So This Is Why Elizabeth Warren Will Be a Candidate for President in 2016

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The other day, a friend of mine told me that Elizabeth Warren would be the Democrat Party nominee for President of the United States in 2016 and that she would have an excellent chance of winning against the Republican nominee, no matter who it is.

I said that I found her to be an implausible nominee because of her background as an academic at an elite eastern university (Harvard) and her total lack of experience in foreign policy and in matters of national security.

 “The world is a very dangerous place,” I said. “The U.S. has enemies working night and day planning attacks on us.  They want to inflict casualties in ways that would make 9/11 look mild.  This is going to be a national security election.  Warren has zero experience in that area, zero credibility as someone who could take on our enemies.”

I added, “She’s all but sworn an oath not to run.  She has repeatedly denied any interest in running next year.  How’s she going to get past those denials?”

My friend, per usual, was not impressed by my stab at punditry.

“What’s national security experience got to do with it?” he asked. “Obama had none and he got elected easily against a guy who was a war hero.  That will not disqualify Warren.  As for her repeatedly denying she will run, there’s a long history of people saying they wouldn’t be a candidate and then became candidates when circumstances supposedly changed or their thinking 'evolved.'  There are lots  ways she could explain her change of heart.  She explains it once, with conviction, and moves on quicker than Belichick to Cincinnati.”

He added, “Warren’s candidacy against Hillary would get a tremendous boost from all the Dems on the left who are disenchanted with her and see her and Bill as extensions of Wall Street.  Warren’s base in the party is highly motivated.  They’re begging her to run.  If she gives even a hint she’s thinking of doing it, they’ll go wild.  Warren could catch a tremendous wave.  She could lock up the nomination fairly early, giving her lots of time to raise money for the final.”

I am so suggestible that only my wife hiding the credit cards prevents me from buying every device sold for $19.95 on an infomercial. I was now captured by my friend’s logic. 
I visualized the women Scott Brown loved to address as “Professor” raising her right hand on Jan. 20, 2017, at the Capitol, our first “Madame President.” 

“OK,” I said.  “Tell me more.”

He said, “In politics, as in life, it’s all about timing.  You have a moment and you have to grab it.  Obama is the best example in recent times.  Less than two years in the Senate, almost a complete unknown when he started -- a blank slate really -- and he becomes this unstoppable candidate.  It was his time, his moment in history.  The stars were all lined up for Obama.  He obviously knew his chance might never come again, so he went for it. Chris Christie is the worst example recently, but you have to think about Mario Cuomo, too.  Christie had his moment back in 2011 when all the attention was on him.  There was this buzz about him.  He should have run because, you know what, I think he could have beat Romney for the nomination.  And I think he could have run a better campaign than Romney did in the final.  He would have been better at punching Obama in the nose.  He would have connected better with people than Mr. Aloof, Obama.  Now the excitement about Christie has faded.  People aren’t really interested in him anymore. His moment has passed.  I’m sure he’s kicking himself.”

I asked, “So what would you say to Elizabeth Warren if you bumped into her tomorrow at Logan?”

He said, “This is your moment. Better go for it.”

In 10th grade English, I had a nun, a Sister of St. Joseph, who loved Shakespeare.  She had us memorize patches of dialogue from his most famous plays.  I still remember the following from “Julius Caesar,” so I recited it to my friend, trying to sound intelligent and hoping to recover a bit from his demolition of my Warren-is-implausible argument.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads onto victory.  Omitted, all the voyages of their life are bound in shallows and miseries.”

My friend said, “Shallows and miseries, yeah.  Mario Cuomo no doubt became an expert on that. ” 







Reflection on Famine Memorial: Where Was Hibernian Caucus When We Needed It?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Yesterday afternoon, before the Massachusetts Senate got down to business, which consisted of a long discussion and votes on multiple proposed amendments to a supplemental budget bill, the Boston Police Gaelic Column of Pipes and Drums played some music in the Senate chamber in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday that now requires a least a week to accommodate all of the celebrating that folks want to indulge in this time of year.

In welcoming the Gaelic Column, Senator Michael Rush of West Roxbury said, “The enormous contributions the Irish have made in our culture, our history and our state are profound.”
Senator Rush also introduced Brendan O’Caollai, Consul General of Ireland in Boston, calling him a “very special guest, a guest of the Senate President and those who have identified as the Hibernian Caucus.”

I had never before heard the many members of the legislature who have Irish roots described as the “Hibernian caucus.”  It’s kind of a nice formulation, although it appears to be strictly an honorary or unofficial name. There is no door or letterhead at the State House emblazoned with those words.
If the members of this caucus actually convened in a hearing room and tried to achieve a distinct goal, I am fairly certain their efforts would quickly devolve into stalemate.  We Irish are rightly known for argumentative tendencies and monumental stubbornness.

Speaking of monuments, I wish the Hibernian Caucus could do something about that one at the corner of School and Washington Streets, the Irish Famine Memorial. 
This is one of the best locations in Boston for a monument, and the event it commemorates, perhaps the greatest catastrophe of the 19th Century, is worthy of remembrance and reflection for all time, especially in a city that absorbed tens of thousands of refugees from the famine.  The eight bronze plaques at the site, which bear texts explaining the famine, the million deaths it caused, the mass exodus it set off, etc., could not be more appropriate or helpful.  

The memorial goes awry, however, in its main sculptures, two groupings of three persons each, which are mounted on wide, cylindrical, rock pedestals. The problem is a lack of art.

On one pedestal, the figures we see are emaciated, rags barely covering their bodies.  A man sits on the ground, his torso curled painfully forward.  A kneeling girl stares down at an empty basket and a kneeling woman looks up at the sky; her lips are parted, as if she’s crying, “Why us, Lord?”  Her left arm is raised and the long, thin fingers of her left hand are raised in supplication to the heavens. The whole thing shouts, VICTIMS!     
On the other pedestal, several feet away, there is a young handsome man, his young handsome wife and their handsome little boy.  They have some meat on their bones and are wearing pretty good clothes.  They are striding forward confidently, with the woman glancing sideways at the trio in torment.  She has a stern but somewhat oblivious expression.  Why didn't they just slap SURVIVORS! on this thing?

The look and feel of an old Saturday Evening Post cover is not the only regrettable aspect of this memorial -- or even the most regrettable.  Worse is the missed opportunity to make a larger point, a universal point. 

The potato famine was one of the first recorded instances of a government (the British in this case) using an existing famine, or of a government deliberately bringing about a famine (as Stalin did in Ukraine), to effect a political purpose.  In the Ireland of the 1840s, the purpose was to drive off the poor tenant farmers so that the British owners could create large, remunerative estates on the rich, newly vacant land.
I am not an art expert, nor am I a sculptor.  I can’t tell you how the creators could have designed the memorial in ways that would have suggested the complicity of the powerful in the extinction of the weak or have made one contemplate the serious defects of human nature that play out when food is used as a weapon of policy or war.

But if a Bostonian or a visitor to the city wants to experience the power of art in a public place to startle us with a new insight into an old truth or to send us on a deep journey into our own souls, all he or she has to do is take a short walk from the Irish Famine Memorial to the New England Holocaust Memorial, near Faneuil Hall, or to the Armenian Heritage Park on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

For a Public Office Holder, Nothing Can Spell Trouble Like Wanting to Help a Relative

Friday, March 13, 2015

There are many ways to get in trouble when you hold a public office or a place on the public payroll.  Not too surprisingly, that trouble often begins with a relative or friend.

In public life, friends can get you into trouble faster and worse than your enemies can.  The same goes for relatives.  It’s always been that way.
The records of the Massachusetts Ethics Commission are rife with accounts of appointed and elected officials who should have resisted the normal human impulse to help someone they knew or were related to.

As cautionary tales, consider the fairly recent cases of (a) Henry Richenburg, a member of the Salisbury Board of Selectmen, (b) Stephen Hyde, Sr., the former chief of the Southampton Fire Department, and (c) Elizabeth Gorski, a member of the Groveland Board of Selectmen.  The Ethics Commission hit them with fines of $2,500, $7,500 and $2,500, respectively, for violating the state’s conflict of interest law, Chapter 268A of the Massachusetts General Laws. 
Here are some of the details of each case, as excerpted from separate press releases issued by the Ethics Commission on March 3, and on Dec. 17 and Dec. 11, 2014:

Henry Richenburg
“…in March 2013, Richenburg’s son-in-law filed an application for a general license with the BOS (Board of Selectmen) to operate a poultry business to raise and sell poultry and eggs.  The business was located both adjacent to, and on a portion of, Richenburg’s property.  The property adjacent to Richenburg’s property is owned by Richenburg’s daughter and son-in-law…the BOS, on June 10, 2013, unanimously voted to approve the license application.  Richenburg participated as a Selectman in the decisions to table the application and then to approve the application.  Richenburg also signed the license along with the other BOS members…at the time he participated in these matters, Richenburg knew that both he and his daughter, a member of his immediate family, had a financial interest in the proposed poultry business.  His daughter had a financial interest because she was directly involved in the poultry business and owned property on which the poultry business was to operate; Richenburg had a financial interest because he was an abutter to the business and a portion of his property was being used to operate the business.”

Stephen Hyde, Sr.
“…Hyde’s son was an SFD (Southampton Fire Department) firefighter and emergency medical technician in 2011.  As the Chief, Hyde was the only full-time employee of the SFD.  The other employees, including Hyde’s son, were hourly employees who responded to fire and ambulance calls or provided station coverage duty.  Firefighters would fill out a ‘call sheet’ in order to be paid for the hours they worked.  The call sheets were then placed in a locked box to which only Hyde had access, and Hyde would submit them to the Town every two weeks for payment.  The Commission found that in 2011, Hyde used his position as chief to check off or add his son’s name on as many as 47 call sheets for days and times when his son had not responded to ambulance or fire calls, or performed station coverage duties.  The Decision states that Hyde presented false payroll records to the Town for his son to be paid at least $200 for ambulance and fire calls to which his son did not respond, and approximately $6,172 for 336 hours of daytime station coverage that his son did not perform.  Hyde testified that the payments he caused to be made by the Town to his son were for repair and maintenance work that his son performed on SFD vehicles and equipment, primarily at Hyde’s garage at his home.  His son testified to having performed roughly 193 hours of repair and maintenance work, although neither he nor Hyde documented any of the work that Hyde’s son performed for the SFD.  In 2011, based on altered payroll records, Hyde’s son received at least 16 payments of substantial value, which is $50 or more.”

Elizabeth Gorski
“…the Commission found that Gorski committed a single violation of section 23(b)(2)(ii) of the conflict of interest law by, on one occasion, threatening negative employment action against the Chief and Deputy Chief of Police, but that the Commission’s Enforcement Division failed to prove any of its other claims against Gorski…the Commission found that Gorski improperly used her position as a Selectman in an attempt to secure her son’s return to active duty (as a Groveland police officer) when she spoke with Deputy Chief Jeffrey Gillen during a chance meeting in a Georgetown restaurant on January 26, 2012.  During that conversation, Gorski discussed her son’s leave and noted that the Deputy Chief and Chief’s employment contracts were coming up for renewal.  Although Gorski previously had abstained in her position as Selectman from acting on police matters, during this encounter, she threatened to take negative action with regard to their contracts.  The Commission found that Gorski violated section 23(b)(2)(ii) by attempting to use her position as a Selectman to threaten the Deputy Chief and Chief’s contract renewals in connection with her expressed desire to see her son reinstated as a police officer.”

If I were in a position to give advice to every newly elected or newly appointed public office holder, this is what I’d say: regard the impulse to help a friend or relative in need, or a request for a special favor from a friend or relative, as you would a mysterious package dropped with a thud on your doorstep at 2:00 a.m.
For more information on the Ethics Commission, go to:



You Know Budget Season's Started When the Storm of Prepared Statements Erupts

Friday, March 6, 2015

With all the wild shots going off this week, the new budget season in Massachusetts sometimes felt more like hunting season.

Members of the opposing party, advocates for various causes, and all-purpose critics were firing away at Charlie Baker Wednesday, just minutes after he unveiled his budget plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Matt Fenlon, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said, “The key to a budget for Massachusetts voters is how painful cuts made by Republican Gov. Baker will be balanced with maintaining needed services.  Because of key investments made over the past eight years by Gov. Deval Patrick and the Democratic legislature, Massachusetts is No. 1 in education, clean energy and veterans services…Now it’s up to Gov. Baker to work with the Democratic legislature and deliver us a budget that allows Massachusetts to stay a national leader.”

The Massachusetts Teachers Association found the governor’s budget “troubling for its lack of vision and absence of meaningful investments in education and other vital community services.”  
The budget, said the MTA, “is ultimately a proposal that shortchanges students, families and our cities and towns by including cuts to kindergarten expansion programs and providing inadequate funding for our public schools, colleges and universities.”

A group called Raise Up Massachusetts asserted that the governor’s budget “fails to make needed investments” in priorities like “good public schools,” “affordable higher education” and “a transportation system that lets people get to work and customers get to businesses.”
Noah Berger, once a top aide in the Massachusetts Senate and now president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said, “Governor Baker has wisely identified investing in education, transportation and local communities as budget priorities to help working families and strengthen our economy.  This budget does not, however, make significant new investments in those areas.”

Two big reasons for putting out an immediate statement on a  governor’s budget are to signal one’s displeasure to the members of the House and Senate, who will soon be coming up with their own versions of a budget, and to lay the groundwork for a mini-campaign in the legislature aimed at shaping the budget more to one’s liking.
For the parties who pretty much like the governor’s budget as is and who worry about the factors pushing state spending ever higher, budget-roll-out day is also a time to reach out and try to influence a legislator.  They become dervishes of prepared statements as fast as any naysayer.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones noted that “Governor Baker inherited a sizable deficit from the previous administration, but he has risen to the challenge by forging ahead with a creative budget plan and accompanying legislation that seeks to address a myriad of key issues, including ongoing service problems at the MBTA, slowing the growth of Medicaid, and providing much-needed relief to working families by doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit over a three-year period.”
Jones said, “I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House Caucus to ensure that Governor’s Baker’s initiatives are fairly considered as components of the House budget in the weeks and months ahead.”

A group called Building on What Works said it wanted to applaud the governor’s “targeted approach to improve education in Massachusetts through the Partnership Schools Network Fund included in the Administration’s FY 2016 budget request.”
Health Care For All’s executive director, Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, said her group “welcomes” the governor’s budget proposal because it “maintains the Commonwealth’s long-standing commitment to providing access to affordable health care.”  She was “particularly pleased that the budget extends this year’s decision to restore MassHealth (Medicaid) coverage for full dentures.” 

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance said, “Governor Baker’s FY ’16 budget represents a welcome and continued break from our state’s recent economic policies, particularly since it does not seek to raise taxes.”
I always nod admiringly at statements that are careful not to rough up the governor, because where does that get you, while inviting the legislature to correct the governor.  Take the words of Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, for example: 

“Although we recognize the financial constraints facing the Governor and the very difficult choices reflected in this budget proposal, we are deeply disappointed with the funding allocated to the Judicial Branch…We look forward to working collaboratively with the Governor and the Legislature to ensure that the Judiciary is funded at a level that ensures that justice is effectively delivered, and that basic criminal justice and public safety needs are met.”
Suffolk County Sheriff Steven W. Thompkins called Baker’s new budget “an encouraging start” and, in the next sentence, expressed concern “for programs that target the root causes of incarceration” because he thinks the governor has shortchanged those programs.

As the budget process continues, Thompkins said, he is looking forward “to working with the Suffolk County delegation in the Legislature to make sure that the corrections community has a voice in this important discussion about Massachusetts priorities.”
In the sheriff’s world, folks don’t scream bloody murder about budget items, they just hold a lot of important discussions. 

The best immediate statement on the Baker budget, in my opinion, came from Senate President Stan Rosenberg.  No coincidence, it was also the shortest statement I saw.
“The Senate is committed to making government work more effectively and more efficiently for working families across the Commonwealth.  As we study the Governor’s budget proposal, we will be looking for clear cut evidence that this budget is intended to fulfill these same objectives,” the President’s statement said.

It was respectful of the governor, but not fawning.  It enunciated a goal no one can quarrel with, a government that works better for working families, but committed the Senate to no specific course of action or to a certain programmatic agenda.  It pointed to what the budget process is fundamentally about: evaluating a mountain of facts and making countless hard decisions.  All that in 44 words.
An honorable mention goes to the sum-up line from the top lobbyist for the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the estimable John Regan.  “The governor’s proposed budget takes constructive steps toward ensuring that the Commonwealth lives within its means,” he said.

Leave it to those persnickety business types to bring up limits when we’re talking about spending public dollars.  Party pooper.