Speaker DeLeo's Commencement Address Offers a Window into His Mind and Heart

Friday, May 25, 2012

On Sunday, May 19, Robert A. DeLeo, the Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, gave the commencement address at the Salem State University graduation in Salem, MA.  Like the man who delivered it, the speech was modest in its stance and wise in its objectives.  Less than a thousand words, it consumed about six minutes of the graduation ceremonies. After reading it the other day, I found myself wondering about the thought processes that determined its contents.  The thoughts I had then about the Speaker’s possible thoughts as he was writing the speech can be found in italics below.  This is strictly speculation on my part.  Nothing in italics comes from the Speaker or anyone on his staff.  I have not discussed this subject with them.  The speech itself follows after the italics, so you’ll be able to make your own judgments.  

I want to keep it short.  No one wants to hear a long, windy speech from some guy they don’t know, even if the president of the school has built the guy up as some sort of big shot, somebody with juice.  They’re here to get their diplomas, take each other’s pictures with their cell phones, and get home to the graduation parties, kick back and have some laughs.  Hell, they earned it.   

It won’t hurt that Bobby Fennell’s daughter will be graduating, and that John Keenan will be there, too.  I’ll have to be sure to have my picture taken with them and their families afterwards.  Don’t want them to think I take them for granted.

Normally, I like to take it easy on Sundays, but I’m glad they asked me to be their commencement speaker.  I really am. These are my kind of people at Salem State: kids from hardworking families, families without a lot of dough, many of them immigrants and first generation.   A lot of these kids, like me, are the first ones in their families to go to college.  Never had any special advantages. They’ve got grit. 

I want to keep it simple.  No platitudes.  No bullshit.  No pompous advice.  I’m not a philosopher.  I’m no psychologist either, no Dr. Phil.  I don’t hold the key to the meaning of life.  If I took the highfalutin approach, like many commencement speakers do -- the guy who’s trying too hard to Explain It All to You, while at the same time trying to impress you with his vocabulary and wit -- they’d spot me for a phony a mile away.  Young people hate phonies, and they especially hate phony politicians.  Hell, I hate phony politicians.   I also can’t stand ass-kissers, so I’m not going to suck up to these kids and their parents. I won’t try to be cool.  That means no jokes.   Unless you’re somebody like George Keverian or Charlie Flaherty or Billy Bulger, jokes are tricky.  Too easy to fall on your face.  Anyway, this is a serious occasion.  I don’t want anybody to think I’m not taking it seriously, because I am.  These kids, their parents, they deserve a nice, dignified graduation. They deserve a commencement speech that’s on the level. I’m not going to disappoint them.  Or waste their time.

“I want to spend a moment to reflect on the importance of this day.  To receive a degree, in many cases in the face of obstacles and difficulties, is an extraordinary achievement.  It is something of lasting value that no one can take away from you.  You studied.  You sometimes struggled.  You had to balance a full work schedule with a full academic schedule.  You focused on education and persevered.  Congratulations!  Many of you have, like me, done something that you are the first in your family to do.  This is an achievement, one which will serve as the foundation for the rest of your life.

“I speak about myself only with reluctance.  This is, after all, your day.  But just four decades ago, I was you, now I’m just a few chapters ahead in the book of life.  I will speak briefly on a few memories and things I have learned over the years for you to consider.  Maybe not today, but someday.

“As you heard, I represent Winthrop and part of the City of Revere.  Both North Shore communities.  I spent part of my childhood in East Boston until we moved to Winthrop.  I lived in a three-family home with my aunts on the second and third floor and my grandmother in a house behind ours.  I like to call it the Italian version of the Kennedy compound.  Looking out and seeing you in your caps and gowns and your families watching you with pride, I can’t help but be reminded of the day I graduated from Northeastern.  My whole family was there to celebrate.  My older sister Carol was there and she is here today as well.  My father, a hardworking maître d’ and restaurant manager, knew what graduation represented.  My mother, who had done so much to get me there, cheered loudly.  They had the same aspirations for me that your families have for you.  Neither one was a college graduate.  In fact, because of the Depression, work took precedence over high school.  But they understood the importance of education.  They knew that in America, education represented the path up, not a hand-out.  They demanded I focus on my schoolwork and pushed me to succeed.  They did not accept ‘no’ for an answer.

“The path my parents laid out was simple, with two basic components.  Education and hard work.  There are no short cuts.  There are no easy ways out.  I commuted to Northeastern and went to Suffolk Law School at night while working my way through both institutions.  I was proud to base my law practice in Revere and begin my life in politics right in my hometown of Winthrop.  Aided by this tremendous work ethic instilled by my parents, when I first ran for public office, I knocked on each and every door in my district.

“All too often in today’s world, we focus on the sizzle, the flash.  The victories and achievements I have experienced have all been products of the quiet moments – the times I have sat at my desk with a checklist running the length of two legal-sized pages, the moments I have spent personally writing correspondence, the hours I have spent on the phone, the kindness and respect I’ve tried to show to all, no matter their station in life.

“Such instances do not lend themselves to bold headlines but these are the building blocks that form a successful life.

“When I get a chance to speak with young people, I always talk about the importance of pushing through the routine.  Don’t just punch the clock.  Work through the scheduled conclusion of the work day.  Take advantage of opportunities.  If you have a chance to further your learning through classes and lectures, do it.  Push yourself outside of your comfort zone.  Grow.

“Every day make an effort to take a step forward.

“Even as the world goes through rapid change, you can rely on your own work ethic and education.  These are the qualities that will enable you to adjust and grow in a changing environment.

“I realize as well, that for many of you, other priorities may take precedence now, such as establishing yourselves professionally and beginning to pay off some of your student loans.  Understanding the financial realities you face, I want you to know that even now you can make a difference.

“For me, that meant leveraging my work ethic and education into other areas of life.  I want you to know that mentoring, participating in non-profit groups, even coaching are all meaningful ways in which a young person can impact the broader community; as a Little League coach, I tried to impart lifelong lessons on my team, the value of hard work, persistence and teamwork.

“No matter how local or how particular, by doing these things, you are touching other people in a positive way, and there is nothing more important that a person can do.

“Be positive.  You live in Massachusetts, the greatest state of the greatest country in the world.  On a practical level, as public officials, we are working relentlessly to bring jobs and growth to Massachusetts.  More broadly, your time at Salem State University has given you the skills to succeed in a competitive society.  Remember, each and every one of you is ready.

“You graduate at a time when your skills are needed and your talents are required, and your energy is necessary.  All your efforts, both large and small, not only make a difference but they are essential.

“I again wish you the heartiest of congratulations and the best of luck. 

“Thank you.” 

NOTE: The Bobby Fennell and John Keenan mentioned in the third paragraph of this post are State Representatives Robert Fennell of Lynn and John Keenan of Salem

Hall of Fame Astronaut Prompts Inspiring Moment in Senate Debate on Health Care

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Dos Equis beer folks have The Most Interesting Man in the World as their pitchman: “He runs against the bulls, not with them.”  Of course, they had to invent him.

Sonia Chang-Diaz, a two-term member of the Massachusetts Senate, has The Most Interesting Dad in the World.  I invented the title but the man is 100% real.

Meet Franklin Chang-Diaz, Ph.D., a distinguished scientist and researcher, an astronaut who flew frequently on the space shuttle, a newly inducted member of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, and incandescent hero to millions of Latin Americans.

Born 62 years ago in San Jose, Costa Rica, Mr. Chang-Diaz earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Connecticut in 1969 and a doctorate in applied plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1977.  Before retiring from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2005, he was one of the most active members of the astronaut corps, having flown on seven space shuttle flights over a 16-year period and logged over 1,600 hours in space.

In 1986, Mr. Chang-Diaz received the Liberty Medal from President Ronald Reagan at the Statue of Liberty Centennial in New York City, and in 1987 the Medal of Excellence from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.  He is considered an instrumental figure in implementing closer ties between the U.S. astronaut corps and the world scientific community.  In 1987, he started the Astronaut Science Colloquium Program and later helped to establish the Astronaut Science Support Group, which he directed until January 1989.

When inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on Saturday, May 5, Mr. Chang-Diaz joined the company of such famous men and woman as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, Sally Ride and Alan Shepard.   

Senator Chang-Diaz, who occupies the Second Suffolk District seat in Boston once held by Diane Wilkerson, is one of two daughters Franklin Chang-Diaz had by his first wife, Candace Buker Chang, a social worker. 

The first Hispanic or Latina woman to be elected to the Massachusetts Senate, Ms. Chang-Diaz grew up in Newton and now lives in Jamaica Plain.  She is a former teacher in the Lynn and Boston public schools who, at 34 years of age, is already a chair of a major legislative committee, Education, and has a bright future in politics.

On Tuesday of this week, while debating the Senate’s proposed health care payment reform and cost control bill, Senator Chang-Diaz made a strong speech in favor of an amendment that would have required the state to study the feasibility of implementing a single-payer health care system, like Canada’s, in Massachusetts.  She talked of having been at Cape Canaveral when her father entered the U.S.  Astronaut Hall of Fame, of the pride she naturally felt for her father and his accomplishments, and also of her pride in being an American, and of her confidence in our nation’s ability to reform and improve its incredibly complex and difficult-to-manage health care system. 

Likening the complexity of that system to that of building, launching and running the space shuttle, Senator Chang-Diaz essentially said, If we can do the space shuttle, we can do single-payer health care  -- and not diminish the great aspects of health care in the U.S. but actually improve the system and make it more affordable and equitable.

Ever since the U.S. sent astronauts to the moon in 1969, we’ve all heard statements like, If we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we cure cancer, eliminate pollution, make college affordable, stop war, etc., etc.?  It’s tempting, therefore, to dismiss Senator Chang-Diaz’s comment about single-payer health care as a cliché.

Even if it is a cliché, it doesn’t make it false:  We can solve the horrendous costly health care mess we’re in today, not just in Massachusetts but across the U.S.A.  Single-payer may not be the answer.  Most probably it is not the answer for us now.  But there is an answer to be found. 

Senator Chang-Diaz makes a daunting situation a little better by reminding us that optimism, not defeatism, is the more justifiable option for Americans. 

Unions Dominate Political Action Committee Spending, and Probably Will for Years

Friday, May 11, 2012

Business executives write a lot of checks every year to elected officials and candidates for public office. And union members are no slouches in that department either.

Consider the records compiled by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, which show that political action committees with union affiliations occupy 16 spots on the list of 20 PACs that gave the most to candidates for state and county offices in Massachusetts in 2010.

The Retired Public Employees PAC topped the list with $66,000, followed by the 1199 SEIU MA PAC (Service Employees International Union) with $61,500, and the Professional Firefighters of MA People’s Committee with $55,825.

The only non-union PACs in the Top 20 list are the Committee for a Democratic House, the Beer Distributors, the MA Association of Realtors, and Citizens for Limited Taxation.  See complete list at bottom of this post.

Unions have seen better days here and across the nation: today, slightly less than 16% of all employed persons in Massachusetts are in unions.

Unions still have a lot of clout, however, because they have been entrenched in Massachusetts politics for so long and because union leaders and members are, by nature, savvy political operators.  Also, the Democratic Party, traditionally the home of the working man and woman, has a lock on both branches of the legislature.

Over the last several years, as Massachusetts struggled to emerge from the Great Recession, the leaders of both the House and Senate have emphasized on different occasions, correctly, that unions helped to build the middle class in this country and that the middle class cannot be maintained if the unions are diminished.

Because Massachusetts is doing better economically than a lot of states right now, you can make a good argument that unions have been a component of the overall strength that has made it possible for Massachusetts to weather the downturn and mount an economic comeback.  Certainly, Steve Tolman, the former state senator who heads the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, would say that.

That will not mean, though, that unions in Massachusetts won’t come under tremendous pressure over the next 10 to 20 years as the state fights to hold its place in the global economy and as non-unionized employees in the private sector increasingly compare their benefits to those of unionized public employees and grumble at what they see.

A situation like that probably guarantees that Massachusetts unions will never be outpaced when playing the PAC version of the Dale Carnegie game...

Top 20 PACs by Total Contributions to State and County Candidates, 2010

1.       Retired Public Employees, $66,000
2.       1199 SEIU MA, $61,500
3.       Professional Firefighters of MA People’s Committee, $55,825
4.       Committee for a Democratic House, $40,500
5.       American Federation of Teachers MA, $40,000
6.       Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 17, $33,975
7.       Beer Distributors, $33,900
8.       MA Association of Realtors – MA RPAC, $33,100
9.       Plumbers Union Local #12, $31,400
10.   Ironworkers Union Local 7, $29,510
11.   Pipefitters Local 537, $28,250
12.   Painters District Council #35, $27,075
13.   Boston Carmen’s Unio, $26,550
14.   MA Correction Officers Federation Union, $26,000
15.   State Police Association of Massachusetts, $25,750
16.   MA Laborers District Council, $24,225
17.   Citizens for LTM Taxation’s 2.5 PAC, $22,700
18.   Massachusetts Brick Layers People’s Committee, $22,550
19.   Massachusetts Nurses, $22,200
20.   International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 2222, $21,200

For the complete report on PAC spending, “PACs Break Spending and Contribution Records During the 2009-10 Election Cycle (9-23-11),” go to the web site of the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance: www.mass.gov/ocpf


Watching Edwards's Trial, Kerry Must Be Thinking, 'What the Hell Was I Thinking?'

Monday, May 7, 2012

John Kerry and John Edwards had close to zero chemistry in 2004 when they ran for president and vice president.

In each other’s presence, their body language was stilted, their banter forced.   Their obligatory expressions of mutual admiration on the stump were as convincing as the performance of a junior high kid forced to perform in a class play. 

Once that mismatch became apparent, like about a week after the Democratic convention, their handlers kept them apart on the campaign trail as much as feasible.

“To the end of their disappointing run,” the New York Times recalled, “the two men were unable to agree on the script, whether for slogans or more substantive matters.  And like so many political marriages, the one between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards – Senate colleagues who became rivals then running mates but never really friends – ended in recrimination and regrets.”  (“For Edwards, a Marriage Made in Politics That Never Quite Fit,” 11/21/2007.)

If the naturally reserved Ivy Leaguer from Massachusetts failed to find a soul mate in the ebullient malpractice lawyer from North Carolina, what did he find?  I wonder.

I wonder, for instance, if John Kerry ever saw the hypocritical, raging narcissist within John Edwards.

If that sounds extreme, you haven’t been following the accounts out of North Carolina, where Edwards is on trial in federal court, charged with six felonies related to his alleged misuse of campaign funds to care for his mistress, Rielle Hunter, and the out-of-wedlock child he fathered by her.   

New York's Racetrack Casino Experience Will Likely Impact Massachusetts Gaming Commission

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

I’d be surprised if Steve Crosby, the chair of the new Massachusetts Gaming Commission, hasn’t read and digested by now the article in yesterday’s New York Times linking the establishment of a casino at a famous New York City racetrack to a scary increase in fatal injuries to horses, (“Big Purses, Sore Horses, and Death/ Casino Cash Helps Push Cheap Racers to the Limit,” 4/30/12).
Since a casino opened at the Aqueduct Racetrack in the borough of Queens in late-2011, the “age-old economic equations of the horse-racing game” have been “recalibrated,” the Times found, contributing to a 100% increase  -- 15 to 30 deaths -- in the number of horses euthanized after injuries in races.
Casinos like the one at Aqueduct, the Times asserted, have sweetened the purses to make races more exciting and alluring to the new gambling crowd, which created an incentive for horse owners and trainers to put unfit horses into contests where they should not be and were more likely to break down.
“The casinos’ impact is greatest at the sport’s low end, the so-called claiming races, a world away from the bluegrass pageantry of Saturday’s (5/5/12) Kentucky Derby,” the Times said.