If there’s one word no one would ever associate with politics in the city of Chelsea, it’s “integrity.”
But that’s exactly the noun the local newspaper used in its obituary for the last elected mayor of Chelsea, John “Butchie” Brennan, who died this month at the age of 76.
“Mr. Brennan,” the Chelsea Record said, “symbolized that anything is possible in the arena of politics with the right mix of hard work, integrity, honor and a belief in oneself that you can help improve the lives of residents with your decisive actions and deeds.”
Integrity. Honor. And yes, decisive actions and deeds — Butchie pleaded guilty to decisive actions and deeds in August 1993. The feds called it obstruction of justice.
Butchie got 48 months’ probation — house arrest. That was the good news, house arrest. The bad news was, the house was in Chelsea.
Actually, by the standards of Chelsea politics, Butchie was a cut above. When the ex-bartender pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court, his two immediate predecessors as mayor were both in federal prisons.
You guessed it, obstruction of justice.
And the mayor of Chelsea before those jailbirds was in the process of being disbarred for touching everything but the third rail.
Here’s how corrupt Chelsea was in the days when Butchie et al. were so into honor and integrity — in 1986, serial killer Whitey Bulger reported to his crooked FBI handlers that organized crime had decided to pull out of Chelsea.
“Too many people to pay off,” Whitey noted sadly.
I hadn’t thought about that golden age of Chelsea politics for years until I heard that Butchie had drawn his last ’Gansett draft at Ryan’s Tavern on Fifth Avenue.
These days, even more so than in the past, Chelsea crime is mostly violent. Just this month, two “Chelsea men” have been arrested for sexual assaults in downtown Boston.
One of them is an illegal immigrant that ICE hasn’t even been able to identify by his real name. That “Chelsea man” is charged with a rape in the Public Garden.
How corrupt were the mayors of Chelsea? The only local comparison would be speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives — three convicted felons in a row, followed by the current occupant, an unindicted co-conspirator in yet another corruption scandal.
Chelsea’s downhill run started with Joel Pressman, who had a law degree.
In 1993 Pressman was immunized to testify before a federal grand jury.
As the SJC put it in their disbarment decision, Pressman admitted that “while mayor of Chelsea, he had illegally accepted annual payments in exchange for the protection of ‘bookies,’ (b) received an illegal payment in return for the award of a city insurance contract, and (c) accepted an illegal payment of $9,000 in return for his support of a mall project in Chelsea. In 1985, when he was no longer mayor, Pressman lied under oath to a federal grand jury about the mall project.”
After his perjury, Gov. Michael Dukakis appointed Pressman to the Industrial Accidents Board. The Duke could always pick ’em.
Pressman was succeeded by a clown named Jim Mitchell, who soon stopped showing up for work. I tangled with Mitchell at City Hall — on camera he screamed that I was a “first-class phony.” It was great TV, but then it got even better.
The aged mother of the police chief he had just suspended showed up and began screaming at Mitchell, as he was screaming at me. Then she collapsed.
On the floor, she began yelling deliriously that she was going to stab the mayor for what he’d done to her son. Someone opened her purse and found a large pair of scissors.
Soon Mitchell was campaigning in Bellingham Square, waving at cars. Most of the time the drivers would scream obscenities back at him, and he’d respond with the middle-finger salute. Occasionally, he’d pull the pin on an imaginary grenade and roll it under the car.
It was more Chelsea comic video gold.
Mitchell was convicted of obstruction of justice in July 1993. Ten months. His Bureau of Prisons number was 19561-038.
Next up was Mayor Thomas J. Nolan. He was fined twice by the State Ethics Commission and then the feds put a rocket in his pocket.
Nolan got 10 months in August 1993. His Bureau of Prisons number was 19683-038. They let him out just before Christmas 1994 and he moved to, where else, Revere.
Butchie was the last man standing. But it was all over. The pols and the mob had stolen everything that wasn’t nailed down.
So Butchie drove to the State House and asked that Chelsea be put into receivership — basically on welfare, like so many of the city’s residents, illegal and otherwise.
As a consolation prize they gave Butchie his own hack job, at the T as I recall it. It was easier than being on his feet all day behind the tap at Ryan’s, it paid better and behind it would have come the pension.
But the corruption was just too overwhelming. Butchie had to take the fall too.
The first time I ever called Butchie, he was an alderman and I needed to interview him about Mitchell’s antics, on camera. He told me to meet him at Ryan’s Tavern. I asked him, how will I recognize you?
“I’m the one behind the bar,” he said.
And then he almost ended up … behind bars.
RIP, Butchie Brennan.