Hampers plucks cobwebs off Massachusetts treasurer's race

IF Republican L. Joyce Hampers succeeds in toppling longtime state Treasurer Robert Q. Crane, she might want to send a thank-you note to the Massachusetts Democratic Committee. State Democratic chairman Chester G. Atkins and his colleagues may have played into the hands of the opposition. Their clumsy efforts to defuse the Hampers offensive by questioning the legality of her candidacy on residency grounds helped focus voter attention on the campaign for treasurer.

This now-abandoned move, particularly its 11th-hour timing, suggests what could be a deep concern within Democratic circles that Mr. Crane is far from a shoo-in for reelection.

Since first winning the treasurer's job 22 years ago, the former Democratic state representative from Boston, who now lives in Wellesley, has faced no tough Republican opponents. His most serious challenges have come from within his own party. In 1974 he bested five foes for the nomination, and four years later he survived a stiff challenge from political newcomer Charles Mark Furcolo, the son of former Gov. Foster Furcolo.

A potential 1982 Democratic primary dual with Joseph P. Kennedy II fizzled before it started, when the nephew of US Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was persuaded that it would be the wrong campaign and at the wrong time. No member of the Kennedy family has ever attempted to unseat a fellow Democrat for a state or congressional seat.

This year Crane won renomination without opposition -- as did Mrs. Hampers, who breezed through last month's Republican primary.

Unlike most of the Republicans that Crane has faced in past elections, Hampers is hardly an unknown. As state revenue commissioner under former Democratic Gov. Edward J. King from 1979 to 1982, she was anything but an invisible bureaucrat. Her agency and allegations that certain underlings within it may have been corrupt was a central issue in the 1982 comeback of Michael S. Dukakis that led to his primary upset of incumbent King. In fairness to Hampers, there was never a hint that she was involved in any wrongdoing there might have been in the revenue department.

Like GOP nominees George Kariotis for governor and Edward F. Harrington for attorney general, Hampers is a former Democrat.

But even with these defections, Bay State GOP voters are substantially outnumbered by Democrats. There are nearly 1.2 million independents, however. And this segment of the electorate combined with the Republican minority of just under 400,000 slightly outnumbers the nearly 1.4 million Democrats.

The treasurer's post is attractiveness because there is considerable authority involved in the handling and investing of more than $10 billion in state funds. In addition, there are close to 700 non-civil-service jobs under the treasurer's jurisdiction. More than 400 of them are employees of the State Lottery Commission, which, by statute, has been headed by the treasurer since 1971. Thus anyone who occupies this often low-visibility office controls substantial patronage, more perhaps than any Bay State official except the governor.

In her apparently well-financed advertising campaign, Hampers is emphasizing that Crane has been too long in a job to which he may be giving less than full attention. Her ads charge that beside his $60,000 annual salary as treasurer, he has benefited to the tune of more than $120,000 a year, by ``moonlighting'' as a consultant for a food-distribution firm.

Crane's initial strategy was to ignore his GOP challenger's criticisms while emphasizing his experience and the funds raised through the lottery. But other Democrats, including state party chairman Atkins and Governor Dukakis, have been less than flattering in their comments about Hampers's performance as state revenue commissioner in tax collections and pursuit of delinquents. Now Crane, too, has begun disparaging his foe.

It is uncertain why the Democratic State Committee waited so long to question whether the GOP nominee for treasurer had been a resident of Massachusetts for the required five years before the election. The matter could have been resolved long before the primary, since it was obvious that Hampers would be the nominee. Her husband is a resident of Dublin, N.H., and she lived and voted there for a while in the late 1970s.

The requirement that anyone running for state office must be a resident of the commonwealth for the five years immediately before the election is absurd. A shorter period -- perhaps as little as a year -- might be adequate. It would then be up to the voters to decide whether a candidate had sufficiently deep roots to be worthy to hold a high public office.

Perhaps that statute should be changed. Also ripe for consideration is a limit on the number of terms a constitutional officer can serve in the same post. Until a quarter of a century ago a state treasurer was restricted to three two-year terms.

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