Wisely Eschewing Specifics, Romney Banks on the Tendency to Try Something New

Friday, August 31, 2012

If the goal of Mitt Romney’s speech last night in Tampa was to humanize the former Massachusetts governor in the eyes of the undecided, it succeeded.

He radiated plain, old-fashioned Midwestern goodness when describing his upbringing and family.

“My mom and dad gave their kids the greatest gift of all, the gift of unconditional love,” Romney said.  “They cared deeply about who we would be and much less about what we would do.  Unconditional love is a gift that Ann and I have tried to pass on to our sons and now to our grandchildren.  All the laws and legislation in the world will never heal the world like the loving hearts and arms of loving mothers and fathers.”

When trying to be funny, he actually was.

In the early days of Bain Capital, Romney said, “I thought about asking my church’s pension fund to invest, but I didn’t.  I figured it was bad enough that I might lose my investor’s money, but I didn’t want to go to hell, too.”

When reviewing his record at Bain, he was the soul of humility.

“…we weren’t always successful at Bain, but no one ever is in the real world of business,” Romney said.  “That’s what the president does not seem to understand.  Business and growing jobs is about taking risk, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, but always striving.  It’s about dreams.  Usually it doesn’t work out exactly as you might have imagined.”

And when criticizing Obama, he was measured and restrained, reminding one of a kindly but clear-eyed boss chiding a talented underling who has blown a big assignment.

“I wish President Obama had succeeded,” Romney said, “because I want America to succeed.  But his promises gave way to disappointment and division.  This isn’t something we have to accept.”

(There, there, President Obama, you can run along now.)

And if the goal of Romney’s speech was to avoid saying anything too specific about his blueprint for an American turnaround, it definitely succeeded.

See if you can connect the dots between Romney’s five-step economic plan and the 12 million new jobs he’s promising to create: 

Step 1.  Make North America energy-independent by 2020 “by taking inventory of our oil, our coal, our gas, our nuclear and renewables.”

Step 2.  Give Americans “the skills they need for the jobs of today and the careers of tomorrow.” 

Step 3.  Make trade work for America by forging new trade agreements…“and when nations cheat in trade, there will be unmistakable consequences.”

Step 4.  “Assure every entrepreneur and every job creator that their investments in America will not vanish, as have those in Greece.”  He added, “We will cut the deficit and put America on track to a balanced budget.”

Step 5.  Champion small businesses.  “That means reducing taxes on business, not raising them,” he explained.  “It means simplifying and modernizing the regulations that hurt small businesses the most.  And it means we must rein in the skyrocketing cost of health care by repealing and replacing Obamacare.”

A few bits of confetti were still dropping from the ceiling of the Tampa Bay Times Forum when Obama’s campaign manager was telling Matt Murphy of the Boston-based State House News Service that Romney had “offered many personal attacks and gauzy platitudes, but no tangible ideas to move the country forward.”

Said Messina, “What he didn’t share were his actual proposals, which would take our country backwards: another $5 trillion in budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy, paid for by the middle class; transforming Medicare into a voucher program on the backs of seniors; an end to fuel efficiency standards and tax credits for renewable energy; deep cuts in student grants and loans; and the rollback of Wall Street reforms.”

It’s usually good to avoid “tangible ideas” as much as possible when campaigning for public office.

Someone wise in the ways of politics once criticized the failed campaign of Charlie Baker for Massachusetts Governor in 2010 by saying, “You don’t tell people how you’re going to govern before you govern.”  He regarded Baker’s announced intention to lay off 5,000 state employees as foolhardy, for example, because “right off the bat, you have every state employee and every relative of every state employee voting against you.”

So this is how the next ten weeks will play out in presidential politics.

Republicans will continue to hit Obama hard as a spectacular failure, the guy who spoke of “slowing the rise of the oceans,” but found himself unable to cope with rising unemployment.  And they will basically change the subject every time they’re asked how, exactly, Romney will produce all those jobs he’s boasting about.

Democrats will continue to slam Romney as a tool of the wealthy and an enemy of the middle class.  And they will seize every opportunity to stir up concerns about the implications of Romney’s policy choices.

When what you’ve been doing isn’t working so well, the human tendency is to try something new, which is why Republicans will want to talk mainly about Obama’s record and Democrats about how bad that new thing could actually be.

New Park on Greenway Evokes Thoughts of the Pride of Everett: George Keverian

Friday, August 24, 2012

In the beautiful, new Armenian Heritage Park on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston, a large, abstract, twelve-sided, geometric sculpture rests atop a raised reflecting pool of constantly moving water.

This represents something new and different in the public art of Boston. 

Twice a year, the artist who created the sculpture will take it apart and reassemble it in a different shape, an act meant to symbolize the changes that all immigrants, not just those from Armenia, undergo when they start their lives anew in America. 

The inscription below the sculpture declares its intent to “honor the one-and-a-half million victims of the Armenian genocide of 1915-23” and to stand “in remembrance of all genocides that have followed,” while celebrating “the diversity of the communities that have reformed in the safety of these shores.”

I wanted to attend the dedication of the Armenian Heritage Park, held on a rainy Tuesday morning, May 22, 2012, but at the last minute was unable to do so.  Not until today did I finally get a chance to spend some time there.

It wasn’t long before my thoughts turned to one of the most prominent and illustrious Armenian-Americans in the history of Massachusetts: George Keverian of Everett, who served in the legislature for 25 years and was the Speaker of the House from 1985 to 1991.

Like the sculpture in that park, there were many sides to George Keverian.

There was the side that was the classic politician: friendly, likeable, quick on his feet and funny.  Very funny.  When Keverian was before an audience with a microphone in his hand, there were times he seemed more like a stand-up comedian than a politician.  There were times he was better than a professional comic.

In 1988, he went on the presidential campaign trail in Iowa for his friend, Michael Dukakis, and became a veritable star of the national media the day he responded to a reporter seeking an insider’s view on the “real Dukakis.”

“What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen Mike Dukakis do?” the reporter asked.

“He’s doing it right now,” said Keverian

The devilish side of Keverian’s wit could also get him into trouble.  When the audience was roaring and he was having a really good time, he could veer into ribald territory.

There was that wicked moment when Keverian was doing his routine at the annual Friendly Sons of St. Patrick dinner in Everett.  A waitress clearing tables near the podium found herself momentarily stalled before him, carrying a big stack of plates and silverware.  Keverian gave her an impish stare and said, “Hi, Honey, how’s your sex life?”

Laughter exploded.  Then the waitress shot back, “Better than yours!”

There was the side of Keverian, the high school valedictorian/Harvard side, that was a very intellectual, that relished solving problems.  This was the Keverian his colleagues turned to in the Seventies when they had a task that would have shattered Solomon: redrawing the lines of every district to accommodate the voter-mandated shrinkage of the House from 240 to 160 members.  It required of Keverian months of mind-numbing deliberation, work and re-work; but the new legislative map he produced was pretty much the one that was finally adopted.  Most remarkably, he emerged from the grueling process with his popularity in the chamber intact. 

There was the side of him that was extraordinarily clever and driven.  This was Majority Leader Keverian, who toppled his former ally and mentor, Tom McGee, to become the House Speaker in January, 1985. 

And this was the Keverian who moved some unpalatable tax bills through the House during the recession of the late-1980s -- measures needed to stabilize the state’s finances and preserve a long list of essential programs.  Interviewed by the Boston Globe upon Keverian’s death in March, 2009, Phil Johnston, the former Dukakis cabinet secretary and chairman of the Democratic State Committee, recounted the time and the man as follows:

“As the state’s Secretary of Human Services during that period, I was involved in helping the Speaker to achieve what many thought impossible: to round up the votes in the House to enact three major tax increases in order to save Massachusetts from financial collapse.  I marveled at Speaker Keverian’s skill in persuading very reluctant legislators to vote his way; his powers of persuasion rested entirely on the trust, respect and affection the members had for him.  Keverian was a great human being; he was also an effective leader of the Massachusetts House.  Those of us who care about human services, education, and other basic services provided by the state will always owe him a great debt of gratitude.”

There was also the side of Keverian that was sad and periodically gnawed by regrets, a part of him that no accomplishment, no degree of popularity, and no outpouring of affection or affirmation could seemingly ameliorate.

Years ago, a former state representative told me of a somber encounter he had with Keverian in early-1984.  By then, Keverian was on the outs with Speaker McGee and was focused intently on building the coalition that would help him win the next Speaker election, due to take place the following January.  The rep, a gentleman who had served several terms in the House, went to Keverian’s office to tell him he would not be running for re-election in the fall, that he wanted to pursue a career in business, and would not therefore be around in January to vote for him for Speaker.

“I thought George would be upset with me.  I thought he might even try to lay a little guilt on me,” said the former rep.  “You know, ‘How could you leave at a time like this?’ That kind of thing.”

Instead, Keverian reacted calmly and with brotherly consideration for the junior colleague before him.

“That’s OK,” Keverian assured him.  “I’m glad for you.  You have options.  I’ve been here too long.  I don’t have options like that.  The only thing I can do now is run for Speaker.”

It was hard for me to believe that someone could look at the prospect of becoming Speaker of the House and not see it as a totally positive outcome of his life’s work.  So I asked the former rep, “Are you sure he just wasn’t being nice to you, that he just didn’t want you to feel bad?”

“No,” the former rep said.  “That was the real George I saw that day.  I think he had a lot of regrets about how the House was divided by the Speaker fight.  I think he thought a lot about how his life might have turned out if he’d made some different choices in his younger days.”

It’s an old story, no? 

Being top dog doesn’t automatically make you happier than anyone else in the pack.

Murphy's Down-Up-Down Career in House Is Headed to a Peaceful, Dignified Close

Friday, August 17, 2012

It’s not easy to walk away from the Massachusetts legislature, especially when you’ve been there for a long time and have tasted the fruits of leadership.

Watching Charley Murphy give his farewell speech on July 31, the last day of the 2011-12 legislative session, brought that fact home again.

I know. I Know.  Within days of his “farewell,” Murphy reconsidered his decision to resign from his House seat right after the session ended.  He is now going to stay on through the end of his term in December and work part-time as a legislator and more time as an executive at a health care information technology consulting firm in his district.

I’m not sure why he changed course, whether to continue receiving his legislative pay and/or not to leave his loyal Burlington-Bedford-Wilmington constituency voiceless in state government for the next several months.  Both are good reasons.

The emotional force of Murphy’s official farewell was only slightly diminished by that later reversal.

A Democrat and lifelong resident of Burlington, Murphy was first elected to the House at age 29 and subsequently re-elected seven times.  Two thousand and twelve is his sixteenth year in the legislature.

For most of that, Murphy was a back-bencher, but in February, 2009, he was placed by the then new Speaker, Robert DeLeo, into the front ranks with an appointment as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.  Suddenly, he was the state’s chief budget writer, as all appropriations must begin in the House, and one of the most powerful figures at the State House. 

Early in the 2011-12 session, Murphy was moved out of -- and seemingly up from --  Ways and Means to Majority Whip.  In actuality it was a demotion because the Speaker no longer wanted him running Ways and Means, and the Whip (regardless of the fearsome title) casts a smaller shadow than the chairman of Ways and Means.

On July 31, Murphy said, not surprisingly, that his two years at the helm of Ways and Means were the most satisfying of his legislative career.

It wasn’t all that long ago that many observers expected Murphy, a graduate of the University of Vermont law school and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, to succeed DeLeo as Speaker, as DeLeo, a former Ways and Means chairman, had succeeded Sal DiMasi, and as Tom Finneran had succeeded Speaker Charles Flaherty before that.

As Murphy was in the Marines, so he proved to be in Ways and Means: a natural commander. 

He spoke with clarity, candor and force.  He met with all comers, made decisions crisply, and did not shy from tough decisions.  He could laugh easily at himself.  And he could say no, an essential part of chairing Ways and Means, without rubbing anyone’s nose in the disappointment.

Then he got sideways with Speaker DeLeo. 

Reportedly, Murphy’s undoing was the persistent solicitation of votes in the election of the next Speaker, only a putative event at this point in time. 

Murphy denied that he was campaigning for Speaker behind the scenes.  But there was never any denying he was on the outs with DeLeo, especially after he resigned as Whip this past December on the eve of a caucus of House Democrats.  The Speaker was planning to announce Murphy’s removal as Whip at that caucus.

In his farewell, Murphy said something to the effect that anyone expecting a Marine-like ending to his political career would be disappointed, meaning there would be no bombshells as he moved to the exit. 

It was time to go like a philosopher, not a warrior. “As I depart, I wish you all nothing but success,” etc.

The scene was rendered poignant by the gentlemanly restraint Murphy brought to it.  Did he know that, by acting the statesman, he would help encourage speculation, natural at such a moment, as to to what kind of Speaker he might have been?

“The time is right for me to move on,” said Murphy.

You sensed that he really meant it.  He was at peace, leaving wholly at a time of his choosing.

As in other lines of work, it’s always best in politics to leave before other people make that decision for you. 

Won't Happen Tomorrow, but the Six-Figure Public Pension Is Headed for Extinction

Friday, August 10, 2012

The day will come when the Massachusetts legislature will have to put a cap on pensions paid to public employees, say $70,000 a year. 

This won’t happen soon, but a pension cap is an historic inevitability, here and across the nation, no matter how ferociously and long the public employee unions fight it.  Two factors will bring it about:

One, local and state budgets will not be able to sustain a slew of pensioners drawing six-figure annual payouts at a time when so many other priorities will be demanding taxpayer dollars.

Two, average folks will refuse to continue plush public pensions because they will have to work longer than most public employees, will enter retirement without any pensions themselves, and will increasingly resent having to provide certain public pensioners with a lifestyle they could never have themselves.

I’m not talking about the average man or woman who retires from some department of municipal or state government after 30 to 35 years on the job and receives only a modest pension. 

According to the Service Employees International Union, seven out of 10 public employees get less than $30,000 per year in retirement.  No one can live large on money that small.  God bless those folks.

No, my candidates for pension caps are those who make up the relatively small group collecting pensions in excess of $100,000 per year. 

In 2009, The Republican newspaper of Springfield reported that 106 state retires, including 60 professors, administrators and others from the University of Massachusetts, fell into this category. (Municipal retirees were not accounted for in this story,) 

That number has no doubt grown in the interim, but I’m sure it remains small in comparison to the total number of state retirees.

When the legislature of the future is enacting that cap on public pensions, maybe it will also decide to alter the state law that allows many police officers and firefighters to retire fairly easily on tax-free disability pensions because they have heart ailments automatically presumed to be work-related.

Section 94 of Chapter 32 of the Massachusetts General Laws states, in part:

“…any condition of impairment of health caused by hypertension or heart disease resulting in total or partial disability or death to a uniformed member of a paid fire department or permanent member of a police department, or of the police force of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or of the state police, (etc.)… shall, if he successfully passed a physical examination, which examination failed to reveal any evidence of such condition, be presumed to have been suffered in the line of duty, unless the contrary be shown by competent evidence.”

This issue came to the fore again recently when the first woman-commander of the Massachusetts State Police retired at age 58 and the Boston Globe reported that she had been granted a disability pension in the range of $163,000 a year because of a heart condition.

One hundred and sixty-three thousand dollars works out to $13,583 per month, $446.57 per day.

“Based on calculations reviewed by several public pension specialists,” the Globe said, this person “may save about $25,000 a year in lower federal tax bills by receiving a disability pension…”

This is legal, of course, and most of us would take advantage of such a benefit if we were in a position to do so.  But that doesn’t make it right or fair.

Would it really hurt any retiree making over $100,000 to pay federal income tax?

I don’t think I’d have a problem, though, with the newly retired State Police commander paying no taxes if she was getting $70,000 a year instead of $163,000.

And I don’t think I’d have a problem with any police officer or firefighter benefiting from the presumption that his heart disease was work-related if it could be documented that he had undergone an annual physical, exercised regularly, not smoked, maintained a proper weight, and followed medical guidelines if diagnosed with high cholesterol or elevated blood pressure.

As someone I know in the health insurance industry once aptly put it, “I’m willing to insure you for your bad luck but not for your bad behavior.”

A House Chairman and a Senate Leader Give a Lesson in Legislating with Section 42

Thursday, August 2, 2012

If voters in every corner of Massachusetts somehow came to study what Salem’s Representative John Keenan accomplished with Section 42 of the big energy bill enacted this week, they’d soon be asking, “Where can I get me a legislator like that?”

With a major assist from Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry, unquestionably the most beloved member of the legislature, Keenan pulled off a major coup for Salem in the final wording of this key section of An Act Relative to Competitively Priced Electricity in the Commonwealth.

First, the section guaranteed the flow of millions of extra state dollars to the Salem treasury each year through 2019 to make up for lost property tax revenue from the soon-to-be-closed Salem Harbor Station generating plant. 

Secondly, it committed the state to figuring out how to clean up the Salem Harbor Station, which has been burning coal to make electricity for over 50 years, and to devising a way to pay for that clean-up.  One recent study indicated that such a project could cost as much as $85 million, but some industry observers believe it can be cleaned and made safe for much less.

The Salem News called the Section 42 deal crafted by Keenan and blessed by Berry “unprecedented,” which it clearly was.   The newspaper quoted the state’s Energy and Environment Secretary, Rick Sullivan, as saying he was “not aware of this level of state involvement on the part of one (generating) facility” before this time.

Section 42 calls for Sullivan to lead an 11-member task force that must look at options for the “full financing” of the dismantling of the power station and the clean-up of the site.  It requires the task force to begin work by September 15 and to issue a final report by June, 2013.

“I’ve had a number of discussions with Rep. Keenan, Senator Berry and Mayor (Kimberly) Driscoll, and I’ve assured them that I will not only be the chair, but I will be a very active chair,” Sullivan promised the Salem News on July 31, the last day of the 2011-12 legislative session.  

Salem Harbor Station presented the City of Salem with two mammoth challenges: how to deal with the loss of a major property taxpayer, and how to redevelop a contaminated site in an acceptable manner that would yield optimal revenue to the city going forward.

Section 42 addresses both, first by directing an estimated $3 million in state proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative annually to the city, and secondly by serving the site up in an attractive condition to a New Jersey-based company, Footprint Power, which has an agreement to purchase it from the current owner, Dominion Energy of Virginia.

Footprint plans to build a new, cleaner-burning, natural gas-fired power plant on about a third of the site, and to free up the remainder for other harbor-related commercial and recreational uses.  So Salem will eventually have a new power plant there paying megabucks in property taxes, plus some altogether new revenue-producing enterprises that will open up harbor real estate now dominated by an old, coal-smoke-belching power plant.

How did Keenan pull it off?

When mulling that question, give a thought to what Napoleon once said -- “Fortune favors the brave” – and you’ll be on the right track.

Keenan’s Section 42 victory can be attributed to a combination of long-term planning, audacious positioning, and fortitude under fire.

Under long-term planning, consider that Keenan, a former Harvard football player and Salem city solicitor now serving his fourth term in the House, shrewdly worked to get himself appointed House chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, knowing  Salem Harbor Station was coming to the end of its useful life and would have to be retired and replaced during his watch.  As a lead voice on energy matters, Keenan knew his local energy agenda could not be ignored or discounted on Beacon Hill.

Under audacious positioning, consider how Keenan began his offensive with a Section 42 text that basically asked for the moon.  It would have compelled power distribution companies to purchase electricity for at least 15 years from gas-fired plants that had replaced coal-burning plants.  (The text never mentioned Salem Harbor Station by name, but there are only three coal-burning plants left in the state and Salem’s is the only one approaching closure.)  Section 42 in its original form would have given redevelopers like Footprint a legal financial advantage in the energy marketplace for years to come, a game-changer that respected industry leaders like the New England Power Generators Association (NEPGA) flatly said would “destroy” the Massachusetts marketplace.

Under fortitude under fire, consider Keenan’s poise and good cheer as everyone from NEPGA to the Attorney General to the Governor to the Senate President dismissed Section 42’s mandated power buys as bad policy and risky precedent.

When questioned by the media, Keenan freely admitted to using his powerful committee chairmanship to advance the interests of his constituents, and to readily crossing accepted policy bounds as he did so.  He even said he sought the energy chairmanship expressly to be in a position to help his hometown solve the looming crisis of a shuttered Salem Harbor Station. 

Nothing takes the wind out of journalistic sails like saying, “Yes, of course I did it.  So?”     

As the opposition to Section 42 spread and solidified, Keenan bided his time and put the finishing touches on his next move, the fallback he no doubt had in mind from the beginning:  a totally revised section that committed the state to supplementation of the city budget for the foreseeable future and to the leadership of the crucial site clean-up effort.

These twin commitments were offered up during the final hours of the session, when the pressure was mounting in the legislature to get the energy bill done, so they had the appearance of a reasonable compromise needed to put the bill over the top when in fact they were precedents, historical precedents.  Remember Secretary Sullivan’s words. 

Keenan’s new and improved Section 42 will not destroy the state’s energy marketplace, but it does kind of take your breath away.

Well – gasp – done – gasp, Mr. Chairman.