William Michael Bulger (born February 2, 1934) is a retired American Democratic politician, lawyer, and educator from South Boston, Massachusetts. His eighteen-year tenure as President of the Massachusetts Senate is the longest in history. He then became president of the University of Massachusetts.
His brother was convicted mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, who led the Winter Hill Gang. In 2003 he refused to testify in a congressional hearing about communications he had with his then-fugitive brother. For that he was forced to resign from the presidency of the University of Massachusetts. Bulger was a political ally of Massachusetts Senator and United States Secretary of State (2013 – 2017) John Kerry, with their long overlap by state and by party.
William Bulger’s father, James Joseph Bulger Sr., was from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. After settling in Everett, Massachusetts, James Sr. married Jane Veronica “Jean” McCarthy, a first-generation Irish immigrant. William Bulger was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and is the third of six children in the family, and younger brother of former mob boss James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger Jr. (1929–2018).
Bulger’s father worked as a union laborer and occasional longshoreman; he lost his arm in an industrial accident:48 and the family was reduced to poverty.:49 In May 1938, When Bulger was four years old, the family moved to South Boston’s Old Harbor Village housing project, soon after it opened. He grew up there and has maintained lifelong friendships with many of those who were his former neighbors, including best friend, Korean War Marine P.O.W. and Purple Heart recipient Fred L. Toomey. The late Congressman Joe Moakley (1927–2001) was also a close childhood neighbor. Although the Bulger family was poor, William matriculated into Boston College High School. He enrolled at Boston College in 1952, but his undergraduate career was interrupted when he joined the United States Army. He served from September 1953 to November 1955, then returned to Boston College, completing his undergraduate degree in English Literature with the help of the G.I. Bill. He attended Boston College Law School, from which he received his Doctor of Jurisprudence degree in 1961. He is also the recipient of over 20 honorary degrees from a variety of academic institutions.
Bulger became interested in politics in 1959 and was first elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1960. After serving five terms, Bulger was elected to the Massachusetts State Senate in 1970 representing the First Suffolk District. In 1973 he was named Second Assistant Floor Majority Leader. After Joseph DiCarlo‘s conviction for extortion in 1977, Bulger succeeded him as Senate Majority Leader. Bulger was elected President of the Massachusetts State Senate in 1978 and was re-elected every two years to 1996, making his time as State Senate president the longest tenure in Massachusetts history.
Bulger joined other Irish-American neighborhood leaders in opposition to court-ordered desegregated busing.
Like other Massachusetts politicians who were elected leaders of their legislative chambers, Bulger was frequently pilloried in the media, but remained very popular in his district. He won his district election every two years from 1961 to 1994 without ever facing a challenge more serious than he faced in the Democratic primary in 1988, when Stephen Holt, a neophyte liberal activist and bookstore owner from Dorchester won 31 out of 60 precincts, only to lose the district by a landslide due to the huge turnout of Bulger supporters in South Boston.
Bulger was among the first advocates of charter schools and public school choice. During the 1980s, he advocated funding of public libraries, the expansion of childhood nutrition services and fuel assistance programs. As Senate president, Bulger led the debate on welfare reform in the early 1990s, with the resulting legislation becoming the model for a national law.
President of the University of Massachusetts system
Bulger was appointed President of the University of Massachusetts by the Board of Trustees on November 28, 1995. His candidacy for the UMass position was supported by Governor William Weld. The appointment was controversial in academic circles, as Bulger had no prior experience in higher education, and lacked the academic doctoral degree usually required for the presidency of a major state university system.
On August 6, 2003, Bulger announced that he would resign as president of the system effective September 1, 2003. His resignation came due to pressure from Governor Mitt Romney after Bulger had refused to cooperate with authorities who were searching for Bulger’s brother, the notorious mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. Jack M. Wilson, Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs, who had come to UMass from the post of J. Erik Jonsson Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to create UMassOnline, was tapped to be the interim president. Wilson was appointed as the president in March 2004 after the conclusion of a national search.
Controversy over brother
Bulger’s older brother James “Whitey” Bulger, Jr., was a convicted crime boss and multiple murders and the former boss of the Winter Hill Gang. Whitey was a fugitive from 1995 until his arrest in June 2011.
In 1999, Whitey’s longtime aide, Kevin Weeks, pleaded guilty to a number of charges related to Whitey’s crime spree and became a cooperating witness. Weeks revealed that in 1995, William talked to Whitey during an arranged phone conversation just two weeks after Whitey fled a pending racketeering indictment. William was called before a grand jury in April 2001 and admitted to talking with his brother. When asked why he didn’t urge Whitey to turn himself in, William replied that he didn’t feel it was in his brother’s best interest to give himself up at the time.
After portions of Bulger’s testimony were published in The Boston Globe, he testified to a Congressional committee about the incident on June 19, 2003 after being granted immunity from prosecution for obstruction of justice. Bulger revealed that he went to an arranged location in 1995 to take a call from his fugitive brother, apparently to avoid electronic eavesdropping. He claimed that not notifying authorities about the call was “in no way inconsistent with my devotion to my own responsibilities, my public responsibilities” as state senate president.
During the hearing, when asked what he thought James (Whitey) did for a living, William Bulger said:
I had the feeling that he was in the business of gaming and… whatever. It was vague to me, but I didn’t think, for a long while he had some jobs, but ultimately, it was clear that he was not being, you know, he wasn’t doing what I’d like him to do.
He added that he loved his brother and hoped that the most brutal rumors concerning him would be proven false.
Bulger came under harsh criticism for his apparent evasiveness, and Governor Mitt Romney, among others, demanded his resignation as president of the University of Massachusetts. Under pressure from all quarters, Bulger resigned in the fall of 2003.
Bulger also testified that the FBI never asked if he knew of Whitey’s location. Those remarks were disputed by a former FBI agent who claimed Bulger declined to submit to an interview with the FBI. Months later, the committee report found Bulger’s testimony “inconsistent” about whether the FBI had contacted him in its search for his fugitive brother.
Upon Whitey’s arrest in California in June 2011, William Bulger issued a statement expressing his “sympathies to the families hurt” in the case, and asking for privacy for his family.
Active retirement and family
Bulger is a past president of the Boston Public Library and past member of the Board of Trustees. He is also Overseer Emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he is a former member of the Massachusetts General Hospital Board of Trustees, Museum of Fine Arts Board of Trustees, and McLean Hospital Board of Trustees. He joined the faculties of Boston College and Suffolk University as a lecturer of political science in 2004. Bulger lives in South Boston with Mary Foley, his wife whom he married in 1960. According to the Massachusetts Open Checkbook list of state pensions, Bulger’s pension from Massachusetts for his position as University of Massachusetts President ranged from $198,926 to $201,266 for the years 2011 to 2019.
- Bulger, William M. While the Music Lasts: My Life in Politics. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. ISBN 0-395-72041-9.
- Bulger, William M. “James Michael Curley: A Short Biography with personal reminiscences by William M. Bulger”. Beverly Massachusetts: Commonwealth Editions, 2009. ISBN 978-1-933212-97-5.
- Burke, John J. A Profile in Political Power, a 2010 documentary produced by JAMAR Productions, highlights the political career of William M. Bulger.
- Seelye, Katharine Q. (November 24, 2013). “Sticking by a Murderous Brother, and Paying for It Dearly”. The New York Times.
- “Inside the shady private equity firm run by Kerry and Biden’s kids”. March 15, 2018.
- Chinlund, Christine; Lehr, Dick; Cullen, Kevin (September 18, 1988). “The Bulger Mystique Part 1. Senate president: A mix of family, Southie, power”. The Boston Globe. Retrieved October 10, 2010.
- The New Yorker. 1991. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- “Ancestry offers Whitey and Billy Bulger”. Wargs.com. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
- Carr, Howie. The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston For a Quarter Century. Lebanon, IN: Warner Books (Hachette Book Group, Inc.), 2006. ISBN 0-446-57651-4.
- Bulger, William M. (1996). While the Music Lasts: My Life in Politics. Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-395-72041-9.
- Public Officers of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts 1977-78. Boston, Mass. : General Court. p. 49.
- Robert Turner; Robert Carr (March 1, 1977). “Bulger promoted to majority leader”. The Boston Globe.
- Hogarty, Richard (September 1996). “UMass Chooses a Political Executive: The Politics of a Presidential Search”. New England Journal of Public Policy. 12 (1): 163–201. eISSN 2373-6062. ISSN 0749-016X.
- Lohr, David (June 23, 2011). “Whitey Bulger Arrested: Infamous Mob Fugitive Caught In Santa Monica”. The Huffington Post.
- “Boston gangster ‘Whitey’ Bulger found guilty of gangland crimes, including 11 slayings”. Washington Post. Archived from the original on August 12, 2013.
- Lehr, Dick; O’Neill, Gerard (2000). Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob (2001 1st Perennial ed.). HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-095925-8.
- Edward Achorn,”The Anti-Brahmins: Not Every Massachusetts Dynasty Is Great,” book review of The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston For a Quarter Century, by Howie Carr, The Weekly Standard magazine, July 24, 2006.
- Fox Butterfield, “F.B.I.Used Killers as Informants, Report Says,” New York Times November 21, 2003, accessed September 10, 2006
- “William Bulger Issues Statement Regarding Brother Whitey’s Arrest”. CBS. June 23, 2011.
- “View Pensions”, Massachusetts Open Checkbook, 2015
- “MassOpenBooks :: Pensions”. massopenbooks.org. Retrieved July 13, 2019.
- “A Profile in Political Power”, Jamar Productions, 2010
- Gitell, Seth. “Bulger’s Denouement.” Boston Phoenix December 12, 2002. Accessed September 11, 2006.
- Billy Bulger
- 60 Minutes segment about Bulger, aired in 1992
- A Profile in Political Power
- Appearances on C-SPAN
| Majority Leader of the Massachusetts Senate
| President of the Massachusetts Senate
Sherry H. Penney
| President of the University of Massachusetts
Jack M. Wilson