rep. W. Paul White of Boston; former state Sen. Samuel Rotondi of Winchester; and former state Rep. Lois Pines of Newton.

None of them, however, appears likely to take on the attorney general in what could become a particularly divisive intraparty squabble. Such a contest would be especially difficult since several of those who would like the job are fellow liberals and either personal or political friends of Bellotti.

Also daunting to potential Bellotti challengers is the substantial campaign fund he has continued to build over the years since first narrowly winning the office in 1974 over Republican Josiah A. Spaulding of Manchester. No state official, including fellow-Democrat Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, is, or has been, better organized at the grass-roots political level.

As attorney general, Bellotti has directed major attention to consumer protection, projecting himself as the ``defender of the little guy'' in the marketplace against higher insurance premiums and rising public utility rates.

Rarely has a Massachusetts attorney general achieved greater and more consistent visibility, helped partly through much movement around the commonwealth attending various functions, but strengthened even more through his involvement and that of his department in various suits such as opposing oil and gas exploration on Georges Bank.

Bellotti critics accuse him of being less than aggressive in the pursuit of organized crime and political corruption, leaving what is done in these areas largely to the US attorney. The attorney general and his allies deny that his regime has ignored wrongdoing in any direction, explaining that in instances where federal crimes have been committed, perhaps along with violations of Massachusetts laws, it is more appropriate to refer the matter to the US attorney for prosecution.

Some Bellotti detractors suggest he has spent too much time out of the office and has delegated responsibility for his agency's day-to-day operations to his first deputy. The veteran attorney general's boosters contend that this is the proper arrangement, leaving him time to zero in on major decisions.

When Bellotti took over the post in January 1974, one of his first acts was to require that all members of his staff refrain from outside law practice and thus devote full energies to the commonwealth's legal work. This ended a longstanding practice under which predecessors had assistant attorneys general working for the state part time, in some instances no more than a few hours a week.

Bellotti recently expanded the public-information wing of his office, starting publication in January of a bimonthly publication called Impact. It reports on what is going on within the agency and touts what the attorney general and his aides are up to. While it has thus far had only distribution, much of it to those within state government and representatives of the news media, the publication presumably could get wider dissemination as the election draws closer and the attorney general seeks more public attention.

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