Guv Wisely Eases Himself Away from High-Income Housing Easement

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Charlie Baker stepped away this week from the case of the State House lawn easement for real estate developers.  To do otherwise would have been foolish.  Our governor is no fool.

As Baker stepped away, with Secretary of State Bill Galvin nipping at his heels, he seemed a little perturbed at having been drawn innocently into the matter. 
The easement, he noted for the benefit of The Boston Globe, “has been approved by so many entities that are supposed to worry about those things,” meaning, “How the hell did I wind up worrying about this?”

Here was an instance where a small matter causes a big problem for someone in high office, illustrating how vulnerable to harm and blame the mighty ones of our political system are.  Every day when you’re governor, something you don’t see coming can blow up in your face.
Let’s recap the situation…

Late last week, Baker filed a supplemental budget with the legislature that included an authorization to sell an easement to a piece of the State House lawn to the developers of an adjacent building at 25 Beacon Street.  We’re talking about a sliver of land obscured by bushes and shrubs.
The 25 Beacon Street property, which was the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association for 89 years, is being turned into six luxury condominiums, each to be sold for between $9 million and $11 million.  In 2014, the developers, SDC-DLJ Beacon Hill, acquired 25 Beacon and three buildings behind it for $23.6 million. The easement was needed to create window wells on the ground floor for three apartments for au pairs, live-in child care employees.  Without the window wells, the reconstruction work would not meet code.

A price for the easement had not yet been determined but it was supposed to be at market rate, and the money from the sale was supposed to go into an account for maintaining the (quite-beautiful) grounds of the State House.  
Among the agencies that have already approved the easement are the Boston Board of Appeals, the Boston Inspectional Services Department, the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, and the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission.  In other words, SDC-DLJ Beacon Hill, has run the gauntlet.

Baker and Galvin disagree on whether the easement has also been approved by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.   Baker says it has; Galvin says no, not hardly. 
An approval letter from the commission to the developers reportedly covers only the interior renovations and changes to the building and is silent on the easement.  The Globe reviewed a copy of the letter and reported that it “mentioned the addition of window wells as part of the rehabilitation but did not mention the easement on the State House grounds.”

This past Monday, Baker announced that he was dropping the easement authorization from the supplemental budget because the Massachusetts Historical Commission “no longer supports” it.  That really set off Galvin, who chairs the commission. 
“He (Baker) has repeatedly misstated the facts on this issue,” Galvin told The Globe’s Frank Phillips.  “At some point, a misstatement becomes a misrepresentation.  The governor should be capable of understanding the difference.”  Ouch.

One may infer that Baker withdrew the easement to keep the tiff with Galvin from turning into a brawl.  It’s a lot of trouble to fight with Galvin, one of the smartest and toughest persons in the annals of Massachusetts politics, and it never pays.
I think Baker’s reasons for withdrawing are more fundamental.  I think they relate to general concerns in our society about income inequality and the particular concerns in Massachusetts about a housing market that’s gone crazy, killing so many dreams of home ownership and sending so many young men and women out of state to more affordable venues.

The web site for 25 Beacon unabashedly proclaims: 
“Welcome to Boston’s most prestigious new address, offering a fortunate few a life of unsurpassed luxury in an exclusive residence that marries Beacon Hill’s charm and history with a stunning luxury condo that epitomizes modern elegance.  In an age of sleek towers, 25 Beacon is a boutique building, impeccably finished, offering wonderful views, on-site garage parking and a coveted Beacon Hill address adjacent to the State House and across from Boston Common.”

Where is the politician today who would say, “A life of unsurpassed luxury for the fortunate few?  You bet ya!”
Not on the third floor at the State House, that’s for sure.


By Sasso's Ingeniously Simple 3-Point Index, Hillary Edges Out Trump

Friday, July 22, 2016

For my money, John Sasso has produced the best analytical framework for understanding who will become the next President of the United States.

 “Demographics and regional electoral factors do matter in the general election. But deep and emotional judgments about candidates ultimately drive Americans’ choice of a president,” Sasso wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed piece, (“The values battle in the general election,” 5-19-16). 
“The most salient variables,” he continued, “are voter perceptions of three characteristics: a candidate’s personal political strength, voters’ trust in the depth and sincerity of the candidate’s convictions, and, most importantly, whether the voters think that the candidate ‘cares’ about people like them.”

In Sasso’s opinion, “The experience of recent presidential elections suggests that convincing swing voters that you possess these qualities can make all the difference in voters’ final choices of a president.”  He concluded with: “This values battle is one that Clinton will welcome, wage ferociously – and likely win.”  (The Globe editors should have underlined likely.)
A political mastermind, Sasso helped to put two Democrats from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis (1988) and John Kerry (2004), within reach of the presidency.  We can always profit from heeding him but perhaps no more so than now, as we absorb the effects of Trump’s coronation this week in Cleveland by the GOP and anticipate the responsorial moves Hillary Clinton will make next week at the Democrat convention in Philadelphia.

The more I think about what Sasso wrote  -- and I have re-read “The values battle” several times over again today -- the more I agree with him: Hillary will win in November.
I figure that Trump will win the contest in voters' minds over the first characteristic, personal political strength, while Hillary will win it on the third characteristic, caring about people like them.

The shooting match could then come down to whom the voters trust to have the deepest, most sincere convictions.  The electorate will have a hard time making that call. Ultimately, more will decide that Hillary holds her beliefs more genuinely than Trump.
A majority will make that judgment, I think, based on Hillary’s lifelong political activism and involvement, and compared to Trump’s late-in-life, impulse-is-king plunge into politics at the highest level.

Disclosure: I’ve known John Sasso casually for 17 or 18 years.  I like and admire him because he’s very smart, he's not the least bit self-important, and he seems to have a very good time doing what he does.
Think I’ve gone overboard calling him a mastermind?  

Consider that Sasso has made a good living as a solo practitioner in the fields of government affairs and communications for close to 30 years and that his company, Advanced Strategies, does not even have a web site. 

And if this John Sasso has a LinkedIn profile, I’ll be damned if I can find it.

Baker Wasn't Thinking Politics When He Signed Transgender Bill in Private

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Boston Globe’s State House bureau chief, Frank Phillips, wrote that Charlie Baker’s decision to sign the transgender public accommodations bill on Friday, July 8 -- behind closed doors and with no fanfare -- “was not the most adroit political move.”

Baker’s “socially liberal credentials took a hit with his decision not to have a celebratory signing ceremony for the legislation,” Phillips wrote. 
The closed-door signing was, in Phillips’s words, a “slight that has rippled through the very disappointed LGBT community.”  

Phillips thought Baker “appeared not entirely comfortable with the transgender issue.” 
Further, Phillips speculated that the governor timed the release of a proposal to prevent undocumented immigrants from obtaining Massachusetts drivers’ licenses for Thursday, July 7, in order to shore up his standing with “his party’s right flank” in advance of signing the transgender bill.

I respect Frank Phillips but disagree with him on this.
I think the governor was totally unconcerned with making an adroit political move on public accommodations for the transgendered because the issue will quickly fade from the consciousness of the public and will have zero impact on his re-election bid in 2018.

As for improving his standing with conservative Republicans, that goal belongs in Baker’s “Nice to Do” file, not the “Must Do.”  What are the right-wingers going to do if they’re unhappy with Baker, vote for Dan Wolf?
I think Baker’s still smarting from being booed off the stage at an LGBT networking event in Boston on the night of Wednesday, April 13, for refusing to say if he would, or would not, sign the transgender bill.

He’s also smarting still, I think, from being publicly disinvited on Thursday, April 7, to an April 26 dinner in Washington, D.C. of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce for the same reason.
I’m not saying the booing and the disinviting loom large in Baker’s mind or that he’s nursing a grudge. 

I think Baker just wanted to let the most impatient public advocates for Senate Bill 2407, An Act Relative to Gender Identity and Non-Discrimination, know he didn’t appreciate the way they treated him during the long spell the bill was bottled up in the legislature.
If I can imagine a thought bubble above the governor’s head as he got ready to sign the bill on July 8, it would say something like, “They jammed me for months.  I get to jam them for a minute.”

The governor never complained publicly about any harsh treatment because he understood that the booing, the disinviting, etc.,were legitimate parts of the political process. 
It’s time anyone feeling slighted by the private signing of the bill came to the same understanding of the governor’s action here.  It was his legitimate prerogative to forego a public signing ceremony.

SB 2407 is now the law in Massachusetts.  That’s all that’s going to matter six months, six years, six decades from now.



In the Line at Social Security, I Wonder, Have We Made It Too Easy to Quit?

Friday, July 8, 2016

One of the smartest, most perceptive persons I have ever had the good fortune to know, a gentleman from Worcester who has had a long and highly successful career in accounting and insurance, once said to me, “I’m willing to insure you for your bad luck, but I’m not so ready to insure you for your bad behavior.”

I thought of my friend’s comment on Wednesday morning of this week as I was standing outside the  Social Security office in the lobby of the Tip O’Neill federal building, 10 Causeway Street, Boston.  My wife and I were in line, waiting to be called for an appointment I had set up to discuss her eligibility for Medicare.  (Yes, damn it, we’re getting to “that age.”)
Against my better instincts, I fell into a conversation with an old gent standing behind me who instantly tried to learn if I was a Trump supporter.  “Which one do you like?” he pressed.  The skeptical look on his face suggested he’d pegged me as a Hillary man.  “Neither,” said I.  That was enough to keep him friendly.

Meanwhile, my wife started kibitzing with a together-looking woman of approximately my wife’s age, who was in line ahead of her.  The woman was with a muscular man on the younger side of middle age who turned out to be her son.  She shared that her son was pursuing a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability, (which in MA has a state component, in addition to a larger federal component), and that she was there to attest to the details of his medical history, including a recent (ostensibly minor) stroke. A six-footer who had his back to me most of the time, the son was standing straight and tall. He used neither a cane nor crutches. 
My wife has always had the effortless ability to elicit from strangers some of their deepest thoughts and fears.  She never pumps people; they just tell her things. In less than five minutes on Wednesday, she learned that the son was 40 years old and had struggled for years with an addiction to narcotics, which had contributed to his health problems and convinced him that he now was incapable of ever holding down a job.

I obviously do not know enough about that man’s situation to say he does not deserve SSI.  I am not a physician and thus have no standing to disagree with any medical professional who would be willing to certify that the man’s drug use had destroyed his health and rendered him incapable of gainful employment. 
That will not discourage me, however, from opining that the possibility alone of obtaining SSI encourages someone like that 40-year-old man to throw himself on the mercy of the federal and state governments rather than test his mettle again in the job market.

We definitely need to have SSI for disabled persons, but we provide that humane support at the unquestionable risk of attracting considerable numbers of persons who are kind of ill and kind of debilitated, and who have lost the drive, the wherewithal, to fend for themselves, and who, in that state of loss, have convinced themselves no further struggle of a moral nature is required of them and that they are within their rights to partake of the resources of the government for the rest of their lives, which, given the ever-improving capabilities of medical science and all of the material comforts America offers its citizens, could easily last for 30 or 40 more years.
I should note that no disabled person will ever live well on SSI alone.  The standard monthly federal benefit for an individual is now $733, while the program’s monthly state benefit for an individual is $114.   Who can go far on $847 a month?

To anyone reading this who says my opinion is too large and heavy to rest on the flimsy scaffolding of a quick, disjointed encounter in a Social Security line, I would answer, Yes, you are correct:  I have no idea whether that man will ever secure SSI.  He may, in fact, have no chance of that; however, I do know personally of at least two individuals who wrecked themselves when young on alcohol and drugs and who are now collecting SSI, so I know this is indeed a viable option today for the booze-scarred, the heroin-wasted and the oxycodone-crazed.  “Success” on this score inspires others -- where one goes smoothly down the SSI route, three will surely follow.

I believe in the Commonwealth with a capital C.  And Franklin Roosevelt, the father of Social Security, is my all-time political hero. I believe we are our brother’s keeper. I also believe that, after we keep him intact during worst part of his life, we should aim to return him to the wild as soon as possible.
Last night, as I rode the Orange Line home, I was thinking about if I should, and how I might, write this post when my eyes drifted to a woman sitting in a wheelchair by one of the car doors.  I hadn’t seen her until the crowd thinned, as it usually does on the Orange Line during evening rush hour, at Wellington Station, Medford.  Like most of the commuters aboard that train, she looked a little tired. Yet fatigue could not obscure her essential grit.  Her chin was set a little high; her lips were just shy of a grimace.  The woman’s clothes were those of a typical middle-aged, white collar, working woman in Boston today.  She looked to be about 40 years of age.   She made my decision for me.

Recreating with Pot Should Be Legal but I Can't Convince Myself to Vote Yes

Friday, July 1, 2016

In the summer of 1968, I was fortunate to land a job as a meat packer at Bolton & Smart, one of the many wholesalers then located in Boston’s Clinton Street Market, on what is now mainly the site of Christopher Columbus Park in the North End.  Bolton & Smart hired me because a friend of mine from Revere, Ronnie Tempesta, a meat cutter there, brought me to the boss one morning and said he wanted me to have the job.  They liked Ronnie because he worked so hard you’d think he owned the company.  Also, Ronnie was born likeable: he got people laughing all the time, which is a major virtue in a group of men working all day in a gigantic refrigerator.  There were many applicants for that meat packing job because it paid a union wage, $2.67 an hour.  The minimum wage at the time was about $1.40, I think.

The end of my first week, I was initiated into a custom cherished by most Bolton & Smart front-line employees: the mid-afternoon Friday drinking break.  We had 15 minutes off, starting at 3:00 o’clock. The company strictly enforced this limit by requiring us to punch the timeclock when we went on break and punch it again when we came back into the plant.
It took a minute to walk to the nearest dive, where the bartender was awaiting our arrival with about a dozen cold, unopened bottles of Budweiser and Schlitz atop the end of the bar facing the door.  (It’s hard today for folks to understand, but in those days, Bud and Schlitz were roughly even competitors in Massachusetts.  Prefiguring my lifelong attraction to the ill-fated, I myself was, at 17, already a Schlitz man.)  We had 13 minutes to drink.  The object, I quickly learned, was to consume at least two beers during that time.  Serious Friday guys aimed for three, a feat I accomplished only once; fittingly, I reached that pinnacle/pit on my last day on the job, in late August.    

I admit to these facts now only to draw attention to a timeless truth, i.e., the stupidity and recklessness of young men, and to make a connection between that truth and the position taken earlier this week by the Construction Industries of Massachusetts (CIM) against a referendum in November proposing to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
“Our members spend their days on worksites across the Commonwealth, and we believe increasing the availability of marijuana will undermine the safety of our workers,” said CIM Executive Director John Pourbaix in a written statement issued on Monday.

One of CIM’s “major concerns” is the “influx of legal edible products that would come with commercial legalization.”  The organization said, “Employees who test positive for marijuana have significantly higher rates of workplace accidents.”
CIM describes itself as “an association representing all aspects of the transportation and public works construction industry in Massachusetts.” Its membership includes general contractors, subcontractors, material suppliers, equipment dealers, engineers, consultants, insurance and bonding companies, law firms and accounting firms and “many other companies interested in furthering the progress of the (construction) industry.”

There’s a strong case to be made that using marijuana is not much different from using alcohol, and perhaps even less harmful.
Advocates for legalizing recreational pot are essentially telling persons like me, who have no problem with booze but do have a problem with recreational pot, that our opposition is grounded in our personalities, preferences, family histories and social strata, our age-related biases and fears, our unconscious affinity to cultural norms, etc., rather than in any objective evidence that pot may cause significant harm or societal disruption when people are able to buy it and consume it on any street corner, on any day or night. Given my blind spots, I have to concede this case to the advocates. 

The main reason I'm leaning against voting for recreational pot is I don't feel we need more ways for people to get stupid.  Based purely on that instinct, I am willing to deprive Massachusetts pot lovers of their natural human right to get a buzz on with a product that is maybe less harmful than booze -- at least in terms of typical physical effects on the average human. (No one can yet say how recreational pot for the masses will or will not alter our society.)
I'm pretty sure what we Bolton & Smartalecks would have done on a Friday afternoon if recreational marijuana had been legal in 1968. If someone had said to us then, “Bet you can’t eat six weed cookies,” we would have said, “Shut up and get me the milk.”