If We Stood on Formality More Often, Political Discourse Might Improve

Friday, December 19, 2014

Article One of the Massachusetts Constitution states: “There shall be a supreme executive magistrate, who shall be styled, The Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; and whose title shall be – His Excellency.”

I stumbled across Article One last week when doing a little research on gubernatorial pardons.  Immediately, I was intrigued.
How come we don’t we use titles like that these days?

Yes, they’re old fashioned and stilted.  And yes, it would sound ridiculous if the denizens of the State House suddenly started talking like the cast of Downton Abbey.
But maybe, just maybe, a little more formality would go a long way toward reminding us and our elected officials that they play very serious and consequential roles in our society, and that the words they use with one another in transacting the people’s business do matter. 

Words can elevate the human spirit or run it down with equal effectiveness.  They can inspire generosity as easily as anger.  The can create good or bad memories that each endure with remarkable persistence.
To test my hypothesis that a more formalized language could change life within the State House for the better, I decided to spin out two scenarios.  Each is based on an imaginary, chance encounter between the Governor of Massachusetts and the House Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on one of the Capitol’s magnificent marble staircases.

In Scenario 1, the language is common, like what most of us hear every day.  In Scenario 2, the language is what it could be if our leaders today somehow willed themselves back to the time when our state constitution was written and adopted.
I must emphasize that I definitely was not envisaging or projecting any individual who has actually been the governor or the judiciary co-chair into either scenario.  I’ve put these words into the mouths of completely fictional human beings.  This is a thought experiment only.

Scenario 1
Chairman: “May I have a word with you?”

Governor:  “Depends.  What word are you thinking of?”
“Whiffer Williams.”

“Oh, your friend, the aspiring justice.  Middlesex County’s gift to the bar.”
“He’d make a wonderful judge.”

“Every friend of every burnt-out lawyer says something to that effect.”
“You wound me.”

“Not hard to do.  Your veins are close to the surface, Mr. Chairman.”
“Whiffer is a good man, and a good friend.  When will you place his name in nomination before the Executive Council?”

“May I ask you a question.”
“Yes.  Unlike you, I’m not afraid to give an answer.”

“When is your committee going to release my court reform bill?”
“Hard to say.”

“Only if one wants to make it hard.”
“It is not I who is making it hard.”

“Who then?”
“The people I work for.”

“Your fundraising committee?”
“The voters of my district, of course.”

“Name me one constituent who’s has spoken to you against court reform.”
Chairman (smiling): “I never break a voter’s confidence.”

“But you don’t mind breaking Whiffer’s heart.”
“Look, Governor, there are so many things I can do for your administration.  And this is such a small matter.  Such an easy matter!”

“Let’s talk about easy when that bill comes out with a favorable report.”
“The Globe would not like to hear of such horse-trading.”

“Only a horse’s ass plays games in the dark with the Globe.”
“Speaking of asses, how’s your legislative director doing, the Little Professor?”

“Any time you need to buff up your office operation, I’ll be glad to lend him to you.”
“Go to hell!”

“You’ll be there first.  Your career’s already dead.”

Scenario 2
Chairman: “Ah, Excellency.  Good day!”

Governor: “Representative!  As I live and breathe, it is the Honorable House Chairman of Judiciary.  Good day to you, Sir.”
“Excellency, may I have a word?”

“Approach, Your Honorableness.  What is on that marvelous mind of yours?”
“Excellency, I speak now on behalf of a dear friend -- a barrister of renown throughout the Commonwealth: the Honorable Wilfred Williams.”

“Ah, yes, the gentleman who aspires to the bench in the District Court of Eastern Middlesex.”
“Nothing would please me more, Excellency, than to see his nomination advance forthwith.”

“Yes, I see. Yes. Yes.”
“Then may I convey to The Gentleman your wish to submit his nomination?"

“Oh, such eagerness.  How endearing!  Like a young racehorse, you are:  always bolting toward the prize.”
“Is that hesitation I hear? Some hidden doubt, perhaps?”

“Honorable Representative, this is not the time or place to explore such complexities.”
“How then shall we ‘explore’ them, Excellency?”

“I shall dispatch my legislative director to your office next week.  You may speak with him in total confidence.  And I trust he may do the same with you.”
“On my word of honor, Sir.  We shall speak as gentlemen and scholars.  He, like all Harvard men, is uncommonly mature for his years.”

“Good Day, Sir.”
“Good Day, Excellency.”








Barring New Info and Victim Comments, Gov. Baker Should Pardon Mark Wahlberg

Thursday, December 11, 2014

In a petition submitted to Governor Deval Patrick on November 26, Mark Wahlberg, a Dorchester product and a Hollywood darling, provided both “the easiest answer” and “the more complex answer” to why he wants to be pardoned for his teenage crimes.

“The easiest answer is that my past convictions still legally impact me to this day,” he wrote, “…my prior record can potentially be the basis to deny me a concessionaire’s license in California and elsewhere.”  (Wahlberg is in the restaurant business with a brother.)
In addition, he wrote, “I have become close with many members of the local law enforcement community in Boston and Los Angeles, including as a member of the board of directors of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Youth Foundation, which is dedicated to helping at-risk youth.  But, given my prior record, Massachusetts and California law prohibit me from actually obtaining positions in law enforcement.  If I were fortunate enough to receive a pardon, I would have the ability to become more active in law enforcement activities, including those that assist at-risk individuals.”

Then Wahlberg got to the heart of the matter.
“The more complex answer is that receiving a pardon would be a formal recognition that I am not the same person that I was on the night of April 8, 1988,” his petition states.  “It would be a formal recognition that someone like me can receive official public redemption if he devotes himself to personal improvement and a life of good works.  My hope is that, if I receive a pardon, troubled youths will see this as an inspiration and motivation that they too can turn their lives around and be formally accepted back into society.  It would also be an important capstone to the lessons that I try to teach my own children on a daily basis.”

As a 16-year-old, Wahlberg was the protagonist in a very ugly incident on Dorchester Avenue on that April night more than 26 years ago. According to police reports at the time, Wahlberg came upon a man, an immigrant from Vietnam, who had just purchased two cases of beer.  He proceeded to beat the man with a stick, demean him with racially tinged insults, and take the beer.  Wahlberg was arrested as he tried to run off but not before he assaulted another Vietnamese immigrant who had apparently come to the aid of the first man or just got in the way somehow.
Wahlberg was found guilty of assault and battery, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and possession of a Class D controlled substance, marijuana.  He received a three-month jail sentence but got out after serving half of it, 45 days.

In his petition for a pardon, Wahlberg, now 43, wrote that he was “deeply sorry” for his actions that night and “for any lasting damage that I may have caused the victims.”

He added, “Since that time, I have dedicated myself to becoming a better person and citizen so that I can be a role model to my children and others.”  (Wahlberg and his wife are the parents of four children.)
Given Wahlberg’s status as a movie star and celebrity, and given the aspect of racial bias in the case, it is not surprising that his attempt at a pardon has generated a ton of news coverage and commentary.  Nor is it surprising that many people have reacted negatively to the idea of pardoning a wealthy big shot for such objectionable crimes, even if they did occur almost three decades ago when he was a street punk under the influence of illegal narcotics.  (Wahlberg was said to have been a user of cocaine at that time.)

The TPM web site offered a good sample of the anti-pardon sentiment in an opinion piece by Fitchburg State University professor Ben Railton, which was posted this past Monday, Dec. 8: “Mark Wahlberg’s Ill-Timed Pardon Bid Is the Epitome of White Privilege.”  See http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/mark-wahlberg-pardon-request-white-privilege
“For so many Americans,” Railton wrote, “especially Asian-Americans, Latinos, black women, and most of all, black men, a criminal record permanently impacts their professional and personal futures.  A criminal conviction – indeed, even a simple arrest – can reduce their options in every part of their lives, from employment to travel to child custody to voting.  Wahlberg claims his record has denied him certain recent opportunities.  Maybe so.  But his record clearly didn’t stop him from making millions and becoming famous.”

Railton also wrote: “Many Americans might prefer to erase the histories of white crime and violence from our collective memories, just as Wahlberg now requests that his own history of violence towards people of color be legally erased.  This ability – to write history the way we choose, regardless of the facts – is a frightening example of white privilege.  Until we make these histories a fuller part of our understanding of our shared American identity, our sense of ourselves will be as partial as a bio of Wahlberg without his teenage crimes.”
Gubernatorial pardons are as rare in Massachusetts as a July 4th weekend with light traffic on the Sagamore Bridge.  The last one was granted in 2002 by then Acting Governor Jane Swift.

Pardon requests move slowly through the system, guaranteeing that Charlie Baker and not Deval Patrick will be the one with the final say on Wahlberg’s petition.  The other day, Baker answered a query on Wahlberg from the State House News Service by saying, “He should go through the process just like everybody else and on the facts of the case.  If it’s up to me to make a decision, I’ll make it at the time.”
At some distant point in 2015, after the process has run its course and the public has witnessed every step of it, I hope Baker will pardon Wahlberg.

I say that because Wahlberg has owned up to his responsibility for his crimes and has repeatedly offered apologies to the victims and expressed sorrow for his shameful actions.  I also say that because Wahlberg has donated millions of his hard-earned dollars to charities and supports worthy causes left and right.
But mainly I say it because:

One, Wahlberg had the courage and decency to seek a pardon knowing full well that request would attract world-wide attention -- and knowing it would serve to inform millions of his fans of his crimes, persons who would not otherwise have ever taken note of those crimes; and
Two, Forgiveness has to become a bigger part of our justice system.

Human beings do change and reform themselves.  They do turn their lives around. 
Isn’t that, ultimately, what we want our justice system to produce: reformed human beings?

Pardons from a governor recognize successful reformation projects.  Thereby, pardons help to encourage those who truly aspire to reform themselves, and who stay reformed.
I mean no disrespect for Deval Patrick when I express the hope that Charlie Baker will not be as stingy with pardons as Patrick has been.



Ex-Worcester Rep Steps Back on Stage to Define His Story of Political Demise

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Worcester state rep John Fresolo was being investigated by the House Ethics Committee when he resigned on Wednesday, May 22, 2013.  He waited almost a year and a half to offer the public an account of the events that led to his resignation, which he did in a guest column published on Thursday, November 6, in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

I quote now from that column, adding italics to make his words stand out from mine:
The investigation was started when my aide approached House leadership with a request to be transferred to work in a different office.  I knew about this request as she was interested in a full-time position, which would include maternity leave, something that she didn’t receive as a legislative aide.

What I didn’t know at the time was that to reinforce her need to transfer she told the legal office in the Statehouse that she had discovered a photo on an email.  She had found it while looking at sent messages while searching for some information relevant to a constituent issue.  Her discovery of the image was accidental and its existence in the Statehouse electronic file system was unknown to me at the time.
The image had been taken on my personal cell phone at my home, by the woman I was seeing at the time, and she texted it to her own personal phone.  It was a bit of foolishness between the two of us, but it was a private image that she took and sent to herself.

Neither of us thought much of it at the time, and it didn’t occur to us that as a result of my personal cell phone being linked to my Statehouse computer, it was stored in a computer.
When my aide was doing some research of sent messages, and opened this file, she was startled – as you might well expect – to see the picture.  She closed the file and for months said nothing to myself or anyone, except some personal friends with whom she worked at the Statehouse.

As her pursuit of a transfer continued, and she was asked why she wanted to be transferred, she made the claim that inappropriate material had appeared on a Statehouse computer and she felt she needed to work somewhere else.
She had no way to know that the image had been a private picture, sent accidentally through a system that parked the image on the Statehouse computer.  But, having raised the tantalizing prospect that I was engaging in inappropriate behavior with Statehouse property, those in leadership who have made no secret to a dislike for me saw the opportunity to embarrass me – or worse.

As it turned out, in order to defend myself I would have had to drag the woman I was seeing and others into a sordid investigation process, most likely filled with graphic depictions of the image and our personal foolishness.
My defense rested upon the possible humiliation of many people, not just me.  I did not want to have to go through that process.  My female friend had no intention of showing this to anyone else.  My aide had no intention of seeing the texted image, but was understandably shaken by seeing it, not knowing how it came to be there.

Her consultation with friends about it would mean they would have to testify, and my enemies in leadership would have the chance to unload any other vitriol they wanted to, while I was left with little to defend myself.
It was a lose-lose-lose proposition.  Thus, I decided to let it drop with my resignation.

At the time of his resignation, John Fresolo was 48.  He’d been in the House for 15 years and was serving his eighth consecutive term.  Politics and public service were his life. 
The departure had to have been doubly traumatic, first because he was leaving a way of life he loved, second because he was going away on a downward path, a way made slick by vague and “tantalizing” ethical questions.

The House Ethics Committee was not required to issue a report on its investigation of Fresolo. 
Unless a matter the committee is investigating is brought before the full House, for example, to gain the approval of the House for a committee-proposed sanction on a representative, House rules stipulate that the subject and content of an Ethics Committee proceeding be kept secret.

With the matter permanently sealed, Fresolo decided to fill in some of the blanks, using as his sketch pad the pages of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.  The question is, why now?
Was he hoping to remove the cloud over his head just to facilitate entry into a new field?  He’s still a fairly young man, with many years of earning potentially before him.    

Or was he hoping, more boldly, to lay the groundwork for a political comeback?
In either case, his narrative of personal “foolishness,” as opposed to violations of ethical and legal strictures, and of resigning to spare many people from “possible humiliation," is potentially quite useful.

Perhaps it’s best simply to view the narrative as a trial balloon. 
A lot of time has passed since Fresolo resigned.  Memories have faded, emotions cooled.  People have moved on.  No longer is he serving as a human lightning rod.

So he puts out the best possible version of his story and holds his breath. 
If no one close to the case shoots holes in the story -- and, so far, no one has publicly -- he will have taken a step successfully toward vindication and regeneration. 

If things remain quiet, the next step would be for Fresolo to have friends spread a story, say late in 2015, that he’s going to be a candidate for the legislature in 2016.  (Watch out, Dan Donahue.)
If the press was unable at that point to elicit facts and comments contrary to Fresolo’s narrative -- if the woman who took that compromising photo and the woman who found it declined invitations from newshounds to revisit the case -- Fresolo could convince himself the time is ripe to regain his life on Beacon Hill.



As We Move Inevitably to Legalizing Pot for the Fun of It, All I Can Say Is 'Wow'

Friday, November 21, 2014

I wish I could take a mulligan on my vote to legalize medicinal marijuana in Massachusetts.  If I could vote a second time, I’d be a definite no.

In November, 2012, I didn’t give it hardly any thought when I walked into the booth and put a black check mark in the yes box next to a ballot question on eliminating state criminal and civil penalties related to the use of marijuana for therapeutic purposes.  Clueless is as clueless does.
I didn’t think there were a lot of people who could actually benefit from smoking weed or from taking it in pill form.  I thought demand for this new “medicine” would be so negligible as to require only the busiest of existing pharmacies to have it in stock.

I did not foresee that Massachusetts would have to license 20 new Registered Marijuana Dispensaries, as our state government is now doing, to take care of all the sick and hurting persons who want relief via cannabis. 
Nor did I anticipate that numerous companies would invest millions and millions of dollars in the pursuit of marijuana dispensary licenses, the design and construction of dispensaries, and the creation of very elaborate and secure indoor “farms” for the cultivation of the products to be sold in those dispensaries.

On no point were my powers of discernment more ineffectual as on what legalization of medicinal marijuana actually signifies: a phase in a cycle that will likely end in the legalization of recreational marijuana.  
If I didn’t see the big money coming to chase those dispensary licenses, why would I have seen the big money betting on the eventual legalization of recreational pot and getting in position to become the Weed-Marts of the future?

Persons are already out there planning a signature drive to put a question on the November, 2016, ballot eliminating penalties for using marijuana just for the fun of it.  If you want to light up a single, small joint after a hard day of work or smoke your brains out every Saturday night, you’ll want to vote yes on that baby.

This is likely to be a hot-button issue in the 2016 race for governor.  Witness Charlie Baker, during an interview with a Republican /MassLive.com reporter less than a week after he was elected governor, promising to “vigorously oppose” legalization of recreational marijuana.
“There’s a ton of research out there at this point that says, especially for young people, it’s just plain bad,” Baker said on Nov. 10.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse states unequivocally that marijuana “…affects brain development, and when it is used heavily by young people, its effects on thinking and memory may last a long time or even be permanent.”

The Institute reports that “A recent study of marijuana users who began using in adolescence revealed substantially reduced connectivity among brain areas responsible for learning and memory.  And a large long-term study in New Zealand showed that people who began smoking marijuana heavily in their teens lost an average of 8 points in IQ between age 13 and age 38.  Importantly, the lost cognitive abilities were not fully restored in those who quit smoking marijuana as adults.  (Bold facing added.) Those who started smoking marijuana in adulthood did not show significant IQ declines.”
If a kid wants to be a lobbyist when he grows up, he probably won’t miss those 8 points much.  In most lines of work, however, a lower IQ does not correlate with greater success.

Alas, had I been smarter, I would have heeded the Massachusetts Medical Society, which, back in May, 2012, adopted a resolution opposing medicinal marijuana.

We Ought Not Overlook a Hard Truth at Core of Menino's Fabulous Record

Friday, November 14, 2014

After Tom Menino died on Thursday, Oct. 30, he was justly lionized for his leadership abilities and his accomplishments as Mayor of Boston for 20 years.  It’s hard to see how anyone will ever be able to do as good a job as mayor as Menino did, never mind better, for as long as he did it, never mind longer.

I especially admired the way Menino built his power from the bottom up, meeting with and listening to as many Bostonians as he could, from as many walks of life and as many life situations as possible.  By always spending time with average Bostonians and by always listening, truly listening, Menino built an incredibly large and durable foundation of trust among the electorate.   With that trust, he was able to take the city where he thought it should go.  That’s leadership.
Now Menino has undergone a kind of secular canonization.  He’s become our new Saint Thomas, the patron of aspiring urban mechanics. 
Those who hope to follow in his footsteps, here and elsewhere, should remember one thing:  Every day, Tom Menino was purposely trying to scare the daylights out of city employees and political opponents alike even as he was trying with equal foresight and fervor to wrap every Bostonian he met in the cocoon of his care and concern.
“Fear is power.  I owed it to my city to keep fear alive,” Menino wrote in his recently published memoir, “Mayor for a New America.”

It’s one of the oldest maxims of governance, but you’ll never see it on a candidate’s bumper sticker or lawn sign --  although I for one would follow anywhere the would-be office holder or incumbent who blithely declared in public, “I owe it to my city to keep fear alive.”
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), perhaps the greatest political strategist of all time, had this to say about fear in his classic work “The Prince":
“It is much safer to be feared than loved because…love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

Despite what many of his foes believed, Menino was highly intelligent.  I suspect that he was quite familiar with “The Prince.”  I also suspect that he grasped the value of fear naturally, and viscerally.  The man had impeccable political instincts.
Because of fear, Menino was good at a difficult job: running a big city.  Due to his managerial skills and fundamental decency, he earned the love of the people, accomplishing what Machiavelli said was almost impossible: to make love and fear flourish in the same fief.

“And here comes the question, whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved,” Machiavelli wrote.  “It might be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”
…Speaking of love, there’s a school of thought that Charlie Baker will always keep the memory of Tom Menino in a special place in his heart. 
I keep hearing people say that Menino’s  wake and funeral in the days just before the Nov. 4 election  kept the electorate distracted from the burgeoning controversy over the truthfulness of Baker’s encounter with a fisherman who told him he’d ruined his sons’ lives by forcing them to be fishermen, and how that tale of bitter disappointment made Baker cry during his last debate with Martha Coakley on Oct. 28.
By exploiting doubts about the truthfulness of Baker’s fisherman story and the genuineness of Baker’s emotional response to it, Coakley was gaining ground on him in the final days of the campaign, this theory goes, and would have been able to overtake Baker if voters were not preoccupied with Menino’s passing; thus, Baker owes his governorship to Menino, or, more precisely, to the death of Menino.

In support of this argument, some political observers are saying:

Baker was ahead of Coakley by seven points in the last Boston Globe poll, published Friday, Oct. 31, and he ends up winning by less than two points.  What was the major event in the campaign, the only event that could have swung the numbers that much in a few days? The controversy over the fisherman is the obvious answer.  Coakley was suddenly on the move.  If she'd had the voters’ undivided attention or another week to campaign, she could have squeaked by.

Interesting hypothesis, but I'm not ready to buy.  It seems too facile, too flip.  And it conveniently ignores every other serious poll in the final days of the campaign, which had the race a dead heat.

Post-Debate Take-Away: I Would Not Want to Be Found If I Were That Fisherman

Friday, October 31, 2014

I don’t see any mystery as to why the media hounds have not yet found the manly-man fisherman who made Charlie Baker cry.  He doesn’t want to be found.

Think about it.  If you were the guy who once told a candidate for high public office that you had “ruined” the lives of your two sons by pressuring them to follow you in making a living from sea, would you want your name and picture in newspapers and on TV screens across Massachusetts?
Who in their right mind would give an interview to a reporter in which he said something like, “I can’t believe how stupid and bull-headed I was.  My boys wanted to go to college.  They could have been doctors or lawyers, or, even better, hedge fund managers.  But, no, I insisted: They had to carry on the family tradition, they had to be fishermen, and they had to take over my boat someday.  Now fishing is a dying industry and my sons are broke and in debt and they no longer work with me.  They barely even speak to me at family gatherings.  I feel like they hate my guts.  Who can blame them?  I hate my guts.”

If you missed the televised debate between Charlie Baker and Martha Coakley this past Tuesday night, and you haven’t read or seen any of the news accounts of it, an explanation is in order.
Near the end of the debate, one of the three moderators asked both candidates, “When’s the last time you cried?”  Baker described a chance encounter he’d had with a fisherman, “a mountain of a man,” on a dock in New Bedford.  Baker said that, as he talked with the man about fishing, the man pointed to his two sons who were standing aboard the boat he’d just stepped down from, and said that they’d both been star football players in high school and had both been offered college scholarships because of their athletic skills.  Baker halted and began choking up.  He struggled, unsuccessfully, to hold back tears as he completed the story.  The gist was that the fisherman forced his sons to bypass college and become fishermen, too.  But the sons had done poorly as fishermen and now the father felt terribly responsible, telling Baker, “I ruined their lives.”

I was watching the debate in the kitchen with my wife and daughter as we ate dinner.  I remember being surprised by Baker’s display of raw, honest emotion, and thinking it would probably work to his advantage with the electorate because everyone would see that this incident had left a deep and permanent impact on Baker’s soul.  What better counterweight could there be, I thought, to the accusation frequently hurled Baker’s way that he's a heartless manager who cares more about numbers than people?
I figured the incident would just stand there for the rest of the campaign as what it obviously was: a small and telling moment in a long campaign filled with more significant moments.  I figured the reporters would play it up, more or less straight, for one day, then move on to bigger stuff.

Having worked for long spells as a newspaper reporter and as a paid petitioner in the halls of government, I should have known better.  I should have known Baker’s tearful narrative would set off a frenzied search for that eternally regretful mountain of a fishing man.  I must be losing it.
We do some work for an organization that provides services to commercial fishermen.  I was not half-way through the day after the debate when I heard from someone in this organization that reporters from the Globe and Herald, and operatives from the Coakley campaign, too, were “all over New Bedford trying to find that fisherman.”  

No one has found him yet.
Various reasons for that failed quest have been proposed.  Some were quick to say that fisherman cannot be found because he does not exist.  Others said he is not in New Bedford to be found because he was not a New Bedford fisherman in the first place but rather a fisherman from another port or state making a brief stop there.  That does happen with some regularity, I was told by someone who knows about such things.

When it came out that Baker’s encounter with that fisherman had occurred back in 2009 or 2010, some commenters jumped on him for offering up an old tale.  They suggested that Baker had, with cold calculation, dredged up the story from his distant past because it was dramatic and bound to elicit a strong response within himself and in his audience.  I don’t buy that. There’s no way Baker could have known some hard-bitten journalist was going to ask, “When’s the last time you cried?”  It was a screwball question.  The episode unfolded so fast and so strangely that you knew it had to be spontaneous.  It had the feel of unconsciousness, not deliberation.  Speaking of the encounter on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, Baker conceded he might have erred in recalling some of the details but he held firm to the essence of the story.
This afternoon, the State House News Service reported that Martha Coakley is now saying Baker’s story could be an “amalgam of stories,” and that Baker should submit to further questioning on it.  I hope he does not.  The whole thing has now entered the tiresome stage.

Everyone saw enough and heard enough when Baker told the story to decide if it was on the level or not.  Everyone basically understands that a story can be inaccurate in the details and still true and meaningful as a whole.  We all tell stories like that.
Remember the words of the fisherman who told one of the newspapers on Wednesday: “I could show you ten guys like the one Baker described.”

Besides, there are at least a couple of more important things for Baker and Coakley to be talking about in the next four days, like how to improve the Massachusetts economy, and how best to manage the leviathan of state government.











All's Fair in Love and Politics When Excellent Health Insurance Is the Prize

Friday, October 24, 2014

I wonder how many persons on the public payroll in Massachusetts have done what Peter Mortimer has.

Mortimer’s an attorney and longtime member of the Board of Aldermen in the City of Melrose, where I reside.    A sincere and amiable fellow, he works diligently at the part-time job of Ward Six alderman, a position that comes with a second-rate salary of $5,000 a year and a first-rate health plan.
As related in an article in the latest edition of the Melrose Free Press, (“Alderman explains retirement,” 10-23-14), Mortimer, age 58, was concerned that a bill filed in the Massachusetts legislature in early 2013 would threaten his eligibility for lifetime health coverage through the state’s Group Insurance Commission.  He was so concerned that he quietly arranged to “retire” from the Board of Aldermen before House Bill 59, An Act Providing Retiree Healthcare Benefits Reform, could become law.  He applied to retire in December, 2013 and his application was approved some six months later, retroactive to the date he had applied, according to the Melrose Free Press.

If you think Mortimer became a former alderman when he retired, you can be forgiven.  This is kind of a confusing situation.
Mortimer, you see, was re-elected to the board in November, 2013 and sworn in to a new term in January of this year, said term running through December, 2015. Between being re-elected and beginning a new term, Mortimer briefly retired, as he was allowed by law to do.  And because he had been on a public payroll for at least 10 years as of his “retirement date,” Mortimer preserved his right to obtain health coverage through the state for the rest of his life.  He also preserved his wife’s right to the same.

During the entire time Mortimer was working out his retirement, House Bill 59 was pending on Beacon Hill.  One of its main provisions was a 100% increase in the minimum number of years someone on a public payroll would have to serve, from 10 to 20, before becoming eligible for health coverage in retirement.
Mortimer need not have worried. 

House Bill 59, which had been filed by Governor Deval Patrick in the House on February 12, 2013, never gained traction in the legislature.  On July 31 of this year, the Joint Committee on Public Service sent the bill to “study,” a legislative euphemism for trash bin.
As a public retiree, Mortimer is collecting the normal salary of a Melrose alderman and his monthly retirement benefit of $78.15, the Melrose Free Press reported, although he has directed his pension checks to an account to be used solely for charitable donations.

“I would never take both (an aldermanic pension and an aldermanic salary),” Mortimer was quoted as saying.
The law allows Mortimer the public retiree to make up to $15,000 a year as Mortimer the public employee, as well as any additional amount in the private sector.  There’s no limit to what he can make in the law, his chosen profession, for example.

When House Bill 59 was heard by the Joint Committee on Public Service on October 31, 2013, the hearing room, Gardner Auditorium, the largest such space in the State House, was “packed with municipal workers, corrections officers and labor union groups opposing the legislation,” according to the State House News Service account of the proceedings, (“Patrick’s Retiree Health Care Bill Met with Backlash from Workers,” 10-31-13).
Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, testified in favor of the bill, saying, in part, “Without any reform, retiree health care is projected to cost municipalities more than $1 billion within five years and nearly $1.5 billion in 10 years.”

According to Widmer, cities and towns spent about $800 million on health care for retirees in Fiscal Year 2012, an amount equal to nearly 90% of the $899 million granted by the state to municipalities in unrestricted aid.
Among those testifying against House Bill 59 was Ebba Hierta, the director of the public library in the town of Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard.  If the bill passed, she said, it would not make sense for her to continue working in the public sector.

Hierta, age 59, told the committee she had left the private sector for a job in the public sector because of the promise of health care security in retirement.  “That promise was made to me when I took my job.  It’s just patently wrong to pull the rug out from under people who are nearing retirement,” she was quoted as testifying. 
It would seem that Alderman Mortimer agrees with Library Director Hierta on that point.

“The purpose of this (retiring in December, 2013) is to prevent something that I’ve already earned being taken away from my family,” he told the Melrose Free Press.

Mortimer pointed out that he, personally, has not heard complaints from Melrosians about his retirement happening on a track parallel to his continued service as an alderman.
“People who know me, people who vote for me, said what I did is completely reasonable,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.  “There may be a handful of people out there who object, (but) everyone who’s talked to me, when they understand what the situation was, said, ‘I would have done the same thing.’ ”

Completely. Reasonable. 
Mortimer touched on a point that’s larger even than he probably realizes: Most people in Massachusetts would love the opportunity to obtain health coverage in retirement that is as high in quality and as attractive in price as that offered through the Group Insurance Commission (GIC).

Most of us will never have that opportunity, even as most of us are obligated to support the mission of the GIC through the taxes we pay.
Maybe just a handful of people in Melrose think like I do, but what the hell.  The way the world goes round today, I think, the public servants serve the public and the public serves the servants.