A young New Hampshire House Majority Leader with a bright future makes a private mistake, including misrepresenting his academic record, and is forced to resign. It’s happened before.
In 1989, House Majority Leader Vinnie Palumbo, then 33 and serving his fourth term in the legislature from Kingston, resigned. Palumbo would eventually plead guilty to bank fraud and tax evasion and be sentenced to 15 months in Federal prison.
There’s no defending what ex-Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt is accused of, claiming academic credit for a no-show internship and filing false paperwork indicating he did work he did not do. He’s made a huge personal mistake, for which he will pay a huge personal and political price. His political career comes to an abrupt, complete, and permanent stop. His reputation is in tatters. It is unclear whether he’ll ever be able to complete his law degree or become a member of the bar, after investing three years of time, money, and lost opportunity.
But before people pile on, put yourself in D.J.’s shoes for a moment. What appears to have precipitated D.J.’s downfall – along with, yes, lack of character – was his inability to pull off getting a law degree and serving as Majority Leader at the same time. It was just too much. Finding himself in an impossible position, he cut corners, cheated, and lied about it.
It is not as though trying to do both things was something D.J. set out to do from the beginning. When he started law school, he was just one state rep among many – and a member of the minority caucus at that. Lots of people go to law school, either full- or part-time, while maintaining a full- or part-time job as well. It is considered laudatory to do this. We are proud of our friends who work their way through college or grad school.
But then suddenly D.J. found himself in the majority not even half-way through law school, and with an opportunity to serve as Majority Leader. Sure, he could have declined to run, realizing it would be biting more off than anyone could chew. He could have solved the problem by dropping out of law school, or asking them for another year or semester to complete his credits. He could have stepped down as Majority Leader after, say, the first session.
Easy to see in retrospect. But how many of us, in the same situation, would not have made the same choice D.J. did, which is to try to do both? Again, put yourself in his shoes. You’re 28. You’re officially living at home with your parents. You are engaged to be married. You haven’t been earning much, if any, money in several years. I bet your priority would be to complete that degree as fast as you can, get a job, and start earning a paycheck. Doesn’t mean you’d cheat to do, just that you would have shared the same goal and had a lot of pressure on you to get it done by any means possible.
When Palumbo resigned, he was replaced as Majority Leader by Caroline Gross of Concord, who later died while serving in that position. (Who was elected to fill Palumba’s house seat in a 1990 special election? Ken Weyler.) Every House Majority Leader since has come of the same mold: Seasoned legislators, experienced both in Concord and in life. They include Ann Torr, Bob Wheeler, Gene Chandler, David Hess, Dave Scanlan, Mike O’Neil, and Mary Jane Wallner.
Had D.J. done the same thing and not been a public official, the consequences of his actions would play out in private, not as front page news. It’s a sad story, and a cautionary one. D.J.’s going to pay a huge price for his mistake, and he deserves to. But he also deserves just a little sympathy as well.
Fergus@ferguscullen.com, May 29, 2012