Republican, Democrat Frenemies Always Ready to Slip Their Knives In

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The working relationship between our Republican governor and the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate is a beautiful thing, so beautiful you might be lulled into thinking partisanship in Massachusetts is practically extinct. 

Don’t be lulled.
Yes, Charlie Baker is sincerely committed to working well with others in the legislature.  You’re no more likely to hear him criticize House Speaker Robert DeLeo or Senate President Harriette Chandler -- or any legislator for that matter -- than you are to hear President Trump apologize for a Tweet.  The same goes for DeLeo and Chandler vis-a-vis Baker.

They all want to get things done, they all fundamentally agree on many issues, and they’re all glad to work together on a positive agenda for the Commonwealth.
However, while valuing, and occasionally extolling, the benefits of bi-partisanship, both parties still know they are enemies.  They know they’re obligated by the conventions of politics to act like foes in public, sometimes ferociously so.  

For proof of that, you do not have to look far.
In a Feb. 5 fundraising letter, for example, Kirsten Hughes, Massachusetts Republican Party Chairman, said:

“Governor Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito have run a transparent, accountable administration that has put taxpayers – not Beacon Hill politicians – first.
“But for all of this progress, there are still those who want to take our state back to the dark days of one party rule and all the ugliness that went along with it…like sky high taxes, uncontrolled spending, cronyism, and corruption.

“Just to name a few.
“The Beacon Hill status quo politicians will fight tooth and nail against the Republican agenda of keeping taxes low, creating jobs, building stronger communities, and supporting education."

Now consider a Feb. 19 press release from the Massachusetts Democratic Party regarding a big donation from disgraced ex-casino mogul Steve Wynn to the Republican Governors Association.
Headlined, “Outrageous Emails Show Gaming Commission Ducking Responsibility on Wynn," the press release featured a statement by Democratic Chair Gus Bickford in response to emails by Gaming Commission board members and staff.  Those emails, Democrats allege, “demonstrate a shocking lack of commitment and direction regarding allegations against Steve Wynn.” 

Here’s the core of what Bickford said:
“The growing scandal over the Commission’s botched review of Wynn’s suitability for a Massachusetts gaming license will not just go away.  The Commission must investigate the $2 million donation that Steve Wynn funneled to Charlie Baker through the Republican Governor’s Association in 2014.  It violates the law that established this Commission and threatens the integrity of the gaming industry in Massachusetts.

“Both Wynn and Governor Baker have a long history of relying on dark money to try and get what they want.  The Steve Wynn ‘stink bomb’ is right up there with Charlie Baker’s ‘nothingburger.' ”
So, we have Republicans conjuring “the dark days of one-party rule” on Beacon Hill and “all the ugliness that went along with it.” 

What?  Might they be referring to the immediately prior administration of Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, who held sway at the State House with House Speaker DeLeo, the same speaker whose hand Governor Baker is eager to clasp?
And, we have Democrats playing their variation on the darkness theme, wherein Wynn and Baker allegedly have a “long history of relying on dark money to try and get what they want.”

What? That $2 million donation from Wynn, isn’t that the same donation previously blessed by the chief enforcement lawyer for the Gaming Commission, a donation this lawyer determined did not violate state campaign finance laws because Wynn gave the money to the Republican Governors Association after the commission had decided to grant his company the Eastern Massachusetts casino license?
To paraphrase the Book of Ecclesiastes, there is a time in Massachusetts for Republicans and Democrats to work together, and there is a time for them to work each other over.

Footnote #1. I gave Kirsten Hughes and Gus Bickford the titles they themselves use in documents.  Hughes prefers Chairman; Bickford prefers Chair.
Footnote #2. The term “Charlie Baker’s ‘nothingburger’ " refers to a mini-controversy that erupted late in the summer of 2016.  When it was reported that the chair of the state’s elementary education board, Paul Sagan, had donated $100,000 to a referendum campaign to authorize more charter schools, some Democrats called upon Sagan to resign.  Baker dismissed the situation as a “nothingburger.”




Death Robs House of 'One of the Good Ones,' Northampton's Peter Kocot

Monday, February 26, 2018

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in the Pioneer Valley town of Northampton will be overflowing with legislators and other elected officials tomorrow morning when the funeral Mass for Peter Kocot is held there.  A member of the Massachusetts House since April of 2002, Kocot died this past Thursday, Feb. 22, at the age of 61

He represented a district, the 1st Hampshire, which includes his hometown, Northampton, and the communities of Hatfield, Southampton, Westhampton and Montgomery. Before getting elected to the House, Kocot was employed for many years on the staff of the man who preceded him, former House Majority Leader William Nagle. 

Kocot, an Ivy Leaguer, was at the pinnacle of his legislative career, literally the top of his game, when stricken with an illness that proved fatal in short order.  Only four months ago, he had been appointed by Speaker Robert DeLeo House chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing.  This committee has perhaps the most daunting task in Massachusetts government: devising new laws and new parts of existing laws to slow down the relentless growth in the cost of health care.

That Kocot was loved and admired by his House colleagues, that he was indeed a legislator’s legislator, is evident in the tributes to him that poured forth as soon as word got around the State House that he had passed away.
“Chairman Kocot,” said Speaker DeLeo, “was one of the most kind, decent, and selfless individuals that I have had the pleasure to know.  I am devastated by his loss…Peter was the consummate gentleman: gracious with his time, energy and intellect.  As a former staffer and, most recently, chair of one of the most challenging committees, Peter’s work was marked by his respect for the House and love for the people who work here.  He was a passionate advocate for his district and constituents…We relished hearing Peter’s stories from his district, including his fishing trips and his appreciation for its natural resources.”

Jim Eisenberg, who served as DeLeo’s chief of staff for 11 years before joining us at Preti Strategies in January, said, “Chairman Kocot was one of the good ones.  He had no trace of the ego or bluster that powerful politicians often portray.  He treated everyone with a gentle kindness and genuine respect regardless of their rank.  I can’t think of a member or staffer who disliked him – and though he was soft-spoken, he always spoke with authority.  I am deeply grateful to have worked with him on major pieces of state policy, such as the 2009 Ethics Reform bill and, more recently, health care cost containment.  The House has lost one of its best.  We all feel an intense sense of grief and sadness at his passing.”
Everybody on Beacon Hill respected Kocot, said South Hadley Representative John Scibak, House chair of the Joint Committee on Education, “because he never rushed into decisions, he thought them through.”

Steve Kulik of Worthington, vice chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, observed that Kocot “led through information, knowledge, and soliciting other ideas,” adding, “That’s just a powerful way to do your business as a legislator.”
Another Western Massachusetts legislator, Joe Wagner of Chicopee, House chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, said Kocot was “the definition of what a public servant should be.”

Even government watchdogs admired Kocot!  The State Ethics Commission issued a formal statement to pronounce that, "...we are deeply saddened by the passing of Representative Peter V. Kocot.  In his years of public service, Representative Kocot was a champion for transparency and accountability in government and a strong advocate for the mission of the State Ethics Commission.  His friendliness, helpfulness, and commitment to good government will be greatly missed."  I never saw anything like that before from the Ethics Commission.

The last time I saw Peter Kocot was on Oct. 18, 2017, in a meeting in his office on the second floor of the State House.  He had just succeeded Jeff Sanchez of Boston at the helm of Health Care Financing, Sanchez having been named chair of House Ways & Means.
We were scheduled for a half-hour discussion with him and several members of the Health Care Financing staff regarding the state’s Employer Wellness Program Tax Credit, which provides incentives to small businesses to offer their employees wellness and fitness programs.  The group I was with was advocating for an extension of the Employer Wellness Program Tax Credit.

Chairman Kocot arrived at the meeting after everyone else. He came into the room in a hurry, as if he had been delayed en route at the last minute.  He had about him a slight air of impatience.
Now Peter Kocot was easily the largest man in the legislature.  He stood about six foot nine and was built like a lumberjack.  (He played varsity football at Brown University in Providence.) He physically dominated any gathering he was in. But he did not seek to dominate with his personality, intellect or ego.

To me, he always seemed intent on finding out what was on your mind, and what was making you tick.  When you spoke, he concentrated on you so keenly that you could not help but feel some qualms about the power of your thoughts and words to persuade him.
On that day in October, fortunately, the Employer Wellness Program Tax Credit was a subject that more aroused his interest than his skepticism. He asked for more information on some of the points in our presentation and wondered aloud about what might be the best approach -- the best legislative vehicle to employ -- should he and his colleagues come to see the tax credit as something worth keeping.

The discussion was nearing its end when he asked of no one in particular, “Has anyone ever thought about giving credits directly to individuals to get them to work out and take better care of themselves?”  
We on our side all smiled.  We were not expecting that.  A wellness tax credit for individuals was too novel, too audacious, to get off the ground now, or maybe ever, in Massachusetts. Yet we would be the last to discourage any movement toward such a thing.  One member of our group said something like, “That would be a long discussion -- and we’d love to have it.” 

Chairman Kocot laughed in agreement. It was a full and an honest laugh.  We pushed our chairs back, rose slowly from our seats and began saying our good-byes.  Some business cards were pulled from folders and coat pockets and exchanged.  The chairman exited in as big a hurry as he had entered.
In the weeks that followed, our side developed and refined the answers to the chairman’s questions.  We also had meetings and phone discussions with other legislators, legislative staff, and members of the Governor Baker administration on the Employer Wellness Program Tax Credit. 

At the time of his death, we had a request in to see him again.  Ours was just one issue that will be affected by his passing.  There were hundreds of others on his plate, some quite momentous.  Peter Kocot’s death is a major blow to our Commonwealth.






























Senate Will Miss the Judicious Mr. Barrett as He Deals with Threat to His Health

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Lexington’s Michael J. Barrett, a member of the Massachusetts Senate from the 3rd Middlesex District, was just diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APS) and will be confined to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston while undergoing treatment.  Because the disease has compromised his immune system, Barrett needs to avoid everyday situations where one may be exposed to bacteria and viruses, and, in particular, crowds.

“My doctors tell me I won’t be leaving the hospital for a month, and that, for some additional period of time, I’ll need to avoid crowded situations where people may have bad colds, etc.,” Barrett told the State House News Service on February 13.
The good news is:  APS is curable and Barrett, a trim and vigorous 69-year-old, is likely to make a full recovery.  “With the help of my fantastic staff, I expect to advance my legislative agenda quite effectively throughout my convalescence, and to resume my duties in full thereafter,” he said.

A graduate of Harvard and Northeastern University law school, Barrett takes his role and duties as a senator seriously every waking hour.  When confronted with a problem or big decision, he puts his emotions aside and methodically collects and weighs the facts.  He would make an excellent judge.  Consider, for example, how he handled himself on February 6 when the State House News Service came calling, but first a little background…
On February 3, The Boston Globe reported that Bryon Hefner, husband of former Senate President Stan Rosenberg, had allegedly been given access to Rosenberg’s Senate email account and had lobbied legislators in 2017 for funding of a social services program he was connected to professionally.  (Before being elected president, Rosenberg promised his colleagues there would be a “firewall” between Hefner and the business of the Senate.)  The February 3 article was the second Globe expose about Hefner within 10 weeks.

Because Barrett had sponsored the budget amendment that provided funds to the Hefner-favored program, the news service wanted to know if Hefner had personally lobbied him.  “I was totally clueless about his apparent interest (in the budget amendment),” Barrett responded. “…I happen to be a state senator that he hasn’t lobbied on anything.”    
On February 6, you could still find many at the State House who believed that Rosenberg, who relinquished the gavel to Acting Senate President Harriette Chandler on December 4, had a plausible path back to the presidency if ongoing investigations produced no evidence of official wrongdoing.

No one seems to be thinking that way now. But, it was reasonable for Barrett to be discussing on February 6 how Rosenberg could become president again.

“I hate to think that he (Rosenberg) might be entirely innocent and yet thrown out of the job. That would disturb me,” Barrett said that day. “I would have felt like I quailed due to the pressures of the moment and I don’t want to believe that I would do that.  Still, it looks difficult.”
Barrett continued, “If he’s exonerated by an independent investigator, yes I do (think Rosenberg could reassume the presidency). 

"Does the weight of circumstantial evidence become heavier and heavier?  Yes, it does…

"Constructing a narrative that permits Stan to return as Senate president becomes more and more difficult.  I could still construct one, and when I say construct one, I don’t mean a fantasy, but a possible sequence of facts.”

Because Barrett allows the members of his own staff to keep tabs on his Senate emails, he said the sharing of access with a spouse “isn’t the killer violation for me.”
He continued, “I’m looking for the smoking gun.  It’s corruption.  It’s skewing the Senate’s business because you promised someone sexual favors.  That would be an indictable offense and a condemnable one. 

"Am I happy about the prospect of sending him (Rosenberg) packing because the weight of circumstantial evidence seems too much to bear and because I feel that his performance would  be impaired?  I would not be happy doing that.”

If proven innocent, Rosenberg could “survive” in the president’s office, Barrett said; however, he doubted the investigations would have such clear-cut results.
“I think it’s going to be a gray-area thing,” Barrett said.  “I don’t think he (Rosenberg) is as guilty as his critics would wish or as innocent as some of us would wish.  I suspect he gave a spouse, a kibitzer, things to do that he probably desperately regrets, and what am I to do about that?  I don’t know.”  

Shortly after Barrett’s February 6 discussion with the State House News Service, it became clear the Senate was in a kind of paralysis due to (a) the latest journalistic allegations against Hefner, and (b) the behind-the-scenes maneuvering by at least three senators who hoped to replace Rosenberg if the Senate Ethics Committee, the Attorney General or some other investigatory body came up with a case against him.
To end the paralysis and to put the Senate in shape to deal effectively with a number of major, pressing issues, Democrat senators, including Rosenberg, voted on February 7 to remove “acting” from the title of Acting Senate President Harriette Chandler.  She’ll serve as a fully empowered president through the end of the 2018.

In the fall of this year, statewide legislative elections will be held, meaning there will be a new House and new Senate when the legislature convenes the first week of January, 2019. 
There’s not much point in any senator trying overly hard to collect votes for the presidency following that of Chandler -- who has vowed not to seek the post next session -- if this fall’s elections could significantly change the Senate line-up.  And they could.  Nor is there much chance Rosenberg could recapture the presidency in the reconfigured Senate of 2019-20, assuming he's re-elected in his Pioneer Valley district, where he remains popular and retains wide support.

The Boston Globe has thrown a large, dark cloud over Stan Rosenberg, but not one piece of evidence against him that could be introduced in court has yet been presented by the Senate Ethics Committee or any other entity or authority.  All who have been quoted in the Globe saying damning things about Rosenberg’s husband were given the cover of anonymity.  Nevertheless, Rosenberg has had to leave one of the three most powerful positions in state government, a job he loved and was good at, because public officials are often held to standards higher than the law and to expectations that exist beyond the realm of their public duties.  Public officials should be held to such standards and expectations.  Still, I feel badly for Rosenberg because he is an exceedingly kind and decent human being; he cares sincerely about enacting good laws and instituting good policies; he was a highly effective Senate leader; he ran the upper branch collegially: members were respected, listened to, and given genuine sway within their areas of expertise and specialization.  Also, I'm convinced he's an ethical person: I believe no investigation will find that he "skewed the Senate's business" or became corrupt under the influence of his husband, from whom he is now separated, or anyone else. I understand why he’s out as president and won’t be back in, but I feel very badly about all that has befallen the man since early-December.

ADDENDUM: Rosenberg is gathering signatures on the papers he must file to be a candidate for re-election in the fall and is "looking forward to the resolution of the ethics investigation," MassLive's Shira Schoenberg reports in an article published yesterday, "Former Senate President Stan Rosenberg: 'I have a vote and a voice.' "  The article delves into the issues Rosenberg is committed to working on for the remainder of the 2017-18 legislative session, such as a climate change.  It may be found at:








Healey Fighting to Stop Bosses from Taking Wait Staff Tips, per Trump's Wish

Friday, February 9, 2018

It appears that someone high up in the Trump administration woke up one day and decided that waiters, waitresses and bartenders are making too much money from tips.

The result is a U.S. Department of Labor proposal to rescind portions of federal regulations that prohibit employers from accessing, or taking portions of, tips given to their employees.  Owners of retail establishments would be newly empowered to put all tips collected by their employees in a common pool and to decide how money from the pool would be used.
The Trump administration is positioning this change “as a boon to ‘back-of-the-house’ workers such as cooks and dishwashers,” reports Fortune magazine.  Hogwash, say the front-line workers who earn the tips by serving and pleasing the public, this is “wage theft” plain and simple.

Tipped workers would lose, in total, $5.8 billion per year in tips that could legally be pocketed by their bosses, the Economic Policy Institute estimates.
According to U.S. News and World Report, the median salary of waiters and waitress in the United States in 2016 was $19,990.  The magazine states on its web site:

“The pay for waiting tables varies greatly, considering waiters and waitresses earn customer tips. Wait staff in an upscale restaurant in San Francisco will most likely take home more cash each night than servers at a pie diner in an unincorporated rural area.  But even though they earn a combination of hourly wages and tips, waiters and waitresses don’t make much money.  According to the BLS (Bureau of Labor Standards), in 2016, servers earned an average hourly wage of $11.73, or about $24,410 for the year.  They made a median salary of $19,990 in 2016.  The highest-paid earned $38,460, and the lowest-paid made $17,090.”
The law in Massachusetts does not allow employers to share any portion of employees’ tips.  In this instance, Massachusetts law takes precedence over federal rule-making; therefore, our waiters, waitresses and bartenders do not have to worry about their employers grabbing a portion of their tips.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is concerned, however, that, if the proposed rule change goes through, confusion among employers and employees would ensue “and may result in improper tip retention by employers” in Massachusetts.
That’s one reason Healey put her signature on a letter sent this past Monday, Feb. 5, to Trump’s labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, and to Melissa Smith, Director of the Division of Regulations, Legislation and Interpretation at the Labor Department, by 17 attorneys general from around the nation, protesting the proposed change, or “rescission,” in these rules, which have been in effect since 2011. Here’s a salient excerpt from that letter:

“The (Labor) Department’s proposed rulemaking contradicts centuries-old employee and consumer expectations about tipping and threatens to seriously injure workers and deceive consumers.  At present, tipped workers, regardless of how their base wage rate is calculated, are the lawful owners of tips and, with very limited exception, employers cannot partake in an employee’s tips.  The proposed rescission completely upends this certainty by failing to define who may participate in tip pools where a worker earns the federal minimum wage.  The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking asserts that, by providing employers with greater flexibility to allocate tips among tipped and non-tipped workers, such as cooks and dishwashers, the primary beneficiaries of rescinding the 2011 rule will be the workers themselves.  Yet, absent concrete definitions of or limitations on valid tip pool participants, the rescission would permit employers to share in such tip pools or even collect all employee tips as their own.  In fact, the Notice (of the proposed change) itself acknowledges that rescinding the 2011 rule would permit employers to use gratuities left for the servicers to ‘make capital improvements’ or ‘lower restaurant menu prices’ and notes that tips may be ‘utilized in part (or in full) by the employer.’ “
Healey says, “When customers pay tips, they expect that money to go to workers.  This proposed rule change allows employers to keep all the tips for themselves, tricking customers and depriving low-wage workers of the wages they earn.”  

No one can be surprised to see her in the thick of this effort.  Legally speaking, Healey is always to ready to knock that bright-red, oversized “Make America Great Again” hat off the president’s head. 
Regardless of whether she and her like-minded attorneys general succeed here, there’s at least a personal upside: Maura Healey’s now guaranteed to receive five-star service from the wait staff any time she’s eating out in Massachusetts!