Impact of Dukakis's Integrity Called by Some His Chief Legacy
Presidential bid, failure to heed economic dangers flawed record
BOSTON — NOW that Michael Dukakis's turbulent third and final term is winding down, some observers are saying historians may give the proud, honest, but isolated Massachusetts governor more kindly treatment than he has received from his present critics. In the last 18 months of his administration the economy declined and residents became irate at the size of the budget deficit, new taxes, and painful cuts in services.
Angry that during his presidential campaign Mr. Dukakis took credit - even as things were starting to unravel at home - for an economic boom for which he was only partly responsible, voters and the news media blamed him for the situation.
``The fiscal crisis of 1988-90 has defined the entire view of Dukakis,'' says Ralph Whitehead, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. But there will be a refocusing as the years go by, he says, with more attention given to ``some highly inventive'' Dukakis administration programs.
One of those initiatives is the Employment and Training Program (ET), which gives supported work experience to welfare recipients. Another restored hundreds of thousands of delinquent taxpayers to the tax rolls, significantly raising annual state revenues, Mr. Whitehead says. And Governor Dukakis set in place agencies to help the state acquire capital formation that led to the revival of the state economy in the late 1970s and '80s.
Dukakis also got the massive central artery-harbor tunnel project rolling in downtown Boston.
To Dukakis's credit, says Robert Behn, director of the Governors Center at Duke University, ``he selected good people and was willing to keep them for the period of time necessary to do the job. There was a lot of stability in some agencies that really helped.''
Lawrence DiCara, a former Boston city councillor, says: ``With Dukakis, the state had 12 years of very clean government. The rap on Massachusetts has been that government is corrupt here. That's changed. With all the problems Michael Dukakis had, no one questioned his integrity.''
Dukakis guided Massachusetts away from the politics of patronage to the politics of projects, a legacy that many feel will rate high among his accomplishments, if it endures.
Revitalizing downtowns in Massachusetts cities was another Dukakis focus. ``In large part what Dukakis tried to do was promote urban economic growth, to transform the whole approach of state government to give benefits to [such cities as] Lawrence, North Adams, Worcester,'' says Frank Keefe, who was secretary of administration and finance during Dukakis's first term. ``The state was there with a strong hand.... He transformed the whole way in which business was done - local aid, housing programs, and infrastructure grants.''
``The precipitous and catastrophic decline in the economy has caused the reputations of a lot of good political leaders in the region to be damaged,'' says Mr. Keefe. ``If you can pierce through the black veil that seems to be in front of all of us in the region and look at the track record, I think it's been a turning point.''
Dukakis got human-services and housing agencies that normally work independently to forge a network of housing and services for special populations. Human-services officials say the state took advantage of a good economy to bring into the mainstream a population normally outside its purview.
``Massachusetts was the first to place a high priority on helping welfare families become self-sufficient,'' says Demetra Nightingale, director of the welfare and training research program at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
``He [Dukakis] created a sophistication and accountability among those who work in those areas,'' says Amy Anthony, secretary of the office of community development. ``It will be hard for the next administration to walk away from that.''
Dukakis got high marks from organizations such as the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group and the Audubon Society for innovative land-use policies, support of programs to reduce acid rain and use of toxic materials, and halting of oil drilling on Georges Bank.
Renew America, an environmental think tank, has ranked Massachusetts high for several years on environmental issues.
Others, however, do not view Dukakis's legacy so positively.
A RECENT survey by the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank, showed that Massachusetts spending, while not much higher than that other states, was disproportionately skewed toward welfare, health, and hospital programs rather than education or highway repair.
But the governor's major mistake, says Charlie Baker, co-director of the Pioneer Institute, was running for president while being a sitting governor.
``The damage he did by not being here and not being focused on the state is gigantic; fiscally and in terms of public trust, which is probably the most important tool the governor has,'' says Mr. Baker. ``Everyone ended up feeling neglected.''