DiMasi 'Cared Deeply About the Disadvantaged,' Mayor Mike Readily Attests

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Before leaving office of his own accord early in January, 2004, Mike Albano was one of the giants of Western Massachusetts politics.

In his four terms as mayor of Springfield, "Mayor Mike," as he was popularly known, proved to be both a strong hands-on manager and a high-minded, inclusive leader of his decidedly downtrodden city. He also possessed that most valuable and ineffable of political attributes: a first-class temperament. He was warm, approachable and light-hearted. No stranger was ever afraid to walk up to Albano. In a crowded elevator, he'd be the first guy to get you laughing with a wry comment, and by the time he arrived at his floor, everyone wanted to shake his hand good-bye.

I got to know Albano in the late-1990s when we both happened to be in the gallery of the Massachusetts House on random spring evenings when the lower branch was working through its version of the state budget for the next fiscal year. There's lots of dead time in the budget deliberations, long stretches when nothing really happens, and it seemed to be the most natural thing for Mayor Mike to chat up the people hanging in the gallery with him, waiting for "their" budget items to be taken up. Like all of our older urban centers, Springfield depends heavily on state aid, so Albano was a regular at the State House, a charming and persuasive advocate for his city.

It turned out that Albano, who holds a master's in public administration from the University of Hartford and was a probation officer before being elected mayor in 1995, knew and liked my older brother, Jim, who was a college dean in Connecticut at the time and had hired Albano to teach some courses at night in the state college system. This accelerated the initial conversation, which was already going pretty well, and always gave us something to discuss later when we'd bump into each other at the State House or on the street in Boston. Like me, my brother Jim is a great admirer of Mayor Mike; also like me, my big brother is disappointed Mayor Mike walked away from elective politics entirely. We both think he would have been a good candidate for state-wide office.

While walking the halls of the State House on Springfield's behalf, Albano got to know many legislators well, including Rep. Sal DiMasi of Boston's North End. And, in Sal, he apparently found not just a sympathetic ear but also a man of power who was willing to use it to help a large group of people who could never vote for him, the citizens of Springfield.

As Albano put it in his pre-sentencing letter (Aug. 25, 2011) to Judge Mark L. Wolf of the U.S. District Court in Boston, "While he (DiMasi) had no direct political interest in the day-to-day operations of my city, his involvement at the State House was critical and he always answered the call for assistance."

Albano's appeal for leniency to Judge Wolf continued, "As you know, Springfield, like other urban areas, has a multitude of problems. Representative DiMasi was extremely helpful, along with the western Massachusetts legislative delegation, in assisting the City in areas of economic development; police grants; open space grants; education reform dollars; after-school programs and other human service initiatives which directly impacted the quality of life of our citizens. In many cases, he was the person to whom I went to make things happen for the city. He asked for nothing in return.

"For example: Representative DiMasi played a major role -- in a very quiet fashion -- in the appropriation of funding for the new Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and MassMutual Convention Center -- approximately $75 million of economic development funds creating hundreds of employment opportunities and changing the image of Springfield. There were no lobbyists or corporate bigwigs pushing the agenda -- just Sal DiMasi offering a helping hand to a needy city.

"Perhaps his major contribution to the City, however, was the saving of the Southwest Community Health Center. The Center, which serves thousands of low-income citizens with their health care needs, was on the brink of financial collapse.

"Representative DiMasi was instrumental in putting together a supplemental appropriation of nearly $1 million -- which essentially saved the agency -- and allowed Southwest to continue its health care services to the most needy citizens in the community, which continues to operate to this day.

"Your Honor, the Sal DiMasi that I know is a man who cared deeply about the disadvantaged. He was always willing to assist for the benefit of the citizens of Springfield and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

"I have been advised by some to expect retaliation for writing this letter of recommendation for Speaker DiMasi. I put that advice aside, however, because the actions of this extraordinary public servant reveal the totality of the man; the values he espoused; and, his record of accomplishment, all of which are important for your consideration at sentencing.

"Standing up for what is right and for those who are down is something of great value and something I learned a long time ago. I know Sal DiMasi shares those values. Now he is down and needs support from those he supported in the past."

Pre-Sentencing Letters Drive Home the Tragic Dimension of the DiMasi Case

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sal DiMasi, the former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, must report tomorrow to a federal prison in Kentucky to begin serving an eight-year sentence for accepting bribes in the Cognos software sale scandal. It will be a sad day not only for DiMasi and the members of his family, but also for the thousands of people he helped during more than 30 years in public life. The man has a legion of friends and supporters.

Before DiMasi was sentenced a couple of months ago, 44 persons took the trouble to write individual letters to Mark Wolf, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court in Boston, telling him about the Sal DiMasi they know well and asking him please to be lenient in sentencing. It's hard to read those letters and not be struck, again, by the tragedy of a man who did an extraordinary amount of good in his life, became one of the most powerful politicians in the state, was widely loved for his warmth and generosity and ebullience, and threw it all away with one large, stupid mistake.

Because those letters reveal so much about the genuine DiMasi and how he conducted his life, and because they remind us, inadvertently but poignantly, of how far DiMasi tumbled in his fall from grace, I am going to reprint extensive excerpts from three of them this week. I'm starting with the letter from Jim Aloisi, a prominent Boston attorney and former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, and will follow with one from Mike Albano, the former mayor of Springfield, and one from Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

"I've never written a letter regarding a proposed sentencing before," Aloisi began, "but I feel compelled to add my voice to those who find the requested sentencing (note added: 11 years) of former Speaker Sal DiMasi to be inordinately harsh, not reflective of the kind of person Sal is, and lacking in consideration of the many good works and positive examples of principled leadership that marked his time in office.

"I have known Sal DiMasi for close to two decades. Sal asked me to write his inaugural address when he became Speaker. I remember clearly, as we spoke about the content of the speech, how deeply focused he was on reminding himself that he came from humble beginnings, and that he would strive mightily to represent not just his district, but those who were chronically left behind by society -- the poor, the elderly, and those who are disenfranchised as a result of race, sexual orientation or other factors.

"I have thought about that experience as I have observed the trial and its aftermath. I don't know anything about the facts and circumstances that were the subject of the recent trial, but here is what I do know: Sal DiMasi was a good Speaker, a thoughtful man, a progressive thinker, a man who had a deep commitment to improving the lives of people who all too often do not have a voice in the halls of our State House. That is why I believe he championed health care reform. That is why I believe he held firm on making marriage equality the law. That is why I believe he held firmly against a gaming bill -- believing strongly, as I know he did, that gaming is nothing more than a tax on the poor and the middle class, simply another way to prey on those who have no access to power, no means to lobby legislators. People in Massachusetts are better off today, and their children will be better off in the future, because Sal DiMasi had the commitment and the vision and the courage to stop gaming, and to enact health care reform and marriage equality.

"...When I was State Transportation Secretary in 2009, I led an effort to raise the state gas tax as a way to increase revenues to support our aging transportation infrastructure. The gas tax increase would have enabled critical state-of-good-repair work, and would have improved funding for public transportation throughout the state -- an important mobility and social and economic justice issue. This was, as we all know, very unpopular politically, but Sal was prepared to support it with all the strength of his office. He would gain nothing but political pain from his support, but he understands that he was chosen to be Speaker to make tough decisions, to risk unpopularity, and to lead. I consider that kind of moral and political courage to be rare, but Sal had it in ample quantity....

"The Sal DiMasi I know is a person who ought to have more to give -- more to contribute -- to society. A harsh sentence in this matter may satisfy some rigid notion of justice, but I am reminded of the wisdom of Shakespeare's Portia, that mercy is 'an attribute to God himself/and earthly power doth then show likest God's/when mercy seasons justice.'

"If ever there was an occasion when mercy should season justice, it is this one. With respect, I would ask for your consideration that such wisdom ought to have a place in the sentencing decision you are about to make -- taking the entirety of the man and his life and his public record into account."

A Real 'Government Takeover of Health Care' Might Have Worked Better for Dems

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The National Republican Congressional Committee sent out separate but identical press releases earlier this month targeting three Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts for their support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, although the committee never referred to the bill by its formal name. Instead, it described it repeatedly as "the government takeover of healthcare."

The occasion for the release was the success on Tuesday, Nov. 8, of a ballot referendum in Ohio against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," as Republicans and many others delight in calling it. Sixty-six percent of Ohio voters gave a thumbs-up to the non-binding question against the bill.

The National Republican Congressional Committee built its press release, issued Nov. 11, on the premise that the citizens of Massachusetts need to know that "voters (in Ohio) reject the government takeover of healthcare Keating defended," Keating being the former state senator, former Norfolk County district attorney and current Congressman from the 10th Massachusetts District, Bill Keating. Here's the first paragraph of the release:

"Massachusetts Democrat Bill Keating proudly voted to keep the government takeover of healthcare in place earlier this year (Roll Call #14, 1/19/11), putting him at odds with American voters who continue to voice their strong disapproval. Ohio voters Tuesday sent a message that is having ramifications across the nation after every single one of the 88 counties voted to block the Democrats' healthcare takeover in their state. Keating's defense of the widely unpopular law will certainly strike a strong contrast with voters who increasingly recognize that this government takeover has done more harm than good."

So happy was the National Republican Congressional Committee with this line of attack that it used it simultaneously on U.S. Reps. John Tierney of Salem and Nicki Tsongas of Lowell, and God knows how many other Democrats across the nation, putting all of the same words in each release and changing only the names. Thus, the headlines became, "Voters Reject the Government Takeover of Healthcare Tierney Defended," and "Voters Reject the Government Takeover of Healthcare Tsongas Defended," etc., which showed, I guess, that Republicans are as human as the rest of us, for who among us, after coming up with a such a self-satisfyingly-clever line, can ever restrict its delivery to one occasion?

Each release ended on a mournful note to the effect that Keating, Tierney, Tsongas, et al., aren't "listening" to America. "Americans continue to voice their disapproval of the Democrats' government takeover of healthcare," it said, "but Bill Keating isn't listening. Instead of defending the law earlier this year, Keating should have recognized that the massive healthcare takeover, which is destroying jobs and seeing premiums rise, is making matters worse."

At first blush, one might think the National Republican Congressional Committee's use of the "takeover" formulation was a tad heavy-handed. No fewer than eight times in the 470-word release were the words "government takeover" used. However, I can personally attest to its effectiveness. By the time I was through reading it, my id was whispering insistently to my ego, "Obama seizes health care. Obama bad. Must be stopped."

(Pssssst: Does anyone in the Republican Party remember that Teddy Roosevelt, the rough-riding Republican of Rushmore fame, was the first politician of national standing to advocate for a national health plan? And does anyone in the GOP remember that Richard Nixon had a proposal for national health insurance that might have become law in the Seventies were it not for the opposition of Ted Kennedy and other liberal Democrats in the Congress -- a position that Kennedy came to rue?)

But give the Republicans credit for knowing how to play a good hand. Their relentless, post-enactment campaign against "Obamacare" has worked: a majority of the public dislikes and fears the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. When you're ahead on points, you pour it on.

The irony is that President Obama deliberately avoided a government takeover of health care when he decided to tackle health care reform, a challenge that makes ending the war in Afghanistan look easy by comparison, right out of the gate in 2009. Instead, he decided to work with the essential ingredients of the American health care system as he found it: private health insurance, fee-for-service medicine, employment-linked insurance, etc. The now-vilified mandate on all citizens to purchase health insurance was the big concession he made to the GOP-tilting insurance industry in exchange for the industry's acceptance of all customers, regardless of pre-existing conditions.

If Obama is defeated next November, and if he takes the Keatings, Tierneys and Tsongases of the world down with him, you'll be able to fill the mall in Washington with Democrats screaming how the Republicans jobbed them on health care. If Democrats are smart, they'll keep the crying to a minimum and bounce back quickly with a real plan for a government takeover of health care: Medicare for everyone.

They'll need something that good, that simple and that compelling to fix what's left behind when President Mitt Romney, the once-proud father of universal health care in Massachusetts, gets the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act repealed.

Retired Senator's Letter to Editor on Casinos Surely Rankled Ex-Colleagues

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sue Tucker, who retired from her Merrimack Valley seat in the Massachusetts Senate at the end of the 2009-10 legislative session, was never known to mince words. She was always strong in her convictions and blunt in her language.

For example, in her brief, March, 2010, message announcing her intention not to seek re-election, Tucker thanked the voters of Andover, Dracut, Lawrence and Tewksbury for electing and re-electing her to office, reflected on her legislative priorities and accomplishments, and emphasized that, "Above all, I hate rip-offs, whether public or private, and that is the reason I am working to keep predatory gambling out of the Commonwealth."

When Tucker walked out of the State House for the last time as a senator in early-January, 2011, one of the state's most passionate and eloquent opponents of casino gambling and slot parlors left the political arena. Her heart, however, remained in the fight, as evidenced by a letter from her published in the Boston Globe on Veterans Day, Friday, Nov. 11, under the heading, "Unfortunately, it's too late to bar door from wolves of gambling industry."

The letter spanked the Globe for an editorial it published Nov. 8, raising questions about the casino bill subsequently enacted by both branches of the legislature, and blamed the newspaper for helping to create the political atmosphere that allowed the casino bill to move forward in the first place.

That Tucker would take on the region's largest, most influential newspaper was not surprising. She was always pretty fearless. That she would also give a backhand to her former colleagues while hitting the Globe was surprising. Read her entire letter to see what I mean:

"Your Nov. 8 editorial 'Flawed casino legislation leaves public interest too vulnerable' is loaded with irony. Several years ago, it was The Boston Globe that opened the door for casinos in Massachusetts. When your editorial board flirted with casinos, you gave every politician in this state permission to let the wolves in. Although I never stopped fighting the notion that we could gamble our way out of budget deficits, the day the Globe flipped on this issue was the very day I knew that casinos would eventually prevail.

"Tuesday's editorial bemoans the flaws and potential for corruption in the current casino bill. I am not privy to your editorial board's internal debate on this issue, but did you honestly think Massachusetts could do a 'clean' casino bill? It is called an oxymoron. Where in the country has a clean casino bill emerged from the legislature and remained corruption-free through the years?

"The gambling interests have a playbook to get what they want, and the name of the state is irrelevant. They see a market; they buy the political establishment; they hook the state on revenue; and then they own the legislative-regulatory framework.

"Your editorial concludes, 'If Massachusetts marries the casino industry on these terms, it will be stuck with the consequences forever.' Too bad that the Globe helped officiate at the marriage ceremony."

Tucker's main point, that the Commonwealth is about to become a business development partner of the casino industry for purposes of adding to the public treasury and will therefore be susceptible to pressure from the industry down the line, has validity. In testifying against an earlier casino/slots bill a few years back, she raised this same issue, warning that casino operators would be able to eliminate restrictions in any original enabling legislation by claiming those rules were putting them at a disadvantage with competing casinos in neighboring states. A Commonwealth that had grown dependent on casino/slots revenue would be hard-pressed to resist those claims, she suggested.

But the Tucker letter assertion that the casino industry had bought the political establishment in Massachusetts was not grounded in fact, no matter how much the industry may have spent on lobbyists. Knowing as she does that Senate President Pro Tem Stan Rosenberg of Amherst is the Senate's point man on casino legislation, that Rosenberg has studied the industry and its experiences in states across the nation for years, and that Rosenberg is a person of unquestioned integrity and dedication, it was startling to see her make that statement so blithely. Tucker worked with Rosenberg for a long time and knows him well. She had to have known her words would cut him (and other former colleagues) deeply.

Without any sign or evidence that any legislative leader actually sold his vote to anyone in the casino industry, the most anyone can fairly say is that legislators sold themselves on the concept of casinos being a revenue-producer and a jobs-creator. I'm no fan of gambling, but given the recessionary times and the word of independent experts that three casinos and one slot parlor will, when all is said and done, generate roughly $750 million a year for the state, it's not hard to see how any honest legislator could be sold on this bill.

Campaign to Kill Obamacare Is More About Politics than Health Policy

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I am indebted to Rogan Kersh, a Professor of Public Policy and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at New York University, for clarifying something about the well-organized and well-funded campaign to repeal the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which continues night and day under a full head of steam, two years after the bill was enacted.

You may not recognize this legislation by its proper name, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but you surely know it by the derisive label Republicans apply to it: Obamacare.

The PPACA was the cause that Barack Obama gave the first year of his presidency to, at great political cost. Its enactment was an accomplishment of unquestionable historical and social significance, for it brought into existence a program, universal health care, that is every bit as important and far-reaching as Franklin Roosevelt's Social Security was in the Thirties and Lyndon Johnson's Medicare was in the Sixties.

Unfortunately for Obama and his fellow Democrats, universal health care has not been met with universal acceptance. Polls today indicate that more than half of the American population does not like the PPACA, and is so apprehensive about the implications of the bill that they favor repeal, despite the fact that some features of the bill, such as the one that prevents insurance companies from denying coverage to anyone because of a pre-existing illness, enjoy overwhelming public support.

Obama and the Democrats can be faulted for not selling the benefits of the PPACA better to the public. Yes, it's an incredibly large, mind-numbingly-complex program that is slowly rolling out as a result of the bill, but there are some very compelling points that could be made in speeches and in advertisements about the virtues of the PPACA. Where, for example, is the TV ad from the Democrats that has an actor playing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who cheerily informs a young cancer patient she won't be able to get coverage when his Repeal-Obamacare team wins the game?

So blame the bill itself for some of its unpopularity and much of the confusion that surrounds it. And blame the innate fears of Americans like me, who already have insurance, who like our health plans, who don't want them to change, and who worry they'll come out of this vast new social experiment with diminished, more costly insurance. But don't forget to blame the Republican Party, too, for doing everything within its power to exploit our fears and undermine Obamacare while never offering a serious alternative.

During a Rappaport Center Roundtable discussion this week at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, Professor Kersh pointed out three simple facts about the highly unusual, post-enactment battle that has erupted around the PPACA:

One, not a single Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate voted for the PPACA.

Two, the PPACA, despite its flaws and inauspicious start, has the potential one day to be as popular as Social Security and Medicare are today in the U.S.

Three, Republicans realize that great potential popularity and are deathly afraid their unanimous opposition to the bill will subject their party to a devastating, long-lasting voter backlash, 10 or 20 or more years down the line.

Imagine the PPACA withstands the multiple challenges it now faces, and imagine that voters over time come to understand and experience and depend upon the benefits of the law. If so, voters will come to appreciate the Democrats for making this great, new program possible; and Democrats will be able, as a result, to stick it to the Republicans for years ever after. ("Just remember, folks, the Republicans didn't want you and your family to have health care.")

That dynamic may go a long way to explaining why Republicans are damned and determined to kill the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in its crib.


Meanwhile, things are fairly quiet in Massachusetts, which has had its own unique system of universal health coverage since 2006, a program, by the way, that has very high favorability ratings despite the fact that it has not brought down the cost of health care.

However, there is a group in Massachusetts that wants to repeal the state's mandate requiring individuals to obtain health insurance and it has reportedly collected the signatures of approximately 40,000 residents who favor putting the repeal question on next November's ballot.

For the ballot initiative to be successful, the group will have to collect nearly 30,000 additional signatures before the filing deadline of Wednesday, Nov. 30. That won't be easy in the diminishing daylight hours of our eleventh month, and if bad weather comes along, it will be especially difficult.

Where is one of those late-fall blizzards when you need one?

James E. Milano Didn't Have to Be in Office to Be THE Leader of His City

Friday, November 11, 2011

Life had been good to Jim Milano, a former mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts, who died Nov. 2 at the age of 102, covered in honors, as the ancients would say. And Jim Milano had been good to life. He was a giver, not a taker.

Milano had been a lawyer for the old Boston and Maine Railroad and a long-time member of the Melrose Board of Aldermen when he was elected mayor in 1972. He went on to serve 10 consecutive, two-year terms as the city's chief executive. When he retired in 1992 at age 83, most Melrosians wished he wasn't leaving. If he wanted to, he could have won another term or two on autopilot. A few years later, they named the city's new senior citizens center in his honor, the Milano Center.

I remember once asking him, "Of all the things you've done and accomplished, what brought you the most satisfaction?" I thought he would say something about the new high school built early on his watch or the rejuvenation of Melrose's downtown, which he instigated.

"The war," he said. "Those years in the Pacific, serving with so many great men and women, that was the best thing I ever did."

Milano enlisted in the Army before Pearl Harbor and served until the end of the war, in 1945, as an artillery officer in such dangerous locales as Guadalcanal, Bougainville, the Fiji Islands and the Philippines. He was in Yokahama, Japan, on Aug. 14, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito signed the surrender documents on the deck of the nearby USS Missouri. He didn't get home once during World War II, five long, lonely and risky years. Yet 60 years later, his voice would choke as he spoke of the "privilege" of serving with his fellow Americans in the worst war ever known to mankind.

I don't think I will ever know a person of greater fundamental decency, empathy and honesty than Jim Milano. It's hard to be in the rough-and-tumble of public life for two years and not have someone suspect you of trying to deceive or mislead him, but Milano managed to be in public office for 30 years, 1962 to 1992, and never once have his integrity questioned or challenged.

"You were always honest with people," I once declared to him. In reply, he took no bow. Instead, he told of how he learned honesty from the example of his father, Joseph Milano, who had also been an alderman and had represented Melrose in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
One time, when he was a boy and his father was in the legislature, Jim Milano told me that a man stopped him on the street, gave him a carton of cigarettes and told him to give it to his father because his father had done him a favor.

"I remember thinking how nice it was of him to give my father a present and how happy my father would be when I got home with it," Milano said. "But my father wasn't happy at all. He was angry. He told me he could never take anything for doing his job, and ordered me to go to that man's home and give him back his cigarettes. It was almost supper time and I was hungry, but my father made me go right away. It was a mile walk, but of course I wouldn't say no to my father. It made a lasting impression."

After Jim Milano left office, he stayed active in the community and seldom left town. He went to Mass and Communion every day at St. Mary's Church, he faithfully attended the weekly meetings of the Melrose Rotary Club and pulled his weight in every Rotary activity and philanthropy, he tutored students at Melrose High who were struggling in reading and civics, and he socialized almost every night. A lifelong bachelor, Milano had friends of all ages and persuasions: true friends that he ate and drank and shared stories with, attended birthdays, christenings, wakes and funerals with.

You would see him around Melrose every day -- on the sidewalk outside Bread 'n Bits of Ireland, a Main Street coffee shop; waiting in line at the post office on Essex Street; or visiting a friend at the Melrose-Wakefield Hospital. And you'd see him tooling by in his big, old Chrysler, forever "Mr. Mayor" in the motorcade of life.

Only in recent years did you notice the dents that kept appearing, like shark bites, on that Chrysler and realize that age was finally catching up with him, slowing his reflexes a bit, but leaving his memory, a wonder of nature, intact. About a year ago, he had to forsake his long-time home, the interior of which was an immaculate snapshot of the Fifties, and move to Oosterman's Rest Home, less than half a mile away.

Like a bishop, Milano was waked before the altar at St. Mary's for six hours on Monday, Nov. 7. The next morning, they held a glorious requiem for him, with beautiful hymns from a full choir, ("Jesus, Remember Me, When You Come Into Your Kingdom"), an honor guard of Rotarians, and a church filled with people of many faiths and no faith at all. The burial, with full military honors, took place at Melrose's Wyoming Cemetery.

For a man who never lost an election, it was fitting that Jim Milano was brought to his rest on an election day, and that his eulogy was given by the current mayor, Rob Dolan, who idolized him while growing up.

Dolan recalled that, at the age of five or six, he went "to a political rally in late-October in the courtyard of the YMCA and holding Mayor Milano's black sign with orange letters. It was the first political sign I ever held in my life. And I liked it. It was a cold night, and others complained, but I liked it." So I guess you could say Mayor Dolan caught the political bug from Mayor Milano.
Dolan noted that, "Jim Milano was mayor from the year I was born to the year I graduated college. That is over half my life. There are tens of thousands of men and women that can say the same, living in cities across the country and across the world. If it truly takes a village to raise a child, then we were raised in Jim Milano's village. Jim Milano, together with our teachers, educated us. Jim Milano, together with our parents, taught us right from wrong. Jim Milano's character set the tone in the community, and his heart and his warmth were the foundations of our character. We are, in a very real way, Jim Milano's children. Although he had no children of his own, my generation of Melrosians are Jim Milano's children, and on behalf of them, I say thank you. We can never repay that debt."

Our country was built by givers, not takers.

Jim Milano gave and he gave and he gave, becoming ever larger in the eyes and hearts of his townsmen until he reached the status of living legend.

Mayor Dolan is right: Melrosians can never repay the debt they owe Jim Milano. But like his father, Jim Milano did not want or expect to be rewarded for doing his job.

Salem's New Court House Honors More Than a Politician's Long Hold on Office

Monday, November 7, 2011

Naming public buildings and facilities after elected officials has always made me a little queasy.

Popularity is not reason enough to carve a man's name in stone on a state or municipal office building, a school or a court house. (Such honors, it seems, almost always go to men.)

Priority in naming public properties should be given, instead, to those who have done something truly significant and courageous for the public good: enlisted men and women in the military who have fought or died heroically, practitioners of the healing arts, scientists and inventors who have advanced the quality of human life, philanthropists who have given away their fortunes, and leaders of social causes who have accepted little or no compensation.

I have a friend, for example, who has dedicated his life to building and directing a non-profit organization that protects vulnerable senior citizens from exploitation by lenders and family members when they take out reverse mortgages on their homes to pay for health care and other essentials. This person has accepted low pay in a low-profile organization, and has frequently gone without a paycheck to keep it afloat. His family has suffered because of his decision to serve others rather than to maximize his income, something he could have done as the holder of two advanced degrees. A school should named after him some day, but it will never happen.

The worst example of the abuse of public naming privileges can be found in West Virginia, where there are more than 50 government buildings, roads, highways, bridges, schools, clinics, hospitals, court houses, prisons, office complexes, research and scientific centers, and other facilities named after the late U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd.

"I lost no opportunity to promote funding for programs and projects of benefit to the people back home," Byrd once said in a fit of understatement.

This man's drive for self-aggrandizement was actually unlimited. His poor, unassuming, elderly spouse had to share in the spoils, too: there are no less than nine facilities in West Virginia named after the late Erma Ora Byrd!

The "Prince of Pork," as some taxpayer groups dubbed the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, never got over his childhood insecurities.

So when I saw the other day that they are getting ready to open the $109 million J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center in the historic city of Salem, Massachusetts, I reacted first with a groan.

Combining the operations of four state courts in one big, new building, the center is named in honor of the late Mike Ruane, who served as Salem's representative in the Massachusetts House for 30 straight years and died of cancer in 2006 at age 77, two years after retiring from politics. No one else in Salem ever held that position for three decades.

I did not personally know Rep. Ruane, but I saw him in action lots of times, and can attest that he was a force of nature, an old-school politician who instinctively understood political power and how to use it. And use it he did. With intelligence, passion and relentless determination.

"I had to win. I was a hard-nosed kid, and I took things seriously," he once said.

No one ever took Mike Ruane lightly and did not regret it.

Recounting some of his accomplishments when he died, the Salem News said, "Above all, Ruane was devoted to Salem, friends say, and fought for funding for almost anything to do with the city. He lobbied for Salem State College, Riley Plaza reconstruction, Salem Willows policing, the Veterans Memorial Bridge, and local schools, housing, road projects and the courts. He is credited with securing Cat Cove for Salem State's aquaculture program and earmarking $18 million in a seaport bond bill for a new Salem pier and other waterfront projects...Ruane was stubbornly and proudly parochial. He opposed naming the Salem-Beverly bridge -- he never called it the 'Beverly-Salem bridge' -- for a Beverly veteran, and insisted it be called 'Veterans Memorial Bridge.' "

That obituary accurately described Ruane as "an emotional public speaker with a fiery temper, which sometimes got the better of him." In 1979, it said, Ruane "got into a dispute with Marblehead officials over closing the Forest River tidal gates to allow summer swimming in a Salem neighborhood. It ended in a free-for-all at a State House hearing. Ruane's ear got bloodied and, when he tried to retaliate, he mistakenly punched his chief of staff, Sharon Armstrong, in the shoulder. After he apologized profusely, they laughed about it."

Ruane always brought the state bacon home to his town, he was a dervish of constituent services, and he never coasted. He never concealed a lack of action behind a regular barrage of press releases, as some have been known to do at the Massachusetts State House. Ruane, in fact, rarely issued a press release.

But those acts and attributes alone would not justify putting his name on that new judicial center, in my opinion. What could justify it, I have come to conclude, were three things:

One, Ruane's total satisfaction in, and total dedication to, his role as a representative of the people of Salem in the Massachusetts House;

Two, Ruane's refusal to exploit the political fundraising potential that came his way when he became vice chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, (the committee that reporters are obligated to put the word "powerful" before every time they type it); and

Three, Ruane's rather unique place in the history and culture of his community. (Will there ever be another one like him who so thoroughly embodies the characteristics and aspirations of the citizens of Salem and who plays such a prominent role in its politics for such a long period?)

By giving his heart and soul to the job he had for each of the 30 years he had it, and by never scheming to attain a higher, more powerful position, Ruane honored the ideal of public service for its own sake. By declining to build an intimidating campaign treasury when he could have done so with minimal effort, Ruane displayed a sense of restraint and humility that all office holders should emulate. And by immersing himself in the life of the community for so long and by leading countless political battles for his fellow citizens, he came to personify his era in Salem.

Those are reasons enough to look at the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center without groaning.

An Apparent Strong Point: Olver Didn't Come from a Typical Political Mold

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to be an effective member of the United States House of Representatives, but it might not hurt to be a chemist, if the example of John W. Olver can be taken to heart.

Before entering politics in his early-thirties, Olver earned his bachelor's degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, his master's at Tufts and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Harvard grads serve gratefully as janitors. He was teaching in college when he ran successfully for a Pioneer Valley seat in the Massachusetts House in 1968.

In 1973, Olver moved up to the Massachusetts Senate, and, in the spring of 1991, he won a special election to complete the term of the late Republican Congressman Silvio O. Conte.

I haven't checked the record, but I think it's safe to say that Olver, who will be retiring when his current term expires in January, 2013, is the only Chemistry Ph.D. in the Congress. Men and women with that skill set don't often go into politics, and, if they do, they don't make it their life's work, as Olver has.

He's a very interesting man: cerebral and rather shy in a field filled with extroverts who have scaled the heights mainly on gut instinct. He's quiet in a town, Washington, D.C., where brashness rules, yet he's had more than an average share of "ruling," much more.

It has been said to the point of cliche that, in our nation's capital, there are show horses and there are workhorses. Without question, Olver's a workhorse. He's always gotten the job done, always delivered the goods to his district, by virtue of his smart, steady, unremitting toil.

Until Republicans captured the House in the 2010 elections, Olver was chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation of the House Appropriations Committee, meaning he carried enormous weight for years on every federal dollar spent on highway, airport and rail projects. He remains the highest-ranking Democrat on the subcommittee and still has considerable influence in those areas.

Olver is a policy guy to his bones. He lives and breathes the big thoughts. As stated in his press packet, Olver's "top policy priorities include providing new transportation options and maintaining our transportation infrastructure, keeping affordable and energy-efficient housing available, protecting the environment, increasing worker rights and benefits, expanding access to affordable health care and improving education and job training."

Throughout his time in office, and stretching back to his days in the Massachusetts House and Senate, Olver has neatly balanced his policy concerns with the quotidian items that matter most to his constituents, many of whom hail from the small towns and hidden hamlets of the Berkshires.

To give you an idea of how closely Olver has identified himself with the average folks in his district, listen to how they're reacting "out west" to the news that he's retiring and that much of his old territory will be absorbed, as a result, into another Congressman's district due to the mandated shrinking and realignment of Massachusetts seats -- Jim McGovern's (Worcester), perhaps, or Richie Neal's (Springfield).

"It (realignment) would squash the voices of all of the smaller cities along the 1st Massachusetts's corridor," Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto told The Berkshire Eagle last week. "Good God, Worcester? What connection does Pittsfield, Massachusetts, have to Worcester?"

The Eagle also quoted North Adams Mayor Richard J. Alcombright as saying, "I don't want to use the word devastating, but it (realignment) just doesn't feel good. Throwing us in with a district that large and a constituency so tightly populated as in those metropolitan areas, personally, I think it's kind of scary what could end up happening to the representation of Berkshire County."

State Senator Benjamin B. Downing of Pittsfield had the final word in that article. "...the priorities of small towns and cities have been the priorities of John Olver for the past 20 years in Congress, and we're the better for it," he said.

It's a fortunate man that can end his career at age 75 and have the people who know him best truly wish he wasn't leaving and worry seriously about what will happen when he's gone.