two strongest, but opposites in every way : Don Berwick and Steve Grossman at Lexington’s Governor Forum

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Close to 500 people took seats in Lexington’s Cary Hall to hear the five Democrats running for Governor respond to questions put by the town’s State Representative, Jay Kaufman. The Forum lasted almost two hours, sufficient time for the five to leave clear and very different impressions of what they are about.

Don Berwick, a doctor, sees almost everything as a health care or moral issue ; and as health care and government’s handling of it has roiled the whole nation, the Lexington audience saw it too. Applause galore graced his most fervent flights of pediatric concern. Curiously, he also arrives via the health issue route at favoring repeal of the State’s casino law. All four of his rivals took the opposite position: Grossman pointedly, for both the revenue and the jobs — as he said, ‘how will we replace the casino revenue ?” Coakley opposed Berwick definitively, noting that she has sued to prevent the casino repeal referendum entirely, as an unconstitutional interference with settled contract rights). Even the casual Kayyem said that no, we need casino revenue and jobs.

Many in the Lexington audience applauded Berwick’s anti-casino moralism. To this observer, however, Berwick the anti-casino repealer seemed a Democratic version of Ted Cruz repealing Obamacare. Not exactly the impression he might want to leave.

State Treasurer Steve Grossman addressed many issues on their own two feet, and spoke of immigrant rights, renewable energy, the Governor’s transportation bill, and mental health work, with detail confidently; but he too had his mantras : “I’m the only candidate on this stage who has actually created jobs” and “if we need to raise new revenue, I will do it.” Still, because he often spoke directly after Berwick, Grossman’s intense focus and decisive “this is what I will do as governor’ moments contrasted all to his advantage : Berwick, the moral conscience; Grossman, the man of authority. Berwick drew the loudest applause, and often; but as the Forum continued, Grossman began to draw applause as well — more and more. And if this Forum was about electing a Governor — which hopefully it was — Grossman deserved every kudo accorded him.

That said, was I the only observer who heard a strong likeness to Charlie Baker in Grossman’s “business and job creation” theme ?


^ activists attentive : Cary Hall was full to the loges and balconies

Attorney General Martha Coakley spoke quietly, with a welcoming smile that belied the sarcasm in her many responses, in which she was trying to say, “as Attorney General, I’ve already been working all of these issues, of fairness, budgeting, immigrant concerns, and the big banks.”

Juliette Kayyem, a policy expert and former Obama Administration NSA official, looked gorgeous and spoke casually, almost intimately, as if at a houseparty among friends — a tactic that, to this observer at least, doesn’t work in a setting as structured as the Jay Kaufman Forum. Her informality dissipated her issues statements to the point that I found it hard to grasp what her positions actually are. On the issues that she did address directly her answers seemed tautologous. Berwick and Grossman — even Coakley — stated positions that one might disagree with. Thery took risks. Kayyem appeared to take none and to rely on her charm and personality — pleasant surprise to see in a bureacrat — as a kind of policy statement itself.


^ personality as policy : Juliette Kayyem

Then there was Joe Avellone, a doctor and the CEO of a medical software firm, Parexel. I do not like to speak critically of a man whose candidacy lags so badly, but I have to : on the Lexington stage, Avellone spoke a soft voice that was hard to hear, talked without focus, and, as a doctor on the same stage with the eloquent Doctor Berwick, found himself beaten to the prize almost every time.

Distinctions were thus made, for all to see and appreciate. yet on the night’s most important question — “what will you do if the Speaker won’t sign off on legislation that you propose ?” — all five candidates ducked or evaded. Grossman noted that he has built up solid relationships with members of the legislature. OK, but that wasn’t the question. The question was about just one legislator, the Speaker. Doctor Berwick said, “I’ve met many of our legislators. They seem normal to me.” Laughter — but again, he did not say what he would do about the Speaker, who is not normal but THE Norm. And so it went. Granted that the question was somewhat unfair. In our state the Speaker of the house controls his membership entirely, to the point that no legislation can pass without his OK, and there is nothing that even the Governor can do about it. time and time again, under Speaker after Speaker, we see this happen. What could any of Representative Kaufman’s five guests really say, that would not embarrass them and show them, ultimately, as weak ? The office itself is weak.

Fortunately for the five, this moment of truth came early in the Forum. by the time the Forum ended, the candidates looked important again, their office worthy of activist attention in the party caucuses that begin less than a month hence.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

below : the obligatory Forum photo, complete with white band in the middle annoying every eye.