Challenging the political free ride in Massachusetts

IF Massachusetts lawmakers were in the transportation business, they could hardly get a better ride. Every election quite a few legislators ride back into office without even token opposition from either within or without their party. It's something that is not about to change, although at least one familiar free-rider has ballot opposition this year for the first time in more than a decade and a half.

State Senate president William Bulger, considered by many to be the Goliath of the Massachusetts legislature, is being challenged by two fellow Democrats.

Neither, however, is named David and both appear less than well known throughout the First Suffolk District, which includes the incumbent's native South Boston, where he began his elective career 18 years ago.

The would-be Bulger topplers are Dorchester residents Margaret P. Lee and Stephen C. Holt. While it is uncertain how aggressively Miss Lee might campaign, Mr. Holt has lost no time in taking political aim at Senator Bulger, whom he accuses of ignoring the two-thirds of his district outside South Boston.

Mr. Bulger vehemently denies this, insisting that he has always tried to represent the best interests of the entire district, as well as the city and state as a whole.

Most seasoned political observers consider Bulger so entrenched that he can have his Senate seat as long as he wants it. But some suggest that a well-structured opposition campaign might not be a lost cause. Certainly to Mr. Holt's advantage could be:

Redistricting means that nearly a third of the district's inhabitants are new.

Anti-Bulger sentiment among some rank-and-file voters who are dissatisfied with the way he has run the Senate or represented their interests.

Bulger's controversial 11th-hour injection of the pupil open-enrollment program into the fiscal 1989 state budget. Even though it was thwarted by Gov. Michael Dukakis's July 17 veto, the issue may not go away, since the veteran senator, a longtime advocate of a school-voucher system, is not about to walk away from the idea.

This has given Holt an issue. The Harvard-educated bookstore owner and former teacher lost little time in denouncing the measure as a ``blueprint for disaster'' for the children of Boston. He says that allowing Boston parents to send their children to schools outside the city, at the state's expense, would tend to siphon off the better students and shift to outlying communities what would have been local aid that could have gone to Boston schools.

Holt, while not questioning Bulger's motive in pressing for open enrollment, can be expected to oppose the idea strongly, and in the process rally parental support for his own senatorial campaign. Holt has two daughters in Boston public schools.

Beating a veteran lawmaker is never easy, especially when he holds a powerful position and is a member of the predominant political party within the district, which Bulger surely is.

To pull off what would be perhaps the biggest upset of the decade in the commonwealth, Holt, or Miss Lee, would have to convince thousands of voters not only that he or she would do a better job of representing them, but also that no longer having the leader of the state Senate as their lawmaker would not be a disadvantage.

Holt is not a newcomer to the city or even the senatorial district.

He is a former head of the Boston branch of Fair Share, the consumer-activist lobby, and for some years has been closely identified with various tenant and neighborhood-improvement groups.

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