For People Who Think

March 12, 2010

“Tickled” to Political Death; The Eric Massa Debacle

Filed under: Uncategorized — 4peoplewhothink @ 5:13 pm

It was a week night. I’d just emerged from the home studio from which I do my daily talk radio program on Albany’s WGDJ Talk 1300. An hour later I found myself at the gracious home of a neighbor, along with a dozen other people, to meet Eric Massa. He was running for Congress in our district in New York’s Finger Lakes/wine country region.

Massa was a 50ish Annapolis graduate, a 20-year Navy veteran who’d later worked on the professional staff of the House Armed Services Committee. Two years earlier, running against a weak incumbent, he’d lost by two percentage points. He came across that evening as earnest and informed – a major improvement over the guy who was in that seat at the time. At the end of a few hours of conversation, I wished Massa luck, shook his hand and figured that he had only the longest of shots to win in that conservative, largely rural district where Democrats were little more than a rumor.

Then came the Barack Obama tidal wave. Massa squeaked into the House of Representatives along with two dozen other Democrats running in Republican districts across the country. I predicted to friends that the guy would get his two years in the Big Show, do what party leaders told him to do, go down fighting like a man in 2010 and end up a lobbyist on Washington’s K Street pulling in big bucks. That wasn’t the way it turned out, though.

Instead, Eric Massa resigned from Congress last Monday in the most spectacularly suicidal political meltdown that New Yorkers had seen since Eliot Spitzer’s showy adventure in imprudent self-indulgence. The only politician I’d ever seen behave in a more self-destructive manner had been Bud Dwyer, a Pennsylvania pol I’d once covered for the Philadelphia Inquirer who’d been charged with bribery. Bud had responded by walking into a press conference in Harrisburg, pulling out a pistol and blowing his brains out in front of a room full of reporters and TV cameras. That, I suppose, was more suicidal that what Massa did, but just barely.

Massa's problem developed when his chief of staff, Joe Racalto, contacted an aide in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office back in October to discuss (ahem!) problems with Massa's behavior toward male staffers. This was four months before another Massa aide, Ron Hikel, went to the office of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer with a detailed harassment allegation against Massa. Hoyer’s staff told Hikel to contact the ethics committee within 48 hours or that Hoyer would do it for him. Hikel did what he was told.

Massa’s response to all this was to announce that he wouldn’t run for a second term. Cancer, he explained; his doctors had told him that he needed to take it easy, and he did have a wife and two kids to attend to. Then, when word leaked out about the sexual harassment charges and other such incidents alleged against Massa during his 20 years in the Navy, he announced that he would resign Monday, which he did.

The problem was what he did before that resignation was tendered. He went on the radio in his district and delivered a spirited, only semi-coherent rant against the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, whom Massa characterized as “the son of the spawn of Satan.” That means, apparently, that Emanuel is the devil’s grandson.

Massa’s complaint against Emanuel? That the White House staff chief, formerly a congressman from Chicago, had approached a naked Massa in the shower of the House gym “without even a towel around his tush” and lobbied him to vote for Obama’s health care reform bill. He wasn’t about to stand for such flagrant bullying, Massa insisted; that was why he was resigning.

Immediately, Massa went from being a one-term back bencher in an obscure district to a topic of intense interest to the conservative opinion media. Rush Limbaugh played Massa’s radio rant at length on his national radio program. The evening after Massa resigned to avoid that House Ethics Committee probe into the harassment charges, he appeared on both CNN’s Larry King Show and on Glenn Beck’s one-hour show on the Fox News Network. After an hour of Massa raving more or less incoherently about boyish tickling incidents with his male staffers and the sheer innocence of it all, Beck apologized to his audience for wasting their time.

So, Eric Massa is history now – until his obituary appears at some point in The New York Times, that is — but the House Ethics Committee investigation isn’t. The House voted 402-1 Thursday in favor of a GOP measure calling on the ethics committee to reopen it investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct. The focus will be on what Pelosi knew and when she knew it, but every detail of what Massa did or did not do – tickling parties an all – will now come out

Oh, and that cushy K Street gig?

As we say in New York, fuggetaboddit.

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