Saturday, May 22, 2010

Johnnie Baseball at A.R.T. is a winner

Move over Damn Yankees! There’s a new musical about the Boston Red Sox, and it’s a home run.

Red Sox fans, run, do not walk, to the American Repertory Theatre’s wonderful production of Johnny Baseball, a rich and richly entertaining musical about the Red Sox, race in America and the community of perpetual hope.

The basic premise of the story is that the curse that lasted for 86 years was not a result of the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees but the racism that had the Sox turning their backs on the likes of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. It was 1959 before the Red Sox became the last team in major league baseball to hire a Negro. Having grown up in Boston, I well remember Pumpsie Green, who was never going to be the powerhouse that we could have had with Robinson, Mays or Sam Jethroe if the owners hadn’t been so narrow-minded. (It was more the owners and Sox management than the city. Sam Jethroe, who participated in the same sham tryout with Robinson, became National League rookie of the year in 1950 with the Boston Braves, just a half a mile away!)

Playwright Richard Dresser reportedly has said the inspiration for Johnny Baseball came from watching the 2003 ALCS finale between Red Sox-Yankees when the Sox were ahead by 5-2 but folded in the 11th inning in a dramatic and all too familiar way. Damn Yankees! Damn Grady Little, for that matter, for leaving Pedro Martinez in when he had run out of gas.

Beneath the humor and the touching tale, the introduction of the team’s very real racism keeps Johnny Baseball from being just a feel-good song fest. The musical, which blends fact with fiction, echoes the theme of the excellent book Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston by former Herald sportswriter Howard Bryant. The play deservedly takes the luster off local icons Tom Yawkey and Joe Cronin, though apologists continue to argue they were merely products of their times.

The songs and the voices are mostly really really good; the staging is innovative; the pacing is spirited. New A.R.T. director Diane Paulus has distinguished herself with Johnny Baseball, redeeming herself after a disastrous production of Paradise Lost. Members of Red Sox nation will identify with the gallows humor of perpetually disappointed Red Sox fans (the chorus, in this case) and their bargains with God (“One more run and I’ll give up cigarettes!”)

Among the fictionalized characters, you’re going to love the portrayal of the drinking, womanizing Babe Ruth (Burke Moses) who on his deathbed says his only regret is having spent so much time with his family. The heart of the show is a love story between Johnnie O’Brien (Colin Donnell) , a white pitcher on the 1919 Red Sox, and a beautiful and talented black singer named Daisy Wyatt (Stephanie Umoh). I don’t want to give away more of the story.

Brothers Robert and Willie Reale did a fine job creating the music and lyrics, building on the story collaboration between Willie Reale and Richard Dresser and Dresser’s book. Credit should also go to Nancy Houfek, voice and dialect coach, who helped create Boston accents that didn’t want to make me cringe.

Johnny Baseball runs through June 27 at the American Repertory Theater on Brattle Street in Cambridge. By then, maybe the Red Sox will be playing more than 500 baseball.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kitty Kelley visits Boston to market Oprah (unauthorized) bio

Kitty Kelley gets no respect. People sniff disdainfully at her books because she does unauthorized biographies of celebrities. The fact is, however, that she’s darn good at what she does. Her books are immaculately and exhaustively researched; then they’re vetted by teams of lawyers to ensure they’re not libelous. And Kelley asks the questions you perhaps have been dying to know but were too embarrassed to ask.

Kelley was in town yesterday to promote her latest book, “Oprah.” She made the tours of the usual media outlets and capped the day at a book signing party. The diminutive Kelley has taken on some of the world’s most powerful people. Oprah, she said, was the hardest to do of all her books. Getting people to talk to her about Frank Sinatra was hard because sources feared ending up dead or beaten up. Getting people to talk to her about the Bushes or about the Reagans was hard because sources feared losing their jobs in government. Getting people to talk to her about Oprah Winfrey was the worst because sources feared losing access to Oprah’s vast circle of contacts.

Barbara Walters, Kelley said, refused to let her come on The View for fear of alienating Oprah. Walters, said Kelley, should know better because she’s a journalist, who owes her career to the First Amendment and open discussion.

Kelley reveals Oprah, warts and all. It’s not just a question of exploring her relationship with her fiancĂ© of nearly two decades or her best girlfriend. Kelley delves into Oprah’s childhood stories of poverty and abuse, her prostitution, her drug abuse, her meteoric rise in television, her expanding business empire, her conversion from a decade of sensationalism to self-help programming, her charitable endeavors, her status as a role model for black women and, indeed, all women, her secrecy and her place in the pantheon of celebrities.

In the end, Kelley says, despite the documented tell-all aspects of the story, she remains in awe of Oprah and her accomplishments. Every larger-than-life figure, even society’s icons, need to be put under the microscope, and Kitty Kelley’s reportorial skills are as good as any at making that happen.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Patrick wowing ‘em on the campaign trail

Governor Deval Patrick is in high gear! He’s all energy, enthusiasm and confidence out on the campaign trail. He has long had a good story to tell about his administration’s accomplishments: pension reform, ethics reform, education reform, transportation agency consolidation, collaboration with the legislature to pass budgets reflecting more than $9 billion in recession-induced revenue cuts, using civilian flaggers on state construction sites, implementing the state’s health reform law, and more. But he was not getting the word out. Now he is, and effectively, too.

He tells of riding with President Obama from Logan Airport to a spring event in Boston. When Obama asked him how things were going, the Governor replied that there were just two things he didn’t like: asking for money and bragging about his administration’s accomplishments. The President’s response was simple: “Get over it, Deval.”

And so he has. Perhaps it was the President’s advice. Perhaps it’s that the Governor really does like campaigning. Perhaps seeing his polling numbers go up by 11 points in the wake of the Republican governors attack ads on Tim Cahill. Perhaps all of the above.

Yesterday in Newton he told a crowd at the Marriott Hotel that he is not seeking reelection as a reward for the accomplishments of his first term but for the challenges that remain in a second term. He particularly singled out controlling health costs as a priority. But he also spoke more broadly about values, the role of government in doing those things that people can’t do for themselves. As Congressman Barney Frank had observed in introducing Patrick, “No tax cut ever put out a fire.”

In other words, notwithstanding Tea Party assertions, there is a purpose in government, and people shouldn’t shy away from embracing the community that government represents.

What is clear is that Deval Patrick is now engaged and energized. It’s a long campaign, but for now the jokes about his candidacy and his chances are gone.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Paul Sullivan Lives On

The late Paul Sullivan lit up our lives. Today, three years after the former WBZ talk show host succumbed to cancer, he still lights up lives through the Paul Sullivan Leadership Institute at Middlesex Community College in Lowell.

Every year the Institute selects a dozen students, men and women, to go through a ten-month program preparing them for becoming leaders in the workforce and in their community. Run by Sullivan’s widow, Mary-Jo Griffin, the program uses workshops, offsite programs and community events to teach these young people about everything from public speaking and etiquette to team building, leadership skills, media and the importance of community service.

Paul was a friend of mine. He participated as a panelist on my Five on Five program on Channel 5 WCVB-TV, where the late WBZ talk show David Brudnoy discovered him and brought him to WBZ-radio. Paul had been a favorite on Lowell radio and at the Lowell Sun. He would have loved seeing how his dream of the institute has succeeded, bringing students together with business and government leaders to learn the skills necessary to becoming the community’s leaders of the future.

The students begin the program uncertain and unsure of themselves. Ten months later they have blossomed, shining examples of poise and self-confidence. The Institute accomplishes this by moving them outside their comfort zones.

Take Moses, an international student from Kenya. English is his third language. He has taken to heart the motto of the leadership training workshops, believing firmly that “If I’m not going to correct the mistakes of my country, then who will?” His father once told him that, in naming his son Moses, the baby was the one would “deliver our family from the troubles of life.” Moses is studying filmmaking and theater and shines as an emerging leader.

Another fellow, Jackie, a young mother, says of the Paul Sullivan Institute, that it is the first year she has ever felt included or recognized for her skills and hard work. She says she’ll be going back to the workplace knowing she has a leg up.

All different ethnicities, ages, interests and experiences, but sharing an enthusiasm for the Paul Sullivan Institute that would have made Paul very proud. Too bad the Fellows never had a chance to meet this funny, compassionate, understanding, reasonable and amiable everyman. His easygoing manner and wit belied an incisive understanding of issues and accurate insight into people. He would be someone all the Fellows could look up to, the kind of guy who continues to be missed, several years after he is gone.

Lowell Mayor Jim Milinazzo congratulates the Fellows, while MCC President Carol Cowan and State Rep Tom Golden applaud.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Getting Paid Extra for Doing What You’re Supposed To

Howie Carr and Adrian Walker don’t usually agree on much, but they, and most other sentient individuals, are appalled by the 19 percent increase an arbitrator last week awarded to the Boston firefighters union. They, and not the arbitrator, are dead right.

The increase, awarded retroactively over FY ’07, ’08 and ’09 and arriving for some as lump sum checks for $20,000, is Local #718’s compensation for agreeing to submit to random drug and alcohol testing. The rest of us, as a Boston Herald editorial aptly pointed out, are rewarded for showing up sober and drug-free by getting to keep our jobs. The firefighters insist on getting paid extra, even in difficult economic times, for just doing what they’re supposed to do. As the Herald editorial said, “public works employees who drive trucks under a federal commercial driver’s license undergo testing as a matter of law.” What was the arbitrator smoking?

What’s worse, this won’t be the end of it. For one thing, the firefighters’ contract is up at the end of June. Doubtless they’ll be back at the trough, wallowing in the public coffers and asking for more and more. And it won’t end there because, if the firefighters get such lavish increases, the police union will surely be quick to compete.

The arbitration is binding on the union and the Mayor, but the City Council doesn’t have to vote to fund the agreement. This is going to cost the city a cool $74 million, and, as the Mayor notes, the city can’t afford it.

Council President Michael Ross will be tested here. How brave will he be to stand up to the union and protect the interests of all the city?

As spelled out in Adrian Walker’s column, the arbitrator wrote, “I conclude that the city’s proposal to skim the frosting, pocket the cake, and avoid paying the fair, reasonable and affordable value of the meal is a hound that will not hunt.” Huh? And, in computing the cost, the arbitrator comes in at half what the Mayor projects because he stupidly fails to include the cost of back pay and benefits.

As I see it, the arbitrator can’t write, he can’t count and he doesn’t use common sense. Unless the City Council stands tall, that adds up to an unspeakable financial disaster for the City of Boston.
- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Baker’s Dozen – Food for thought in the gubernatorial campaign, part 2

Our assignment today, fellow students, is to look beyond gubernatorial candidates’ touting of what they’ve done (which all may be laudable) and explore their recommendations of where we go from here. So let’s look at the rest of Republican Charlie Baker’s “Baker’s Dozen” proposals, released earlier this week.

6. Reform Medicaid – He estimates between $175M to $250M in savings. Baker mentions moving Medicaid into managed care plans. Ed King tried this, proposing to give Medicaid recipients one point of entry into the health care system through their primary care providers. Advocates protested that this would be creating an inequitable two-tier system, with a more restrictive access for Medicaid recipients than everyone else. When Mike Dukakis returned to the State House in 1982 and named the late Manny Carballo his human services secretary, the executive branch stopped managed care for Medicaid recipients dead in its tracks. But now that there’s a broader appreciation of the problems with runaway fee-for-service, it’s time to revisit the possibilities of managed care for the Medicaid population.

7. Require proof of legal residency for state benefits – Baker projects between $10M to $25M in savings but pushed everyone’s hot buttons when asserting that even a homeless shelter or other emergency services should require that proof of legal residency before extending a helping hand. Open mouth; insert foot. He has since backtracked from that. There’s an argument to be made for more uniformity in requirements across state agencies, but he has muddled this discussion by painting in overly broad strokes and playing to Arizona-like anti-immigrant hostility.

8. Conduct forensic financial analysis for benefits eligibility – Between $10M to $20M in savings. Baker wants to do a “lifestyle analysis” – looking at credit card bills, recreation activities, auto loans, grocery bills – to see if a person getting public services is spending more than he or she is declaring in income to be eligible for assistance. If spending does exceed declare income, then something smells bad and warrants attention. But I admit that the notion of doing a “lifestyle analysis” to confirm eligibility is a little creepy. Could buying Grey Poupon rather than the store brand cause someone to be dropped from welfare?

9. Eliminate costly duplication of services for Medicaid and Medicare – Between $50M to $70M in savings – Apparently there are more than 100,000 dual eligible seniors who could, if they chose, participate in the so-called Senior Care Options Plan, a managed care approach that provides all the benefits of MassHealth plus Medicare. Elders would have to use Senior Care network providers like doctors and pharmacists, but they’d get additional benefits, for example, dental, vision, hearing, senior day care, medical transportation. I’d like to know how Baker specifically would increase participation in the program and how he computes the savings.

10. Bring welfare reform in line with federal standards, - between $50 m and $75 m in savings, largely by imposing stricter work requirements. Most everyone nods affirmatively, but, given the large number of unemployed in today’s economy and the scarcity of jobs, how Baker would do this is anybody’s guess. And what about the offsetting costs of job training and day care services needed to support welfare recipients in the work world?

11. Offer incentives to state agencies to collect state revenues – Between $15M to $25M in savings – That is, let them keep more of the fees they collect to incentivize their diligence in collecting what is owed to the state. Democrat-turned-Independent quasi Republican Tim Cahill, Mr. Incentivizer, should like that one! But if they get to keep 10% more of the fees collected will that mean a reduced budget the next year?

12. Charge inmates room and board – Between $10M to $40M in savings – to offset the costs of incarceration. For those who can’t pay, add it up and forgive them for good behavior upon their release. I suppose having to pay room and board is a lesson in the realities of life for inmates, supposed to help them when they are released, but can someone tell me where they’ll get the scratch? Is this to be a jail tax for their “not guilty” families? Will time be added to the sentences of those who fail to pay? If some pay for their room and board and others are free riders, is that fair?

13. Restructure overly generous public employee retiree benefits– Between $50M to $100M in savings, according to Baker. Similar to pension reform, the state must also reform the “other post-employment benefits” provided to state employees. The state is facing a $15 billion unfunded liability due to the overly generous benefits – namely health benefits – provided to state employees upon retirement. Baker would increase eligibility from 10 years of service to 15. What’s wrong with this? Hey, most of us don’t even get retiree health benefits.

Baker would also increase the eligibility age for retiree health benefits from age 55 to age 60. Why not? This isn’t Greece. Don’t the rest of us have to wait for Medicare until the age of 65? And he’d require state employees, who now contribute a measly 15 percent towards their health insurance premiums upon retirement, to pay more. (He’d have a tiered system depending on how many years they worked.) Again, those of us in the private sector contribute a heck of a lot more toward our coverage.

I really want readers to weigh in on Baker’s dozen, almost as much as I want the Governor to tell us where he is on each of these proposals.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Baker’s Dozen – Food for thought in the gubernatorial campaign, part 1

Political campaigns in a media age too often amount to little more than sound bites, manipulation of symbols and repetitive slogans. Substantive discussion of issues? Fuhggeddabout it! Everyone’s in favor of “eliminating the waste,” “cutting the fat but not the bone,” and “making government more efficient.” Specifics of where and how much are usually lacking.

Deval Patrick’s record since becoming Governor is fair game. And voters deserve a thoughtful debate on the issues. Charlie Baker took a good first step in announcing his “Bakers’ dozen” – 13 - proposals that provide a terrific vehicle for discussing what’s wrong with the Commonwealth and what should be done about it.

With Governor Patrick-led major reforms in education, pensions, transportation, ethics, automobile insurance, and police details plus his implementation of the first-in-the-nation health law, all while having to cut $9 billion from the state budget so far, it’s hard to accept Baker’s assertion that “The mentality here on Beacon Hill is tax and spend first, reform last.” Patrick’s record is not unassailable, but he has actually done quite a lot—more than many other administrations--though he’s only recently begun to tout the achievements.

Nevertheless, who wouldn’t want to save a cool billion more, if it could be done wisely? So, let’s look at how the “Baker’s Dozen” proposes to do so.

1. Public construction projects should be open to all bidders. End project labor agreements (PLA’s) that exclude 80 percent of the market from bidding on projects. Projected savings of up to $100 million. This seems to be a no brainer. Would someone explain to me why this proposal doesn’t make sense? Note: The Governor has already ticked off the unions with his reform of police details. Why not look at the PLA’s?

2. Lower health care costs for cities and towns for another $100 million by allowing local governments to get coverage through the Group Insurance Commission, which is how it’s done with state employees. Patrick took the first step in permitting local unions to join the state health plan. However, it requires the approval of 70 percent of local workers’ unions. No wonder just 19 of the state’s 351 communities have been able to take advantage of this cost savings. Why not eliminate the 70% requirement and bring city and town workers’ coverage in line with what the rest of us are struggling with? Unfortunately, legislators are afraid of touching the issue. Baker’s point is a good one, but would he have any more luck with a heavily Democratic legislature?

3. Implement real pension reform for $50M in savings. After years of talk and no action by others on Beacon Hill, Patrick has taken important first steps toward pension reform and it is not fair to claim he has done nothing. But more can be done. Baker gets pretty specific about how he’d further reform state workers’ pensions, and his specifics do make sense. The question is: how much further are the Governor and the public willing to go? This is a good area for thoughtful debate. I want to know more.

4. End union control of public contracts – between $75M to $100M in savings – by ending the Pacheco Law. Certainly some modification of the law should be up for discussion so that private contractors could at least compete more easily for contracts to provide certain government services. Public workers would have to be able to compete as well, but maybe the taxpayers would get a better deal if there were such competition. (See Scot Lehigh’s analysis in today’s Globe.) Baker calls for providing “more flexibility in making determinations.” And why not? Baker suggests areas in which this might work, including highway maintenance, IT infrastructure, vehicle fleet management, Medicaid billing, toll collections, park and building management, and more. While it’s not clear whether meaningful savings can be achieved, shouldn’t each area be reviewed and the tradeoffs publicly discussed?

5. Consolidate and shrink state government – Baker claims at least $400M in savings. Here the Governor fights back that there are holes in Baker’s analysis. Maybe so. But we need details from both sides. Shouldn’t we at least have a discussion of how specifically the challenger would implement his proposals and to what extent the incumbent sees merit in proceeding on any of them now? Unlike other challengers, Baker comes to the race with an insider’s understanding of the executive branch. So please tell us how a Baker Administration would deal with the frustrating political realities of making changes – e.g., the buzz saw that Patrick ran into when trying to consolidate economic development agencies. And, most importantly, just how would Baker, a former Human Services secretary, make administrative cuts without hurting the state’s most vulnerable recipients of state services?

Baker specifically recommends consolidation of health and human services, which eat up half the state budget. But just how would consolidation work? Could it be made better for non-profit providers, making it easier for them to deal with state bureaucracy? But what about the client population? Would consolidation just make it easier to cut necessary services that the homeless, or the disabled, need to survive? Could the so-called reform proposals by intent or unintended consequence be a veiled plan to do to human services what capitation did to health coverage in the ‘90’s? [Disclosure: one of my clients is a human services provider committed to maintaining quality care in tough economic times.]

All of Baker’s 13 recommendations involve tradeoffs, which should be debated widely and deeply over the coming months. I’ll continue my take on these when I complete my review of the Baker’s Dozen in tomorrow’s blog.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Tim Cahill's Independent Candidacy: Neither Here Nor There

Tim Cahill appears to be a nice guy with a pleasant sense of humor. Over time he has become more relaxed and articulate in his public presentations, but when he speaks—and when he answers questions-- he skims the surface of topics, offering messaging themes and often avoiding specifics. Right now, his function is to divide the anti-Deval Patrick vote and drive Charlie Baker further to the right.

Speaking at a recent breakfast sponsored by Denterlein Worldwide and Associated Industries of Massachusetts, he said why he is running as an Independent, without providing any sophisticated critique of partisan politics or explaining how an Independent governorship here would actually work.

His line: “The two-party system can no longer solve our problems. It’s not fixing our economy. Jobs are the #1 concern. We need good people from both sides. There’s too much partisan bickering.” It appears he is simply making a generalized appeal to unenrolled voters here, who make up the plurality of the MA electorate, without fully appreciating the variations, subtleties and different motivations of those who choose to be officially unaffiliated. Most unenrolled voters are not without partisan predilections. And those who are truly non-partisan often end up not voting.

Certainly the two-party system at the federal level is stymied by toxic partisanship, and worse. But in Massachusetts there’s not enough partisan bickering, let alone rational debate. Frustration with the longtime one-party domination of the legislature, tied to the powers and personalities of strong leaders, contributed to the ticket-spitting that put Weld, Cellucci and Romney in the corner office. And Cahill probably assumes that this gives him his opening. But what is he offering?

Cahill insists the state’s health law, what he calls “RomneyCare,” is “ruining the state” and that he’d increase access through competition. But that horse has left the barn. For decades, unfettered competition was the approach, and it meant skyrocketing prices that froze many out of coverage. As for the big teaching hospitals’ controlling the market and raising costs, Cahill thinks consumers should be able to shop around in this competitive market, which would incentivize them to go to outlying hospitals, smaller and less costly than the teaching hospitals. This may work in theory, but are you going to price shop when you’re facing an emergency appendectomy or a brain tumor?

He says that Deval Patrick’s effort to control health premiums to help small businesses (by having state regulators reject excessive rates) “may help in the short term but is not a long-term solution.” Cahill’s support of letting insurance companies sell across state lines and introducing more insurance products into the marketplace has some appeal, but he puts too much faith in the competitive model in health care. And shouldn’t we be focused on making the state’s health law work rather than vaporizing it at this stage of the process?

“Incentivizing” is a big theme for Cahill, who cites the strategy he adopted as Treasurer in funding school construction (districts that choose one of the state’s architectural designs will get more state construction dollars). He criticizes as the wrong incentive bailing out the city of Lawrence when it had mired itself in debt. Would he let it go bankrupt? He agrees that municipal workers should all be in the state’s insurance plan, but he’d get there through incentivizing them to support it and, as governor, wouldn’t take on the legislature to remove the requirement that 70% of them must approve such a move. He said he’d go along with it if the legislature passes that a bill to that effect, but prefers that it be collectively bargained. Fat chance that the legislature will go that route!

Cahill’s incentivizing call has its limits. When it comes to a gas tax increase designed to incentive conservation, his opposition to taxes trumps incentivizing the reduction of gas guzzling. And, while opposing Cape Wind because of the cost to ratepayers, he doesn’t say how he’d incentivize the development of non-fossil-fuel-based energy sources.

Cahill takes several pages from the Republicans’ playbook and says he’d stimulate jobs by cutting taxes (sales, corporate, income and capital gains). He’d oppose recent legislation to direct government monies be invested in areas that create jobs. “Government shouldn’t have an industrial policy,” he said. But he would support Speaker DeLeo’s casino and racino gambling proposal.

Here and there Cahill makes a point (e.g., his position on school construction). But this business of running as an Independent comes across as a kind of splatter painting, bold strokes of opposition to how things are but no sense of how realistically he’d use the power of the office to do much beyond dismantling.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.