In Coming Showdown on Redistricting, How Much of a Show Will It Be, and Who Will Go Down?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

In the Massachusetts legislature, Republicans hold only five seats in the 40-member Senate and 31 in the 160-member House. Their ability to inhibit the movement of Democrats on almost any issue is, how do you say, limited.

On the issue of Congressional redistricting, however, Republicans have the ability -- and this year they seem to have the appetite -- to bedevil their friends on the other side of the aisle in a major way. Republicans understand that, if they make a big play on redistricting, their dream result may not benefit their party in electoral votes. But they'll probably do it anyway just to make the Democrats sweat and squirm.

Due to anemic population growth, Massachusetts is set to lose one of its 10 seats in the U.S. House, so the borders of every Congressional district need to change for the next election cycle. The authority to make those changes rests by statute with the legislature.

Here's what the Republican rumblings on redistricting come down to: If we have to redraw all the Congressional district boundaries, shouldn't we at last impose some geographical sense on the lot of them? Especially, shouldn't we eliminate the several weirdly shaped, elongated districts in the east, which lumber across the map like dragons and each grab a chunk of heavily Democratic Boston? And, while we're at it, shouldn't we create a single district encompassing metropolitan Boston, an all-new district where minority voters would finally have a good chance of electing someone from their community?

This Romney Fixation Has a Weak Ring: 'You Better Believe We're Exceptional!'

Monday, March 28, 2011

Mitt Romney is deep into the undeclared phase of his second presidential campaign. That means we should view his almost daily criticism of Barack Obama as the thoughtful conclusions of a statesman. Last week, it was the alleged weakness of the Obama presidency that had Romney worked up about the status of our country. Obama is a weak president, Romney asserted during an interview with a conservative radio host, because of "his fundamental disbelief in American exceptionalism." One of the dictionary definitions of exceptional is "unusual;" another is "well above average." That America is both an unusual country and a well-above-average country in the long parade of history is not hard to accept.

But I do not see the connection between believing that and automatically being a strong president. In fact, I can see the opposite if a president were to lord our exceptionalism over friends and foes alike. We live in a small world and we need all the friends we can get. We live in a dangerous world; the fewer enemies we make the better. In these respects, nations are not unlike individuals. Who wants a fathead for a friend? And who doesn't like to see a fathead taken down a peg or two? Another thing: have you ever known a truly strong and good person who went around talking about her strength and goodness? So, I could see President Romney hurting our relationships with allies by always acting as if we are better than they are, know more than they do, and have the right to do what we want because our "exceptionalness" puts us beyond the norms that hold back their smaller, average countries. And I could see President Romney inflaming and aggravating the hatred of our enemies, who would see his conviction of exceptionalism as unbearable smugness, a proud delusion deserving of a fiery end.

Under either scenario, America winds up weaker, not stronger. The belief that Obama is weak because he doesn't believe America is exceptional is in line with the views Romney expounded upon in his latest book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness." (Only average countries apologize when they make a mistake, I guess.) I was thinking of picking up a copy of "No Apology," published just one year ago, so I went on Amazon. There were more than a hundred used copies for sale, starting at 43 cents a copy, a sign that demand is weak.

In Politics as in Life, It's Not What You Say But How You Say It

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The late George V. Higgins (1939-1999) achieved literary fame through a series of dialogue-heavy crime novels centered in Boston, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" among them.

An Associated Press reporter in his younger days, Higgins was fond of quoting this AP dictum: "The quotes make the story."

There are good stories in the press that do not have great quotes, but there is never a great story that does not have them.

For no reason other than pleasure, I'd like to share some culled-at-random quotes that, I believe, would cause the great Mr. Higgins himself to smile, nod or shake his head, if only he were with us still. Apropos of the theme of this blog, they all have a political dimension of some kind:

"Better to be seated at the table than to be on the menu." Joseph Del Grosso, union leader, Newark, NJ, New York Times, 2/27/11

"You have to be, in this business today, prepared to endure an enormous amount of criticism and to be able to weather the storm, and more importantly, be able to go back home and say to the people back home, you may have heard the story this way, but here's why I did this." Eugene O'Flaherty, state representative, State House News Service, 2/9/11

"The neighborhood does not have a problem with restaurant expansions as long as it includes food. We don't want any more beer corrals." William Richardson, president, Fenway Civic Association, Boston Herald, 2/22/11

"There are a lot of high-powered hired guns on this (Right to Repair legislation). Whenever there's this much money going in, you have to be careful of the overblown rhetoric." Paul Brodeur, state representative, The Melrose Patch, 2/24/11

" many people are lost in thought (in Washington, D.C.) because it's such an unfamiliar territory." Robert Gates, U.S. Defense Secretary, New York Times, 3/5/11

"I am curious why it is so onerous to require that people who are working, whether as public or private employees, on the state's behalf should receive a decent wage and adequate health care coverage. If the absence of adequate pay or health insurance is the only way to reduce the cost of delivering necessary services, then no money is really saved, is it?" Christopher Gregory, Boston Globe, 1/14/11

"At no point have I ever tried to defend it (predecessor's severance package), and I don't plan to do that." Andrew Dreyfus, chief executive officer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, State House News Service, 3/10/11

"As our economy recovers, we still find ourselves in the midst of a 'blue-collar depression.' I routinely hear about unemployment rates of 30%, 40%, 50% at building trade union halls across the state." House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Boston Globe, 3/15/11

"I don't mean to forgive hypocritical behavior. (But) it's easier to identify inconsistencies when everything you do and everything you say is recorded on YouTube or in The New York Times or Boston Globe. Part of what it means to be a politician is to indicate what you're for and what you're against. I think that the perception of politicians as hypocritical is probably correct, but I don't think that necessarily means they're more hypocritical than the rest of us." Robert Kurzban, professor, University of Pennsylvania, Boston Globe, 3/14/11

"I could point my finger at all the things wrong in the world, and I do. But the most important thing to remember is that almost everything you dislike about the world is also in you." Jeffrey Hollender, author, "Planet Home," New York Times, 2/24/11

"People are tired. We are all worn out from this charade (of a crisis over who will rule Lebanon). But this is our life. Whoever marries your mother, you might as well just call him uncle. You have to face the reality." Ahmad Sultan, engineer, Beirut, Lebanon, New York Times, 1/15/11

Public Life Has Its Hazards, But None So Deadly as the Anonymous Source

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Last week, a former longtime member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives was fired from his job as president of a private, non-profit institution whose mission is to help people cope with a certain kind of disability.

This man, now in his mid-50s, has been in public life since he was a young adult serving on the school committee in his community. Over the stretch of four decades, there was not a whisper of scandal or wrongdoing about him.

The Boston Globe published a lengthy article on the ex-legislator's termination.

In the third paragraph, persons identified only as "two officials," presumably officials affiliated with the institution, were cited as the sources of the following information:

  • One, that the institution had hired an outside attorney "to investigate concerns over inappropriate behavior" by the president.
  • Two, that the attorney had made a presentation to the institution's board of directors prior to the board voting to ask for the man's resignation, and that the presentation focused on two incidents, both of which involved the president "touching female workers."

Neither "official" was identified by name. They spoke with the reporter "only on the condition of anonymity because it involved a personnel matter," the article said.

At this, one has to scratch his head. Was the editor who approved this article totally lacking a sense of irony?

The sources of damaging information were allowed to hide in the dark, safe behind a wall of anonymity, because the topic "involved a personnel matter," while the man damaged by that information, whose personnel matter it was, had to stand in the light, exposed to whatever suspicion and scorn the public felt like heaping upon him.

In the eighth paragraph, a member of the institution's board was quoted by name as saying the president had "made many significant, positive contributions" during his tenure, but that the directors had accepted his resignation "because it collectively felt a change in leadership was appropriate."

In the thirteenth paragraph, the two anonymous officials were the sources of this rather significant item:

Law enforcement authorities have not been contacted by the school about the president's actions because they do not believe they "represented anything criminal."

All this leaves me wondering.

Has it ever been easier to slip a blade into the heart of a person's reputation than it is today?

And has it ever required less risk, less nerve to do so?

Neighboring States Would Welcome Any Move in Massachusetts to Claw Back at Fidelity

Friday, March 18, 2011

If I were Rhode Island Governor Lincoln D. Chaffee or New Hampshire Governor John Lynch right now, I'd be hiring moving company trucks, plastering them with signs that shouted, "Fidelity, We Love You!", and having them drive the streets of metropolitan Boston for 24 hours straight.

Fidelity Investments, you see, is in the dog house at the Massachusetts State House after announcing on March 15th that it was going to close its office in Marlborough, transfer a bunch of employees to offices in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, and eliminate some jobs altogether.

The moves will impact, in total, about 1,100 good-paying Fidelity jobs in Massachusetts.

Immediately, there were calls at the State House for the abolition of tax benefits granted to the mutual fund industry in 1996, a law change posited on Fidelity's promise to increase its Massachusetts workforce by five percent for five years, which the company did.

At least one outraged legislator says the state should consider "claw back" measures to regain some, if not all, of the revenue Fidelity gained through employment-linked tax breaks.

It's understandable that folks at the State House are disappointed, but before they give into anger and retaliate in some fashion against Fidelity, they may want to ask themselves some pointed questions, such as:

  • What leverage do we have here?
  • Could we make the employment picture worse by taking a hostile stance against the mutual fund industry?
  • What's to stop Fidelity from leaving the Commonwealth entirely?

Those who manage investments in mutual funds are dealing in money, but not of the cash variety. It's all electronic. The main tools of their trade are computers and telephones, which you can set up anywhere.

Fidelity is headquartered in Boston because the company-founding Johnson family happened to be Massachusetts people. There's no geographic imperative holding Fidelity to its Massachusetts base.

To use the playground analogy, the Johnsons can take their bat and ball and go somewhere else if the big boys in Massachusetts don't want to play nice with them.

A more tempered response to the Fidelity contretemps came from Steve Levy, who represents the city of Marlborough in the Massachusetts House and was worried about the high office vacancy rate there even before the company said it was leaving.

According to the State House News Service (SHNS), Levy said state government should stop giving tax breaks to individual corporate sectors and focus on the overall cost of doing business here so that the state can compete with its neighbors.

"We still have a lot of work to do in Massachusetts to be competitive and keep jobs here," the SHNS quoted Levy. "We'd like to see them consolidating in Massachusetts rather than moving out of Massachusetts.

"Massachusetts lacks the competitiveness to compete for jobs. It's the overall business climate: utility costs, workforce costs, unemployment insurance and workers comp. In the past, we've targeted specific industries, but I'm more a proponent for lowering costs across the board."

Even When You Do Something Good, There Are Times to Dummy Up About It

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

When I was a newspaper reporter in the suburbs years ago, there were a lot of smokers in the newsroom and the ventilation system was no match for the emissions from this crew.

Most days, a two-foot-thick layer of smoke clung to the dropped ceiling, churning malevolently in the fluorescent glow. The odor of burnt cigarettes permeated every stick of furniture, every pile of papers, every coat hung in the door-less closets.

One morning, as I returned to the newsroom after a run to the canteen truck in the parking lot, I pointed to the smog cover and complained to one of my nicotine-crazed colleagues, "Look at that! It's awful in here."

This person was at her typewriter, working on a cigarette as intently as her story. Her only reply was a raised middle finger. I laughed, though I wasn't sure she was kidding.

Callahan Captured Most of Cushing: the Voice, the Humor and Perhaps the Sorrow, Too

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

His neighbors and friends in South Boston considered Richard J. Cushing (1895-1970) in his youth to be a natural-born politician. He was charming, funny, street smart, and had a knack for public speaking.

According to one story that may not be factual, but is certainly symbolically accurate, the young Cushing was campaigning for a legislative candidate from the back of a wagon one day when a priest from his parish, Gate of Heaven, pulled him aside and put it to him: "Make up your mind! Either you're going to be a priest or a politician."

Cushing became a priest, but not just any priest. With energy and charisma to spare, and with a Midas-like touch in fundraising, he rose quickly through the ranks of the rapidly expanding Archdiocese. At age 44, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Boston. By 49, he was the Archbishop, and at 63, the Cardinal Archbishop, a prince of the Church, advisor to the Pope and his minions.

Governor's Council Gave Callahan Excuse to Be at State House, But He Was Made for Bigger Stuff

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Michael J. Callahan, God rest his soul, died of cancer at the Massachusetts General Hospital on Thursday, January 6, 2011, literally his last day in office as a member of the Massachusetts Governor's Council. In ill health for some time, he had declined to seek re-election to the council, his home away from home since 1998.

The Governor's Council was Callahan's base; it gave him a good reason to be at the State House every day. But the Governor's Council, a mostly invisible mechanism of state government that serves as a speed bump for judicial nominees, was too small an arena for Callahan, an insider's insider if ever there was one. It could never contain his immense -- and immensely lovable -- personality.

Callahan kind of resembled a big dopey Teddy Bear, but he possessed a keen intellect and a mind that was always churning behind the sports-fan-on-a-barstool persona. He loved to read and had a better brain that anyone who ever dared to pontificate at Harvard's Kennedy School.

With evident affection, many people called him "Mikey." I called him Councilor. He called me Kevin.

Does Obama Ever Wonder: Why Am I at This Non-Profit?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Q. What is the biggest non-profit organization?

A. Easy. The government of the United States of America.

Q. How much is the head of the government paid?

A. President Obama gets $400,000 a year.

Q. Should the chief executive of any non-profit organization be paid more than the President?

A. That must have been answered long ago. Just look at the number of non-profit CEOs who not only make more than $400,000, but multiples of that -- millions in salaries, deferred compensation, bonuses, housing allowances, pension contributions, etc.

Q. We're asking, should they? Should they be making that kind of money?

A. Good question.

Indeed it is.

Massachusetts Governor's Council: the Anachronism That Will Not Die

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was a young state representative from Brookline when he first talked of eliminating the Governor's Council, that nebulous group of elected-but-unknown officials who have as their sole function the confirmation of new judges.

A relic of the time when the Royal Governor of Massachusetts had to be held in check by a "council of assistants," the Governor's Council was no longer relevant or necessary, Dukakis argued, and its role could be performed easier and better by the Massachusetts Senate. Many others had made that argument before.

Today, Dukakis is a respected elder statesman and university professor, long retired from politics, and the Governor's Council is still going strong, if you are willing to consider its non-laborious work a vital endeavor, that is.

Now comes State Senator Brian Joyce of Milton, the latest in a line of good government champions who want to put the Governor's Council out of business. Joyce has introduced Senate Bill 15, A Proposal for a Legislative Amendment to the Constitution Providing for the Abolition of the Governor's Council.