Bold Move on Medicare Eligibility Maybe Deserved Another on Executive Pay

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Chicago-based American Hospital Association (AHA) never asked for my advice before advocating that Americans should have to wait an extra two years before becoming eligible for Medicare.

I know, the AHA is a big organization with lots of issues on its plate, lots of constituencies to massage. They don't have time to consult even a handful of the former hospital public relations executives floating around this country, of which I happen to be one. I must face facts: health-care-legends-in-their-own-minds like me are a dime a dozen.

But if the folks in the hospital association had for some strange reason contacted me before loosing this proposal on the public yesterday, I would have had the perspicacity to advise extreme caution when packaging this.

I also would have advised them to have something compelling to offer against the predictable reaction that hospital executives were trying to preserve their own bottom lines at the expense of their elderly patients, a line of attack that cropped up in the first paragraph of an article in today's Boston Globe:

"As the deficit reduction supercommittee hunts for $1.5 trillion in additional savings, U.S. hospital executives are so worried about having their payments cut that they plan to start lobbying Congress next week to shift the burden onto their elderly patients -- specifically by raising the age of eligibility for Medicare."

Lynn Nicholas, president of the Massachusetts Hospital Association, was quoted as saying, "We have to look at health care entitlements and not just payments. It's pretty much a no brainer to raise the age of eligibility for future enrollees."

The AHA is not wrong on the big picture. Our country is broke and living on credit; something has to give if we are going to have a country in 10 or 20 years that resembles America as we know it. Pegging Medicare eligibility at 67 would save the federal government nearly $125 billion over a 10-year period -- serious dough, in other words.

We hear every day that it will require "shared sacrifice" by all citizens and all sectors of our economy to get through this crisis, a cry that has become a cliche; but, like all cliches, it is true as death.

Many of America's hospitals are hurting financially, and many have had to make considerable sacrifices to get through these difficult times. "Providers have been giving and giving and giving, and will give more," Ms. Nicholas emphasized to the Globe.

I do not doubt the sincerity behind that position. Nevertheless, it is a position with some weaknesses. Hospital executives could strengthen it substantially with a bold gesture or two.

The upper crust of hospital management in the U.S. is very well compensated. Even though most hospitals are non-profits, and even though the President of the United States makes $400,000 per year as the head of the largest non-profit organization in the world, (the U.S. government), most hospital CEOs make more than that. And some make a great deal more -- in the neighborhood of $1 million or $2 million more!

If the AHA had somehow persuaded its members to support a $15,000 reduction in the pay of every non-profit hospital executive making between $250,000 and $500,000, a $25,000 reduction in the pay of every executive making between $500,000 and $750,000, and so on, and if the AHA had tied those reductions to a two-year increase in the Medicare eligibility age, the hospitals would be in a stronger position today. Whenever they talked subsequently about shared sacrifice, they would have greater authority.

And it would be easier for them to deflect missiles from antagonists like Rob Restuccia, who headed Health Care for All in Massachusetts for many years and is now the director of Community Catalyst, an organization pushing for universal health care across the nation.

Today in the Globe, Restuccia pronounced the AHA's idea on Medicare eligibility a "public relations disaster," adding, "These are mostly nonprofit institutions. They're supposed to be focused on caring for their community. This would not help their community, though it may help their bottom line."


Government Generates Endless Stream of Press Releases. Bring It On, I Say.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Habits are hard to break and I have long been in the habit of reading every press release I come across from a state agency or an elected official.

A habit like this is, choose one: (a) a sign of mental illness, (b) a harmless waste of time, (c) a geek's fantasy come true, or (d) typical behavior of a conscientious employee?

When I invited all my friends to take this quiz, one said (a) and the other said (c).

I'm not crazy. I know there's little value in perusing press releases like "Kerry to Hold Field Hearing on Massachusetts Fishing Industry," or "Assistant Deputy Education Secretary Shelton to Discuss Competitive Workforce Strategies at Breakfast Event with Business Leaders," or "Public Market Commission Public Meeting in Boston Monday."

My view is, you have to be willing to endure government-inflicted boredom on a vast scale in order to discover the occasional story that makes you sit up and take notice, the piece that maybe makes you exclaim, "Now, that is my idea of our tax dollars at work!"

Take, for example, the 9/22/11 announcement from Attorney General Martha Coakley's office, the one that was headlined: "Former Manager of Milford Water Company Indicted for Allegedly Tampering with Samples of Contaminated Water."

Reading it, I learned that Henry Papuga, who once managed the private company in charge of the town's water system, had been indicted by a Worcester County grand jury on six counts of tampering with an environmental monitoring device or method and two counts of making false statements.

According to the AG's office, Papuga allegedly tampered with drinking water samples in August of 2009 by adding chlorine to them in the hope of ending an order requiring all citizens to boil water before using it. The order was in place because samples had tested positive for E. coli bacteria, which can cause illnesses that cause serious discomfort and pain, and occasionally even death.

"...the defendant was entrusted with the safety and wellbeing of the people in the community," Coakley was quoted as saying. "We allege the defendant tampered with water samples which potentially put the health of thousands at risk."

Also quoted was Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, who said, "Public water systems are expected to accurately collect samples for testing. These samples are essential to the work MassDEP does to ensure water quality and the public's confidence in its drinking water. Tampering with samples is a serious attack on the integrity of this system. This case shows how seriously we will respond to tampering."

The charges against Mr. Papuga stem from an investigation by the Massachusetts Environmental Strike Force, an interagency unit composed of prosecutors from the AG's office and investigators and engineers from the MassDEP. The unit prosecutes crimes that harm or threaten the state's water, air or land and that pose a significant threat to human health.

For the record, Mr. Papuga intends to plead innocent when arraigned in court. His attorney, William Kettlewell, told the Milford Daily News, "We intend to fight these unfounded charges and expect that Mr. Papuga will be fully exonerated when all the facts are brought forth."

I can't remember the last time I saw something in the news about the Massachusetts Environmental Strike Force, so it was good to be reminded there is one. I was also grateful to the AG for putting my fears into a newer perspective. Otherwise I might start to enjoy life too much.

In this age of terror, we rightly worry about terrorists poisoning our water supplies, yet seldom if ever do we ponder the risks posed by slipshod and negligent management of our infrastructure.

Personal Dynamics More Than Party Policies May Explain Republican Rep Win

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Republican won the special election Tuesday to fill the 12th Bristol District seat in the House of Representatives, which Steve Canessa had resigned from in June.

The new rep is Keiko Orrall of Lakeville, a 44-year-old secretary and former teacher who home schools her two children. When sworn in, Orrall will become the 33rd Republican in the 160-member House.

Since the recent bribery conviction of former Democratic House Speaker Sal DiMasi, top Republicans in the state have cranked up the volume on their "culture of corruption on Beacon Hill" talk, so one has to wonder if Orrall's victory indicates voters are turning against the Democratic Party.

The Republicans of course believe they are. MassGOP Chair Jennifer Nassour released a statement Tuesday declaring that voters had "sent a message to Beacon Hill" by electing Orrall. Her campaign, Nassour said, had presented a "clear choice" to the voters: "more of the same, or progress and fresh ideas."

Two other aspects of this election made Republican hearts beat faster: one, the 12th Bristol, which includes parts of New Bedford, Freetown, Lakeville and Middleboro, had been represented by one Democrat or another for more than 30 consecutive years; two, the Democrat defeated by Orrall, Roger Brunelle, Jr., is a union painter and labor activist.

Democrats, meanwhile, are taking comfort in the fact this was a special election, with a special election's typically low turnout: voter turnout across the four communities averaged 20%, and in heavily Democratic New Bedford, it was just over 11%.

Also, Democrats are comfortable in the knowledge that their veto-proof majority in the House remains impregnable. The growth of the Republican team from 32 to 33 members puts a tiny dent in Democratic pride but does not make the minority party any more effective in the House.

We'll have to wait until the fall of 2012 to see if Orrall's victory was a harbinger of a resurgent GOP or an anomaly. If you favor the anomaly hypothesis, you'll probably dwell on the background dynamics, and you may come to favor the explanation that this election was more about acceptance and rejection on the personal level than the principles espoused by either party.

Keep in mind that Steve Canessa was a very popular man in his district. At 31, the former football star at Apponequet Regional High School and member of the Lakeville School Committee had a bright political future before him. He could be seen as a prototype of the wholesome, diligent and engaging young men that voters traditionally look kindly upon in legislative elections. Voters like to send the Canessas of the world to the State House because they embody the community's best feelings about itself. They put them in office partly as a way of proclaiming, This is the kind of young person we produce around here!

Folks in the 12th Bristol, I suspect, were disappointed and angry when Canessa walked away from the job he had just been re-elected to in November, 2010, to become public affairs director at Southcoast Health Systems. Many of them felt burned when he parlayed the position they'd bestowed upon him into a better-paying job in the private sector, where he can capitalize on the government experience he had gained courtesy of the electorate.

Canessa rejected in June the voters who had accepted him in November; to punish Canessa, voters rejected the Democrat who had replaced him on the ballot.

That's my itty-bitty theory, anyway.

Tolman Will Be in Good Shape at the AFL-CIO. He Knows How to Listen and How to Laugh.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

As I was saying, Steve Tolman is a likeable guy.

Of course, most politicians are. Voters do not generally vote for candidates they dislike.

What in particular is it, you might ask, that makes the state senator from the 2nd Suffolk and Middlesex District likeable?

If I had to put my finger on it, I'd say a sense of humor.

The absurdities of this world and of the politician's life seem to tickle Tolman more than the average man or woman walking about the State House. He always has kind of a glint in his eye.

As he has demonstrated in his advocacy for the mentally ill and the drug-addicted and the homeless, Steve Tolman can take the issues very seriously. But he never takes himself seriously, an attitude that puts the people he meets at ease and primes the pump of conversation.

Also, he doesn't stand on formality. You don't have to call him "Senator" or "Mr. Leader," a salutation he merits as Assistant Majority Leader, the fourth highest position in the Senate.

If you know him and you have met with him before on some issue, Tolman makes it easy for you to cut through the baloney. He practically insists you get to the point fast. Before your backside has settled into the chair, you might hear him say, "OK, what do you want now?"

That doesn't mean he's going to do what you want, only that he wants to get the business out of the way as quickly as possible and talk about something interesting, like sports or politics.

Tolman's parents had eight kids and he came along towards the end. There are five older and two younger than he.

Now, the younger kids in a big family tend to be less serious than the older ones, and more likely to speak out of turn, mug for the camera, or say something outrageous. Their brashness can be endearing and funny.

When he becomes the new President of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, as he is slated to do next month, Tolman will be more likely to use his interpersonal skills -- his charm and light touch --than his thinking skills to begin advancing labor's agenda. This is not to say that he lacks smarts. He's plenty smart and plenty shrewd.

Tolman doesn't feel the need to impress you with his brains though. My guess is he'd prefer that his adversaries believe he's not as intelligent as he is, and that he'd take steps to encourage them in that illusion, the better to pull the wool over their eyes.

As a guy who fought his way up from the bottom -- from Ward 2 Democratic committee member in Watertown to the Massachusetts House of Representatives to the Massachusetts Senate, and from railroad clerk to the threshold of ultimate labor power in this state -- Tolman will likely emphasize the part of his presidency that plays out on the sidewalks and in the union halls, as opposed to the TV studios and corporate board rooms. He'll be more of a prominent presence on the picket lines than a booming voice in the banquet halls.

The big questions about President Tolman are unanswerable at this point:

Can he make organized labor more relevant in our 21st Century Massachusetts economy, based as it is on high tech, biotech, higher education and research, and health care? Can he expand substantially the number of union members in Massachusetts? Can he get more done on Beacon Hill than his predecessor?

This would be a tall order for anyone. I wish him the best, and hope the breaks go his way.

Speaking of breaks, Tolman is always willing to give one to a person down on his luck. For example:

A few years back, I was waiting to meet someone in the little park beside the State House, on the Bowdoin Street side of the building, when I saw one of the city's most notorious panhandlers approach him at the corner of Bowdoin and Ashburton Place. This man was well known to people who travelled regularly on foot around Beacon Hill, in the Common, or through Downtown Crossing. He had a loud, raspy voice that could be heard half a block away, and he liked to stand in the middle of the sidewalk, all noisy and dirty, arms outstretched, clothes smelly, getting in everyone's face as he pleaded endlessly, "Does anybody have any spare change? Anybody?"

Needless to say, most of us avoided eye contact and hurried past him. But not Tolman.

The senator not only stopped when Homeless Guy approached, he started a real conversation with the man! And he kept talking with him for about ten minutes. No bum's rush for this guy.

I watched as Tolman took out his wallet and handed the man a bill. Then, amazingly, Tolman reached into his pocket, took out a pack of cigarettes, put one in his mouth, handed one to Homeless Guy, then lit up both of their smokes. Tolman and Homeless Guy conversed like two old buddies until their cigarettes were done, at which point they parted with a handshake and the senator headed to the State House.

The following week, I happened to bump into Tolman and I told him how I had witnessed his extraordinary kindness to a man who had to be one of the sorriest souls I had ever seen.

"You were so good to him," I said. "It was something to behold. How did you do that?"

The senator smiled for about half a second, waved off the compliment, and walked away without a word.

That's One Good Politician Who Can Go from Railroad Clerk to AFL-CIO President

Friday, September 16, 2011

If all goes according to plan, Steve Tolman, the Assistant Majority Leader of the Massachusetts Senate, will be elected president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO on Oct. 7, five days after he turns 57. He will then resign from the Senate, where he is fourth from the top in the leadership pecking order.

For this son of a staunch union family and product of a blue-collar Watertown neighborhood, gaining the presidency of the largest, most prominent labor group in a major state is a huge achievement, and undoubtedly the fulfillment of a lifetime dream.

Tolman is a popular guy and he's done very well in politics, having entered the legislature as a state rep from Brighton in 1994, vaulted to the Senate in 1998, and moved steadily up through the ranks in the 40-member upper branch. On matters big and small, he has the ear of Senate President Terry Murray.

Many politicians would kill for the career this former railroad clerk has made for himself.

But when he takes the helm of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, replacing the retiring Bobby Haynes, Tolman will be in charge of a group that has 400,000 members. He will be an executive giving orders, not a lawmaker cajoling others for their votes. Any day of the week he wants it, Tolman will be able to commandeer a media spotlight that will put him in front of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of television viewers and radio listeners -- a far cry from his early days in public life, when it was mainly greenhorn reporters for low-wattage weeklies in his district dogging his steps.

Oh, and his bank account will undergo immediate improvement in October -- no small consideration for a devoted family man. (He and his wife have three children.)

One of the most remarkable aspects of Tolman's ascent has been its apparent ease. Haynes announced earlier in the summer that he was going to retire in the fall. One of Haynes's bright, young deputies, Tim Sullivan, immediately went to work securing the votes needed to replace him; it looked initially like Sullivan was an odds-on favorite. Then Tolman let it be known that he was seriously interested in the job and would not hesitate to leave the Senate to get it.

There followed a couple of months or more of ostensible quiet, although most observers figured that a fairly intense, behind-the-scenes battle was going on. This was an internal union contest and union guys know how to fight the way cats know how to stalk birds. They also don't give up without a fight.

At the end of August, just before Labor Day, Sullivan announced he was dropping his attempt to become president, meaning Tolman would be able to get the job practically by acclaim when the delegates from the various member unions of the AFL-CIO gather for the big vote.

"Rather than spend the next number of weeks campaigning against one another in pursuit of nearly identical goals," Sullivan told the State House News Service, "I am excited to become part of one team to build a plan for the future and unite the labor movement anew for many years to come."

Translation: Couldn't beat Tolman, had to join him.

In retrospect, Tolman had some considerable advantages going into this fight. He's older than Sullivan by 26 years, has long been recognized as labor's strongest voice and most effective advocate in the legislature, and has an impeccable union pedigree. After attending the Watertown public schools, Tolman graduated from the Harvard Trade Union Program and completed his bachelor's in law and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts while working for the railroads and becoming active in the Transportation Communications International Union (TCU). For years he served as local TCU chairman.

Tolman's late father was a railroad conductor and served as the local and general chairman of the United Transportation Union. His brother, John, is the vice president and national legislative representative of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen; one of his sisters is a former president of the state's largest nurses' union, the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

Once Steve Tolman becomes president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the really hard work will begin. The restoration job they're handing him will be extremely difficult.

The recent drive by unions to stop the legislature from restricting their ability to negotiate changes in health benefits at the municipal employee level, which fell far short of the goal, only underscored the decline in union influence and power that has been going on for years. Tolman will be expected to reverse that decline.

We saw Bobby Haynes pull out all the rhetorical stops on the health benefits issue and the majority of legislators basically ignore him. Haynes is a good and intelligent man, a passionate and principled champion of labor, but maybe he was in the job too long, maybe people just stopped listening to him.

Steve Tolman will not be tuned out at the State House. People like him too much. Maybe that's why he won hands-down.

NEXT: How Tolman's style will work at the AFL-CIO.

Every Fall I Wonder Again Why Our Leaders Didn't Fight for a Stadium in Boston

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fresh from their smash season-opening victory Monday night over the Miami Dolphins, the New England Patriots are getting ready for their home opener Sunday afternoon, September 18, against the Chargers of San Diego.

I'm even more excited than usual about a Patriots game because I'll be attending a pro game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough on Sunday for the first time since the place opened in 2002. Also, it's a freebie: I'll be there as someone's guest in one of those obnoxiously plush corporate boxes. You bet I'll take all the luxury, pampering, drinks and viddles they treat me to. Why go to the coliseum if you don't want to act like a Roman?

Yeah, the Razor (as the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy likes to call Gillette Stadium) has it all: 68,000-plus seats, 46 permanent concession stands, 60 portable food and beverage stands, two gigantic (48 X 27 feet) scoreboards, a main concourse, an upper concourse, a special Putnam (as in investments) Club with seating for 6,600 fans, and four separate first aid stations for idiots like me who get too excited after every big play and end up spraining their wrists with the obligatory high-fiving. It even has a 12-story-high "lighthouse" near the main entrance that beckons the devoted more effectively than a church spire.

Gillette Stadium only has one problem: It is in Foxborough. On Route 1.

Boston to Foxborough is only 21 miles. When there's no traffic, it's a fairly quick ride. On game days, however, as many season ticket holders attest, it can easily take you one hour to drive there, find a parking space in one of the many $50-per-space parking lots that spring to temporary life, and hike a third of a mile or more to your seat in Spectacleland.

After the game, the travel away from this burb really gets rough.

From having attended a U-2 concert at Gillette, I know it can take an hour just to extricate your vehicle from one of those chaotic, fan-fleecing lots and crawl onto Route 1. Then it can take another 20 minutes to get to Route 95, at which time you have maybe a half-hour ride to Boston. If you're lucky.

On your way to the game, you're filled with anticipation, so the drive doesn't seem so bad. Afterwards, the inevitable letdown sets in, even if the Pats have won. You're tired, maybe a little beat up by all the booze and high-fat "snacks" you had to have, and the Monday morning blues are starting to wrap their heavy hands around your weary body and brain. The drive home then can feel like a penalty devised by your worst enemy.

In the late-1990s, there were two different plans to build a professional sports stadium as a home for the Patriots in Boston. One proposal would have sited it in South Boston and the other along Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury, the "crosstown" site. Residents in both locations voiced strong initial objections and the city's political leaders basically folded without a fight.

I don't know if Gillette Stadium should be in South Boston or Roxbury, but it should be somewhere in Boston, somewhere where it can be approached via multiple routes and is served by several modes of transportation.

Boston is the Hub of New England, a city with world-class institutions, a tourist mecca. It is the capital of a major state with more than six million inhabitants. And Boston proper hosts teams in the major professional sports of baseball (Red Sox), basketball (Celtics) and hockey (Bruins).

That such a city does not also host a team as illustrious and popular as the New England Patriots is the mistake that will never go away. (Those aerial shots of Boston taken from blimps during commercial breaks do not cut it.)

A football game, even when it decides a championship, has no ultimate importance, which is another reason why a fan should not have to give up an entire day of his life to attend one, as many a Patriot fan now must do.

Take Another Two Weeks Off, Governor. Events Show You're the Superior Politician, Again.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Governor Deval Patrick has been blasted by some Republicans for the amount of time he's taken off this summer. The three weeks he spent travelling to Maine and then Bermuda -- or was it Bermuda, then Maine? -- seemed to really rankle the folks in the workaholic wing of the GOP.

Me, I'm a firm believer in the adage, "Don't just do something, stand there!"

Patrick had barely turned the lights back on in the governor's office when he headed to Logan for a flight to California, where today he is addressing the Black Corporate Directors Conference in Laguna Beach. Republicans had the outrage machine cranked up again before the wheels were up on the governor's plane.

I don't know if the complainers sincerely believe Patrick is harming the Commonwealth by absenting himself from the State House, or if they're merely nursing leftover frustrations from the unsuccessful campaign to defeat him in 2010. Either way, I'm enjoying the spectacle of a party that espouses limited government yipping about someone not governing enough.

Might it also be that Patrick's critics are angry because he's getting the job done and making it look easy?

Take the casino bill that just emerged into daylight, for example. It's the biggest thing going now on Beacon Hill, and it reflects almost entirely the governor's view of how Massachusetts should raise its gambling act to the next level.

Or take the way Patrick, earlier in the summer, waltzed once again through the political house of horrors that is the Big Dig, following a Boston Globe extravaganza on torrents in the Tip O'Neill tunnel and turmoil in top leadership at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Last time I checked, the media was practically cooing about what a fabulous guy the new MassDOT secretary, Rich Davey, is.

Davey is Patrick's fourth transportation chief in five years but people are focusing not on the revolving door at Ten Park Plaza but rather on the new guy's intellectual dexterity and wisdom-beyond-his-years. The governor instinctively knew the best way to rise above the sea of troubles at Transportation: name a boyish boss with real transport chops who plays well with the media.

No matter what your political inclinations are, you have to concede that Deval Patrick is a very smart guy, a superior politician, and an executive who quickly grew into the governor's role after making some rookie mistakes. Patrick is now pretty much at the top of his game. If not, the President of the United States would not have him down to Washington all the time to lend weight to his agenda, as Obama did once again this week on the eve of announcing his new jobs bill.

A column this week in Time magazine by Joe Klein helps illuminate our governor's skills, although that was not its purpose. Klein was writing about the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination in 2012 and the differences between running in the primaries and in the general election when he observed, "...general elections are different. The superior politician always wins. Think about it. Always." Consider that in relation to the general election for Governor of Massachusetts in November, 2010, when the three candidates asking for your vote were Patrick, Charlie Baker and Tim Cahill.

Patrick's life is a classic American success story, confirming our best thoughts and renewing our hopes about our country. He wears his success well. ("Bearing is fate," the Romans said.) Most people, I believe, are impressed by his equipoise and benevolence, his total lack of neuroses and malice.

This is a man who grew up in a Chicago housing project and now lives in Milton, one of the best suburbs ever invented. He holds an office once held by giants on the American stage, (Hello, Mr. Hancock, Mr. Coolidge, Mr. Herter and Mr. Saltonstall), and he weekends at an estate in the Berkshires, (gotta love the way he's perfected the art of campaigning in western Massachusetts while visiting his holdings there).

Cynics can quibble that Patrick got some big breaks along the way, namely those scholarships to Milton Academy and Harvard, but I say he basically made his own breaks -- and maximized them to a fare thee well -- by dint of his inner qualities, the "stuff" of his character, which would have been revealed as false long ago by the rigors of life in the public eye, if indeed it was not real stuff.

Scott Brown has to hope that Patrick stays true to his word, i.e., that he is not interested in serving in the U.S. Senate.

Sal's Story Approaches Sorrowful End: the Removal of His Freedom

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Is there a reason to believe that former Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi has a chance of successfully appealing his conviction on corruption charges?

If Sal DiMasi's lawyer cannot convince a judge there is, the former Speaker will be in a jail cell very soon.

It all comes to a head this Thursday in the federal district courthouse in Boston, where Sal will be sentenced for his conviction on charges of steering two big software contracts to Cognos Corp. for illegal cash payments.

The prosecutors are recommending that Sal be given a sentence of 12 years and seven months; his lawyer is arguing that no more than a three years is warranted.

No matter the case or the defendant, and no matter the level of interest one has in either, it is chilling to watch a heretofore free man taken into custody at the conclusion of a sentencing hearing.

At the brusque command of a court officer, the defendant has to step forward, extend his arms and hands, and be clamped into steel handcuffs. Two or three court officers then march him out of the room by a side door as the muffled cries and sobs of his closest relatives fill the air. The next time these folks see the defendant, he'll be behind glass, wearing a prison-issue jumpsuit, and they will converse by phone under the watchful eyes and ears of the guards. That conversation will most likely be taped. Legally.

Free-man-to-convict is a painful physical, psychological and spiritual transition, regardless of the new convict's age, gender or station in life. For Sal DiMasi, who is 66 years old, a skilled attorney, and once one of the most powerful men in our Commonwealth, it will be especially painful.

I have spoken to a few people who have served 30 or 60 days in the house of correction, and I have heard the recollections of one man who served seven years in a federal penitentiary. Each has said how torturously long and fearful those times behind bars were.

Only someone who has never thought seriously about what it means to be incarcerated could regard a three-year sentence as getting off lightly.

The way things happened in my life, Sal DiMasi was a friend of friends of mine, but never my friend, although I certainly liked him on the few, passing occasions we met. Those who are his longtime friends have always spoken highly of him, always said what a good guy he is, what a big heart he has, etc.

Whenever I happened to glimpse him in action at the State House or at a fundraiser for a member of the House, he looked for all the world like a genuinely good guy, a person who enjoyed being with people, didn't take himself too seriously, and was a natural at "working the room."

Unquestionably, he was beloved in his North-End-centered Boston district, which he represented for more than 30 consecutive years. Sal is a big man in the North End -- and rightly so -- yet he never got too big for his old neighborhood.

I will not try to defend him or explain away the charges against Speaker DiMasi. I will not cite all the good things Sal did during his many years in office, even though they were so numerous as to defy tabulation, because that is beside the point. The jury was not asked to decide if he did more good than bad.

Sooner or later, Sal will be clamped in cuffs, confined against his will, and ordered around day and night. If someone addresses him there as Mr. Speaker, it will probably be as a taunt, a prelude to an insult, or worse.

That's hard to think about. I can't imagine how hard it will be to live it.

Hope to God he survives.

Summer's End a Good Time to Consider the Public-Private Partnership that Produced a Gem for Boston

Friday, September 2, 2011

Though bracketed by chilly mornings and evenings that devour light the way starvelings take nourishment at a feast, the days of September are among the best that summer has to offer.

This Labor Day, I suggest we all pause to consider one of the sublime joys of summer in the city: a brown-bag lunch in the little piece of paradise in Boston's Post Office Square. It's a pleasure that will soon be denied us.

I'm talking about The Norman B. Leventhal Park, built on a site previously occupied by a parking garage, which was ugly even by the meager standards of garage architecture.

Norman Leventhal, builder and philanthropist, had the vision to see tall trees, flowing fountains, and vine-shaded benches where there had been for decades only concrete and asphalt. He saw a nature preserve in the Financial District, a place of respite for the weary souls who spend their days in cubicles and ditches, courtrooms and kitchens, offices and stores, classrooms and clinics.

And Norman Leventhal had the practical skills, honed by years in the construction industry, and the political skills, developed through a lifetime of living and working in a very parochial city, to lead effectively the band of civic and business leaders who turned that vision into a reality.

A model of public-private partnering, the park was completed in the summer of 1992. It became an immediate sensation.

People marveled at the perfect scale and the many features of its design -- the wonders of plant, flower, stone and water waiting to be discovered and appreciated there. They loved the way the variety of trees provided shade, while also allowing sun to flood the elongated triangle that forms the park's center. And they positively luxuriated in the cool air that stirs about the fountain gracing its northern end, near Milk Street.

People flocked to the oasis in Post Office Square, and they flock to it still.

Go there at lunchtime, Monday through Friday, and it's hard to find a place to sit on the low, curving, granite walls, nevermind the benches. But you can always find a spot on the lawn. And if your wardrobe can't tolerate the grass and soil, no problem: there are cushions you can borrow for free, courtesy of The Friends of Post Office Square, the group that runs the park and the parking garage hidden beneath it.

The longer the park was open, the more people realized what a gem the city had there, and the more they acknowledged how much is owed to the man at the heart of the transformation of Post Office Square. Fourteen years ago, on September 16, 1997, it was officially dedicated as The Norman B. Leventhal Park.

That man graduated from the Boston Latin School in 1933 and is now well into his nineties, God bless him. This Labor Day, I will remember how he made the life of every working person who ever strolled his park a little better, a little brighter, and say a prayer of thanks for this great Bostonian.

Thank you, Mr. Leventhal.

...How important are those "nature breaks" we take in the park?

From an article this past week in the Wall Street Journal, ("Coffee Break? Walk in the Park? Why Unwiding is Hard," 8/30/11), we learn that, "Researchers are zeroing in on some of the circumstances that bring about optimal mental refreshment," and that, "Taking in sights and sounds of nature appears to be especially beneficial for our minds..."

Shirley S. Wang, the author of the article, goes on to say that, "This (research) work follows research by Dr. (Marc) Berman and partners at the University of Michigan showing that performance on memory and attention tests improved by 20% after study subjects paused for a walk through an arboretum. When these people were sent on a break to stroll down a busy street in town, no cognitive boost was detected."

Does that mean that all the companies that employ people who regularly enjoy The Norman B. Leventhal Park have him to thank for having more productive work forces? I say, Yes!