Beacon Hill Has Been the Scene of Great Events, but the March of the 54th May Be the Greatest of All

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

One hundred and fourteen years ago today, on May 31, 1897, a monument now considered among the greatest pieces of public art in the world was dedicated in Boston. It is a work of profound depth, force and historical significance, and it sits precariously close to the traffic at the corner of Park and Beacon Streets, facing the Massachusetts State House:

Augustus Saint-Gaudens's memorial in bronze to the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the young Boston Brahmin who commanded it during the Civil War, Robert Gould Shaw -- or "the Shaw Memorial," as it is known for short.

If you've never seen it up close, you have missed an opportunity to experience in your heart and marrow what the Civil War was about: the struggle to end slavery and confer equality on millions of exploited and forsaken African-Americans.

Go see it tomorrow. Cancel an appointment. Skip your lunch, if you have to. It's that good.

In the Shaw Memorial, Saint-Gaudens recreated the occasion on May 23, 1863, when Colonel Shaw, on horseback, led his men on a march through the city to the ships that would take them to battlefields in the south.

As they were that day, the soldiers in the monument are facing west on Beacon Street, solemn and resolute. They seem to be leaning forward, eager for the fight.

It is said that the largest crowd in Boston history up to that time gathered to see the 54th off. Governor John Andrew and the members of the Massachusetts legislature were on the steps of the State House as they passed by. All along Beacon Street, residents came to their windows, doors and balconies to applaud, salute and urge them on with Godspeed.

Colonel Shaw paused briefly at 44 Beacon, his stately home, to acknowledge his parents and his new wife, whom he had married only three weeks previously. They would never see their son and husband again.

After you take a good look at the Shaw Memorial, I strongly recommend that you arrange to go on a tour of the Black Heritage Trail on Beacon Hill sometime this summer. The free tours are offered by the National Park Service, in conjunction with Boston's Museum of African-American History, and they start at the Shaw Memorial.

If you are lucky, you will happen to have as your tour guide that day one Dana Smith, a resident of Beacon Hill and teacher at St. John's Preparatory School in Danvers. He's dangerously good at this sort of thing.

There are many good Park Service guides who can open your eyes to the remarkable (and mostly overlooked) history of African-Americans in Boston and of the abolitionist hotbed that was our capital city in the mid-19th century, but I especially prize Mr. Smith for his passion and eloquence on these topics. He describes, for instance, the march of the 54th on May 23, 1863, in words so scalding and terms so dramatic that you will never forget what happened that day on Beacon Street, where Saint-Gaudens's masterpiece, fourteen years in the making, now presides in quiet majesty.

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Ninety-Two Years Is No Barrier to Loyalty and Friendship in the Famed Yankee Division

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Growing up, I often heard stories about my late uncle, John Doyle, the oldest and kindest of my mother's six brothers. He died of tuberculosis in 1933, losing the chance to fulfill the promise of his great mind and heart.

Uncle John had been a boy-soldier, only 19, in the Massachusetts National Guard, with the Yankee Division, in September 1919 when the Guard was called up during the Boston police strike. The criminal element was having a field day.

The governor at the time, Calvin Coolidge, needed every available soldier not only to protect the lives and property of Bostonians but also to send a strong message that the government had the situation in hand. Nine people died over the brief course of the strike, but it could have been much worse.

"There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime," Coolidge declared, words that resounded across the nation and put Coolidge on the road to the White House.

One of the details from my mother's stories about Uncle John has always stayed with me:

During the strike, my grandfather was concerned that his son was not properly outfitted for sleeping on the sidewalks, as the soldiers had to do, so he took his only overcoat and walked from his home in Revere to Boston and began searching for John's unit, Company D of the 15th Infantry Regiment. It took hours but my grandfather found Uncle John and handed him the long old coat that would provide additional insulation from the cold pavement. Then he walked straight home.

Today, it so happens that the Yankee Division is on active duty in Afghanistan, and that a young and distinguished member of the Doyle family, a career soldier in the regular Army, has formed a special bond with these Massachusetts reservists on account of his ancestral tie to the division.

With Memorial Day upon us, it is worth pondering, and celebrating, such quintessentially American ties, for they have the strength to span generations and continents.

Lieutenant Colonel Brian J. Doyle of the 3rd Battalion of the Fourth Infantry Division is the grand-nephew of my Uncle John and the son of my first cousin, Kevin Doyle, a Marine combat veteran of the Viet Nam War.

Brian, like his father before him, is once again risking his life for his country, this time in Afghanistan, where he is currently working with a company from the Yankee Division in Kabul. Because he had read a book on the Doyle family written by my aunt, Arlene Browne of Charlestown, Brian knew of Uncle John's membership in the Yankee Division.

In due course, Brian mentioned this to his Yankee Division colleagues; and in a recent e-mail to Arlene, Brian described their reaction:

"They were very excited to learn about the connection and even presented me with one of their patches...It is funny. In my 17 years in the Army I have never served with anyone else from Massachusetts, and now they are everywhere. Kind of feels like home."

Where I hope they'll all be soon.

Even the President of the United States Will Say Yes If You Know How to Put It On Him

Monday, May 23, 2011

If you were any damn good at all in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where my father was from, God rest his soul, you had to be able to "put it on him."

You had to be able to clear your throat, open your mouth and ask for something in plain, direct words. With confidence.

And if the person you were addressing tried to ignore you or give you the old sidestep, you had to be able to ask again, only this time louder and not so polite.

Being a product of the Great Depression, my father was obsessed with getting a good deal whenever he bought something. It didn't matter if it was 6:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, there were only two trees left on the lot, and the nearest lot was six miles away; if the Christmas tree guy wouldn't knock two bucks off the already-reduced price, we were out of there.

My father even had the "moxie," a good Chelsea term that, to ask the man at the donut shop for "donuts with small holes." And he expected us kids to do the same when we were sent into the shop on those days he had worked overtime and his bad leg was acting up.

I think I was maybe 10 years old when I made my first perilous donut pick-up on my own. Returning to the car, I had barely closed the door and handed over the change when he inquired, "Did you get the ones with small holes?"

"Uh," I started to answer.

"You didn't, did you?" he said, giving me that awful you're-a-disappointment stare. "I told you, 'You have to put it on him.' "

Last Wednesday night, May 18, I thought of my father, fondly, while I was attending the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston dinner-fundraiser at the Westin Waterfront. They were honoring the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame.

Father Hesburgh, now 94 or thereabouts, couldn't be there because he was recovering from surgery, so he asked the current president of Notre Dame, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, to receive the organization's "Justice and Compassion Award" on his behalf.

Father Jenkins gave a brief, very engaging talk about his distinguished predecessor, who served on a number of Presidential commissions through the years and became friends with every President from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton.

One day, as Father Jenkins recalled, President Carter called Father Hesburgh to thank him for his good work and to ask if there was anything he could do for him, as an expression of Presidential-quality gratitude.

Father Hesburgh, an aviation buff, didn't hesitate.

"I understand that there is a prototype of a new supersonic fighter jet. I'd like to ride in that plane," Father Jenkins quoted Father Hesburgh as saying.

"You're not even supposed to know about that plane," President Carter replied. "I don't see how I could do that: allow you, a civilian, to go flying around in it."

I doubt that Father Hesburgh ever spent any time in Chelsea, but he knew what to do next.

"Mr. President, you are the commander in chief," he told President Carter. "You can do what you want. The military has to do what you tell them."

Father Jenkins paused for effect, then declared, "Father Hesburgh flew in that plane!"

Entrepreneur-Turned-Senator Wolf Obviously Has an Eye for Talent

Friday, May 20, 2011

Talk to anybody who runs an organization and they'll tell you the most important thing they do, the task most crucial to their success, is hiring.

The reason is simple: unless you have a job like Barbra Streisand's, you can't get the job done on your own.

You need other people. You have to work in groups to produce a product, provide a service, win a game, achieve a marketable result, etc.

This is something obviously known to Dan Wolf, the leader who built Cape Air into a regional juggernaut and the new Democratic state senator for the Cape Cod and Islands district in Massachusetts.

Other people tried before him to build a regional airline on the Cape and failed, whereas Wolf succeeded in a way that can fairly be called spectacular, especially now that the business has been thriving and expanding for 23 years straight. He would not have been able to do that were he not a good spotter, good recruiter, good inspirer and good retainer of Talent with a capital T.

Those skills were also on display when Wolf put together his senatorial staff, which includes:

  • Seth Rolbein, chief of staff, graduate of Harvard, documentary filmmaker, newspaper reporter and editor, and author of two books on the environmental clean-up efforts at the Massachusetts Military Reservation in Bourne.

  • Micaelah Morrill, legislative director, UMass Amherst grad, and four-year staff veteran of Wolf's predecessor, Rob O'Leary, who left the senate to pursue the (Bill Delahunt) Congressional seat ultimately won by former senator and Norfolk DA Bill Keating.

  • Jay Coburn, director of community relations, Cornell grad, former community activist and small business owner, former member of the Provincetown Planning Board, and current member of the Truro Democratic Town Committee.

  • Sue Rohrbach, district director, Brown undergrad and UMass post-grad, expert on land use planning, coordinator for campaigns for the Cape Cod Land Bank and for the preservation of 15,000 acres at the Massachusetts Military Reservation as the Upper Cape Water Reserve, and former member of the Barnstable Town Council, Planning Board, Community Preservation Committee, and Charter Commission.

  • Suzanne Legere, scheduler and director of constituent services, former Cape Air employee, Habitat for Humanity volunteer, and volunteer fundraiser for numerous charities.

While this is an impressive assembly, their credentials and experience are not all that unusual for State House staffers. The number of people you find who have advanced degrees, serious private sector resumes, and a cheerful willingness to work at the State House for short money because they want to do something good for society is actually kind of amazing.

Senator Wolf has reminded us how deep the talent pool is, thankfully, for legislative staff in Massachusetts.

Cape Cod Pilot, a Big Success in Business, Charts a Course in the Public Sector

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

There he is, Dan Wolf, commercial pilot, visionary entrepreneur, nature-lover, doting dad, and rookie member of the Massachusetts Senate!

I used to wonder why he's there. What inspired him to run for public office for the first time at age 52? Why did he prove as good at electioneering as he is at running a business? (Seldom does anyone with zero electoral experience win one of the 40 seats in the senate the first time out of the gate.)

Everyone who runs for office says they are doing it to serve the public. For many of them, that is a true statement. But, almost always, that desire is coupled with above-average (often way above) ambition.

I'm talking about the very human drive to be in a position of power and influence, to be among a group of powerful and influential people, to deal with serious matters affecting large numbers of people, to bend the course of public events, and to be regarded by wide swaths of your fellow citizens as a leader. (No parent ever tells her kid to be a follower.)

It is also the ambition, a hunger really, to spend one's limited time on earth dealing effectively with unquestionably consequential matters, and perhaps thus to hold, at the end, the profoundly compensatory conviction that one has spent oneself in a worthy cause and has acquitted oneself well in the battles one had to fight. Where would our species be without ambition?

When harnessed to a sharp mind and a strong character, ambition is a great thing. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was described by those who knew him when he was young as the most ambitious man they'd ever met.

And while history has yet to judge Barack Obama, can anyone doubt that he is one of the most ambitious men America has ever produced? If ever there was one, Obama is a phenom of ambition, a fatherless boy who rose, as if jet-propelled, from mean circumstances in our most distant province, Hawaii, to the most powerful position, the highest stage, in the world.

In 1988, Dan Wolf, a graduate of Wesleyan College, was managing the tiny airport in Chatham on Cape Cod when he and another pilot and an outside investor founded Cape Air. They had one airplane and they used it to ferry passengers between Provincetown and Boston. More than one small airline had come to grief before them in the same market.

Today, Cape Air is one of the largest independent regional airlines in the nation, due mainly to Wolf's leadership. It serves nearly three-quarters of a million passengers annually and employs about a thousand people.

Cape Air is intensively focused on its customers, its employees and the Greater Cape community. Its motto: "Make Our Customers Happy and Have a Good Time Doing it."

In 1995, Cape Air was converted to an employee-owned company, a move that reflected CEO Wolf's "principles of marrying sound business and fair equity."

Creating a business from scratch, uplifting and empowering employees, winning the consistent plaudits of customers in the frazzling world of air travel, and holding leadership posts in numerous community organizations would be more than enough for most people. But Dan Wolf is not most people.

The Massachusetts State House beckoned. The challenge of the "City Upon a Hill" proved irresistible.

The dream of public service must have been kindled early in his life. Wolf's official legislative biography notes that he has "four siblings, a father who is a successful entrepreneur, and a mother who is a professor of American history," that "family conversations around the dinner table were always spirited and often political," and that "Senator Wolf attended Germantown Friends School (Philadelphia, PA) for 13 years; Quaker values and education shaped his worldview."

We won't know for a while what Wolf can, and will, do with the power of a state senator. But it's unlikely his tenure at the State House will be run of the mill. He didn't go up there because he needed a job, salary and pension.

If he stays in the legislature for the requisite time, expect him to rise to a central role in leadership. He's smart, he knows how to get along with people, and he's no grandstander. His ambition is tethered to altruism (hallelujah!)...and he has a very talented staff.

NEXT: A look at Senator Dan Wolf's staff.

Birmingham Completes Historic Journey: the Streets of Chelsea to a Shrine in the Senate Reading Room

Friday, May 13, 2011

I went up to the Senate Reading Room today to see the new portrait of Tom Birmingham, the pride of Chelsea, Harvard University and Harvard Law School.

The Reading Room is a large, ornate, high-ceilinged affair in a good corner of Bulfinch's original State House building. It is on the third floor, across from the Senate Chamber.

Sunshine, undimmed by any cloud, flooded in through the big windows and made me feel like I had happened upon the most cheerful old mansion on earth.

The portrait of Birmingham, who served as President of the Massachusetts Senate from 1996 to 2002, sat on an easel in the middle of the room, behind velvet ropes like the kind used in theatres, backlit dramatically by the spring-morning light. Soon it would join the other portraits on the walls there: the Coolidge, the Donahue, the Harrington, the Bulger and the Travaglini.

I was the only one in the Reading Room when I visited, and had plenty of time to study the handiwork of the artist, George Nick.

I can tell you now it is an accurate rendering of the former Senate chieftain because it captures the man's intelligence, reserve and ambition. Nick's Birmingham doesn't smile, and he does not demand to be noticed. Rather, he pulls you in by the gravity of thought. In this likeness, he is a scholar-politician with a serious, churning mind -- a guarded, analytical soul who would have no trouble figuring you out, if he cared to try.

The background also has much to tell, with its smaller portrait-within-a-portrait of Horace Mann, one of the greatest public figures in the history of our nation and himself a former Massachusetts Senate President (1836-37), on the left, and its view of the golden-domed State House, framed by a window, on the right.

Nick, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, told the State House News Service at yesterday's unveiling that the split background was meant to depict Birmingham's dual status as "an insider and an outsider."

Through the person of Horace Mann, Nick developed this theme cunningly, for Mann was a revolutionary in so many ways, an intellectual and an activist who fought for the abolition of slavery, women's rights, the compassionate care of the mentally ill, and, most of all, for free and universal education, which is how he came to be regarded as the father of public education in this country.

Mann struggled against the currents of his era and, at the same time, stood for, and won, public offices. His peers sent him to the Massachusetts legislature and later to the Congress, where he initially filled out the term of the deceased (once President) John Quincy Adams. Mann also held appointive office as secretary to the state Board of Education for a long spell.

More than a century separates Senators Mann and Birmingham, but the cause of education binds them close.

In his first term, Rhodes Scholar Birmingham was named Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Education and set about drafting, together with former Rep. Mark Roosevelt, the comprehensive Education Reform Act, which has had, since its enactment in 1993, a tremendously beneficial impact on both the physical quality of our public schools and the quality of the instruction offered therein.

Birmingham was a driving force in getting education reform through, and was a major guarantor of the funding for the bill when he became, successively, chair of Senate Ways and Means and Senate President. The Massachusetts economy was booming in the 1990s, and Birmingham helped direct literally billions of boom-related revenue to education. This endeared him to many constituencies, but others complained he was lavishing money on schools and catering to the teachers' unions. Birmingham brushed aside the critics and kept the money flowing, year after year.

On a Saturday morning in the Fall of 2000, I attended the dedication of the new Lafayette School in Everett, a densely populated part of Birmingham's district. I went to support my sister-in-law, Rosemary Catterson, who was the principal of the Lafayette, and to see the school.

Birmingham was on the dais, a star of the show because of his crucial work in securing state construction dollars. Speaker after speaker that day, everyone from the mayor and superintendent of schools to the construction foreman and rookie school committeeman, extolled the vision and effectiveness of the Senate President.

And when the outdoor ceremonies were over and the audience was at last invited to inspect the "new Lafayette," I approached the dais where Birmingham tarried, while everyone else headed inside.

"Going on the tour, Mr. President?" I asked. "This is your crowd. You should soak up the praise."

Birmingham, in full outsider mode, put a cigarette in his mouth, lit it, smiled faintly and said, "No. I think I'll go along."

Maybe that was where his power came from, I thought: he didn't crave the approval.

Governor's Councilor Was Aiming for the Senate When She Shot Herself in the Foot

Memo to Jennie Caissie: Generally, it's not a good idea to insult someone who has a say in eliminating your job.

Caissie serves on the eight-member Governor's Council, also known as the Executive Council, the mostly invisible arm of state government that confirms the governor's judicial nominees. This week she came out with both guns blazing at state senators who want to do away with the council on the grounds that it is a costly (at least $400,000 per year) relic of our colonial past.

"Quite frankly, I can't imagine a more politically corrupt system than having the senate approve judges in this one-party state," said Caissie, one of two newly-elected Republicans on the Governor's Council. "Talk about a shake-down that would make a thug on the streets of Chicago blush."

In most states, the senate confirms judicial nominees, and some Massachusetts legislators have indeed suggested that our senate could easily do the job, but the latest word is that senate leaders, and others, don't want to go that route. They're afraid it would look too much like a power grab.

Folks are leaning, instead, to having a new group vet, and vote on, judges -- a group composed, say, of the Attorney General, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and President of the Massachusetts Bar Association. So Caissie was shooting down an option that had already been taken off the table.

That doesn't mean her words haven't drawn blood at the State House though.

Senate proponents of eliminating the Governor's Council wouldn't be worthy of their bumper stickers if they didn't try to turn Caissie's words against the council.

Will those words cause more senators to jump on the elimination bandwagon? Maybe.

Being dissed by someone who collects $26,000 a year to attend a brief meeting now and then, while all the time rolling up pension credits, can do wonders for your motivation.

The state constitution will have to be amended by popular vote before the Governor's Council can be eliminated. And in order for the proposal to get on the statewide ballot, the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate will have to vote for the measure in two consecutive years while meeting in a formal session known as a Constitutional Convention.

The legislature has scheduled its next Constitutional Convention on July 13 at 1:00 p.m. in the House chamber.

I hope Ms. Caissie will be in the lobby that day, making the pitch to passing senators and reps that the Governor's Council is a trusty tool of democracy, a venerable institution that does not deserve to die. That could get interesting fast.

If We Had Listened to Senator Kerry, Trillions Could Have Been Saved in War on Terror

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Think back to the Presidential election of 2004: George W. Bush, incumbent, vs. John F. Kerry, U.S. Senator, Massachusetts.

Can you recall the way President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney ridiculed Senator Kerry for suggesting that the War on Terror was misconceived, and that we could deal more effectively with terrorism by taking a law enforcement approach?

On Oct. 10, 2004, the New York Times published an article, "Kerry's Undeclared War," which said that "Kerry's adversaries have found it easy to ridicule his views on foreign policy, suggesting that his idea of counter-terrorism is simply to go around arresting all the terrorists. This is what Dick Cheney was getting at when he said last month that there was a danger, should Kerry be elected, that 'we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind-set, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts, and that we're not really at war.' "


Nearly ten years after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., and nearly seven years after Bush was re-elected president, our number one enemy in the War on Terror, Osama bin Laden has just been eliminated, and our nation seems to be taking stock.

In an article publushed May 6 in the National Journal, bin Laden was described as "the most expensive public enemy in American history."

What's striking, say the authors, Tim Fernholz and Jim Tankersley, is "how much he cost our nation -- and how little we've gained from our fight against him. By conservative estimates, bin Laden cost the United States at least $3 trillion over the past 15 years, counting the disruptions he wrought on the domestic economy, the wars and heightened security triggered by the terrorist attacks he engineered, and the direct efforts to hunt him down."

Matt Bai, who penned "Kerry's Undeclared War" for the New York Times, didn't know in October, 2004, that Kerry would lose the election, so he was comfortable speculating that Kerry's view "might be the beginning of a compelling vision."

Bai explained: "The idea that America and its allies, sharing resources and using the latest technologies, could track the movements of terrorists, seize their bank accounts and carry out targeted military strikes to eliminate them, seems more optimistic and more practical than the notion that the conventional armies of the United States will inevitably have to punish or even invade every Islamic country that might abet radicalism."

Following somewhat in Bai's footsteps this week was George F. Will, a conservative who probably wore a bow tie to his christening. Will mused in a May 3 column, published locally in the Boston Herald, on the law-enforcement-vs.-war-making question and came down firmly on the side of Senator Kerry.

Perhaps America can use bin Laden's death, Will said, "to draw a deep breath and some pertinent conclusions," adding, "Many salient facts about the tracking of terrorism's most prolific killer to his lair -- some lair: not a remote cave but an urban compound -- must remain shrouded in secrecy, for now. But one surmise seems reasonable: bin Laden was brought down by intelligence gathering that more resembles excellent police work than a military operation."

Wouldn't it be nice if this were all an academic exercise, an historical post-mortem?

But the war in Afghanistan, now in its ninth year, grinds on and on. Some American mother's son is killed there every day.

Our national debt, which morphed to obscene dimensions as we waged a ruinous war in Iraq because of weapons that did not exist, casts a huge shadow over our children and grandchildren's future.

And Dick Cheney, I bet, still scoffs at John Kerry.

Union Chief Didn't Hesitate to Carpet-Bomb the House in Battle Over Bargaining Changes

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Don't ask Bobby Haynes a question if you can't take an honest answer. And don't say anything critical about the labor movement if you're not ready for a fight.

Haynes, the Massachusetts President of the AFL-CIO, is blunt to a fault. He stabs no one in the back. He puts it right into your chest.

I couldn't dislike Mr. Haynes if I tried.

His way of expressing himself, however, can sometimes be a bit much. Subtlety is not his deal. He can crack the crystal and china without even pounding the table.

How over the top can Bobby Haynes be?

Consider his verbal carpet-bombing of the Massachusetts House of Representatives after it voted, 111-42, on Tuesday night, April 26, to change a law, via the budget process, to allow cities and towns to change co-pays and deductibles in employee health plans without bargaining.

"It's clearly union busting," Haynes declared. "It looks just like Wisconsin to me. It looks just like Ohio to me. I am profoundly disappointed in every Democrat who voted to do away with collective bargaining here in Massachusetts."

I don't know about you, but I have not seen in the last few days any newly defunct municipal employee unions or any union agents rendered suddenly irrelevant by the robbery of their collective bargaining powers. We're talking co-pays and deductibles here, hardly the equivalent of Reagan doing his Trump act on the air traffic controllers.

As biting as Haynes was after the House voted for these tweaks to the collective bargaining process, he was even harder and angrier beforehand.

Union officials made a last-minute plea to House Speaker Robert DeLeo shortly before the House vote, the State House News Service reported, and as the union emissaries were leaving that confab, Haynes paused to recount to the SHNS's Kyle Cheney this parting exchange:

"The Speaker told us good luck when we left his office, and I told him good luck and good luck to his Democratic members. Can you imagine what teachers and firefighters and police officers and public sector workers and nurses and librarians are going to think when they wake up tomorrow morning to find out the Democrats that we elected, that we worked for, that we contributed to their campaigns, just snatched collective bargaining away from them, just took the voice, the Democratic voice, away from working people?

"I say good luck to him. And good luck to the future of this House."

On Wednesday afternoon, April 27, I was talking with a Democratic rep who had voted with labor, and against the Speaker, on this issue. He described the enormous pressure that labor applied to defeat it, and the lesser pressure from leadership to pass it.

"Bobby Haynes won you over, then?" I asked.

"No," he quickly said. "Haynes was way over the top. Exaggerated as hell. He didn't help, running around, making all those statements. It was the union folks in my district, with all their phone calls and appeals, who made the case. No one threatened, no one raised their voice."

A Less Gutsy Speaker Might Have 'Protected' His Members from This Difficult Vote

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Massachusetts House of Representatives was a profile in courage last week when it bucked the unions and voted, 111 to 42, in favor of a measure giving cities and towns the power to make some unilateral changes in employee health plans.

But many of the reps who voted for this change in collective bargaining law are now asking themselves: Was it worth it?

The measure is hardly a favorite in the Senate, where the onus will be on getting it introduced and voted on later this month. The Governor is signaling that he has problems with it, too.

So that stout-hearted stand by 111 House members on Tuesday night, April 26, taken in the hope of saving the state's 351 cities and towns a total of $100 million next year, may produce at the end of the day nothing more than a grudge in every union hall and a bunch of banged-up Democratic reps.

Robert DeLeo, the House Speaker, and Brian Dempsey, the first-year Chairman of House Ways & Means, should be praised, first, for making this proposal part of the House budget, and second, for going all out to secure the impressive majority that blessed it.

They had to know that Robert Haynes, Massachusetts President of the AFL-CIO, would be shouting about "union busting," and complaining how the Democrats, of all people, are trying to turn Massachusetts into another Wisconsin! And they had to know that Ed Kelly, the tough, new President of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, would be saying things like, "There's a class war going on in this country and today the Massachusetts House sided against the middle class." But they did it anyway because they heard the cries of the middle class folks who pay the taxes that fund municipal employee benefits, folks who do not have the option of bargaining at all with their bosses on changes to their health plans, if they work in the private sector.

"By spending less on the healthcare costs of municipal employees, our cities and towns will be able to retain jobs and allot more funding to necessary services like education and public safety," DeLeo pointed out.

"What we've recognized," said Dempsey, "is that, unfortunately, because of the cost of health insurance, a very large percentage of the monies we commit (to local aid) are unfortunately going to fund municipal health insurance. Now, that's not anyone's fault. We're not blaming anyone for the rise in health insurance. But, it's a fact...The cost of health insurance is going up, and the money we commit every year, it's not going to textbooks. It's not going to classroom size. Unfortunately, it's going to a large degree to fund municipal health insurance."

These valid reasons for making a tough vote have not prevented some House members from grumbling that the Speaker should have "protected the members" better than he did.

"Protecting the members" is a State House term that can describe a variety of actions, or stances, that the leadership may take in order to make their underlings look good to their constituents. In this instance, it suggests that the Speaker should not have let the issue come up for a vote once he saw how forceful the union opposition was and how shaky the prospects are that it will pass in the Senate and not be vetoed by the Governor.

Undoubtedly, the Speaker knew he was risking this kind of back-biting, but took that risk in the interest of the taxpayers. Life and politics being what they are, the taxpayers will soon forget he did so. But not the unions.