Saturday, December 31, 2011

Headline wishes for 2012

My friend and colleague Tom Waseleski, editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, always prepares for New Year’s Day an aspirational list of headlines from which  many of us could benefit. Here, with my own imprint, are the headlines I’d like to see in 2012.

National Jobless Rate Drops Below 7 Percent

Those Benefiting from New Health Care Law Organize to Defend it

GOP, Dems Achieve Deficit Reduction Grand Bargain

Congress Passes Dream Act

Congress Passes Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Patriots Win Super Bowl

Pakistan Routs Terrorist Strongholds

U.S. Withdraws from Afghanistan: Woman Elected President

Sanctions Work: Iran Accepts Nuclear Restraints

Buyers’ Remorse: Tea Party loses House seats

New Bookstores Thrive across State and Nation

Congress Closes Loopholes in U.S. Tax Code

Spring Comes Early to Massachusetts

Tough New Gambling Commission Becomes Model for Country

Patrick Health Cost Containment Law  Embraced by All

Taxpayers Win: Cities and Towns Join Group Insurance Commission

Massachusetts Leads Nation in Creating New Businesses

Candidates Obama, Romney Thoughtfully Debate Role of Government

Boston Celtics Win More Games Than  They Lose

Democrats Lead Fight to Raise Social Security Age

Republicans Support Raising Income Threshold for Social Security Tax

Fears of Arab Winter Unfounded

Bruins Repeat

Cure Found for Black Spots on Roses

Boston Schools Transfer Millions from Busing to Classroom

Bill Bellichick Speaks in Paragraphs

U.S. Companies Bring Offshore Jobs Home

Tech Support from Bangalore Call Centers becomes Comprehensible

Mayor Menino, Don Chiofaro DineTogether in new Greenway Restaurant

Eyesore Removed : Downtown Crossing Cuts Ribbon for Filene’s Replacement;

Wall Street Bonuses Pegged to Quality not Volume

Congress Votes Global Warming, Energy Independence Law; Obama Signs

US Passes China as Green Technology Leader

Red Sox Atone for 2011 Epic Meltdown

Arons-Barron's Husband Finishes Long-awaited Book

Best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2011.

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il deaths trigger synthetic and real mourning

The national mourning following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is so staged as to be laughable. Its purpose was to reinforce the idea that people should cope with the “grief” by staying loyal to Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un. This should be fodder for the next edition of Saturday Night Live. Far more convincing is the national mourning for Czech president Vaclav Havel.

Havel, Czechoslovakia’s dissident essayist and playwright also died this past weekend. He had led the human rights movement in the then-Soviet bloc and spent five years behind bars and decades under secret police scrutiny for challenging the Soviet regime. Contrary to Kim Jon Il’s embrace of militarism and nuclear threat, Havel, through his writings and moral authority, was the inspiration behind the bloodless end to 40 years of Communist rule, the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Havel was “the moral voice of his country and his era,’’ said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, as reported by Associated Press. “His humanity, humility and decency were an example for us all.’’

Havel's significance ws driven home to me in May of 1990, just after the Velvet Revolution. He had recently been elected the new republic’s first president after the Communists were forced out. I had the privilege of travelling for a month in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as a member of the National Conference of Editorial Writers (now the Association of Opinion Journalists). The wall had come down in Berlin, and elections were underway during our visit there. We were in Bucharest for the first Romanian election since the downfall of Nicolae Ceausescu. And we were in Prague during the reorganization of government after the election of the first post-Communist president. The lilacs were in bloom across the city and countryside, and people were quite literally dancing in the streets of this charming, old world jewel of a town.

The Prague Spring Music Festival was about to take place. The opening concert was sold out. Hartford Courant editorial page editor Bob Schrepf had made the acquaintance of a couple of members of the Czech Philharmonic orchestra, who agreed to smuggle five of us up to the second balcony – standing room only. Bodies pressed together uncomfortably but no one complained; it must have been 95 degrees at that altitude in the small confines of a box. Satin gowns, which had probably been in storage since the Second World War, added to the pungent odor and intensity of the experience.

There were just two pieces on the program, the Czech national anthem and Smetana’s Ma Vlast, “my country,” in effect, a symphonic national anthem. The conductor was Rafael Kubilik, the aged maestro who had fled the country 40 years before with his wife and two suitcases, vowing never to return until his country was free. Just before Kubelik raised his baton, a ripple of excitement. Vaclav Havel appeared in the presidential box. The audience roared, and the music soared. Rose petals, from tossed bouquets, were strewn on the stage, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Emotion quite unlike the manufactured tears of the orchestrated crowds in North Korea.

The bloom is off the rose. Vaclav Klaus, a doctrinaire free-boot capitalist, narrow minded nationalist (who is reflexively opposing EU solutions to the current crisis), and singularly unpleasant man who demeaned Havel and his views both privately and publicly, succeeded Havel as president. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the promise of The Velvet Revolution was never as rich as that Prague Spring in 1990. Havel was less effective in office than he was working from the outside. But his death last weekend reminds us of the power a man’s character can have when his persona is imprinted on a people’s movement, when his words and charisma speak to anything being possible. He was a true symbol of the audacity of hope, and the power of language to inspire.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
photo Havel by Associated Press

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Casino czar smart choice

Naming Steve Crosby to chair the state’s newly created gambling commission is a very smart decision by Governor Patrick. If casinos are finally to be built in Massachusetts, at least there will be someone of integrity to oversee their licensing and operation. Crosby is well suited to carry out the goals of fairness and transparency. As he put it, his mission is to make sure that there are more of the good things to happen from casinos (jobs, for example) than there are the bad things.

In Pennsylvania, those bad things included “cronyism, patronage, back-room deals, overlooked criminal histories, and alleged mob ties in the industry,” according to the Boston Globe. If he keeps those problems at bay, then one might also hope for a minimum of the other bad things that happen around casinos, like prostitution, check kiting, addiction, though there’s no guarantee. I’m concerned about the tendency for states to backslide on carefully drawn gambling rules when they need more cash.

Crosby’s background includes a little bit of everything (including newspaper work, for The Real Paper, and developing the Smart Routes traffic monitoring company). He has thrived in the political arena, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. He campaigned for Boston Mayor Kevin White, a Democrat, in the 70’s, was chief of staff and budget director under Republican Governors Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift, and served as co-chair of Deval Patrick’s transition team on budget and finance.

It’s no wonder that political /public life is his passion. Crosby’s parents were dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrats. His mother, Jean, ran late Congressman Bob Drinan’s (Barney Frank’s predecessor) district office. His father, Harry, a WWII fighter plane navigator, was an anti-Vietnam War activist and a progressive member of the Newton Board of Aldermen.

Recently Steve Crosby has been Dean of the McCormack School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. One of his roles has been helping Chancellor Keith Motley in the development of a long-term strategic plan. That capacity for seeing the big picture and proceeding analytically and systematically should help him develop a solid grounding for the state’s approach to casino regulation.

My only concern is that he has promised the Governor just two years of the seven-year term to which he has been appointed. It’s hard to believe it will be long enough to get casino gambling established and running according to the rules that will be promulgated.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
Globe photo by Patrick Whittemore

Friday, December 9, 2011

All in the Family: Can Sleazy Aunt Betty and Crooked Brother-in-law Bob wreck a political career?

Life is complicated, and family relationships make it all the more so, especially if you’re in the business of politics. The impact goes both ways, from long-suffering spouses standing bravely by a pol who has done wrong, to the politicians enduring the guilt by association with a ne’er-do-well cousin or in-law.

Debbie DiMasi, wife of former House Speaker Sal DiMasi (currently a guest of the federal government at a prison in Kentucky), insisted to Greater Boston’s Emily Rooney this week that her husband is innocent of all corruption charges. Di Masi himself, apparently indifferent to the embarrassing legacy of recent House Speakers, is starting an 8-year term, still asserting he isn’t guilty of steering nearly $20 million in contracts to a software firm in exchange for thousands of dollars. Former Illinois Governor Ron Blagojevich, sentenced Wednesday to 14 years, at least had the decency in the courtroom, finally, to acknowledge what he has done to his family. He said "I have nobody to blame but myself. ... I am just so incredibly sorry."

NY Congressman Anthony Weiner humiliated his wife by sending pictures of his private parts on the internet; NY Governor Eliot Spitzer, by consorting with call girls; South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford , by declaring his Argentinean mistress his “soul mate.” (Mrs. Sanford very publically didn’t stand by her man.) I’m not sure how sorry these pols were when they got caught with their pants down (metaphorically and, in Weiner’s case, for real) and lost their office. This scenario has become so commonplace that The Good Wife has become a top-rated television show.

Humiliation is a two-way street, as demonstrated by the Tierney/Eremian clan. U.S. Congressman John Tierney’s wife Patrice clearly has a family whose business is crime. In their case, the crime is of the illegal gambling sort. The Feds got their conviction, and yet another of her brothers is still on the lam in Antigua. Patrice herself had pled guilty to aiding and abetting the false filing of tax returns on behalf of the second brother and did 30 days in jail for being in “willful” denial about the nature of his Antigua business. Though most of the millions that went through the account went to pay for the Antigua-based brother’s taxes and his family expenses, she still legally derived certain monies from that account over several years.

As was made absolutely clear in different court proceedings, after extensive scrutiny by a very aggressive Office of the US Attorney in Boston, the Congressman was never implicated in any way in any of these illegal activities.

Ironically, and in perfect symmetry to the theme that a politician’s extended family may be the greatest curse he must endure, the best thing Tierney may have going for him,( in addition to his own progressive record in Congress), is that the sister of Rep. Richaed Tisei, likely his strongest Republican opponent, was reportedly arrested in August for possession of cocaine.

Tisei, like Tierney, has not been linked to any of his sister’s alleged conduct and also like Tierney, claims to have been unaware of any of his sister’s illegal activity.

None of this is new, and it doesn’t have to be fatal. Bill Clinton’s half brother Roger did a year in jail on a cocaine conviction. Hillary Clinton’s brother was suspected and aggressively pursued by the government of influence peddling. A judge ordered Barack Obama’s aunt Zeituni Onyango to leave the country because she was here illegally. His uncle Onyango Obama was picked up on charges of drunk driving and held because of questions about his immigration status. Jimmy Carter had his outlandish brother Billy, a good ole boy who pushed Billy Beer and Libyan investments. Richard Nixon was regularly embarrassed by his brother Donald’s financial wheeling’s and dealings with the legendary Howard Hughes. Lyndon Johnson had to deal with his brother, Sam Houston Johnson, a shiftless alcoholic. And on and on and on.

The bottom line is that, if you’re in public life – whether you’re a politician, an actor/celebrity, or an editor – or the spouse of one-- it’s often not enough to be above reproach, like Caesar’s wife. You’d better hope that Caesar’s siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and in-laws are equally free of skeletons in the closet. The challenge for the electorate, in today’s often thoughtless news media environment, is to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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

Monday, November 28, 2011

Barney Frank: the rudest Congressman you’ll ever miss

The subtitle of Stuart Weisberg’s book Barney Frank is “the story of America’s only left-handed, gay, Jewish Congressman.” It could also be “ the story of the smartest, wittiest, rudest person in Congress in our lifetime.” It is also true that his decision not to run for reelection will leave a huge void.
Civility and humility were never Barney’s strongest suit. Everyone has “Barney” stories to tell. The doctor who participated in a meeting in his Washington office, appalled that the Congressman read a newspaper while his visitors presented their case on a pressing issue. The television producer whom he berated for asking him to arrive at the station a full half an hour before the candidates in his race were to debate. Saying please and thank you was an unnatural act.

One personal favorite occurred during a blinding snowstorm the night of the 1976 Presidential primary. We were both leaving the Copley Plaza Hotel after festivities there for primary winner Scoop Jackson and, across the hall, for primary loser Birch Bayh. (I had covered both events for the Ten O’Clock News on Channel 2.) Barney accosted me outside the St. James Street entrance, highly critical of something I had written in The Boston Phoenix about his candidate, Mo Udall (who privately was my choice as well). I was definitely overpowered in the exchange and finally, in exasperation, said, “Really, Barney, you are the most arrogant person I know.” Without missing a beat, Barney retorted, “Really, Marge, how many arrogant people do you know?” You never prevailed in verbal combat with Barney. Just ask his colleagues in Washington on both sides of the aisle. With a nice touch of self-deprecatory wit, Barney himself said today that one of the benefits of not running for re-election is “not having to pretend to be nice to people I don’t like.”

He was always quotable. Once, then-Boston Phoenix editor Bill Miller stepped out of his office into the newsroom and announced, “A hundred dollars to the first reporter who doesn’t quote Barney Frank in a story.” The combination of brains, often caustic wit and edge was just too tempting.

People in the 4th congressional district largely felt that Barney’s rudeness was the price they had to pay for his intelligence, hard work and unswerving support of mostly liberal causes. As a state legislator, he attacked Michael Dukakis in 1974 when the then-Governor cut welfare benefits. It continued when he succeeded anti-war Congressman Robert Drinan in 1981, espousing progressive policies and excoriating Reaganomics on the national scene. His position as a member, then chairman (now ranking minority member) of the Financial Services Committee enabled him to achieve much for those in need of affordable housing and access to credit. The Dodd-Frank Bill may be his most lasting legacy, though repealing it is a top goal of campaigning Republicans.

He was liberal, but not a stereotypical ideologue. He was also pragmatic. Like Ted Kennedy, Barney knew when to depart from liberal dogma, for example, and could reach across the aisle to get a deal done. From trucking deregulation (which I worked with him on for the PBS show The Advocates) to financial services and other issues, he rejected knee-jerk positions. He was an expert in working the legislative process in a way that has become increasingly alien in D.C. Identified with a wide variety of civil rights issues, he also had a libertarian streak, supporting, for example, online gambling. He was very attentive to the bread-and-butter issues of his district. He endeared himself to the fishermen in the southern part of his district, especially New Bedford, which he lost in the recent redistricting. His office ran a very good constituent service operation.

Barney was not without flaws. Before he came out, he got involved in a shameful sex scandal with a male prostitute that led to House reprimand and forced him to apologize to his colleagues and his constituents. He missed early signs of the crisis in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac but later, as committee chairman, worked to clamp down on sub-prime lending and other abusive practices.

He says he isn’t running for reelection because a) he wants to focus his attention in the next year to defending financial reform and to achieving deficit reduction in a way that doesn’t let the military off the hook; and b) he couldn’t fairly persuade 325,000 new constituents to support him while intending to retire, as he had planned, after just one more term. So he will retire at the end of 2012.

The only up note to come out of Barney’s press conference was his reassurance that he will retain an active voice in the public forum. His shoes will be difficult to fill, impossible in the short term, and not just because of the loss of seniority. Alan Khazei, who bowed out of the U.S. Senate race when Elizabeth Warren entered, has a similar philosophy, issue priorities, commitment to public service and fund-raising capacity to make a good run. But he’s not Barney Frank and will never be. Nor will anyone else.

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

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Give thanks for one day off from politics

There’s something mindless about preparing for Thanksgiving: getting out the good china and other holiday accoutrements, preparing the vegetables, concocting the cranberry sauce, cleaning and stuffing the turkey. It’s satisfying to know what the goal is, take the steps necessary to achieve it, and have the power to effect the outcome. It’s hard work, but the end is almost always worth it. (Maybe that’s why 93 percent of Americans surveyed by the Washington Post like the Thanksgiving holiday.)

To be sure, there’s the occasional politically contentious guest to curdle the gravy, but you can always take solace that your dinner table arguments are so nasty because the stakes are so low.
That can’t be said for the turkeys in Washington who actually do have the power to make a difference, but failed miserably in taking responsible steps to get the economy moving and set in motion a plan to curb the deficit. How can they have failed to understand how angry the vast majority of the American people are? Failed to recognize that the cynicism they are feeding could weaken this country both domestically and internationally.

The Supercommittee was not only a Superfailure but a Superfraud. Perhaps it was never going to work but was just a way of kicking the can down the road (as they like to do inside the Beltway) and get the debt ceiling lifted. Perhaps Washington officialdom assumes that sequestration will never be allowed to kick in but will simply represent another artificial deadline which our leaders will miss. The game plan is all too reminiscent of that Dr. Seuss line, “Could this go on all day and night? It could, you know, and it just might.”

Democrats and Republicans both been talking taxes pro and con, not serious deficit reduction. As the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein wrote, this impasse is all about the Bush tax cuts.
In the recent kabuki theater, the Democrats moved their plans a little to the right, and then the Republicans moved the markers further to the right. The Supercommittee’s failure to act could ironically go further and faster toward serious deficit reduction than either party has proposed. Unless the Republicans pull off an electoral perfect storm of overwhelming victories in House, Senate and Presidency, there’s a serious showdown coming.

But today is a day off from ruminating about all the unintended consequences, and frankly I like it that way.

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

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Emerging Leaders poised to set course against same old, same old

Recent shenanigans to sneak more money for racetracks into the casino gambling bill (about to go to) the Governor’s desk are yet another reminder of the self-interest of many leaders on Beacon Hill. The problem isn’t just political wheeling and dealing however. For generations in this tight city, insiders in various institutions , from finance to the arts, have held hold power very close and have failed to reach out to develop new generations of leadership.

But the times demand such new leadership, leadership that is open, diverse, collaborative and able to shape the global arena. Developing that leadership can’t be left to chance. One of the first to recognize that was former UMass Boston Chancellor Sherry Penney, who had also been interim president of the University of Massachusetts system.  A prominent figure in the Greater Boston community and player in international leadership circles, Penney proposed a Center for Collaborative Leadership at the UMass Boston College of Management and persuaded then-State Street CEO Marsh Carter of its merits. He promptly gave her a quarter of a million dollars to start the effort. Carter, now head of the New York Stock Exchange, was in Boston recently, and the two, along with State Street Corporation’s George Russell, were honored for their contributions to the development of leadership in our community.

Thanks to their activities over the past decade, we now have a cohort of 400 young leaders from every sector, corporate, government and nonprofit. Forty percent are people of color, and over half are women. (Compare that with the 11 percent of women who now sit on the boards of the Globe 100 companies.) One of the Emerging Leaders fellows has been named CEO of a major unit of Sovereign Bank. Another heads Citibank’s efforts in Boston. A physician is head of public health for Massachusetts. Two fellows are heads of nonprofits. Many have been recognized by the Boston Business Journal in its “Forty under Forty” list. There are many other success stories.

We’re going to need every one of these young leaders. You don’t have to look far to see how so many of the current generation in power is messing up, one of the reasons that spawned the Occupy Boston movement. Unfortunately, the Occupy movements, beyond slogans and a diffuse agenda, lacks pragmatic focus. It has yet to move from unbridled passion to a practical agenda and concerted action. It has even generated some health and safety problems. Regrettably, they lack the discipline of The Tea Party, which, for better or worse, has made itself a force to be reckoned with inside the political process.
It’s time for the next cohort of leaders, the Emerging Leaders fellows, to step up and, working within the system, offer strategies to make our society more just. Those of us who are a little long in the tooth need to create some breathing room and let these young leaders show what they can do. That will be a significant living legacy for the likes of Sherry Penney, Marsh Carter, George Russell, and others who have invested so much in training the next generation of leaders.

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

MassInc shows how humor can bridge the political divide

The unidentified “they” have often said that Boston’s three favorite pastimes are sports, politics and revenge – and not necessarily in that order. Thursday night’s MassInc’s 15-year anniversary celebration at the Kennedy Library brought together media and pols to wallow in a hilarious celebration in a bipartisan spirit of humor and across-the-aisle friendship that, I sometimes think, can only happen here.

The “Serious Fun Program” was hosted by WTKK radio hosts Jim Braude (also of NECN) and Margery Eagan (also of the Boston Herald.) Braude, who, when he started out at TEAM (Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts) and in broadcasting was pompous and self-righteous, has mellowed over the years into someone totally able to take a joke at his own expense and even to dish them out in a self-deprecating way. Eagan, ever his foil, is smart, warm and wonderful.

One priceless video showed Tom Menino, speaking in the low gruff, semi-breathless but threatening tones of The Godfather, doing a riff on someone posing as nemesis developer Don Chiaforo. In another video, Republican consultant Todd Domke’s son acted the persona of a PR consultant cozying up to specific reporters and columnists (unseen and unheard from at the other end of the phone), trying to pitch a story on a footbridge a client opposed. He changed his slithery and sycophantic pitches to meet the style of each identified columnist, from Howie Carr to Brian McGrory and Joan Vennochi. Again, hilarious.

A video showed Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, microphone in hand, walking the Public Garden asking people on the street if they knew who is the lieutenant governor of the Commonwealth. The regular people did not. Former Lt. Gov’s Donald Dwight and Jane Swift did, but they had some humorous words of advice for Murray. The piece was a big hit.

Onstage, various politicians present and past participated in a quiz show, with Scott Harshbarger, Joe Malone, Kerry Healey and others all taking it on the chin as their foibles and failures were mocked.

I kept thinking how nice it would be if politicians in Washington today had the down-to-earth sense of self and insightful humor to interact with each other in this way. It might take us back to the days when Democrat Tip O’Neill and Republican Congressman Silvio Conte could duke it out on the floor of the House during the day, play poker and drink together at night and ultimately work out legislative compromises.

MassInc was founded by business executive Mitch Kurtzman after an unsuccessful run for Governor. His vision of a nonpartisan think tank, looking at public policy in a dispassionate way, engaging Republicans and Democrats alike in the deliberation of issues, was implemented by MassInc’s first president Tripp Jones. A host of talented people over the last 15 years have expanded on those early days, turning out regular issues of Commonwealth Magazine, which add so much depth to the public dialogue. We are all better off for their serious, substantive explorations and analyses. But Thursday night, we were all better off for the opportunity to laugh and be together.

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

Friday, November 11, 2011

Rick Perry’s lapse evokes sympathy more than ridicule

Anyone who has read this blog over the past year knows I am no fan of Rick Perry. But there’s no way I would delight in what he experienced in Wednesday’s Republican debate when he forgot that the third agency he would abolish is the Energy Department. There is nothing to compare to the humiliation a person can experience when losing it on the public stage. The Boston Globe’s Scot Lehigh laid out his “Rick Perry moment” in this morning’s paper.

I am no stranger to this experience. Back in 1991, at the beginning of the first Gulf War -Desert Storm – I was airing regular editorials on WCVB-TV, Channel 5. Usually we taped the editorials, which ran three times a day, right after the news. But our then-news director Emily Rooney, my friend then and now, decided that, given the significance of the wartime situation, it was important for the editorials to be broadcast live. I agreed. Early afternoon, she handed my script to the producer of the six o’clock news to input on the teleprompter. At the prescribed time, I joined the anchors on the news set.

Natalie Jacobson said, “And now, with a Channel 5 editorial is editorial director Marjorie Arons-Barron.”

“Thanks, Nat,” I said and turned toward the ‘prompter. Alas, there was nothing there. The producer had neglected to input the script. And I didn’t have within reach my own typewritten version. The seriousness of the content meant it was not a time to vamp. After seconds, which seemed like hours, I lamely turned to Natalie and mumbled something about “the content isn’t there.” She deftly acknowledged there was a technical problem and led into the network’s nightly news program.

I was mortified, and everyone knew it. Reporters and producers poured out of their cubicles to console me, telling me of their own horror stories. Jim Boyd, with his script pages getting scrambled. Jorge Quiroga caught on camera taunting Tom Ellis on location at a chemical spill. Emily sent flowers the next day. But their kindness could not eliminate the fact that my “Rick Perry moment” was a little like skating in Rockefeller Center only to look down and discover I had no clothes on.

Rick Perry is lucky. He has ways to do damage control. Witness his quite funny appearance on David Letterman’s show, outlining the top ten reasons for his brain cramp.
The next night we went at it again. Natalie led off to me, saying “If you were with us last night, you know we had technical difficulty with our editorial. Here again is Channel Five’s editorial director Marjorie Arons-Barron.”

I thanked her and added, “And Nat, after that happened, the newsroom got a call from a viewer of the previous night’s lapse who said he’d “never agreed more with the station’s editorials.” I then turned to the camera, and this time all was well. I have the tape of the editorial that wasn’t there, but in 20 years, I’ve never had the stomach to look at it. Perhaps now I will.

Meanwhile, the media should spend more time focusing on the potential impact of eliminating the departments of commerce, energy and education and less time on the stark moment of the candidate's inability to name the third department that would face extinction.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Redistricting makes Democrats work harder

Incumbent politicians like things just as they are. It’s comfortable. And it affords voters the opportunity to have their representatives build up the kind of seniority in Congress that leads to enhanced power on the national scene. But, as with all games of musical chairs, take away one seat, and change in inevitable.

Redistricting jars the comfortable. As Congressman Jim McGovern admitted to the New England Council on Tuesday, it’s hard to give up communities you’ve represented. You’ve built up relationships and invested “blood, sweat and tears” in your constituents’ well-being. In the redrawing of congressional district lines, Worcester-based McGovern has to give up Fall River, where he enjoyed overwhelming support.

Sixty-four percent of his district will be new to McGovern, but the liberal Democrat actually made out pretty well by picking up the college towns of Northampton and Amherst and surrounding communities , where his anti-war and anti-poverty concerns should find favor.

Not all his colleagues made out as well. Plans to put heavily Democratic Lawrence into John Tierney’s district, were scuttled when Senate President Therese Murray took steps to protect Niki Tsongas, the only female member of the delegation. His district took on more Republicans in Tewksbury, Billerica and part of Andover. Now the eight-term Democratic incumbent from Salem will likely face a credible Republican in the person of Senate minority leader Richard Tisei of Wakefield. This isn’t like running against a fringe Republican like Bill Hudak, a “birther” who ran against Tierney during the last congressional election. If Tisei faces off against Hudak in a primary race in 2012, Tierney strategist Michael Goldman says it may pull Tisei further to the right, making Tierney’s reelection bid easier. But, with Tierney dogged by the legal case against his wife’s family, charges in which Tierney himself has never been implicated, it’s a race that bears watching.

First-term Congressman Bill Keating, who moved to Quincy to run for his current district, will now be moving to his summer home in Bourne so he doesn’t have to run against incumbent Congressman Stephen Lynch in the new district comprising Southeast Massachusetts and Cape Cod. A map shows how much more compact that district has become, and that is surely a good thing. But Lynch’s district looks like a salamander that would make Gov. Elbridge Gerry proud.

The redrawing of Congressman Michael Capuano’s district, which now has a majority of minority residents, should, in the next few terms, facilitate for the first time a minority congressman or woman.

All these moves, and more, while being incumbent friendly, make Massachusetts’ new congressional map much more in tune with what the courts have described as fair district lines, with communities equal in population, more compact and more contiguous. The committee drawing the lines is to be congratulated. It’s hard to think the Massachusetts House and Senate will balk at the plan.

Would that the rest of the country did the same. The truth is that we are essentially a two-party system, and voters can only benefit from vigorous debate in districts where the outcome is not preordained. Part of the problem in Congress is that too many members come from ideologically pure districts of the right or left, and when in office feel no pressure or incentives to compromise. Believe it or not, long term incumbents themselves benefit from being validated by an informed electorate. With redistricting behind us, the next step is to get an informed electorate!

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

Friday, October 28, 2011

Does it matter that “the 99 percent” are heard by the CEO of Freddie Mac?

The irony wasn’t lost on some members of the CEO’s Club, lunching this week at the Boston Harbor Hotel to hear Freddie Mac Chief Executive Officer Ed Haldeman, Jr. discuss the restructuring of the agency that plays a key role in the home mortgage market. As Haldeman was laying out the need for transparency in Freddie Mac, or any possible successor entity, housing activists from Jamaica Plain were chanting and carrying signs outside the dining hall, calling for help with foreclosures and mortgage availability. While Haldeman interrupted his presentation to say he “understand(s) their concerns,” the giant window shades lining the hotel’s Wharf Room were quietly being lowered so the protesters couldn’t look in—or those inside couldn’t look out. For those who “got it,” the symbolism was compelling.

No doubt the demonstrators probably view those on the inside as having all the power and those on the outside as having none. They share that perspective with the Occupy Boston protesters down the street in Tent City. All these demonstrators are giving voice to their frustrations, though they have not advanced a concrete agenda for addressing our economic problems.

Some of the executives in attendance noted, not incorrectly, that the protests would be better carried out on Pennsylvania Avenue than Atlantic Avenue. But none expressed any confidence that Washington would agree on any solutions until after the 2012 election. Being told, by implication, to wait at least another year is what’s driving many of the protesters.

Haldeman has been on the job at Freddie Mac for just two years. His principal concern is getting private capital to return to the mortgage market. Right now, the government, especially Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae back 90 percent of the mortgage market, providing liquidity and stability, helping to keep interest rates low. The agencies are like private companies and have boards of directors, but are under the scrutiny of the Inspector General. The U.S. Treasury owns 80 percent of their stock. $65 billion of U.S. taxpayers dollars was appropriated to protect the solvency of Freddie Mac, and the agency is paying interest on that at the rate of $6.5 billion a year. It’s unclear if the taxpayers will ever get their money back. And the Obama Administration is considering phasing out Freddie and Fannie Mae altogether.

Haldeman wasn’t there for the meltdown, when worthless mortgages were bought from originators and wildly resold in the secondary market. While he notes that enabling people to buy homes they can’t afford isn’t doing anyone any good, he has been working with others to slow foreclosures through changing the rules for refinancing. Going forward, he calls for lowering the limits on how much people can borrow and raising what they need for down payments. He calls for more widespread availability of sound mortgage products, especially long-term fixed rate mortgages. It’s not clear that his philosophy of gradualism would pacify the most insistent of local demonstrators. Today proved nothing because it appears there was no interaction, before, during or afterwards. And, as Haldeman, noted he’s ultimately controlled by 535 members of Congress, each with a different set of priorities.

As put by an Associated Press story today, “the mid-decade housing boom and subsequent bust took a toll on virtually all age and race groups.” Haldeman insists there is still a role for government in backing mortgages for homeowners but is uncertain whether that will be Freddie Mac or a successor agency. The timing, he knows, depends on the political environment. So the anti-bank, anti-government protesters do their thing, on the outside of the meeting place trying to look in, and a seemingly competent and well-intentioned executive lays out the problem, with no end in sight to an audience short of answers.

President Obama, in the absence of Congressional action, sees his weak approval numbers and claims “we can’t wait, “ so he offers a band-aid to a piece of the problem. President Obama, in the absence of Congressional action, sees his weak re-election numbers and claims “we can’t wait, “ so he offers a band-aid to a piece of the problem. His likely opponent, as of now, Mitt Romney seems to advocate a Social Darwinist approach of letting nature take its course on foreclosure unraveling.

Could make for an interesting debate topic a year from now, but the lack of resolution or a even strong path out of the housing mess doesn’t augur well for any robust economic recovery in the months ahead.

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

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Occupy Boston and the Wall Street/Washington mess

A family medical crisis that keeps you from even reading the newspapers not only interrupts blog writing. It also gives you a distance from breaking events that provides perspective on what’s important and what’s not. For example, the obsession with the Red Sox collapse and the details of Theo’s new contract with the Chicago Cubs matter not a whit. Nor even does whether Mitt Romney invaded Rick Perry’s space by putting his hand on Perry’s shoulder in a face-down in the last GOP debate.

In emerging from the family medical situation, I am struck by the endurance of Occupy Boston. As a veteran of the anti-Vietnam War movement, I find it kind of reassuring that people today care enough to participate in this protest, even though the goals are still quite diffuse. Like its sister movements around the globe, it’s unclear what the ultimate outcome will be. But the cri de coeur is quite understandable when you read that 17.1% of Americans under 25 are out of work. Numbers in Europe are worse - 46.2% in Spain . Without systemic change, their future is likely to be a lot bleaker than that of their parents. As The Economist points out this week, it’s time to “tackle the causes, not the symptoms.”

There has been some talk (including from the highly respected Boston Municipal Research Bureau’s Sam Tyler) that the protesters should help defray the costs of police protection. But why should they do so any more than the Tea Partiers, SEIU, or fans gathering for local sports heroes victory parades ?

Occupy Boston is a demonstration of First Amendment rights and is a testament to the strength of our democracy. As long as a few bad apples, don’t despoil the protest, I find it moving. Wouldn’t it be a public relations coup of the first order if some of the one percent, society’s most privileged, were to contribute voluntarily to the costs? Can you imagine Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan donating $100K out of his own pocket to Boston for the public services incurred responding to those protesting the excesses of some of the financial institutions crushing the other 99 percent? His Boston office is half a block from tent city, at 100 Federal Street. Has he stopped by Occupy Boston? Others could follow. This gesture should be in addition to, not in place of, taking the high road in restructuring expeditiously a significant number bad housing loans in its portfolio and opening the spigot to provide business loans to deserving businesses.

We need a healthy banking system, probably one more like that envisioned by former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, the one that existed prior to the Clinton Administration’s signing of legislation ending the Glass-Steagall law and effectively deregulating banks. But, if you have any doubt about how Wall Street controls Washington (especially under Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner), check out Ron Suskind’s new book Confidence Men.

Suskind details the early years of the Obama Administration and how the President , who thrilled us as a candidate and may still be preferable to any of his opponents, has been an ineffective leader, even an ineffective manager. In the quiet of the Oval Office, what does the President - in the wake of his squandering earlier opportunities to do systemic financial sector reform - really feel about Occupy Boston, Occupy Wall Street and other protests?

We know Obama’s campaign will try to turn the protests to a campaign advantage. But the solutions to the problems lie in going after both Washington and Wall Street. And fixing things will require more than clever ads and bumper sticker slogans.

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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Transparency a hollow catch-word for Obama

Barack Obama, both candidate and President, promised the American people the most transparent administration in our history. But the reality is far less than that. The Obama Justice Department is challenging a district court ruling that the Secret Service logs kept of visitors to the White House should be open records. According to Politico, the District Court Judge, Beryl Howell, (an Obama appointee) would make exceptions only for matters of security and (presumably legitimate) privacy considerations.
But the Obama administration took exception to her correct decision and is now appealing the lower court decision much the same way former Vice President Dick Cheney fought to keep secret the records of visits to his office from high-powered executives of oil and gas companies.

This should not surprise anyone who has tried to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) under the Obama administration to access Justice Department, State Department or other agency records. The Supreme Court has said that FOIA is a means for “citizens to know what their government is up to.” Such requests are routinely met with bureaucratic foot-dragging, obfuscation, and procedural encumbrances. One loyal Democratic member of the Massachusetts House delegation has ruefully concluded that the Obama Administration, while giving lip service to transparency, is no better on this issue than that of George W. Bush.

The plaintiff in this case is Judicial Watch, seeking records of those who have had access to the White House during 2009. Admittedly, Judicial Watch is an ultra conservative organization with a predilection for seeking accountability from Democratic administrations. But the principle of accountability applies to the Obama Administration no less than any other, especially given the President’s lofty pronouncements of transparency.

The President directed that FOIA "should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails." Obama has also directed that agencies shouldn’t withhold information just because "public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears."
But, while the Obama Administration may have declared a “new era of open government,” saying it doesn’t make it so.

The Secret Service, which keeps the records, maintains they are White House records and therefore not subject to FOIA, as regular agency records would be. This is just déjà vu all over again, yet another disappointing reminder that, instead of sailing with “The Audacity of Hope,” as we did in 2008, we are now experiencing the triumph of experience over hope.

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

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Romney still on top after Republican GOP debate

No one really laid a glove on him in the New Hampshire roundtable “debate” Tuesday night. Mitt Romney looked Presidential. He had the right balance of certitude and affability. He was confident but not angry. After years of flip-flopping, and despite being wrong in some of his assertions, he at long last projects consistency. After all these years of campaigning, months as putative front-runner, Romney really seems to have found himself. It’s remarkable how far an unnuanced combination of mechanistic touting of a balanced budget amendment, deregulatory zeal, China-bashing and no cut military budgets has carried him. But there remains little enthusiasm for him. He is the preferred choice of far fewer Republicans than other GOP front runners at a comparable point of time in recent history.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, once seen as a formidable opponent of Romney, may turn out to have been something of a flash-in-the pan. While he avoided the melt-down of his previous debate performance, Perry was phlegmatic and skated the surface of issues. The moderator, the estimable Charlie Rose, was quoted in a post debate interview as observing that Perry never made eye contact with him, which would have indicated Perry wanted to re-engage in the conversation. But, if Perry can continue to raise money as he did last quarter, he will have staying power, regardless of his debate performances.

Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfathers’ Pizza, is strong on crust but light on filling. Still, it is remarkable that, in some polls, he has risen to the top with Romney, largely on strong debate performance and his ability to market his 9-9-9 plan for replacing our current tax structure with 9 percent each of corporate taxes, personal income and national sales taxes. His plan, sounding simple and novel to those without a sense of history, is merely a combination of old flat tax and “fair tax” nostrums, without details. As highly credentialed Republican policy analyst Bruce Barlett wrote in the New York Times, “The poor would pay more while the rich would have their taxes cut, with no guarantee that economic growth will increase and good reason to believe that the budget deficit will increase.”

Former Idaho Governor Jon Huntsman, is more of an authentic moderate than Romney and should do well with New Hampshire voters. But in debates, that are key in forming first impressions, and with a primary party electorate still heavily animated by the Tea Party agenda, he doesn’t emerge as a force to be reckoned with.

Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann remain also rans and contributed little to the dynamics on Tuesday night. Libertarian Paul has an intensely loyal core following, and Bachmann could theoretically be the heir to a sizeable part of the Sarah Palin vote, but neither seems to be gaining traction. Rick Santorum's "family values" campaign added even less to the debate.

Charlie Rose did a great job of keeping the focus consistently on the economy, following up with the candidates when warranted and still not making himself the center of attention. The other questioners did well. The format was the best of any debate to date, though I’d still have liked more drill down in the follow-ups and less of the candidates answering questions with non-responsive stump speech sound bites.

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

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Warren passes her first test as one in a field of six

Elizabeth Warren demonstrated at this week’s debate that she is a real player, but, despite media raves, she didn’t necessarily hit the ball out of the park. The six Democratic candidates met Tuesday night in a non-debate at UMass Lowell, the event co-sponsored by the Boston Herald. The six were in agreement on virtually all the issues. The format permitted no follow up or real engagement. But it did permit the six to get out their core messages and somehow convey to the audience a sense of who they are. Perhaps this is all we can hope for a year ahead of next year’s primary.

For her part, Warren stressed her personal story, growing up “around the ragged edges of the middle class,” struggling to make ends meet, getting an education at public institutions, making it finally to her job at Harvard, and working to protect the consumer against the predatory practices of financial institutions. She was quick to point out that Forbes Magazine had named Scott Brown Wall Street’s favorite Senator and drily pointed out, “That’s probably not an award I’m going to get.”

Beyond her core message, what she successfully conveyed is her warmth and quick sense of humor. When a questionner, noting that Scott Brown had helped finance his college education by posing nude for Cosmo, asked the candidates how they had paid for school, she quipped, “I kept my clothes on. I borrowed money” Warren could actually be fun to follow.

Engineer Herb Robinson, who has absolutely no chance of winning, also demonstrated a sense of humor. In response to a time-wasting question about which super hero each candidate would choose to be, he said the answer was obvious, the Incredible Hulk, and jumped up to demonstrate his more than ample girth. Later, he attempted humor noting that, as an engineer, he knew the difference between hair spray and nuclear fallout. The “joke” sank like a rock.

City Year founder Alan Khazei promised to be the “ game changer” that Scott Brown had pledged to be, but didn’t deliver on. Khazei’s humor came in response to a question of legalization of marijuana. “I did inhale, and I enjoyed it.” But, he added, he doesn’t favor legalization. Khazei’s tone throughout the event seemed more poised, polished and confident than he did during his first campaign two years ago.

Immigration attorney Marisa DeFranco showed herself to be very spunky and confident. I’m sure that running for Senate will help her law practice. She’s feisty, articulate and very obviously courting the union vote as well as legal clients.

Bob Massie, a candidate for lieutenant governor in 1994, spoke of the battle he overcame with illness and implying he can come from behind in this race, too. He was not convincing, nor was three-term state rep Tom Conroy, who noted that he is the only candidate who has actually defeated a Republican incumbent.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the primary boil down to a race between Khazei, who has raised a million dollars, and Warren. He tried to get her to agree not to accept PAC money and, as the race narrows, will probably try to don the mantle of the grassroots, anti-establishment candidate. Given their similarity on issues, however, it is their personalities and how effective voters think each would be in Washington that may be determinative.

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

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Finding nuanced solutions to illegal immigration

It’s amazing that illegal immigration has become such a hot-button issue  even where the
population of undocumented workers is negligible. In Alabama, where about 3.5 percent of the population is foreign-born, a harsh new immigration law has caused many in that population to flee, taking children out of schools, avoiding trips to the hospital, even for child delivery, fearful to report crime. A federal judge upheld the new law, but, as the NY Times asks, does this “counterproductive cruelty” make sense?

Illegal immigration is not an inconsequential issue. As the Globe's Joan Vennochi has written, checking fingerprints of arrested suspects isn’t a “publicity stunt.”  T.C. Boyle’s novel The Tortilla Curtain, set in southern California, is a spell-binding yarn about the clash of cultures when self-described progressives come up against the complex realities of illegal immigration. I had a tiny taste of this (and, dear readers, I know it was but a tiny taste, so don’t waste your time sending outraged comments) when I was at a standstill in backed up traffic under the old stone bridge on Route 9 in Wellesley.

An old beat-up Chevy rear-ended me. In parking lot conditions, I got out of my car and walked back to suggest to the driver that, as traffic was about to start moving, we pull off at the gas station up ahead to exchange papers. He nodded. Shortly thereafter, I pulled off and watched in amazement as the driver who had rear-ended me kept going, speeding west on Route 9.

Then it dawned on me. The fellow was certainly Hispanic looking. Perhaps he was here illegally, driving without a license or without insurance. Damage to my car was negligible. But what if it were not? What if an injury had been sustained?

The point is that there are reasons for the rules of the road, both in reality and metaphorically. And people who see problems with illegal immigration shouldn’t automatically be dismissed as heartless. There is room, however, for balanced solutions.

Proposals have been filed in the Massachusetts legislature to bar state contracts with companies that hire illegal aliens (already against federal law) or that use drivers without proper motor vehicle licenses. A proposal also supports communities that want to participate in the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency’s Secure Communities Program, as three sheriffs in the Commonwealth already do. The Patrick administration refuses to participate, claiming that to do so would deter illegal immigrants from seeking help from local police.

I have no problem with a proposal to require social security numbers or federal Tax ID numbers for anyone seeking a motor vehicle registration, and increase penalties for people driving without a license or using a fake ID.

I take issue, however, with those who would bar in-state tuition for illegal residents. Many who would use this benefit were brought here as toddlers by their “undocumented” parents. Those students have grown up here and attended public schools. They are highly motivated to get an advanced education. We are not talking about their going for free, simply having to pay the lower, in-state tuition in the state in which they reside. If they get that education, they will become part of a skilled workforce and more than pay it back in taxes. Support for in-state tuition is one of the only appealing positions taken by GOP Presidential candidate Rick Perry, which, sadly and ironically, is one of the reasons his candidacy is going south.

The federal Dream Act would give certain undocumented individuals, who had come here as children and lived here for several years prior to consideration under the bill, the ability to gain legal status, either through college or military service. Aren’t these the kind of hard-working people seeking to improve themselves or serve the country, the kind whom we would want to become upstanding tax-paying citizens, to strengthen our workforce and/or our military. Aren’t they talent to be embraced? Isn’t it counterproductive to deny them the opportunity and ensure they remain part of an underclass?

Unfortunately, once seen as a step toward comprehensive immigration reform, the Dream Act has died, suffocated by hyper-partisanship in Washington. Washington gridlock has led to states passing their own immigration laws, mostly punitive, which the Obama Justice Department is now challenging.
Immigration policy should be a federal matter, and state laws should be consistent. But if states are going to act, Massachusetts should be on the right side of the issue. And that means a nuanced understanding of what is reasonable, and what is not.

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

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Red Sox sink like the great Titanic

Karl Marx believed that religion is the opiate of the masses. I have always thought that sports are the true “opium of the people.” What better escape has there been from the news about the European debt crisis, volatile domestic financial markets, quotidian social incivilities, and the self-destructive atmosphere of current politics, than a summer in which the Red Sox were one of the two best teams in baseball? The “best team ever?” Better than the 1927 Yankees, 1990s Bulls or 1960s Celtics!

Today’s morning- after headache and nausea ( worse than that in 1978), the need for sports talk-show grief counseling, take me back to all those decades of what it truly means to be a suffering Red Sox fan. My grandmother, at whose knee I learned to love the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Red Sox, never knew what a Red Sox winning season was, though she was thoroughly versed in local legends Dom Dimaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Jensen and Jimmy Piersall. My 11-year-old grandson lives on another planet. He has never known the traditional hometown failures, the soaring only to plummet. And here I am, buffeted by the drama of the day, trying to understand.

The two highest payrolls, New York and Philadelphia, won their divisions. But shelling out over $157 million didn’t cut it for the Red Sox. And, as Brian McGrory wrote, the “overpaid underachievers” of the 2011 team never represented Boston. Going with the most lucrative contract doesn’t equate to being an authentic part of the home town. Rooting for the Red Sox (or any team) may well be, as my husband claims, merely rooting for the Hessians and cheering for laundry. But there’s something more at play.

J.D. Drew, John Lackey and Carl Crawford together earned more than the entire Tampa Bay roster. Despite the obsession with sabermetrics and the errant celebration of Billy Beane, his progeny and statistics-driven Money Ball, Tampa Bay, which gave up its top stars last year to free agency and concentrated on nurturing its young players, has become the feel-good story of the season. . They showed heart, energy, and determination. As the Wall St. Journal notes, it’s about more than numbers. Don’t forget about “gut instinct, tradition, money, mystery – and plenty of dumb luck.”

An organization can amass all the talent on paper it wants, but the team has to execute on the field. A big payroll team may well win the World Series, and the Rays can crash early in the playoffs. But clearly Sox salaries were inversely proportionate to their September performance. Jim Rice, in his NESN post mortem, decried the spa-like orientation of the team and said that, though Theo or Terry might become scapegoats , the players themselves were most culpable.

In recent years, parts of Red Sox Nation have taken on a narcissistic swagger more reminiscent of Yankee fans. It’s sometimes cheaper to fly to Baltimore and go to Camden Yards than it is to park and visit Fenway. And Red Sox fans in Baltimore have been known to behave offensively not only to hapless Oriole fans inside the park, but boorishly to others in bars and on city streets. Add to that the classless behavior of some of our pitchers who during the season threw intentionally at Baltimore batters. Bad blood existed between the two teams right up to the end, and the last series between the erstwhile juggernaut Red Sox and the Eastern Division cellar dwellers had the makings of a mini morality play.

Yet we hung on until the very last minute, inoculated by 2004 and 2007, and sure that, like the Titantic, the great ship promoted as that “which God himself could not sink,” we would be victorious in the end.

Rather than being an escape from day-to-day conflict and challenge, the historic collapse of the Red Sox seems to be a metaphor what’s happening in the larger world. In both sports and politics, events have challenged our understanding of the way things are supposed to work. Unlike baseball, however, government and politics offer an opportunity to confront old questions with new answers. It is the beginning of a Massachusetts Senate race and a Presidential season. We can still set right the course of the ship of state. There’s nothing we can do about the 2011 Red Sox. As my grandmother would say, wait till next year.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
photos AP, Getty, AFP

Friday, September 16, 2011

Elizabeth Warren: Senate race off to a good start

Elizabeth Warren is one impressive lady and may turn into a rock star candidate. She spoke yesterday at the University of Massachusetts Boston, invited there months ago by Steve Crosby, Dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, to speak as an advocate for “reasonable regulatory reform.” The fact that the ballroom had standing room only and the overflow crowd spilled out into adjacent areas speaks to Warren’s instant appeal as a just-announced candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

Watching her move among the crowd suggests what an effective candidate she may be. Warren is comfortable in her own skin, seeming to really enjoy shaking hands, taking pictures with and interacting with people. Unlike Attorney General Martha Coakley (brainy but stiff), Warren has the warmth and ease of a natural politician, and is anything but the Harvard elitist that Senator Scott Brown’s supporters will portray her to be. (Nor is she simply “the chick who just entered the race,” which is how an out-of-state Brown fundraiser who called our house offensively characterized her.)

Warren’s personal story is as compelling as Brown’s. She was the child of Depression-era parents in Dustbowl Oklahoma. (In 1889, her grandmother, aged 15, had driven a wagon west in that year’s land rush. The family never had much, but her grandmother saw her children gain their places in the world as a policeman, house painter, typist and clerk.) Warren’s father had a heart attack when she was in junior high. Their car was repossessed, and they feared losing their home. She earned money by babysitting and waiting tables, got married at 19 and had a baby at 22. Her schooling was at public institutions, far from “elitist” Harvard, where she now is a professor of law.

But, she said, she grew up at a time when America invested in kids like her, in public schools, highways, power grids, the G.I. Bill, Social Security and Medicare, “a time when parents knew their kids could do better than they did.” That, she says, began to change 30 years ago, when the cost of necessities rose while wages flattened, and people turned to debt to finance their fundamental activities. Washington, she said, changed the rules on debt, and financial institutions were free to work against the middle class, using as their weapons opaque and unintelligible fine print contracts. To Warren, the current financial crisis happened “one lousy mortgage at a time,” and “family by family.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she conceived, advocated for, saw through Congress, and started to implement was up against “the largest lobbying force on the face of the earth.” Its goal was transparency for consumers and accountability by financial institutions. Ultimately, 200 citizens groups joined her David-versus-Goliath cause. But from the time she was a small child, Warren has been one to challenge authority and to stand up and fight for what she believes in. She is rousing when speaking of the need for Washington to “stop giving tax breaks to wealthy corporations, while asking college students to drown in debt and seniors to live on less.”

As it turns out, Warren’s talk of “reasonable regulatory reform” was overpowered by the larger themes she gave voice to, fairness, concern for the middle class, and, above all, opportunity. It’s a positive message. And, while she’ll have to flesh out her candidacy and answer more specific questions (as Margery Eagan warns in Thursday's Boston Herald ), it was still very exciting to see what Brian McGrory calls “a new kind of contender,”  with warmth, brains, inspirational story, guts and integrity.

Warren is unabashedly partisan, as noted in The Atlantic.  And, when asked after her speech who in history might be her Senate role model, she replied "someone between (Wisconsin’s) William Proxmire and (Ohio’s) Howard Metzenbaum," two legendary zealous consumer advocates. But, to those who doubt she can work pragmatically across the aisle, as our toxic times seem to require, the successful creation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is Exhibit A. Her vision is the kind of America many of us would aspire to. Elizabeth Warren’s entrance into the race has created a whole new dynamic in the Massachusetts Senate race.

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Scott Harshbarger for casino czar

It’s amazing that so much of the negotiation of a casino-and-slots bill has gone on behind closed doors. After proposals had sucked much of the oxygen out of the air last year, Governor Patrick and legislative leadership, especially House Speaker Robert DeLeo, collaborated secretly to reach agreement before a bill reached the legislative floor.

During the whole debate, there was precious little protest other than from former MA Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. In the House, a good fight was put up by a handful that included Newton Representative Ruth Balser. The behind-the-scenes maneuvering had all the stench of former Speaker Sal DiMasi’s efforts to steer a technology contract to Cognos, which deal is on track to land DiMasi in jail.

As the Globe’s Dante Ramos pointed out on Sunday  , Harshbarger has a long list of “good government” causes, from campaign finance to probation department reform. He is a purist when it comes to government process, and this process has been anything but pure.

In any number of passionate emails and reports, Harshbarger has warned against the serious adverse impacts that this industry will impose upon our Commonwealth: increased crime, corruption, addiction, and the cannibalization of local businesses. The casino industry, for its part, has spent a fortune on lobbyists to make sure that Massachusetts goes along with three resort casinos and one slots parlor.

According to Tom Grillo of the Boston Herald , a group that includes the League of Women Voters, the Council of Churches, and the National Association of Social Workers is exploring ways to sue to stop casino gambling in Massachusetts. But the horse seems to have left the barn.

It will take a significant regulatory bureaucracy to control and oversee what Harshbarger calls “this predatory industry.” We haven’t heard what the costs of that would be. The idea that it might be seeded by millions from the state’s rainy day fund is really perplexing. Nor has there been an airing of what kinds of revenues are likely to be generated by casinos, especially during a time of stubborn recession. I have yet to hear any thoughtful analysis from other would-be Commonwealth watchdogs, like the Auditor, Treasurer, Inspector General or legislative post-audit leaders.

If the bill goes through, and I wouldn’t bet against it, there will be a gambling commission to set regulations for the industry and monitor compliance with those regulations, but the parameters within which they can move are already circumscribed by the legislation. What’s to stop legislators from supporting this bill in exchange for employment when they retire?

Here’s a modest proposal: put Scott Harshbarger at the helm of that commission. He is about the only person I can think of who has the information, integrity and experience to represent the interests of the public when it comes to gambling.

Basically, it’s a roll of the dice as to whether enough jobs will materialize and revenues will roll in from the gambling industry. A good watchdog should be able to monitor whether the dice are loaded against us, and perhaps even mitigate potential damages.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Remembrance – Words are not enough

My daughter-in-law’s cousin Peter Goodrich, 33, of Sudbury died on Flight 175  that crashed into the World Trade Center South Tower. It seems that almost everyone in Massachusetts is connected in some way with one of the victims of that terrible day.  And today, ten years later, hearing the names of the 3000 victims read at the memorial observance, it seems as if we are connected to all of them. As New York Michael Bloomberg said, “Each had a face, a story and a life cut out from under them.”
My husband and I were scheduled to leave Boston later in the day on 9/11, bound on American Airlines for Paris for the wedding of a dear friend’s son.  Our bags were packed, and I was getting in a last-minute workout on the treadmill, watching the horror unfold on the morning news.
Our friend Barbara, her son the groom, and one brother were already in France awaiting wedding guests who were never to arrive.  When the ceremony took place a few days later in Normandy, there were five from the groom’s side and 300 from the bride’s.  The groom’s other brother was in New York, just exiting the subway near the World Trade Center.
Ironically, my husband was in a Boston hotel, at an early morning seminar on crisis communications, considering how best to respond to a simulated building disaster event, from legal, engineering, rescue and public relations perspectives. He left to the reality of people gathered at the hotel bar watching the first tower  under attack and arrived at his law office to watch the hit on the second. Cell phone service between us was impossible.
Our older son, practicing law in New York, was in his office near Rockefeller Center, and I, not certain exactly where he was, tried frantically to locate him.  His building was evacuated, and he and thousands of others were fleeing Manhattan on foot, walking hours to reach their homes. Again, cell service was impossible.
A month later, when my husband and I visited the stubbornly smoldering site, you could still smell the acrid odor of smoke and dust blocks away.
As with JFK’s assassination, virtually everyone can remember where he or she was at the time of the September 11 attacks.  As Brian McGrory    wrote in this morning’s Globe, “They are moments that were never meant to be memories, fleeting bits of life trapped in time.”
 It was more than the unspeakable horror of the moment.  More than the individual connections or associations.  In that moment,   America lost its innocence, and things changed forever.
The ceremony this morning at the beautiful  World Trade Center memorial was profound.  Coverage by the major networks was varied.  It was great to see Tom Brokaw involved in NBC coverage to remind us of a time that network news had real gravitas. But most of the media provided too much commentary.    CBS stayed longest with the reading , by a group of survivors, of the names of the victims, accompanied by the pictures of each.  The simplicity of the names, seeing pictures of their faces, amplified by some personalized tributes, was powerful and spoke reams about the loss.   And it reminded us of the diversity of this country, which is such an amazing source of strength.
CNN used graphics effectively, not only scrolling the names of the victims at the bottom of the screen but also printing out what was happening at that hour and minute on 9/11.
Touching in a different way was Paul Simon singing “The Sounds of Silence,” people talking without speaking.”  
Among the other powerful moments was Vice President Biden’s speech at the Pentagon, as good a speech as I have ever heard him deliver.      He spoke of American resolve, and the fundamental misunderstanding by the terrorists that they would buckle our knees and crush our spirits. But, he said, they didn’t know us.  Since 9/11, 2.8 million signed up for the military, showing up though they knew they would be in harm’s way.  And they took the fight to Bin Laden and his affiliates. This has been the longest military engagement in our history. “The 9/11 generation of warriors ranks among the greatest America has ever produced, and it was born on 9/11.” Over 6000 have died, many thousands more have suffered life-changing injuries.
And he said, “The true legacy of 9/11 is that our spirit is mightier, the bonds that unite us are thicker, and the resolve is firmer” than the millions of tons of limestone and concrete the terrorist targeted.”
Eighty American soldiers wounded yesterday in Afghanistan (and two Afghanis  killed) remind us that the changes in America - and the challenges it faces - endure.  Seeing President Bush and Obama together with their wives make us grieve for the bipartisanship that prevailed briefly in the immediate wake of 9/11. That loss can be repaired if there’s a political will to do so.  The losses sustained ten years ago cannot.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.