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.

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