So the MBTA Is a Basket Case. Do You Want to Pay More to Fix It?

Friday, July 29, 2011

As a daily rider on the MBTA, I did not need this week's testimony by T General Manager Richard Davey to convince me I am playing Russian roulette every time I step onto the Orange Line.

"Seventy-two percent of the Red Line cars, built in 1969, and all of the Orange Line cars, built between 1974 and 1981, need replacement now, at a cost in excess of $1 billion," Davey told the legislature's Joint Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets as it conducted an oversight hearing Wednesday at the Massachusetts State House.

No one, to my knowledge, gave Davey an argument on this or any other distressing point in his presentation. No one said those rusty, beat-up, breakdown-prone T passenger cars are fine, just fine, and will last another 20 or 30 years, no problem. No one countered Davey's assertion that "constant attention and significant capital dollars" are needed to maintain the reliability and safety of the system, parts of which date to 1897. No one accused him of exaggerating when he said the T has a backlog of "critically needed" state-of-good-repair projects totaling approximately $4.5 billion.

No, everyone basically agrees the T is a financial basket case and something ought to be done about it.

But beyond saying that Uncle Sam should send more federal transportation dollars to Boston, no one agrees what that "something" should be, and when anyone even suggests that our state government should create a new revenue source (tax) for the T, the bullets start flying their way. Immediately.

The same thing happens when anyone says a new revenue source is needed to fix our crumbling roads and bridges, neglected by the state for years because the Big Dig was sucking up every available dollar.

(No one has yet dared to state the obvious: that the state will have spend ridiculous amounts to keep the leaky Tip O'Neill tunnel safe -- or else turn it into a huge water-ride-in-the-dark. Check out recent articles about falling light fixtures.)

"Without a discrete source of pay-as-you-go capital funds, the MBTA will likely be unable to invest the required capital funding, resulting in an increased backlog of state of good repair needs and unacceptable deterioration of the infrastucture critical to providing reliable and frequent service," Davey testified Wednesday

It's pretty clear that the people of Massachusetts don't want to raise the state gasoline tax or impose a vehicle-miles-traveled tax on car owners to bail out the T, repair more roads and bridges than we're already repairing on a yearly basis, or plug those torrents that are undermining the new tunnel that did so much to improve traffic flow and beautify the Hub of New England.

When we finally get beyond The Great Recession hangover, maybe they will grudgingly accept something like that -- and maybe the feds will be able to send us boatloads of new transportation dollars.

Until then, however, something shocking and scary would probably have to happen on the T before the legislature would impose a new transportation tax -- like an ancient, metal-fatigued car falling off the high tracks between Sullivan Square and Community College during the morning rush hour, and taking the rest of the train with it.

If MA Were Facing the Equivalent of a Debt Ceiling Crisis, Our Leaders Would Leap to Solve It

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

President Obama addressed the nation last night to drum up support for his position on increasing the debt ceiling and was immediately followed on the air by House Speaker John Boehner.

The two parties remain stuck in their places, far from a compromise, while the time to resolve the issue slips away: the federal government will begin to default on its debt on Tuesday, August 2 if a solution cannot be found.

Reacting to last night's dueling debt ceiling speeches, David Frum, a conservative polemicist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, tweeted: "If nothing else, we're getting a good real-life poli-sci lesson as to why so few other democracies have adopted U.S. separation of powers idea."

Point well taken.

In a parliamentary system, the head of government, the prime minister, is the head of the party that has a majority in parliament. That majority has no interest in making their own leader look bad, whereas the opposite is the case with Obama and the Republican majority in the U.S. House.

Boehner has Democratic roots way back in Ohio but he seems to be taking his cues from the uber-Republican in Washington, Mitch "Machiavelli" McConnell of Kentucky, leader of the minority in the U.S. Senate, who said from the beginning of the Obama administration that his main job was to make sure Obama was a one-term president.

In a parliamentary system, the majority party knows that if it doesn't solve a national problem as serious and as scary as the debt ceiling, it will lose its majority in the next election and its leader will lose the prime ministership. There's no better incentive for problem-solving in a democracy.

Contrast that with the incentive Republicans have to deprive Obama of anything that looks like a victory on the debt ceiling: the worse he looks, the stronger the entire Republican ticket will be in 2012.

This would all be tremendously entertaining, from the standpoint of political theater, were it not for the fact that a federal default could actually wreck the fragile U.S. economy. This is a genuine catastrophe-in-the-making. We're talking the potential ruination of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of American families.

Here's where I'll put a plug in for good old one-party Massachusetts, the home of the veto-proof Democrats of House and Senate fame, the state that recently rewarded its Democratic governor with a second term.

There are problems, of course, in having one party control both branches of a legislature and the governor's office to boot. But when such a state is confronting a fundamental threat, those problems will not usually include boundless dithering, posturing and cynicism.

When you are the only show in town, you own every problem in town. Voters know your name is on the deed.

Begun in 2008, the Tale of the Misnamed 'Bathroom Bill' Continues on Beacon Hill

Friday, July 22, 2011

Remember how, back in the spring of 2010, Republican candidate Charlie Baker ignited a controversy by saying he'd veto the "bathroom bill" if he were elected governor and the bill landed on his desk?

Advocates of the legislation, then formally titled An Act Relative to Gender Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes, pounced on Baker for describing it as the bathroom bill, a derogatory term that some in the opposition delighted in using.

Advocates also criticized Baker as being inconsistent and hypocritical because:

  • One, he had implemented a transgender employee rights policy when he was CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and

  • Two, he had chosen as his lieutenant governor running mate then Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, who happened to be one of the co-sponsors of An Act Relative to Gender Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes.

Throughout the media storm, Baker handled himself well. He stood his ground and explained his position clearly and forcefully, but with an absence of emotion and hyperbole quite befitting an executive.

And he rang up points by asking why, if the bill was so necessary and enjoyed such wide support, (it had 104 co-sponsors in both branches at the time), it had never made it out of the Joint Commitee on the Judiciary since being introduced in 2008?

If legislative leaders really wanted the bill to move, he said, it would have happened by now, effectively turning his tormenters in the direction of the Democratic Party, with its huge majorities in the House and Senate.

Baker, in this instance, was a paragon of both common sense and political skill.

The transgender rights bill died where it was resting at the end of the 2009-10 legislative session, in Judiciary, but was quickly revived when the new session convened in January. It has been retitled An Act Relative to Transgender Equal Right, but has not attracted nearly as many co-sponsors as before.

On June 8, the bill was among a large number of bills heard by the Judiciary committee during proceedings that stretched from mid-afternoon to past 9:00 P.M. in Gardner Auditorium, the largest meeting space in the Massachusetts State House.

Many transgendered men and women spoke eloquently on behalf of the bill. They told heartbreaking stories of how difficult their day-to-day lives were and of the fear, hatred and even violence they'd encountered.

Everyone knows it's hard to be the one who is different, but the testimony of June 8 made it possible for anyone hearing it to understand in a detailed and visceral way the pain, sorrow and deprivation of the transgendered in our society. One could not hear their stories and not be moved.

Of course, there were those who testified against the bill, with their objections centering on the implications for public accommodations, particularly bathrooms and locker rooms. The bill, you see, would extend protections and rights to persons regardless of their gender "identity or expression."

Gender expression is a problem for opponents who fear that someone merely acting on a feeling of being like the opposite gender will enter a bathroom, or a health club or school locker room, reserved for that opposite gender.

Locker rooms are actually a much bigger stumbling block for advocates of An Act Relative to Transgender Equal Rights than bathrooms, for we have had unisex bathrooms in this country for years and bathrooms have stalls, while locker rooms are places where people are naked in front of one another. The idea, say, of a male who is only feeling like a girl or woman one day showing up in a girls' or women's locker room causes most folks to be discomforted.

Advocates retort that three communities in Massachusetts, including Boston, and several other states, have laws on the books protecting persons regardless of their gender identity or gender expression, and that all hell hasn't broken loose in locker rooms there. Fair enough.

It's also fair to say that most transgendered people, whether they have undergone the full physical transformation to their opposite gender or are expressing that opposite gender in other ways, will never cause a problem in a locker room. People can be discrete in locker rooms.

But if you operate a business that has public accommodations, general statements and reassurances -- and even tranquil records in other locales -- will never quite dispel the fear of what one mischief maker, armed with a hungry, aggressive attorney, can do.

Are Thoughts of Warren Keeping Brown Up Nights? Did Baker Make Patrick Tremble?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Some leaders of the Democratic Party in Massachusetts are already measuring the drapes for Elizabeth Warren's office in a U.S. Senate building in D.C.

But before they get carried away with their dream of Professor Warren toppling Scott "The People's Seat" Brown next year, they might want to consider the wisdom of the late, great Sam Rayburn.

Rayburn was Speaker of the U.S. House back in 1960 when his friend and fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson, newly nominated for the vice presidency on the ticket with John F. Kennedy, came to him extolling the brain trust around Kennedy.

Rayburn listened for a while about how smart and articulate this or that Kennedy advisor was, and how the Kennedy strategists had devised a brilliant campaign strategy, etc., then interrupted to exclaim:

"Damn it, Lyndon, I'd be a hell of a lot more impressed if one of this bunch had ever run for sheriff."

I mean no disrespect. Elizabeth Warren, daughter of Oklahoma, resident of Cambridge, and tenured professor at Harvard Law, is a huge talent. She was a champion debater in high school, graduated from the University of Houston and Rutgers Law School, and worked as a lawyer on Wall Street before teaching at two Ivy League law schools: the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. She has written scores of scholarly articles, six academic books, and two bestsellers, All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan and The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke.

When President Obama needed someone of stature last fall to head the new U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which had been set up to protect people from the kinds of abuses that created the sub-prime-lending monster and led to the world-threatening meltdown of the financial markets in 2008, he turned to Warren. He saw her as a savvy, tough-minded individual who could more than hold her own in the ferocious fights over fiscal policy and regulations that engulf the capital.

Warren served in that role until a few days ago when she had to step aside in favor of Richard Cordray, a former attorney general of Ohio, because the president conceded that Warren would never win Congressional confirmation as bureau director. Too many members of Congress viewed her as consumer-friendly in the extreme. They used, with shameless abandon, the stereotype of the liberal Democrat from the People's Republic of Cambridge against her.

Democratic leaders rightly see Warren's consumer protection bona fides as a plus in a campaign against Brown. But she will need more than that to beat this Massachusetts anomaly -- a down-to-earth, genuinely popular Republican senator who sits where TED used to sit.

The biggest reason not to leap onto the Warren bandwagon is Sam Rayburn's: she's never stood for office, any office. She's never been around the track, so how can anybody say how well she'll run?

She could be great on the trail, a natural. She might prove to be charming and natural in person, and telegenic on the tube, a mini-Streep. She could possess a store of charisma that only a high-stakes campaign could bring out. But we should assume the opposite based on the unfortunate history of talented-but-untested candidates for high office.

Is it just me, or does this Warren groundswell remind you of the straight-from-the-echo-chamber longing for Charlie Baker that gripped Massachusetts Republicans in 2009-10? Then, the conventional GOP view was that someone with Charlie's brain and business record couldn't lose to a muddled liberal like Deval.

The history of big-dreaming-but-doomed political neophytes is long, and we only have to glance back two years for a pertinent exhibit in Massachusetts. Remember Steve Pagliuca, an owner of the Boston Celtics, and Alan Khazei, founder of City Year, two highly accomplished individuals? Martha Coakley, a ballot fixture for years, whipped them in the Democratic Senatorial primary without breaking a sweat.

At this time, I don't think the name Elizabeth Warren is sending a chill up the spine of hoops-shooting, pickup-driving, Bud-drinking Scottie Brown. Voters love the folks who can play the role well. (Right, Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson, Ronald Reagan?) And you've got to admit, so far Brown has nailed the role of senator.

It's Enough to Make a Mittster Scream: Enough Already With All That 'Awkwardness' Talk!

Friday, July 15, 2011

So many people seem to be saying that Mitt Romney is a dork that I'm actually starting to feel sorry for him.

I picked up the Boston Herald today to find a large photo of a pensive-looking Romney beside a headline that shouted, "Get a Clue, Mitt!" Below that was a helpful sub-head that said, "Awkwardness on campaign trail could sink Romney, pundits say."

The story inside the paper recounted a series of socially awkward moments for Romney on the presidential campaign trail, including the occasion when he pretended a waitress was pinching his butt while they were having their photo taken.

Can the time be far off when Mitt will ask little kids to pull his index finger when he feels a fart coming on?

Seriously folks, is it really important that a candidate for President of the United States of America, male or female, be a regular guy?

Shouldn't a presidential race be more about substance than style, or the lack of it?

Shouldn't Romney's record as the savior of the Salt Lake Olympics and the father of universal health care in Massachusetts mean more to the voters than his fatal attraction to bad puns?

Shouldn't we care more about Romney's obvious intelligence and integrity than his inability to handle a one-liner?

Of course, it should!

So what if he can't tell a joke that his own employees can honestly laugh at?

But until human beings stop using emotions and instincts to make judgments about other people, awkwardness on the campaign trail will be a killer.

In other words, Romney would be better off waiting to run for president until the primate brain of human beings is rewired by mandatorily-consumed pharmaceuticals that do not yet exist.

(With the genes for longevity that so many members of the Church of Latter Day Saints are known for, this advice may not be as far-fetched as it seems.)

When Romney was governor, there were two occasions when I happened to see him walking around the Massachusetts State House. Both times he was surrounded by a phalanx of aides and security men.

Behind that cordon, he looked almost shy and tentative, and I had to sympathize with his seeming nervousness about the possibility of bumping into someone who might want a spontaneous conversation with the governor, or, God forbid, a favor.

At the same time, these scenes elicited tiny bursts of resentment along the lines of, "There goes Mr. Perfect in his bubble! Who does he think he is?"

Don't get me wrong. Romney is good. He's tall, handsome, smarter than 99% of the population, a self-made millionaire, a doting husband, father and grandfather, and a sincerely devoted member of the Mormon faith...And that fabulous head of hair! Oh, I'd kill for that.

I don't mind Romney feeling good about himself. He's entitled to self-esteem. And I wouldn't ever have minded him striding around the State House like he owned the place because, on a basic level, he did.

But if he wanted to make the right emotional impression, and if he knew how to do it the way some politicians naturally do, he'd have strode the halls alone, like John Wayne walking into a saloon like he feared no man.

No doubt there is a real guy in there somewhere. It's just that average folks don't see it.

If Romney can drop The Perfect Son routine, if he can shed the Mormon Man of Destiny self-consciousness, and get in touch with that real guy, he could win the Republican nomination and become a legitimate threat to Obama in November, 2012.

He has time enough to do it, and money enough to hire the best (and the most discrete) acting coaches to guide him in this transformation. May the spirit of Ronald Reagan be upon him!

This is one primate, however, who thinks Mitt has been behind the phalanx too long to pull it off.

Joe Kennedy Makes a Wake-Up Call to the Powers That Be at JFK Library

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Somewhere the ghost of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the founding father of the Kennedy dynasty, is smiling.

Old Joe was as tough and driven as they come. He had to succeed, in business and in politics. He had to win.

And he hammered that competitive spirit into his children. Second place was never good enough. He wouldn't pat his kids on the head when they lost and say, "It's OK, you did your best."

That's why he'd understand what his grandson and namesake, Joseph P. Kennedy, II, is up to now.

In a story that broke today in the New York Times, ("Family of Robert F. Kennedy Rethinks His Place at Library"), Young Joe went public with his family's disappointment that the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston has not done enough to honor the legacy of his late father, Robert F. Kennedy.

Apparently, the family of RFK has felt for a long time that the man and his deeds have not been properly recognized at the JFK Library, as they have refused to sign the final documents handing RFK's papers over to the library.

Now, with plans barreling forward to construct the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate on a parcel adjoining the library, those qualms have worsened. Listen to what Joe Kennedy, a former Congressman and now head of Citizens Energy Corp., told the New York Times:

"There is a very large building, and there is a remembrance of President Kennedy and there's one for Senator Edward Kennedy. But there is nothing out there (the JFK Library) for Robert Kennedy."

Hints were dropped that RFK's widow, Ethel, and children could remove his papers from the JFK Library and place them with another institution that would give them their due -- although Kennedy emphasized that the family's "ultimate hope and desire" is to have them housed permanently at the library.

So you can chalk this up to the family wanting to make a wake-up call to the library's board and management. Petulant?

I don't think so.

Bobby Kennedy managed his brother John's campaign for President in 1960 and was the pivotal figure, as Attorney General, in his administration. In 1964, he got himself elected Senator from New York, no mean feat, and was well on his way to the Democratic nomination for President in 1968 when he was killed the night he won the California primary. He was only 42 years old.

Forty-three years have passed since RFK's death. He is fading a bit, as almost all historical figures do. If he were my father, I'd be fighting for his place in the spotlight of history, too.

Many years ago, I heard a story of how President Kennedy expressed some initial reluctance when his father discussed with him the likelihood that his brother Ted would seek the President's former Senate seat in Massachusetts in 1962.

"Is that really a good idea?" the President supposedly asked, worried that the public would balk at another Kennedy in politics

The father brushed aside his doubts.

"You got yours," he basically said. "Now Ted's going to get his."

That's not the kind of man who would have been bothered by a squabble at the JFK Library.

Careful What You Wish For! Rep Could Have This Court Job for Decades

Friday, July 8, 2011

State Representative Christopher Speranzo, an up and coming Democrat from western Massachusetts, is trading the State House for the Court House.

Gov. Deval Patrick nominated Rep. Speranzo several weeks ago for the vacant clerk magistrate position at the Central Berkshire District Court in the legislator's hometown of Pittsfield, and the Governor's Council confirmed the appointment on an unusually tight 5-4 vote this past Wednesday.

Speranzo almost didn't make it. Half of the eight-member Council opposed the nomination and he collected the vote needed for victory only because Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray relinquished the Council chair to break the tie, as allowed by Council rules.

Knowing Speranzo as a bright and affable young man, (he's 38), and as a well regarded legislator on the leadership track, I was surprised by how vehemently some councilors opposed him.

For example, Mary-Ellen Manning, a fellow Democrat, ripped him for running for re-election last fall and not disclosing that his application for clerk magistrate was pending. As quoted by the State House News Service, Manning told Speranzo at his June 22 confirmation hearing, "You stole their votes. That's what you did. Nobody thinks it's offensive here to be a public servant. Anybody who uses public service and the cloak of public service for their own private gain, I do think is offensive. It was offensive to the voters."

Did Ms. Manning never hear the axiom: You don't quit one job until you have another.

Speranzo's real problem, Councilor Jennie Caissie suggested, is "a glaring lack of experience." She did a full Judge Judy on him, fuming: "In your entire professional career, you've basically been a public employee. You've never received a paycheck that hasn't come from the taxpayers of Massachusetts." (Before entering the legislature, Speranzo served as an assistant attorney general and as Pittsfield's city solicitor.)

That Caissie's hard to impress.

Speranzo graduated from Boston College and Boston College Law School, and holds a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Cambridge, England. He's only been in the legislature since 2005, when he succeeded Peter Larkin in a special election, and already he's the vice chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. Currently, he's also a member of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, and the Special Committee on Redistricting.

Would Caissie have been happier if Speranzo worked nights as a cashier in a parking garage?

But don't feel bad for new Clerk Magistrate Speranzo. He just landed a lifetime appointment to a job that pays $110,000 a year, with health benefits and a pension. The pain of the public spanking he took at the State House on June 22 is quickly fading.

Most of us, and we can definitely put most Governor's Councilors in the "us" category, wonder how we could get a deal like that. How can we, too, go to heaven without dying?

Nevertheless, I suspect that the day will come when Speranzo the Philosopher, the man who never broke his stride in seven years at B.C., is presiding at yet another hearing on yet another totally-insignficant-but-incredibly-nasty dispute or complaint, and wonders if it was really such a good thing that Tim Murray broke the tie on July 6, 2011.

In Death Match with McConnell and Boehner, Obama Calls in the Massachusetts Cavalry

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Anyone interested in a sneak preview of President Obama's re-election platform should check out the opinion piece by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in The Washington Post this past Sunday: "How Grover Norquist Hypnotized the GOP," 6/30/11,

Norquist and Patrick were in the same class at Harvard, but these two have never been on the same planet politically. Patrick is kind of a classic New Deal liberal Democrat while Norquist is a conservative (some would say ultra-conservative) Ronald Reagan Republican.

Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), which bills itself as a "coalition of taxpayer groups, individuals and businesses opposed to higher taxes at the federal, state and local levels." For more information, go to: http://www/atr/org/print

Norquist's calling card is the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," a document the ATR asks all candidates for state and federal offices to sign, committing themselves to opposing all tax increases -- anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances.

Obama is now locked in mortal combat with Republicans in Congress over raising the federal debt ceiling. A high-stakes battle of nerves and will that could well decide Obama's political future, the dispute boils down to:

Obama wants to cut two trillion dollars from the federal budget and raise taxes by one trillion on oil companies and the wealthiest Americans in exchange for Republican support for increasing the debt limit; Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell in the Senate and John Boehner in the House, are refusing to accept the tax increase part of the deal. If the two sides cannot reach a compromise in about three weeks, our government will begin to default on the national debt, with all sorts of nasty and potentially nightmarish consequences for our economy.

It is not surprising that Obama would turn to Deval Patrick at such a critical juncture, and not just because Patrick is his friend. The better reason for Obama to call in the Massachusetts cavalry is that Patrick has already survived his near-death experience with budget-cutting, tax-hating, public-jobs-eliminating Republicans.

Remember last summer when a lot of smart people thought Charlie Baker was going to clean Patrick's clock?

Remember how Patrick defied the skeptics and won re-election by skillfully concocting and delivering a centrist message that basically said government has an obligation to help people, that it is difficult but necessary to carefully balance the many demands upon the public purse, that getting through tough economic times required mutual sacrifice, and that the worst recession since the Great Depression was no time to take a meat axe to government services and jobs on the public payroll.

Patrick's "we're-all-in-this-together" message of 2010 will be Obama's message of 2012. With the economy doing just OK and unemployment still above 9%, the President really has no other option. If Obama can deliver it with as much sincerity and empathy and eloquence as Patrick did, the President stands an excellent chance of winning a second term.

See what you think of what Obama had to say, through Patrick, in The Washington Post the other day:

"It is now clear that the Republican strategy is to drive America to the brink of fiscal ruin and then argue that the only way out is to cut spending for the powerless. Taxes -- a dirty word thanks to Norquist's 'no new taxes' gimmick -- are made to seem beyond the pale, even as the burden of paying for our society shifts disproportionately to the middle class and working poor. It is the height of fiscal folly. It is also not who we are as a country.

"For nearly a decade, our federal government paid for two wars and a costly prescription drug benefit with borrowed money. Our government paid for the Bush tax cuts with borrowed money. Now, after exhausting the budget surplus left by the Clinton administration, the only spending Republicans are willing to discuss cutting is spending that helps the poor and vulnerable -- meaning anything that does not touch the interests of large corporations and the very rich. Last December, Republican hard-liners held hostage benefits for people out of work in exchange for an agreement to extend the Bush tax cuts for those who make a million dollars or more a year. Last month, many of the same lawmakers rallied to protect special tax benefits for oil companies that have made record profits on high gas prices.

"Meanwhile, some mom-and-pop stores and college students pay more in taxes than some of our large corporations. Still, taxes are sin to hard-liners, though they have difficulty demonstrating a correlation over the past decade between tax cuts and economic growth.

"Everyone knows that we have to reduce the deficit. Everyone also knows that reducing government spending and addressing revenue shortfalls have to be part of the plan. This isn't partisan; it's pragmatic. Some might even call it conservative. But Norquist and the rest of the radical right have so hypnotized the Republican leadership that they can't come out and say it. For them, maintaining their rhetoric about spending cuts is more important than preserving the civic investments that make America stand out from the rest of the world."

That last line -- "preserving civic investments that make America stand out from the rest of the world" -- had its antecedent in Patrick's re-election pitch about Massachusetts leading the nation in public education, investment in scientific research, environmental protection, etc.

It worked for the Democrats in Massachusetts last year. It can work for them in enough other states next year.

Best Things in Life Are Free, Like This Program on Senator Sumner

Friday, July 1, 2011

Since the Pilgrims landed here in 1620, Massachusetts has produced more than its share of political giants. I would argue that none of them stood taller than Charles Sumner, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1851 to 1874.

Born on Beacon Hill (Irving Street) on January 6, 1811, Sumner graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, then traveled widely and studied in Europe. He became fluent in French and attended lectures at the Sorbonne in Paris. One day, there were two or three black students in the lecture hall, which struck him as strange, as he was accustomed to the harsh racial divisions of America. Even stranger to Sumner was the non-reaction of the other students.

Sumner noted later in his diary that the black students "were standing in the midst of a knot of young men and their color seemed to be no objection to them. I was glad to see this, though with American impressions, it seemed very strange."

Upon his return to America in 1840, Sumner practiced law, taught at his alma mater, wrote articles for law journals, and became active in the public life of the Commonwealth. A natural orator, he spoke frequently at lyceums and became known for his strong anti-slavery views and his opposition to the Mexican-American War.

In 1851, the members of the Massachusetts legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate. That was how senators were chosen in those days. He soon became one of the most effective and unrelenting opponents of slavery on the national scene. He repeatedly attacked, for example, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed slavery to creep into those territories.

Sumner's passionate advocacy of abolition led to a violent incident on the floor of the Senate, a crime that shocked the population of the north, fueled the anti-slavery movement, and helped set the stage for the Civil War. If people remember Sumner today, it is usually because of what happened on May 22, 1856, when U.S. Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Sumner with a cane and beat him so badly that it took Sumner three years to regain sufficient strength to return to public life. (Brooks was enraged by comments Sumner had made two days earlier about one of the Senate sponsors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, who happened to be Brooks's uncle.)

While Sumner was recovering, the legislature re-elected him, even though he was unable to go to Washington, because it believed his empty chair in the Senate chamber would serve as an eloquent reminder of the importance of free speech and resistance to slavery.

When Sumner was finally able to resume his duties, he picked up where he had left off in his ferocious opposition to slavery. This remark, addressed to an opponent during a debate in 1860, was typical of the man:

"Say, sir, in your madness, that you own the sun, the stars, the moon; but do not say that you own a man, endowed with a soul that shall live immortal, when sun and moon and stars have passed away."

Needless to say, Senator Sumner became a key supporter of President Abraham Lincoln, urging him early in the Civil War to emancipate the slaves, a course Lincoln eventually took, with beneficial results for the northern cause.

On Wednesday, July 6, at 11:00 A.M., the Museum of African American History of Boston and Nantucket will offer a special free program on Sumner entitled, A Lighthouse Among the Lampposts: Charles Sumner's Beacon Hill.

The museum offers a regular Black History tour of Beacon Hill, but the July 6 program is an altogether new tour for the purpose of exploring the "humble roots" of Charles Sumner on Beacon Hill and his "pioneering civil rights work." It has been created in celebration of the bicentennial of Sumner's birth.

Everyone who has the time to do so should experience Charles Sumner's Beacon Hill. For more information, visit

Sumner died in Washington on March 11, 1874, while still in the Senate. At the time of his death, he was championing the passage of a civil rights bill to help and protect every African American. Frederick Douglas came to visit him on his deathbed; Sumner told him, "My bill, my bill...Don't let my Civil Rights Bill fail."

Sumner's body was returned to Boston and his casket lay in state at the Massachusetts State House. Veterans of the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment, Robert Gould Shaw's unit of African American soldiers, formed an honor guard as 50,000 people came to pay their respects. A shield with the motto, "Don't Let My Civil Rights Bill Fail," rested atop the casket.

In a ceremony at the State House, the head of the delegation that brought Sumner's body home addressed the Governor as follows:

"May it please your Excellency, we are commanded to render back to you your illustrious dead...With reverent hands we bring to you his mortal part that it may be committed back to the soil of the renowned Commonwealth, which gave him birth. Take it; it is yours. The part which we do not return to you is not wholly yours to receive, nor altogether ours to give. It belongs to the country, to mankind, to freedom, to civilization, to humanity."

That was Charles Sumner, a lighthouse among the lampposts.