Okay it's Thursday, so that must mean more blasts from the past. This week's history lesson is from the early days of the Ryan Administration, as it found itself under attack from the establishment mouthpieces at the Springfield Newspapers. This essay recounts some of the dirtiest political deeds ever committed by the local media, and provides lessons that are still valuable today as well as much that is of historic interest.
Originally published February 5th 2004
It was a case of deja-vu all over again this week when I saw how the Springfield Newspapers got nasty with Charlie Ryan. The cause of the flashback was an article that began:
"Two weeks after pledging higher standards of ethics and efficiency in city government, Mayor Charles V. Ryan turned over the troubled Office of Community Development to a political supporter who struggled with tax debts, labor complaints and allegations of mismanagement at his last job."
The reference was to Ryan's hiring of Juan Gerena as head of Community Development. Suddenly I was transported back to early 1996, when the then new Mayor Michael J. Albano had been in office for only about a month. He'd made a number of fresh hires for his new administration, and myself and local TV and radio personality Dan Yorke were complaining to each other that they were all political appointments of people with little or no qualifications. A bingo inspector (Gerry Phillips) as Police Commissioner? A person with no background in municipal law (Michael Kogut) as City Solicitor? Yorke and I wondered whether anyone else was noticing that cheap political paybacks and personal relationships were dominating the hiring process with virtually no attention being paid to the public interest.
Then one day we picked up the newspaper and much to our surprise and pleasure we saw that there was an article on the front page accusing Albano of relying too much on patronage in his new hires. It was an article blasting the new mayor for hiring people based on politics rather than on their qualifications. Yorke and I were surprised because we never expected the newspaper, which had endorsed Albano over Charlie Ryan in the 1995 election, to attack Albano in that way. We were delighted however because that was precisely what we had been complaining about and we were glad to see the local paper confirm our opinion.
Then something weird happened. A couple days after that article appeared, Yorke received a phone call from a woman who worked at the old Municipal Hospital on State Street, which at the time was owned and operated by the city (it has since been sold). She told Yorke that she had seen the piece about Albano hiring unqualified people, and that the article had inspired her to call the paper about what she saw as a blatant patronage hire at the hospital. She told Yorke that a member of Springfield's powerful Pellegrino family had been hired for a position at the hospital for which they had no known qualifications.
Yorke asked the hospital employee what she had said when she contacted the paper, since this was an excellent example of exactly the sort of hire the paper had attacked in their article. In fact it was more compelling than the examples they had used, since this involved a hospital position where incompetency can be a risk to patients and staff.
The woman informed Yorke that no one at the newspaper had expressed any interest in finding out any more about it. In fact, she felt that the newspaper was trying to discourage her from pursuing the issue, which is why in frustration she had called Dan Yorke. He asked her whether she would come on Yorke's WGGB-TV show the following night to make her case and she promised that she would. Therefore Yorke went on the radio and TV informing his listeners and viewers of what had transpired and informing his audience that the woman would be a guest on his TV show the following night.
She never made it. The next day the woman called Yorke and said she would not be appearing on his show but she would not explain why. Yorke pressed her for an explanation and asked her if anyone had put pressure on her not to appear. The woman became emotional and blurted out simply, "Please, Mr. Yorke, leave me alone," and hung up. That was the last Yorke ever heard from her.
It was also the last anyone ever heard of the Springfield Newspapers crusading against Albano patronage hires. Over the next eight years of the Albano administration there continued to be hires on a purely political basis and the paper never said a word in protest, despite the fact that some of those hires (like Kogut) had to be removed for incompetence or (like Phillips) were ultimately indicted for corruption and other charges.
The situation baffled Yorke and I, at least at first. Why had the newspaper made a front page story out of the low caliber of Albano's hires, only to drop the subject after just one day, never to raise it again? Why, when presented with a great story about a potentially dangerous hire in the city hospital, did they refuse even to interview the whistleblower?
It took awhile, but Yorke and I finally figured out what was going on. The reason the paper had no interest in the hospital employee's charges was because they had never had any genuine interest in complaining about patronage in the first place. Their article had absolutely nothing to with improving the quality of Albano's appointees. It had everything to do with power, and the raw exercising of it.
Yorke and I decided that the Springfield Newspaper's front-page anti-patronage article was actually a form of code, a hidden message to the new administration that if decoded into frank language would have read something like this:
"Hey Mikey, how do you like being mayor? It sure is fun having all your friends join you in City Hall, isn't it? Don't let that nasty article we wrote about the friends you hired fool you, we really don't care who you hire. We do care however that the issues that we are concerned about are favorably considered. We sincerely hope you won't be so foolish as to ignore our policy wishes, but we intend to give you a choice. The article we wrote today can be the last article we ever write that way, or it can be one of many, one right after another, right up to the day you are thrown out after only one term. The next time you are tempted not to do things the way we want them done, remember that we can do more articles of this kind anytime we want."
Also aiding us in this new understanding of the paper's scam, was that someone made us aware of another article that had appeared in the paper some years earlier, shortly after the election to Congress of Richard Neal. In that article the newspaper reported on what they claimed were rampant rumors sweeping the Valley that Neal had gotten a woman pregnant who was not his wife, and furthermore that he had paid to get her an abortion. I have seen a clipping of this Springfield Newspaper article with my own eyes, and there was no question of its authenticity. Whether there was any truth to the rumors regarding Neal the article referred to is unknown, as there were no follow-up articles and in fact the rumors were never mentioned by the paper again.
In light of the Albano article it was easy to put this earlier attack on Neal in perspective. These kinds of threatening, highly negative articles are an old trick of the newspaper, a way to demonstrate its power to those newly elected who may not fully appreciate what the paper can do; a way of disciplining those who might be tempted to govern in a way contrary to their wishes.
Now flash forward to February of 2004. Charlie Ryan has been in office for a month, and has delighted everyone by the almost ruthless manner in which he has fired or forced into early retirement some of the most notorious deadbeats in City Hall, people like Joe Dougherty, Brian Santaniello, Tom Haberlin and Raeann Altro. In fact Charlie appears to be oblivious to any of the sacred cows and privileged insiders he would normally be supposed to be catering to by the standards of Springfield's traditional political machine. No doubt other Grand Poobahs and Payroll Patriots of the Old Regime will also be shown the door as the Ryan Administration evolves.
Certainly Ryan does not appear to be worried about what the media thinks of his actions. In fact the only concern I've heard about media coverage from the Ryanites was from a woman who approached me thinking that I was Tom Vannah, editor of The Valley Advocate. It was not the first time that someone has made that mistake of identity, it usually happens with older people who don't go online. They hear my name and are aware that a Tom something or other writes for the Advocate, so they conclude I am he. Of course the prankster in me likes to take full advantage of such situations.
The woman asked me in a tone of accusing indignation, "And so when is the Advocate going to turn on the Ryan Administration just like you did to Albano?" Actually the Advocate didn't "turn" on Albano, they had opposed him from day one, but I let that slide. Instead I asked her if she knew that Charlie had eleven kids. "Of course," she replied. I then told her that next week the Advocate was publishing an article by Maureen Turner revealing that Charlie Ryan was the father of a dozen additional children by five mistresses. The woman wobbled away in a state of shock. After all, she had heard it from Tom Vannah himself!
Let's be frank. The placing of Juan Gerena as head of Community Development is a political hire, and people need to understand that at least a few such hires are necessary in every administration. Yes, Gerena doesn't have an impressive resume, but people like Tom Haberlin and former School Superintendent Peter Negroni had resumes to knock your eyes out and were both an unmitigated disaster. Charlie is giving Mr. Gerena a chance to prove himself. Charlie has zero tolerance for public servants who fail to perform. Should Mr. Gerena prove himself unequal to his duties, he will be fired out the door so fast his head will spin. In the meantime let's trust Charlie's judgement and give Genera a chance.
The Ryan Administration continues its noble work of separating the Albano Administration's friends, relatives, hacks, holdovers and coatholders from their public paychecks. Among those shoved out the door recently were two of City Hall's most notorious drama queens, Rae Altro and Corinne Rock. Also dumped was Miguel Rivas, a politically ambitious Albanoite who will now have to pursue his political goals without the advantage of a City Hall powerbase. What was most interesting about the thirty hour a week job Rivas had at City Hall was its salary of over $45,000 dollars a year! Great pay for part-time work if you can get it!
The firing of Ms. Altro has special ramifications, if one is to believe what has been said about her in the public record. According to courtroom testimony by her ex-husband, Glenn Altro, the former Mrs. Altro (salary: over $77,000) had a long running romantic affair with Albano's former chief of staff Anthony Ardolino. Ms. Altro's former husband became so enraged by this affair that he slashed the tires of not only Ardolino, but for good measure the tires of the Mayor himself. That is why he was in court.
What has also entered the public record is that Glenn Altro, a former city employee and a member of Albano's innermost circle of friends and advisors, has turned state's evidence in the long running Springfield corruption probe. He's singing like a bird about everything that went on behind closed doors in the Albano Administration. Rumors persist however that Altro's testimony has been of little value to investigators, because there are no corroborating witnesses to back up what he has revealed. His ex-wife has been dragged before the Grand Jury in an attempt to verify some of her husband's charges, but it is said that she has not been helpful. Considering that at the time she held a $77,000 dollar job in the administration of her lover Ardolino, who was caught on a wiretap telling another unhelpful witness that they were a "hero" for not testifying, perhaps her alleged reluctance to share all that she may know was understandable.
However, now that Charlie has bounced her from her fat job in City Hall, she may feel differently. Oh poor Rae, the big paycheck is gone but the soap opera just plays on and on.
From a Journal entry dated August 23rd 2000
I'm off to terrorize some fish
floating around in my boat
caught a nice bass out of the Connecticut
went downriver so far it was like a scene from Apocalypse Now
big old mossy trees
otherworldly mist on the water at dawn
caught a big green turtle in my net
was a bitch getting him out
a water moccasin went by
poisonous ain't they?
is it dangerous to be so deep in the wilderness alone?
I could drown and no one would find me
went down to the Connecticut River nightfishing
got a secret spot that requires a death defying leap to get to
one night years ago Jay Libardi's wife was out in a rage
with baby Jason and huntin' him down along the river's edge
and we saw her coming at us with the baby in her arms
cussin' like a trucker
How the fuck do you expect me to stay home blah blah blah
and her heading right towards the spot where you have to jump
except she don't see it cuz it's dark and we yell
but she's deaf with rage and so Jay has to jump
across the void
and knock her backwards just as she reaches the edge
and so he saves her life and his infant son
but she is so ungrateful and drags him home by the ear
I smiled while I remembered this
but sad to think of Jay in St. Michaels
I kept hearing wild laughter coming from somewhere up river
can't tell how far off
sound travels far over the water
probably just stewbums on Thunderbird
the only ones besides me who would be on the river at three a.m.
the old fishermen say the ghosts of Indians haunt these banks
good thing I don't believe in ghosts
caught a nasty river eel and had to cut the line
wasn't worth the gross-out to save the lure
too bad, it was the same lucky one that caught the bass earlier
sometimes you catch the bass
sometimes you catch the eel
now ain't life a little like that?
it was a bitch trying to thread a new hook in the inky dark
didn't bring a lantern
draws the wrong kind of attention
took Sara and CJ to fish
with their brand new TAZMANIAN DEVIL kiddie fishing poles
had to run around so much putting worms on their hooks
and untangling bird's nests
that I never did put my own pole in the water
kids hated to see me pinch the worms in half
(the bait wouldn't have lasted twenty minutes otherwise
with their wild casts that knock the worm free)
it IS repulsive to see the half you put back in the cup
writhing with agony
CJ said it must suck to be a worm.
Sara christened her new pole by catching a baby punkinseed
her shreik of delight was worth the whole afternoon of aggravation
the poor little punkinseed swallowed the hook
so far down I couldn't get it free
without ripping the fish's throat out
EWWWWWW cried Sara and CJ
Sorry kids, I said, just add that to your collection of traumas.