Principle is Primary

08Oct10

This is an observation about language and politics. It is an examination of intellectual honesty (I hope) too. Because it involves the subject of politics, interest will plummet, for sure. But hey, it’s my blog.

I was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in November, 1984 (that is not a typo). One of the members of my freshman class was Suzanne Bump, with whom I served on the Commerce & Labor Committee for my entire 6 years, before I retired myself on account of health – I got sick of politics.

I had nothing in common with Suzanne’s politics (nor she with mine), but she too was a young lawyer, and despite our ideological differences, I perceived her to be a comparatively honest person, intellectually. For lawyers, that’s a shaky concept, but go with me.

Suzanne is now a candidate for Massachusetts State Auditor, the one who examines the books of any state agency s/he wants to determine if everything’s on the up-and-up and no money’s being wasted. Tall order, in any state government, if taken seriously. Her opponent is Mary Connaughton, an extraordinary straight-arrow, a CPA, a courageous, fearless, humble and steely-minded person about whom who anyone with anything to hide should be concerned.

Now it comes to be that Suzanne and her  husband own two residences – a condo in South Boston, and a house in Great Barrington – as far from Boston as it is possible to get without crossing a state line.

Good on them, I say! A place in the city, a place in the country. Who doesn’t strive for such a thing, eh?

To my great dismay, I learned that Ms. Bump and her husband have run into a small problem with their interpretation of language – and being both lawyers, this is the point of my post.

It seems that this fortunate couple has elected to take advantage of their dual localities’ property tax breaks for “principal” or “primary” residences. Calling one residence “principal” (according to its regulation, let’s say for the sake of generosity) and the other one “primary” ( likewise), they’ve garnered property tax reductions amounting to thousands and thousands of dollars. Here’s a simple precise of the problem:

According to the story by Northeastern University journalism professor (and former Globe reporter) Walter Robinson and his team of student reporters, Bump and husband Paul McDevitt made their Great Barrington home their primary residence in 2002. By registering to vote there, they qualified as full-time residents and thus avoided the additional personal property tax that community assesses on homeowners who are not, thereby saving them $300 to $400 a year.

Then, in March of 2007, Bump and McDevitt applied for a principal-residence tax reduction on their South Boston condo, a break which has saved them about $6,000 in taxes since then.

Here’s how my dear colleague chose to explain:

“Great Barrington is my primary residence. That’s where I have a three-bedroom house that I consider my home,’’ she said. “I principally reside in the city of Boston. Primary residence, principal residence — I see them as two different things.’’

I see them as two different things.

See, this is the beauty of thinking of yourself as a writer first and a lawyer second. You gain a deep appreciation for the importance of language, each and every word of it, and thereby, avoid stepping in your own bullshit.

This is what politics does, even to good people.

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15 Responses to “Principle is Primary”

  1. Politics usually brings me to tears, but after reading this I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Think I’ll stick with well told.

    Massachusetts State Auditor? Say it isn’t so, Pete.

    • Afraid it’s the twoof.

      The upside of her being Auditor is that she’s capable of thinking like a crook.

  2. 3 Phillipa

    Principal is defined by Dictionary.com as first or highest in rank or importance. Primary is also defined as first or highest in rank or importance.

    Next they’ll be saying they did not have sex at that house …

    • Well, if he’s living in Great Barrington and she’s living in Boston, that claim could be truer than her incumbent lie.

  3. 5 nick adams

    A compelling story. She could learn from her former colleague. I would guess she also says ‘most unique’. Thanks for the tale.

  4. I did not inhale. It depends on what the definition of is is. Middle class families will not see their taxes go up one single dime. Read my lips. You know how to tell when politicians are lying, don’t you? Their lips are moving.

    Having lived in Washington, DC (but not as a politician), I completely understand how you became sick of politics. I’ve never been in politics, but have always been a political junkie – well, until recently. Here in DC, there are several basic types:
    – politicians, who will do and say anything to get what they want, which is more power and authority (and this isn’t referring only to those who run for election – it’s a type, and applies just as much to some of those in many different career fields)
    – bureaucrats, who hold rigidly to the rules and regulations – at least when it comes to everyone else. These folks have no common sense. If it isn’t written down in a procedure, they have no idea what to do, but will refer to that written procedure as if it is holy scripture. They use the rules and regulations, and their knowledge of them, to acquire power and authority. Again, not all ‘bureaucrat’ types are in government bureaucracy.
    – Hangers-on. These people look for a charismatic politician-type and then attach themselves, hoping to rise to power and authority on the coattails of someone who will do or say anything to get what they want. They are blindly loyal, and mistakenly believe this will result in reciprocated loyalty. But the politician uses the hangers-on to feed their own ego and get what they want, and the hangers-on are completely expendable. Politicians will toss them overboard, or in front of the bus, at a moment’s notice if it proves beneficial.
    – Tourists. This doesn’t refer to the actual tourists who come to DC by the busload and walk around gawking at the famous buildings and monuments. These tourists move to DC for work, are in awe of the place and the famous and powerful people they’ve previously only seen on television. They view the politicians as monuments. After a while, however, some start to realize these monuments have cracks in their foundations, graffiti sprayed on their walls, and many aren’t even buildings but just facades with nothing behind them. These tourists move on, leaving a little jaded for the experience. Other tourists can morph into hangers-on, bureaucrats or even politicians themselves.
    – Observers. Sort of like tourists, only they arrive slightly jaded or skeptical, or at least not in awe like tourists. They find DC an interesting, unique culture from an anthropological perspective. They watch and learn. Many eventually leave with the big question hanging in their minds: How in the world does this country survive with bozos like this making all the decisions? They then move far away, like to Phoenix, or Panama.

  5. Robb, your assessment is hilarious (as usual) and more true than we should want.

    But there is a distinct difference between the liar and the bullshitter – check out the BULLSHIT hyperlink, and read what Professor Frankfurt says about it!

  6. 8 Sue Marnitz

    I’m wondering why, in March 2007, she didn’t shift her primary residence status to the home that would save her the most money. We’re talking a continuing career in politics versus $300 to $400 a year. She should be nixed on stupidity and greed alone. In her case, I don’t see them as two different things.

    • Oh, but Sue, you naive creature – you assume this is the sort of thing that a Democrat in Massachusetts can’t get away with – or that changes voters’ minds. Neither greed, stupidity, nor their combination has disqualified an officeholder here from advancing his career.

  7. Perhaps she is a member of the TEA party and has concluded that she is Taxed Enough Already. It seems to be the coming thing, tax-analysis-wise.

  8. Conservatives believe “Taxed enough already.” Liberals believe “Tax everyone else: The TEE Party. TEE time…let’s hit the golf course while the rest of the poor saps are working more hours to pay their taxes, if they’re lucky enough to have a job.”

  9. Interesting position for a state auditor. Greed rules. Since principal and primary mean the same thing and have the same benefits and requirements, I don’t see how she can legitimately clain to have two of them and receive double benefits. There’s so much of this going on now–she sounds like the Wall Street guys when they were questioned by the House. Or, sadly, Bill Clinton. I have to say Clinton’s offense had little effect on others’ lives outside his family, where Wall Street’s destroyed people.

  10. Thanks for the visit, Ellis – in fairness to Suzanne, I have since learned that Great Barrington waives the personal property tax for its REGISTERED VOTERS and Boston gives a deduction for PRINCIPAL RESIDENTS, so she actually hasn’t cheated on anything – but for an experienced politician and lawyer, she sure didn’t do herself any favors with the “principal – primary” remark.

    Bill Clinton’s “is is” reply in his deposition I must defend (which, if you knew me, should shock you) – because he was doing there what I’m doing here: Calling out someone who misused language. He was responding to a question in which the timing of an event was critical – so when he replied that way, he was really saying “do you mean IS or WAS?” The “is” being used in the question was INCORRECT. The lawyer was trying to TRICK him.

  11. 14 Phillipa

    but lawyers don’t do that, do they?

  12. Completely irrelevant, but….. Great Barrington is a nice place. I spent a few weeks there one summer. 🙂


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