Monday, April 30, 2012

Scott Brown in full campaign mode at New England Council

Elizabeth Warren is a stronger candidate than Martha Coakley was in 2010, but Scott Brown is a far better candidate than he was back then. He was in full campaign mode at today’s New England Council luncheon. His message was clear: he knows that many in the room didn’t vote for him in his 2010 race against A.G. Martha Coakley, and he admitted that, when he meets many of the attendees who visit in his office, “we’ve been banging heads.” But, he asserted, Massachusetts voters are independent-minded, and he gives them credit for being able to vote based on the individual, not the party. The implied request is clear: vote for Obama the Democrat for President (if you must) and vote for me, who happens to be a Republican, for U.S. Senator.

While he stated both that “The Number One issue is lack of regulatory and tax certainty,” no matter what the sector, and that “Job creation is my Number One priority,” most of his speech – far more smoothly delivered than when he appeared before the same group a year ago – was an effort to document the ways in which he has voted independently of GOP leadership, across party lines.

He is, he said, the second most bipartisan in the US Senate, voting differently from his party leadership on economic, social and foreign policy roll calls 54 percent of the time, based on an independent third-party analysis (The National Journal) . He took umbrage when asked about the fact that that percentage jumps (to 74 percent by some analyses) when you take into account more of the procedural votes, often occurring in committee to keep bills from ever reaching the floor or watering them down when they get there. Still, the National Journal, based on its selection of votes, included Brown among nine Republicans closest to the ideological center. On a somewhat more grandiose tone, he declared himself to be “one of the only persons in the Senate to vote with anyone who wants to do something” irrespective of party. He calls the other members of the Massachusetts delegation “97 percenters,” that is, dramatically more partisan.

On substantive matters, Brown cited his opposition to doubling the rate of interest on student loans from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Both parties want to keep the low rate while students are still in school. But the Republicans, including Brown, want to pay for it by cutting funds for preventive health care, and the Democrats, by closing tax loopholes. Brown did at least note that more attention needs to be paid to the impact of loan availability on ever- increasing tuition. It will be interesting to watch his votes on this and other issues in the coming weeks.

Brown focused on the hundreds of billions of dollars in fraud and abuse that could be used to support certain programs, like welfare, “not as a lifelong entitlement but a safety net.” But, he warns, we have to find a way to pay for it, and not by having the GAS spending millions of tax dollars for a party in Vegas.

Much of the junior Senator’s focus has been on jobs, including four job fairs across the state, visiting businesses to assess their needs. He is especially proud of co-sponsoring bills signed into law to legalize “crowd funding” (to help small business attract investors without what Brown sees as unnecessary regulatory protection), and including a tax credit to businesses hiring veterans. Another success was a much watered down law to bar insider trading by members of Congress. He seems very proud to have been invited to White House signing ceremonies and notes that he worked these “in a truly bipartisan matter.” Indeed, his involvement on legislation has been more productive, in many ways, than the early years of John Kerry’s first Senatorial term.

He says he’s out to do “things that matter,” like the Violence against Women Act,” saving the Post Office, providing resources for Homeland Security. He says we don’t need ideologues in Washington, and that there are good people on both sides of the aisle. When it comes to the next round of budget and debt debates, he says he “won’t play the shut-down-the-government game.” He says he doesn’t work for Mitch McConnell. “I work for you,” he told the business crowd, who seemed quite warm to him.

But I would be surprised if, reelected, Scott Brown would ever be an Ed Brooke type of Republican. What will he look like if he gets a six-year term? How actively bipartisan will he be with the possible shrinking of the number of centrists after the 2012 election, given the absence of retiring senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Olympa Snowe (R-ME) and Ben Nelson (D-NB). For now, though, his message of independence, and his more polished presentation, mean that Elizabeth Warren has her work cut out for her in trying to unseat him.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Uncertain results of Arab awakening will have definite impact on U. S. strategic interests

We won’t know for some time the long-term impact of the Arab Spring or which nations will thrive, but, for now, the United States views Tunisia as a model of what should happen. That was one message given to Monday’s State Department briefing of editorialists from the Association of Opinion Journalists (formerly the National Conference of Editorial Writers) in Washington.

How “the Arab spring” countries evolve toward democracy is key to United States strategic interests, so much so that the State Department has named a special coordinator to monitor the transitions. He is William Taylor, Jr., named last September to make sure that "assistance to the countries of the Arab revolutions is coordinated and effective.”

Tunisia, where the news of 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouzazi’s self-immolation sparked the first national uprising, offers the most promising example. According to Taylor, it has successfully written a constitution and elected a constituent assembly. Its interim government is a coalition of moderate Islamist and secular parties. Tunisia “worked hard, shows moderation and is a model for the region,” said Taylor, noting “They’re doing the right thing.” Tunisia, with its10 million people, could be a solid ally in this new Middle East.

Because Tunisia is already looking at a significant deficit in its first budget, the United States is looking to make a $100 million cash transfer, $30 million in loan guarantees allowing it to borrow ten times that much in the international financial markets, and $2o million in an enterprise fund to leverage private sector investments. Walker also sees a return of the Peace Corps to Tunisia.

The prospects are not so clear for Egypt, a dramatically larger and more strategically pivotal country, where we already have a large economic investment. To outside observers and to many Egyptians, the current situation is fraught with peril, but to Taylor, the five preliminary election rounds have been “pretty good ones.”

While the Muslim Brotherhood promises to be middle of the road and focus on economics, the United States is waiting to see what kind of government emerges before deciding how to be of assistance. A presidential election is anticipated mid May. The problem right now is that no one is particularly in charge, and recent raids on NGO’s and harassment of bloggers are particularly worrisome threats to stability . Egypt, home to 85 million people, is also in financial crisis. Congress has conditioned future assistance on Egypt’s continuing to adhere to the Camp David Accords’ commitment to Israel and to the continuing transfer of power from military to civilian authorities. But this commitment is not a done deal.

Libya has plenty of money (from oil and gas production, with another $100 billion stashed around the world by Ghaddafi) but is far behind in the democratization process. June 23 marks the first election in 40 years. They don’t know how to create voting lists or even how to handle ballot boxes. If Libya gets its act together, it could actually be a source of financial assistance for Tunisia and Egypt. The United States is also counting on money from Eurozone and wealthy Arab nations to aid “awakening” cash-strapped nations. But given the parlous economic condition of Europe and the frequent difficulties of Arab states to act in concert, the fulfillment of this expectation is unclear.

Down the road, Yemen and eventually Syria may emerge to join those in the transitional office portfolio, which has the potential to influence the balance of power in the region and the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East. Obviously the timing here is uncertain and the outcomes, at this early stage, seriously in question.

Whether the American position, as expressed by our State Department is just optimistic thinking or rooted in hard reality, will become clearer in the next few months, especially in light of developments with Iran, which were not addressed..
I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.
Photo by John R. McClelland

Friday, April 20, 2012

Raising the mayor's salary

From the public’s perspective, there’s never a good time to give a public official a raise. That’s why Newton Mayor Setti Warren’s inclusion of a 28 percent ($27,125) pay hike in his proposed fiscal 2013 budget is probably irritating a fair number of Newton taxpayers. This, when other city employees are getting a maximum hike of four percent. But the fact is, the raise for the Newton mayor is not only in order; it’s long overdue.

The mayor now earns $97,876. He is responsible for a municipal budget of more than $300 million and city services for 85,000 residents. After a rocky start and premature leap into the U.S. Senate race, Warren seems to have settled into the work, coming to grips with the delivery of services, negotiating contracts with municipal employees that wrung some savings out of workers health insurance coverage, communicating with residents and more.

But the raise is about more than Warren’s performance. It’s about the roles and responsibilities of the office. The mayor’s salary was set in 1998 and has not increased since then. The purchasing power of that salary has shrunk by 26 percent. Seven years ago, a special commission had recommended the increase. Then-mayor David Cohen had sought to implement the recommendation four years ago but, in the face of public outrage over expenditures for the new Newton North High School, withdrew his request. The Boston Globe reports that the Mayor is the city’s 214th highest paid employee. That’s right, 214th. The Newton School Superintendent earns a quarter of a million dollars.

Surely, action is needed. I hope the 24-member Board of Aldermen sees it that way too. Future increases, however, would be more palatable if they were more modest and at more reasonable intervals.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Off and on the course, Boston Marathon inspires

The Boston Marathon is all about tradition, and not just for the runners.

I’ve lived within walking distance of the marathon for most of my life, going back to my childhood not far from the Commonwealth Avenue route in Brighton. I remember actually watching the legendary Johnny Kelley. Later, from spots in Wellesley, Newton, Brookline and Boston and at Channel 5’s studios I’ve marveled at the likes of Eino Oksanen, Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Ibrahim Hussein, Cosmos Ndeti, Bobbi Gibb, Joan Benoit, UtaPippig, Ernst Van Dyk and Jean Driscoll. I remember when women runners were forcibly pushed out of the race and when Rosie Ruiz “beat” Jacqueline Garreau by cheating.

It’s ridiculous that the IAFF put an asterisk by the name of Geoffrey Mutai when he ran here last year the fastest marathon ever. As today’s Globe editorial correctly notes, the ups and downs of Boston are far more challenging than other courses, such as London and Berlin.

For the last 34 years, I’ve been a little over a mile’s walk from the 16.2 mile mark on Route 16 (at about the Newton-Wellesley line). And every year the event gets more inspirational.

We know the superlatives that apply to the elites, well honed running machines. But the real tradition of Boston is much more than its being the oldest annual marathon in the world and the talent it attracts.

The magic ingredient is the people on the sidelines and their special connection to the unsung standouts on the course. I love being part of the throng of spectators who cheer them on and, we think, visibly inspire the runners to pick it up a pace.

My spirit is buoyed by the engagement, especially with the wheel chair participants and those being pushed by guides, the runners with prostheses, the elderly, those nearly broken but laboring through, all responding to the cheers of the crowd. For several years, my husband and I watched with our dear friend Loretta Kowal, the former head of the Mass. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. No woman runner ever passed without hearing her cheer of “You go, girl,” even when our friend was herself succumbing to colon cancer.

Last year our grandson and some of his friends set up a table at the Quinobequin intersection of Routes 16 and 128 to sell cookies and lemonade to benefit breast cancer. This year, at that same place, we ran into UMass Boston Chancellor Keith Motley, there with his family to cheer on UMB folks running to benefit GoKids Boston: an initiative of the UMass Boston College of Nursing. Children’s Hospital and Dana Farber are always well represented among the runners. So many of the participants are doing the grueling run to remember a loved one or honor someone still in the struggle against disease.

It’s their individual stories that keep us going back year after year. Back to cheer, that is, and never, ever to run….not even a little.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hilary Rosen kerfuffle misses the point of Romney’s real disconnect with women

Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen, a CNN commentator unaffiliated with the Obama campaign, made a dumb remark that quickly became a media obsession. Ann Romney, she asserted, shouldn’t be called on to speak about economic pressures because the former first lady of Massachusetts had “never worked a day in her life.” Anyone who ever raised children knows it’s hard work, so it was a story “with legs.”
The Romney campaign, eager to get traction with the women’s vote, was quick to respond, and the Obama campaign quickly disavowed Rosen’s remark.

At first Rosen defended her statement, trying to put it in context, explaining that she had meant to point out the difficulty of both raising children and having no choice about also working outside the home, as two thirds to three quarters of American women do.

Ann Romney raised five boys, has done volunteer work, survived breast cancer and struggles with MS. She is warm and puts the human face on her businessman, bottom-

line husband. But the real story for and about women is not Ann Romney. It’s candidate Mitt, many of whose positions and policies are inimical to a majority of women. Yes, women share men’s concern about economic uncertainty, job creation and the federal debt. But they also are extremely focused on education, health and the environment. A majority disagree with Romney’s positions on reproductive rights, contraception and stem cell research. They respond more to rhetoric about community than about rugged individualism. And they are perfectly capable of figuring out when the expected GOP nominee is twisting the facts in a blatant pitch to close the gender gap.

And therein lies the story the media should be focusing on. Romney says that women have lost more jobs than men since Obama became President, but he’s conveniently not looking at the entire recession, which began at the end of 2007. According to the Wall St. Journal,  the number of male workers to fall during the sweep of the recession was 4.6 percent; the loss of female workers was 2.7 percent.

Male workers are more heavily engaged in manufacturing and construction work, which are the first jobs to go away (not reflected in the cherry-picked numbers Mitt Romney is using). After the male-dominated industries take the hit come losses of teachers, health care workers, clerks and other support staff, traditionally women. Then follow the state and local government budget cuts, where women are also disproportionately represented.

It’s Mitt Romney’s willingness to misinterpret the jobs numbers to appear sympathetic to women that shows his lack of sensitivity and understanding of women’s economic struggles. Women are legitimately annoyed by Hillary Rosen’s inartfully dismissing Ann Romney’s creds, but women are not going to be swayed by Mitt Romney’s matinee idol looks and fictitious interpretations of the economy and what to do about it.
I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lowering gas prices

It never made sense to me, but now it does. I never thought this was the time for the President to open temporarily the spigot of the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve,  the world’s largest supply of emergency crude oil. Although prices were high and getting higher, there didn’t seem to be a real disruption in the oil supply. Speaking to the New England Council on April 11, Congressman Ed Markey made a cogent argument for immediate Presidential action.

According to him, a measured release can help stabilize and reduce prices, minimizing the impact of sky-high rates on our economy. George H.W. Bush released oil from the reserve in 1991 during the first Iraq War, Desert Storm; prices came down 19 percent. George W. Bush did it in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, also lowering prices. President Obama did it last June to respond to disruptions in Libya. Now, instead of war or natural disaster, we have another form of market disruption, in the form of speculation.

Traditionally 70 percent of those in the market were end users (us) and 30 percent speculators. Today that’s reversed. In fact, said Markey, “The largest single holder of home heating oil is Morgan Stanley.” That boggles the mind. Market manipulation helps explain why even though we’re producing more oil that we have since 1998 and demand is down (by nearly 2 million barrels a day over the last six years), prices are still rising.

Even the promise to release can help bring down prices and reduce incentives for speculation in the market. Prices started to come down slightly two weeks ago when Nicolas Sarkozy and even the Saudis started to talk about releasing more oil into the market. A petroleum reserve release is on the President’s table.

Real-life remedies for rampant speculation are threatened by budget politics in Washington. Budget slashers want to torch the budget for the Commodities Futures Trading Commission as well as eliminate the elements in Dodd-Frank reforms that would limit Wall Street’s power to manipulate the market. So, while Newt Gingrich promises a return to $2.50 a gallon oil (what’s he smoking?) and Mitt Romney embraces the Ryan slash-and-burn budget and wants to end Dodd Frank, these are policies that would encourage speculation that we would feel at the gas pump.

Tom Ashbrook spent a recent WBUR “On Point” segment exploring what the President can or can’t do regarding lowering oil prices. With Mitt Romney more certain than ever to be his party’s Presidential nominee, the hope is that we’ll now get a serious and full discussion of our energy policy, including a release of crude oil from the strategic petroleum reserve.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Red Sox are failing to provide much needed diversion from world events

The stock market is down over 500 points, violence is increasing in Afghanistan, North Korea seems poised to launch a rocket that could figure in its nuclear program, hate crimes in Florida and Oklahoma dominate headlines, spring gardens are threatened by unprecedented drought, opening day at Fenway is a downer! And that’s a problem.

In recent years, the opening of the baseball season has stood in stark contrast to all the terrible things happening in the economy and global geo-politics. The Red Sox prospects were always a sign of renewal. Last year they were even hailed, and not just by local press, as the best baseball team ever. Then they gave us our greatest autumn collapse ever, and this season’s opening is hinting at more of the same. This is very painful for a lifelong fan.

Globe columnist Brian McGrory says he can’t even give away his opening day tickets, while in the past anyone who has had tickets has been lucky to go, no matter how cold it is. But for Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury, there has been little to cheer. Certainly not the closers, who can’t hold onto a lead and indeed gave away wins not once but twice in the third game against Detroit. In Tuesday’s game against Toronto, manager Bobby Valentine admits to making a “dumb” decision in not bringing in Matt Albers to replace rookie Justin Thomas. The details of a decision like that are beyond my pay grade. But it does seem that management was not willing to invest in top talent during the offseason, reflecting a preference for the walking wounded headed for- or already on - the disabled list. Owner John Henry’s heart seems to have moved to his new soccer team acquisition in Liverpool.

I don’t have any choice about being a Red Sox fan. I learned at the knee of my grandmother (she had two loves, the Red Sox and the Metropolitan Opera) and, as a child, spent Saturday afternoons with her watching Ted Williams, Jackie Jensen, Jimmy Piersall. My passion was reinforced watching with my ailing father who, though increasingly frail and legally blind, was glued to the television set, cheering on Yaz. Fenway Park was a trolley car ride away from my childhood home in Brighton, and I was allowed to go there with a friend.

My husband, who loves baseball, derides my home team loyalty as rooting for laundry in an era of corporate sports, cheering for Hessians, mere hired guns who have little commitment to the community. But I can’t help myself.

So I’m reminding myself that it’s too early to feel this despondent, that being in first place at the All Star break in July is often a promise of a downward slide in late season, and that the new manager will figure out how to maximize the talent his players have. On opening day, I won’t be there, but I will watch. And I will hope that very soon the home team will provide an emotional escape from the easily more significant bad news in the world around us.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Augusta National’s all male policy: who wants your ugly green jacket anyway?

“Co-leader Couples turns back clock at Augusta” read Saturday’s Boston Globe sports section sub-headline, hailing the return to prominence of Fred Couples in the Masters golf tournament. If he wins, the good looking fellow could become the oldest ever to do it, at the “old” age of 52. Hey, I’m all for that. But never mind turning back the clock. What strikes me is the way in which the Augusta National Golf Club, which plays host to the Masters, isn’t really about turning back the clock. In one major respect, it has never moved the clock ahead.

Welcome to the 19th century. The Augusta National Golf Club does not admit women members. Not even if you’re the CEO of the company that is a principal corporate sponsor of the tournament. Virginia Rometty is CEO of IBM, its first female CEO. She plays golf, but, according to the Wall St. Journal, she prefers scuba diving. Certainly she is in a more hospitable environment 60 feet under water. A spokesman for Augusta National, is within his rights saying that club membership is a private matter. But it remains a PR disaster for the club, and, if IBM is smart, it will reconsider its corporate sponsorship as a matter of principle.

The club has offered membership to the last four IBM CEO’s, all possessing a Y chromosome. Imagine Ms. Rometty, a major corporate sponsor of the event and attending the tournament to entertain clients there but feeling like a second class citizen because the club doesn’t consider her good enough to be a member. Mitt Romney, when questioned, said Augusta National should admit women. Yes, yes, he may have said it because he’s so far behind President Obama in the women’s vote. But at least he knew what the right answer was.

Fewer than one percent of golf clubs still exclude women, according to The Daily Beast.
Pepsi, Xerox and HP also have women CEO’s. There will be more as the 21st century evolves. Augusta National may deny this evolution, but its retrograde policy isn’t just a silly relic. It’s discrimination plain and simple. It’s stupid, and it’s offensive, and it should end.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Charging Tim Cahill: too much or about time?

Most attorneys general don’t go after political corruption because acting against colleagues can translate into a dead end politically. But Martha Coakley has a new Public Integrity Division, a welcome addition. And she has the new 2009 ethics law, which criminalizes behavior previously treated civilly. Still, there are questions about whether she is being too aggressive in going after former TreasurerTim Cahill, using a cannon to kill a flea.

At issue was his using three quarters of the Lottery Commission fy 2011 advertising budget to extol the virtues of that agency in the weeks before the 2010 election, Coakley was damned if she did, damned if she didn’t. If she took no action, she’d be accused of a cover-up. If she indicted him, she would be accused of excessive aggression and advancing her own political career. (Yesterday, to counter that, she made an early announcement that she’d be running for reelection, not for Governor.)

Previously what Cahill did would have come up before the state Ethics Commission, resulting only in a fine. Now, if he’s convicted, he could land behind bars.

Reporters and columnists are seeing old examples in a new light. Bill Galvin showing up in voter registration ads, Steve Grossman injected into abandoned property notices, Tom Menino’s name on Boston construction signs, Deval Patrick on highway projects. Will these have to go away as well? (Note: apparently Galvin’s ads don’t appear during an election season.) Certainly all politicians will have to be much more careful about how much they, using taxpayer dollars, inject themselves or take credit for their official accomplishments or projects.

Cahill may reasonably argue that his face and name were deliberately excluded from the Lottery commercials. He could also say that lottery ticket buyers could be turned off by disparaging ads run against the Lottery by the National Republican Governors Association during the gubernatorial campaign, when Cahill, running as an Independent, threatened to spoil things for Republican Charlie Baker.

Three Boston Globe writers have had totally different takes on the Cahill story, all three – Scot Lehigh, Brian McGrory and Joan Venocchi – worth reading.

For me, what legitimizes Coakley’s action is the trail of emails showing close collaboration between Cahill staff and his campaign consultants. Na├»ve? Stupid? Venal? Take your pick. Not to prosecute would give the green light to politicians of all stripes that the new ethics statute will be meaningless. Cahill may just be unlucky in being the first to be prosecuted under the new law. He should get more than a slap on the hand, more than a fine, but he is not Sal DiMasi, who got money in exchange for steering government contracts. Nor is Cahill Dianne Wilkerson, who stuffed money in her bra in exchange for regulatory consideration. Time in the slammer? House arrest? Probation? Community service? I’d like to hear from you.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.