As Retailers Show, You Have to Go Dark Sometimes to Bring a Crisis into the Light

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Not that it’s the job of the press to toss bouquets, but I still found the headline on a recent [9-26-16] Boston Magazine story on a new web initiative by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts (RAM) to be a little stingy.  “Massachusetts Retailers Group Debuts a Spooky Archive of Vacant Storefronts,” it said.

MASSterlist, a news aggregation site operated by the State House News Service, struck a similar tone today when it summarized the project, which consists mainly of a web site featuring photos of closed stores that have gone out of business:

The MASSterlist headline used the word “ominous” to describe the site, and the MASSterlist summary opined that the site “looks so gray and gloomy, as intended, something designed by Darth Vader himself.”
If I were writing those heads, I think I would have emphasized the boldness of DarkStoreFronts, which has as its tagline, "Once Main Street Leaves, It's Not Coming Back."  I would have gone with something like, “Retailers Use Stark Photography to Make Us Ponder Crisis on Main Street.”

In a blog post the other day, RAM president Jon Hurst wrote: “When corporate jobs leave the state for lower-cost locales, it is front page news.  If a hospital seeks to close a facility with empty beds, picket lines go up and politicians go on the attack. If a hot new technology firm offers to locate a handful of jobs in exchange for tax breaks, the government welcome mat is rolled out.  Unfortunately, when a store or restaurant goes dark, little notice is taken except by the former customers and employees.”

Hurst said DarkStoreFronts is designed “to put a spotlight on store closures, job losses, and bad public policy decisions” during a time of “consumer spending transitions, new commercial developments, and the public policy focus on certain sectors, such as the innovation economy.”
Whether it be “tax policy or labor mandates,” Hurst wrote, “many government policies unfortunately put our local stores at a severe competitive and cost disadvantage, and that discrimination has no place in the days of the smartphone.”

He added, “When the stores goes dark, the jobs disappear, as does commercial property tax revenues, community investment, and an important part of our community history and livability.”
The Internet continues to disrupt and permanently alter the buying habits of Americans, causing the demise of many small retailers.  If you are not the guy on Main Street going out of business, you probably call that progress.  If you are that guy, you call it a catastrophe, a life-changing bad event.

The Retailers Association reminds us that entire communities, not just the crushed shop owners and small restaurateurs, pay the price of progress.  They also ask why our lawmakers and policymakers aren’t taking some of the steps they could to give retailers a break, such as repealing the law requiring bricks-and-mortars stores to pay employees time-and-a-half on Sundays when the Amazons of the world pay employees straight time for Sunday work.
In all this, you can’t help but hear echoes from the race for president.  Displaced and jobless workers from the Rust Belt would not have flocked to Donald Trump in such force if our government had done more to support them as they dealt with the unintended, adverse consequences and the stiff challenges of the new economy, which is strongly oriented to digital skills. 

Jon Hurst didn’t say this, but I can: we’re crazy if we remain on a course that will produce on our Main Streets every day more voters for Trump and like-minded candidates.  
Hurst’s blog post on this initiative may be found at:

In a Leona Helmsley Moment, Trump Goes Afoul of Sasso's Analytic Device

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

To measure last night’s presidential debate, let’s grab the John Sasso Gauge from the political toolbox.

Sasso, a chief of staff to former Governor Michael Dukakis and a high-ranking field officer in two Democrat presidential campaigns, wrote a piece in The Boston Globe this past spring on how and why voters make a choice in the final election of a president.  It was headlined, “The values battle in the general election.”
“…deep and emotional judgments about candidates ultimately drive Americans’ choice of a president,” Sasso declared.

“The most salient variables,” he wrote, “are voter perceptions of three characteristics”:
One, “a candidate’s personal political strength,”

Two, “voters’ trust in the depth and sincerity of the candidate’s convictions,” and
Three, “most importantly, whether the voters think that the candidate ‘cares’ about people like them.”

There were several points in the debate where I thought Hillary Clinton was clearly better than Donald Trump in showing caring-ness for the average voter.  She was particularly effective on that score when speculating on Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns for public scrutiny.
“Maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is,” she told the 80 million or so persons watching the debate, “…maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be.  Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes,” at which point Trump interjected, “That makes me smart.”  (Immediately, I thought of the late Leona Helmsley's famous put-down of the working class: “We don’t pay taxes.  Only the little people pay taxes.”) Then Clinton expertly twisted the knife, “So, if he’s paid zero,” she said, “that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health.”

Soon after, when Trump excoriated “know-nothing politicians like Clinton and President Obama” for squandering trillions of taxpayer dollars, Clinton seized the moment to reinsert her blade.   “We have a country that needs new roads, new tunnels, new bridges, new airports, new schools, new hospitals,” said Trump.  “And we don’t have the money because it’s been squandered on so many of your (Clinton’s) ideas.”  Said Clinton, “And maybe because you haven’t paid any federal income tax for a lot of years.”

Trump tells America he’s smart not to pay taxes and implies the rest of us are chumps.
Four months ago in the Globe, Sasso predicted Clinton would win.  I’m sure that, watching the debate last night, he had no sudden qualms about his prognosticative powers.


When Kaufman Writes His Memoirs, Let's Hope for a Chapter on that July 3rd Bash

Friday, September 23, 2016

For the chance to chew the fat with Ron Kaufman, I would have gladly volunteered to drive one of the golf carts shuttling guests from a party at Kaufman’s Beacon Hill condo on the night of July 3 to the Boston Pops rehearsal concert at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade.  The man’s been a political operative and lobbyist for like 40 years.  There are stories I’d love to hear from his perspective.

You know the party I’m talking about, the one that put a couple of higher-ups in the Department of Conservation and Recreation in hot water after it was revealed they had expended DCR resources on the private celebration.  The golf carts in question, for example, were rented by the DCR.
There’s been a fair amount of publicity about the party at Kaufman's place and the resulting disciplinary action against the top twosome at DCR.  Nowhere has it been reported, however, if Kaufman was actually at the party, which seems a glaring instance of lazy journalism, although it’s hard to imagine why he would not have been there.

Actually, it’s easy to see why Kaufman might have missed the party:  If there was a more powerful and influential group of people he could have been with that night -- in Washington, D.C., say -- he would have subcontracted the hosting duties in Boston to a trusted friend and sprinted to D.C.
Kaufman is a Quincy boy who’s done well in life, and had a good time doing it, because of the Republican politicians he's befriended, first and foremost George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President of the United States.  Now 71, Kaufman is still going strong as a “Senior Advisor in the Public Policy and Regulation practice” at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, where he, no lawyer, works out of the Washington office.

On the Dentons web site, Kaufman is described as “a highly experienced political strategist who has served as a senior advisor to U.S. Presidents, Governors, Members of Congress, and a host of elected and appointed officials at every level of government.”
With his still-mostly-dark, swept-back hair, trademark moustache, and wickedly winning smile, Kaufman resembles the guy you knew in college who always knew the easiest courses to take, was simultaneously dating three women, and seemed destined for a fabulous career in sales.  You knew you shouldn’t like him so much, yet like him much you did.

There’s a gem in the archives of The Boston Globe, dated Aug. 20, 1989 and written by Scott Lehigh, who still writes a popular column in the Globe, which describes how Kaufman got his start in politics.  Here it is in its entirety:
“Ron Kaufman, now a deputy assistant to the president, got his start with George Bush through political blackmail, Kaufman told a Republican gathering in Boston last week.  Back in 1978, Kaufman was a South Shore grocery-store manager who wanted to get into politics.  He and his friend, Andy Card, then a young state representative from Holbrook, decided to hook up early with a presidential candidate.

“The two settled on a dark horse named George Bush.  Card became Massachusetts state chairman and then announced that he wanted Kaufman as Massachusetts campaign manager.  Thinking Kaufman too inexperienced, the campaign high command balked.  Whereupon Card issued an ultimatum: Either Kaufman was hired or he and his political allies would quit.  Concluded Kaufman: ‘So my first job for George Bush was through blackmail.’ ”
Bush lost the Republican presidential nomination to Ronald Reagan in 1980 but still emerged a winner as Reagan’s choice for vice president.  Kaufman won, too.  Reagan appointed him first to be the northeast regional political director of the Republican National Committee, then later the committee’s national political director.

Kaufman was the national campaign director for Bush when he ran for re-election as VP in 1984.  Following the landslide victory of Reagan-Bush over Mondale-Ferraro, he helped lay the groundwork for Bush’s successful campaign for the presidency in 1988. 
During the ’88 campaign, Kaufman engineered a media coup that had Bush taking a boat tour of Boston Harbor and decrying the harbor’s then-heavily-polluted waters, all to undermine the environmental bona fides of Governor Michael Dukakis, Bush’s Democratic opponent. 

The stunt became a high-volume national media event.  Amidst the noise, cries from Democrats that the Reagan administration had cut federal funds for the clean-up of Boston Harbor were drowned out (pun intended).  Said South Boston’s Jack Corrigan, director of operations for the Dukakis campaign, “These guys, the Republicans, cut off funds for Boston Harbor.  Then they walk in here and say, ‘You guys did it.’  It was outrageous.”
In a further attempt to embarrass Dukakis, Kaufman persuaded the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association to endorse Bush.  He then staged a media show where Bush flew to Massachusetts to accept the endorsement in person from the leadership and an assembled mass of the union.  

For his campaign services, Kaufman was named White House personnel director, overseeing all patronage hires at the beginning of Bush’s term, a job that made him suddenly very popular with Republican majordomos and campaign hands throughout the country.  Can there be any doubt that some of the persons he met then are still helpful to him today?  (“…I’m blessed with friends across the country,” Kaufman told Politico in 2013.)  Kaufman later became a special assistant to the president and White House political director.  Reportedly, he remains in frequent contact with the elder Bush, now 92 and enjoying a long retirement in Maine and Texas.
Kaufman joined the Dutko Group lobbying firm in 1994.  A few years ago, he moved to the law firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge, which was subsumed into Dentons fairly recently.

John F. Kennedy said that anyone who would discount the importance of politics should consider that it was politics that took him, a lieutenant, junior grade, in the U.S. Navy in 1946, and in 14 years made him commander in chief.
In a less-exalted variation on that theme, we may note that it was politics that took the manager of a Weymouth grocery store in 1978 and made him a special assistant to the president of the United States in 1990 -- and then made him in 1994 a well-to-do practitioner of the art of winning friends and influencing policy.  Fourteen years for a son of a millionaire from Hyannisport and Palm Beach; sixteen years for a product of the working class from Quincy.  Damn impressive in either case.


Acting's a Big Part of the Party Chair's Job, which Puts McGee at Disadvantage

Monday, September 19, 2016

A week ago yesterday, Tom McGee announced he would not be a candidate this November for a second four-year term as chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.  The election of the chairman and other party officers will take place the week after the presidential election in November.

A longtime member of the state Senate from Lynn and son of a late House Speaker renowned for helping anyone down on his luck, McGee announced that decision in an email to members of the party’s state committee and others.
Befitting the man, who is the embodiment of decency, the message from McGee was warm, optimistic and personally engaging. 

“Over the past three years,” he wrote, “I know our work electing Democrats has helped countless people across the state.  I’ve often talked about my grandmother and the values I learned from her.  After helping organize shoe workers in Lynn, and during the darkest days of the Depression, she went to work for the Roosevelt administration to continue fighting for working families.

“The values we share as Democrats are the values my family instilled in me.  The Democratic Party is part of who I am.  I have been a proud member of our party my entire life and was first elected to the State committee over 40 years ago.”
Noticeably absent from that message, however, was a specific reason why McGee decided to walk away from the party chairmanship once his term is up.

Prior to the announcement, there was at least one report in the media that McGee could face opposition from two candidates who were at least partially motivated by what they perceived as McGee’s reluctance to criticize and to challenge Charlie Baker, our Republican governor, in public over Baker’s policies and actions.

On September 2, the Boston Globe’s Jim O’Sullivan, formerly a star at the State House News Service, reported that one possible candidate against McGee for the chairmanship, Eileen Duff, a member of the Governor’s Council, “appears to be trying to latch onto dissatisfaction within the party over McGee’s leadership style.”
O’Sullivan wrote, “According to people who have spoken to Duff, part of her pitch has been that she can approach the chairmanship as a full-time job, arguing that McGee has been conflicted by his legislative role.”

O’Sullivan wrote, “Other Democrats have complained that the party has not been aggressive enough in opposing Republican Governor Charlie Baker.  That unrest burbled up at the state party convention in June, when some activists criticized party leadership for not having a plan to hold the governor accountable.”
I don’t think McGee has been conflicted by his legislative role.  It is a legislator’s duty to oppose the governor if he or she believes the governor is attempting something wrong-headed or just plain wrong, and there have been several occasions during the past 21 months when McGee has criticized the governor publicly.  It’s just that, for a certain category of Democrats, McGee hasn’t criticized the governor nearly often enough or hard enough. 

These Democrats are looking for someone who can act outraged at a moment’s notice, someone who can call a press conference on 30 minutes' notice and emote on cue about how awful the governor is and how bloody important it is that he be defeated in 2018.
If McGee thought the governor was awful, or doing something awful, I’m sure he could do that, but if he didn’t truly feel it, he couldn’t fake outrage -- or any other emotion for that matter.  McGee, to his everlasting credit, is no actor.

So, is McGee giving up the chairmanship without a fight because he fears the faction of his party demanding more outrage?  Hardly. If he ran, he’d be an odds-on favorite for re-election no matter who was running against him.  You can find friends of McGee everywhere in Massachusetts,  enemies nowhere.  
My guess is that he is simply not enjoying the job enough to want another term, or that, having done the job for four years, he feels it’s time to give someone else a shot at it.



Sky Has Not Fallen in Medicinal Pot Shop's First Month in Downtown Boston

Friday, September 2, 2016

I’m wondering how the persons and organizations who tried to block the opening of a medical marijuana dispensary in downtown Boston are feeling now, one month after the dispensary opened.  Are they relieved that it has caused not a single problem in the neighborhood. Are they disappointed that their strongly expressed concerns have proved to be unfounded and that their credibility may have suffered as a result. Or have they moved so far past the issue they don’t give a thought to their old dispensary antagonism, and figure the rest of us don’t either.

A company known as Patriot Care opened the dispensary at 21 Milk St. on the morning Wednesday, Aug. 3, with a lack of fanfare thoroughly intentional.  There’s no sign on the outside of the building that even says Patriot Care, never mind anything about the products sold there.
Last August, the Boston Zoning Board of Appeals voted unanimously to grant Patriot Care the conditional use permit needed to operate a dispensary at that location, which, interestingly, is right next to the spot where Benjamin Franklin was born.  (A broad-minded rebel genius, Mr. Franklin would have approved of this enterprise, and not just because of its name.) 

At that time, Robert Mayerson, president of Patriot Care, predicted, “What people will find is that, over time, no one will know that the dispensary was even there.” 
It looks to me like “over time,” in that instance, meant 30 days.

My office isn’t far from 21 Milk and I frequently pass by it on foot.  Up to yesterday, I’d never observed anyone going into or out of the building.  So, today, I decided to go by 21 Milk at three different times between 9:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., hoping to catch sight of someone entering the building to fill his pot prescription or exiting it with a small bag containing his, er, medicine.  (Intensive fieldwork has always been a hallmark of the Massachusetts Politics Blog.) 
On all three passes I came up empty. 

Twenty-One Milk has to be one of the sleepiest retail venues in all of Boston; it looks nothing like what its opponents feared.   
In the spring of 2015, the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District (BID) said, “The proposed medical marijuana dispensary at 21 Milk Street is broadly viewed as a business activity that will not advance the neighborhood’s positive momentum.”  The BID is headed by former Boston City Councilor Rosemarie Sansone.  Its 37-member board of directors reads like a Who’s Who in the power structure of Boston.

At one of the 2015 zoning board hearings on the Patriot Care proposal, then Boston City Council President Bill Linehan, in whose district the dispensary sits, “voiced strong opposition to the proposed location and his continued desire to work with Patriot Care to find a more suitable location,” according to a Boston Globe account.  Downtown Crossing is “finally starting to take off” and the dispensary “doesn’t send the right message,” Linehan was quoted as saying.
Others who spoke publicly in opposition to the permit included Bernard O’Rourke, a deputy superintendent of the Boston Police Department; Marc Epstein, owner of the popular Milk Street CafĂ©; Kristen Mansharamani, founder and executive director of the Torit Montessori School, 41 Bromfield Street; and Karen LaFrazia, executive director of St. Francis House, a large shelter for the poor and homeless at 39 Boylston St.

Also registering opposition was the Midtown Cultural District Residents’ Association, which reported that, of 86 association members responding to a survey on the dispensary, 59% were against it.  One association leader explained that the group was concerned that the dispensary “would exacerbate parking woes in the neighborhood.” 
(Parking is not allowed on that part of Milk Street. I’ve never seen a vehicle parked there when Patriot Care is open, 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.)

The long-established zoning process for granting conditional use permits in Boston worked well in the Patriot Care case.  The Appeals Board members were able to see beyond the heightened fears and anxieties of those who were sincerely concerned about keeping the downtown on its remarkable upward trajectory.
I understand where the opponents were coming from.  I respect their opinions and their right to express themselves fully, in whatever manner they chose, throughput the process, even though I could never understand how persons filling prescriptions at a marijuana dispensary could possibly be more adverse to a neighborhood than the persons already in the neighborhood every day filling prescriptions at CVS and Walgreens or going to appointments with physicians, dentists and physical therapists. Downtown Crossing and the adjoining Financial District have scores of such doctors and therapists.

When Patriot Care is celebrating its first anniversary next August, perhaps the Business Improvement District or the Midtown Cultural District Residents’ Association, or someone else in the opposing camp, circa 2015, will issue a statement congratulating the company on a trouble-free first year and acknowledging they were wrong to try to block the dispensary. 
That would represent a refreshing exception to normal human behavior.  Organizations are like persons, me prominently included: we never want to revisit those times when we were dead damn wrong.   

AN ADDENDUM OF PERFECT EXPRESSION: I couldn't fit this into the text above but it's too good to leave out: a statement by Scott Matalon, a member of the Allston Board of Trade and owner of Stingray Body Art, 384 Cambridge St., Allston.  As reported in on June 17 of last year, Matalon described 21 Milk St. as the "ideal location" for a medical marijuana dispensary.  "Downtown Crossing is a commercial zone," said Matalon. "I can't think of a zone that is more commercial in our city; it's an ideal location.  If not there, then where?  If it's not allowed in a major commercial zone like Downtown Crossing, then where in the City of Boston?"