If Governor Did These 10 Things, He Could Ruin His Popularity in No Time

Friday, November 27, 2015

Charlie Baker has been our governor for 11 months and hasn't yet met a poll he didn't like.

In the past week alone, there were two news reports on polls showing that Baker enjoys a level of popularity most pols only experience in their non-waking moments.

The first story concerned a nationwide poll of more than 75,000 voters in all 50 states, which  revealed that Baker is unquestionably the most popular governor in the U.S., with an approval rating in Massachusetts of 74%.  The second was on a Suffolk University poll that pegged Baker's popularity at 70%. 

For context, consider that the Suffolk poll found Senator Elizabeth Warren to be the second most popular elected official in the state, with 54% favorability.

If you are an admirer of Charlie Baker -- and I consider myself one -- it's almost understandable to think he just might be able to defy political gravity indefinitely.  He's the Eagle Scout of governors, cheerily solving one problem after another.

Most voters have concluded, after getting a good, long look at him on the big stage, that he's a good guy who honestly tries to do his best.  Charlie Baker has nailed the key objective of establishing firmly within the public consciousness a friendly, trustworthy persona.

Which is not to say he couldn't blow it.  He may be smarter than most people stumbling around this planet.  But he's still human. 

Thus, did I engage in a thought exercise.  I asked myself, what series of bone-headed moves would our governor have to make now to squander all that goodwill?   Charlie Baker, I quickly concluded, could turn himself from the toast of Broadway to toast if:

  1. He challenged Maura Healey to a one-on-one basketball game for charity and lost to the much shorter attorney general.
  2. He then complained publicly for weeks about the officiating in the game vs. Healey.
  3. He exchanged the portrait of John Volpe in his office for one of Jeb Bush.
  4. He was captured on camera in the box at Gillette nodding a little too vigorously as Bob Kraft held court.
  5. He hired Chris Christie as a consultant to MassDOT to help improve traffic flow into Boston.
  6. He started referring to himself in the third person, as in, "Charlie Baker knows the state budget better than anybody.  Anybody!"
  7. He took up golf and used his clout to jump the wait list for membership in The Country Club.
  8. He gave up wearing suit jackets at press conferences, allowing the world to see how fond he is of Larry-King-style red suspenders.
  9. He ordered the State House henceforth closed on Harvard commencement days to honor all the Harvard men who've been elected governor.
  10. He joined Mark Sanford for a week of hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Take Your Damn Free Speech Elsewhere: T Public Property Not a Legal Public Forum

Friday, November 20, 2015

The MBTA, we learned this week, is reworking its already strict guidelines for advertising on T property. 

Metro Boston’s transit system wants to prohibit “ads concerning political issues or matters of public debate,” according to an agency spokesman.

Although that ban has not yet been formally adopted, it is, for all intents and purposes, already in effect.
You may wonder how the T does that.  Isn’t this America? Don’t we have something called a First Amendment with a guaranteed right to free speech? 

And didn’t the Supreme Court rule in the Citizens United case that you can’t put limits on campaign donations because cash is the equivalent of speech and speech cannot be limited?
Yes, but MBTA property is not legally considered a “public forum,” a status that was generically adjudicated and definitively settled years ago.  The Supreme Court has said that the First Amendment does not guarantee access to property “simply because it is owned or controlled by the government.”

As an official non-public forum, the T can make and enforce any reasonable guidelines it wants on advertising content.
There’s nothing stopping the T from opening the floodgates to political and issues advertising.  If it did, however -- as other public transit agencies have done -- it would permanently sacrifice its right to be considered a non-public forum in the eyes of the law.  Once a public entity makes a forum public, it can’t go back to being non-public. 

It would be messy, of course, if the MBTA allowed all comers to buy political ads or to advance their agendas on any issue of the day.  People would be constantly offended and outraged.  Lawsuits would grow.  Vandalism against “offensive” ads on the T would become common.
I’d take all of that in a heartbeat for the shot in the arm that no-holds-barred ads on the T would give to our public discourse, our democracy, and for the political maturity and equanimity it would necessarily foster in the citizenry.  The guy who said “the cure for offensive speech is not less speech but more speech” had it right. 

And the Supreme Court said it neatly in a 1969 case:  “It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas,” emphasis on uninhibited. 
It would be a noble thing for the MBTA to have its essentially prosaic purpose support the exalted purpose of the First Amendment.

Sarah Wunsch of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union won my heart when she told the Boston Globe, “I’m sorry they (the MBTA) are going in that direction because I think we need more public spaces where people can share their views, even if people don’t love those views.”
On a practical level, how can the T leave all that money for political and issues advertising on the table when it’s starved for cash and floating trial balloons about the need for yet another fare increase?

Let’s hope Charlie Baker, who stout-heartedly took ownership of the T’s problems during the mass transit melt-down this past winter, will step up again and impose some of that common-sense he’s renowned for on this issue.

Somerville Mayor's First Impression of Casino Footbridge May Not Be His Last

Friday, November 13, 2015

Now Steve Wynn has sweetened the deal for his Eastern Massachusetts casino with a pedestrian bridge over the Mystic River.  The span would lead from the casino site in Everett to the fast-rising neighborhood at Assembly Row in Somerville.

Though only a concept, it’s already a bridge too far for Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone. 
He was quoted in today’s Boston Globe as saying, “A footbridge would benefit Steve Wynn and Steve Wynn only.  Wynn is looking to tap into the success of Assembly Row to get more people to his craps table.”

There are a couple of reasons at least why the mayor might want to blow up this plan while it’s just an image on a computer screen.
First, he’s a longtime opponent of casino gambling.  Back in the fall of 2014, Curtatone explained his views on the subject in an interview with WBUR, Boston’s public radio station.  “I’m opposed to casinos because casinos don’t build communities,” he said.  “In fact, casinos abide to the economies of extraction.  They take monies out of downtowns like Chelsea and Charlestown and Somerville and other communities and put them at the craps table and roulette wheel.”

Second, Somerville is a plaintiff in a pending lawsuit against the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which seeks to overturn the commission’s decision granting a casino license to Wynn.
It would have been a news-making surprise if, yesterday, Curtatone had called a press conference to announce, “I still hate casinos as much as ever.  They exploit their customers and run roughshod over communities.  I’m hopeful our lawsuit against Wynn Everett will succeed.  But, you know what, I love that pedestrian bridge Steve wants to put up.  The guy’s a peach.”

This bridge would make it easier for Somerville residents to apply for jobs at the casino and get to work there, should they be hired.  It would make it easier for people living in Everett and other communities north of the river to get to the jobs and attractions of Assembly Row.  It would improve access to the public parklands on both sides of the River.  It might even make life safer for the many bicyclists who pedal to their jobs in Boston every day from the north.  What bicyclist in his right mind wouldn’t prefer a walkway over the Mystic to the traffic-packed Alford Street (Route 99) Bridge?
Memo to Wynn’s handlers at Mintz Levin: Recruit the organizations that promote cycling into your bridge campaign; start by contacting the Boston Cyclists Union at http://bostoncyclistsunion.org

Lawsuits and bureaucratic inertia notwithstanding, it’s looking more certain that a casino will be built in Everett.  An extensive environmental clean-up of the site, formerly the locus of a chemical factory, has already begun.
To bring us an eye-popping mini-Vegas on the Mystic, Wynn is committed to spending something like $1.7 billion.  This will be a pleasure palace worthy of the next incarnation of James Bond. 

Until they get the world’s greatest singer, Van Morrison, there “for one night only,” I won’t go near the place.  The gambling gene is practically non-existent in my bloodline.  I’d rather go to the dentist than go shopping.  I cringe at high-end restaurants where they put a little bit of food in the middle of a large white plate and charge you extra for the sides.

I do, however, get excited at the notion of an Everett-Somerville pedestrian bridge. 
If we’re going to get a casino there, I hope our leaders will make sure that bridge is part of the deal.  If it is, I predict it will be heavily used by the public, in ways we cannot yet anticipate, and for purposes that have nothing to do with enriching Mr. Wynn.

I also predict that, if the kill-Wynn suit against the Gaming Commission fails, Mayor Curtatone will endorse the bridge -- but not before extracting from Wynn a commitment to build the mother of all pedestrian bridges.  Joe knows negotiating.