Dem Congressional Primary Choice: Budget Prizes or Progressive Wish List

Saturday, July 27, 2019

I cannot predict who will be voting for Alex Morse in the Democratic primary election for the U.S. House in the First Massachusetts District in September of 2020, but I can tell you who will be voting against Morse in droves: elected and appointed officials in Springfield, Pittsfield, North Adams and many other cities and towns in western Massachusetts.  They won't want to lose the juice of longtime First District incumbent Richard Neal, Morse's primary opponent.  (Nor would I if I lived or held office in that district.)

Neal has been in the Congress as long as Morse has been alive, 30 years.  Now, at the pinnacle of his political career, Neal is at last chairing the Ways & Means Committee, meaning he influences every major budgetary decision at the federal level, including which local, in-state projects get funds from Uncle Sam.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno is one of many office holders in western Massachusetts who are dreaming big because of Neal's newly acquired power.

During a meeting this past Tuesday of the East-West Passenger Rail Advisory Committee, which is reviewing options for binding Springfield to Boston via high-speed rail, Sarno mused on how this could actually be the moment when the people Massachusetts might get the feds to write big checks for the rail link.  "With Neal there, if they (the Congress) do infrastructure (this session), it could happen," he said. 

Sarno was referring to a bill -- long talked about in D.C., supposedly supported by majorities in both parties, but not yet filed -- that would address major infrastructure needs around the nation.

Since 1993, when Neal was first appointed to Ways & Means, pundits and plainfolk have speculated on the positive implications for his district and the entire Commonwealth if he were to become Ways & Means chair one day.

Now that that day has arrived, it's hard to imagine -- but certainly not out of the question -- that the First District would kick Neal to the curb and hand his job to Morse.  After Ayanna Pressley soundly beat 20-year-incumbent Mike Capuano in the Seventh Massachusetts House District last September, we don't laugh at longshots any more.

By the way, Morse told the publication "Mother Jones" he'd "be thrilled to be welcomed into the Squad," the foursome of first-term women members of the House, including Pressley, who have been pushed to the center of the nation's political discourse by President Trump's strategy of endlessly vilifying them on Twitter and at rallies. 

Could Morse be hoping Trump will start assassinating his character, too, thereby eliciting support and donations for his insurgent campaign from Trump haters everywhere?  In the theater of politics, persecution is good box office.

For old line Democrats in the Congress, a new world seems to be taking shape.  They now have to fear being "primaried" from the left by progressives almost as much as Republicans have for 10 years feared Tea Partiers coming at them from the right.

Morse, a graduate of Brown University, achieved boy wonder status in politics on Nov. 8, 2011, when he was elected, at age 22, as the youngest-ever mayor of Holyoke.  He was an even bigger boy wonder than Neal in his day.  (The guy everyone knows as Richie was 30 when elected Springfield City Council president and 34 when elected mayor.) 

We have here a clash both of ideals and generations.  The passions unleashed in contests of this nature guarantee that the race for the Democratic nomination in the First House District will be fierce. 

Neal wins in the end, I say, because he's is more naturally genial and humble than Capuano was, the First District is inherently more conservative than the Seventh, the First District needs the largesse of the federal government more desperately than the Seventh, and a Ways & Means potentate can deliver the goods better than a Squad newbie.


Hats Off to (a) the Inspector General, and (b) the Secretary of State

Monday, July 8, 2019

Let's hope this is an idea whose time has come.

For the second legislative session in a row, Inspector General Glenn Cunha is advocating for a bill that would require trustees of public colleges and universities in Massachusetts to undergo oversight training.

The idea is that many (volunteer) trustees, through no fault of their own, don't understand or fully grasp their powers and responsibilities to police what goes on at their institutions and that they could be whiffing on opportunities to make (paid) administrators toe the line.

When Cunha testified on behalf of House Bill 8, An Act Relative to Higher Education Boards of Trustees, on June 11, he cited the case of former Westfield State University President Evan Dobelle. 

A former mayor of Pittsfield, Dobelle was found in 2014 to have "misused thousands of (state/university) dollars" on personal purchases and international travel, Cunha said in testimony before the Joint Committee on Higher Education.  At the time of the misspending, Westfield State trustees were "unaware" they had the ability to question Dobelle's conduct, Cunha explained.

Previously, Cunha has said Dobelle "set up a dynamic where the board (members) thought they worked for him, rather than the other way around."

If HB 8 were to become law, members of the boards at all public colleges and universities -- there are 29 of them -- would have to go through a day of training devoted to topics such as the state's open meeting law, procurement practices, fraud prevention, fiduciary responsibilities, conflicts of interest, and what constitutes a public record.  Roughly 250 trustees would be covered by the mandate.

During the 2017-18 session, the Joint Committee on Higher Education gave an earlier, identical iteration of the bill a favorable report and sent it to the House Committee on Steering, Policy and Scheduling in the hope that it could be put on the calendar for a vote in the lower branch.  But time ran out: the legislature adjourned on July 31, 2018, without giving it a vote.

Speaking of oversight (and ethics), I'd like to direct your attention to an excellent article by Michael Jonas, which appeared yesterday in the online version of CommonWealth Magazine, "Old friends now in Beacon Hill face-off,"

It concerns the Joe-Friday/by-the-book approach taken by Secretary of State Bill Galvin to the attempt by former House Speaker Sal DiMasi to register as a lobbyist.  When DiMasi tried to register with the Lobbyist Division in the Secretary of State's office, Galvin rejected his application on the ground that DiMasi had been convicted of federal corruption charges and would not be eligible to become a lobbyist, under state law, until 10 years had elapsed since the conviction.  The two have known each other for decades and often socialized during their early days together in the House.

"To longtime Beacon Hill observers, the clash of the two State House veterans is playing out as an awkward conflict between one-time friends," Jonas writes. Galvin, through a spokeswoman, dismisses such talk. 

"It isn't awkward," he bristles, "it's the law."

No matter what is ever said about Bill Galvin, he knows the law, he's honest, and he's got a backbone.

This Moment in Corruption: Fare Collection Boxes Were T Employee's Piggy Bank

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

As a daily rider, I find myself drawn to the bad news emanating from the MBTA with morbid fascination.  There's nearly always something to be fascinated by.

Take the fare hikes that went into effect on July 1, which beaten-down commuters have been yipping about for weeks.  The heat is on every Boston politician to condemn the higher fares and the thinking that led to them.

Or take the scary shortfall in the taxpayer-subsidized T employees pension fund, which provides the unavailable-in-private-sector option of a very early retirement, with lifetime pensions.

The Boston Globe reported on June 29 that the fund is in "the danger zone" because, for the first time in at least three decades, it is less than 50% funded.  "At the close of last year," the Globe article said, "the MBTA Retirement Fund's liabilities climbed past $2.91 billion, more than double the $1.45 billion it reported in assets..."  The fund is under water.

Fact: In 2018, one in three MBTA retirees was younger than 55.

Not all the discouraging T news gets the attention it deserves.  If you have seen anything in the last few days, for example, about the former T employee who pleaded guilty to stealing more than $450,000 from fare collection boxes he was responsible for repairing, you haven't seen (or heard) much. 

One solitary employee-thief was closing in on half a mill in ill-gotten gains when someone finally suspected something funny and ran a sting to bring him down!

According to a press release from the office of MA Attorney General Maura Healey, Stephen P. Fagerberg, age 54, of Dedham, pleaded guilty in Suffolk Superior Court on June 28 to two counts of Larceny Over $1,200 in a Continuous Scheme. 

Judge Linda Giles sentenced Fagerberg to a two-year split sentence, with six months to serve in prison and the balance suspended for two years.  Fagerberg will also have to serve two years of probation on conditions that include his paying $458,694 in restitution and forfeiting all contributions he made to the MBTA Retirement Fund.

As an automated fare technician, Fagerberg repaired fare collection boxes on T buses parked in South Boston.  Healey's office began investigating him in April, 2018.

"Following an undercover operation that included planting marked bills in fare collection boxes that Fagerberg services," the press release said, "authorities found that the defendant deposited the marked bills into his personal bank account via a drive-up ATM."

Fagerberg was indicted in September, 2018.

Let's hope he makes good on the commitment to full restitution.