Massachusetts Digs 'First' Claims
BOSTON (AP) - There are few phrases more cherished in the marble halls of the Massachusetts Statehouse than ``first in the nation.''
In recent weeks, lawmakers have proudly claimed a series of national benchmarks, from a ban on dumping old computer monitors to tough new handgun regulations.
There was a proposal for a first-ever plan to provide all seniors with drug coverage. And Massachusetts was the first in the nation to elect a pregnant woman to statewide office.
Even the Big Dig - the enormous and troubled Boston highway construction project - has bragging rights to at least one engineering title: the world's longest asymmetrical cable-stayed bridge. Less popular is the fact that it also is now the nation's most expensive public works project.
It's all part of the deep-seated belief that Massachusetts, long ago ousted as the country's financial and political trendsetter, still holds a place on the cutting edge of policy-making.
``Massachusetts is a model for the rest of the country,'' said state Sen. Cheryl Jacques, referring to a recent report which praised Massachusetts' gun laws as some of the toughest in the nation. Jacques spearheaded the state's landmark 1998 gun control law.
Many of the state's cutting-edge accomplishments are liberal initiatives, which only makes sense in a place that is home to the Kennedys, sympathetic to the Clintons, and where more voters identify themselves as liberal than almost any other state.
And that sticks in the craw of people who don't lean in that direction.
``If it's true, it's a frightening thought,'' said anti-tax conservative Barbara Anderson.
Anderson pointed to the legislature's 1988 passage of a first-in-the-nation law guaranteeing universal health care. The measure, championed by former Gov. Michael Dukakis, foundered when the Massachusetts economy went into recession and was never fully implemented.
On other issues, Massachusetts is a leader with few followers, according to former Rep. Mickey Edwards, R-Okla.
``Massachusetts as a whole is very much out of the national mainstream and very much out of synch with the rest of the country,'' said Edwards, now a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Not so, according to Massachusetts loyalists.
Earlier this month, Attorney General Thomas Reilly announced Massachusetts would begin using consumer protection laws to regulate firearms. Although 34 other states have similar laws, Massachusetts is the first to impose the regulations, Reilly said.
The state also is leading the charge in the tobacco wars, according to advocates.
One groundbreaking initiative would allow the attorney general's office to ban some tobacco advertising near schools and playgrounds. The second would force the industry to disclose the ingredients of all tobacco products. The tobacco industry is fighting to quash both.
Warren Tolman wrote the disclosure law when he served in the state Senate.
``Certainly the tobacco disclosure law was the first of its kind. It was copied in 12 other states,'' Tolman said.
Not all firsts are as dramatic as guns or tobacco.
Earlier this month, Massachusetts began enforcing the nation's first ban on dumping computer monitors, televisions and video games that contain cathode ray tubes. Environmental officials say they're trying to head off a flood of potentially toxic electronic trash.
``We hope it is replicated nationwide,'' said John McNabb, solid waste policy director at Clean Water Action of New England.
Sometimes lawmakers use the ``first in the nation'' label as part of their legislative pitch.
Supporters of a bill to create 25-foot, protest-free buffer zones around abortion clinics are touting the legislation as a national model. The bill twice won approval in the Senate and is now before the House.
Activists also are using the ``first in the nation'' claim to push a proposal to provide all senior citizens in the state with affordable prescription drug coverage.
Sometimes, the ``first'' label is just a matter of timing. Weeks after then-acting Gov. Paul Cellucci named her his running mate, Lt. Gov. Jane Swift learned she was expecting her first child. Pundits said she was the first candidate in the country to run for statewide office while pregnant.
The desire to score firsts is not unique to Massachusetts, but the Bay State may be more obsessed with the label than other states, according to Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communication at Boston University.
``We're first in self-introspection,'' Berkovitz said.