WHAT MASSACHUSETTS ASKS OF ITS GOVERNOR

1 Paul Cellucci

^ the late Paul Cellucci : he wasn’t a policy wonk, but he understood Massachusetts, and our legislature, masterfully – better than any other governor of my lifetime — and so was a very effective chief executive

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The long and exhaustive summary, in today’s Boston Globe, of Deval Patrick’s eight years as Governor deserves your reading it, as it required mine. Its observations do Patrick full justice; its conclusions underline his failures. Patrick is a man of wide vision, of optinmism and challenge such as few of our recent governors have equalled. Unfortuntely, he was an uneven administrator at best and, more often than not, a stranger to how the legislature works.

As Patrick himself is quoted, “you can’t get the substance part done unless you do the performance art part of the job.”

Performance art ? By this phrase Patrick encompasses what to those of us who love political engagement mean by conversation, discussion, attention to all the 200 legislaors and even their key staffers.

i suppose that to engage the people who actually make the state’s laws in framing them can be seen, somehow as “performance art.” If so, a Governor had better become really good at performing. Because finding a way to co-operate with the legislature, rather than conflict with it, majes up at least half of a Massachusetts Governor’s duty.

Our state constitution was written in 1780, by men who had had enough of single-handed colonial governors. They wanted the legislature to dominate. A governor was to execute legislative directions; his appointive power was limited by a governor’s council. Originally, the Goveror was elected for a one year term only. Few Massachusetts governors became household names; they came and went. Power was the legislature’s.

Today we elect Governors to four year terms. He directs many, many state agencies, enacted in the past 50 years mostly, and administers a vastly bigger state budget than governors in the 1850s. He appoints the directors of those agencies free of Council approval. He also appoints all of the management-level administrators, and because the Governor has so many such at his command, his personal presence in Beacon Hill’s halls of power weighs far more heavily than it did in 1780, 1880, or even 1980.

Yet when it comes to legislation, it’s still 1780. The legislature commands all.

Our House is the only legsialtive body in the entire nation — that I am aware of — in which the Speaker appoints all members of every committee and all committee chairmen. (ironic : the Speaker is as much a dictator today as our colonial governors were 275 years ago.)

That said, each of the 160 House members is different, because all represent separate communities with very separate histories. Massachusetts has 351 towns and cities, each run by separately elected officials, each with long history apart from one another. For example : incoming Governor Charlie Baker lives in Swampscott; next door lie Marblehead on the east, Salem to the north, Lynn and Nahant on the South. These five adjoined communities have political cultures as different aas if they were 100 miles apart.

The same differences exist throughout Massachusetts. Wilmington and Billerica, for example, border each other as north of Boston suburbs, but they vote very differently, inhabited by people from very different backgrounds. The same is true of Acton and Concord, or of Hudson and Stow, or of Southbridge and Sturbridge, or Seekonk and Attleboro, or Uxbridge and Milford; and the list goes on. Any Governor who wants to work well with our 160 House members needs to know the difference between Norton and Easton, Ware and Hardwick, Chicopee and Holyoke, Granby and Amherst.

The fractured state of Massachusstts polity affects administration. What one community supports, a neighboring community may oppose. With 351 separate communities in the room, that leads to a lot of division and mutual opposition. Some state agencies administer laws that affect every resident more or less equally ; tax collection, drivers’ licensing, the DCF and Health Connector. Several others — especially Business and Community Development, Education, Public Safety, Transportation, and Housing — face tasks that vary to some degree every time a town or city boundary is crossed.

For example : Patrick successfully led the legislature to reejecting a proposal for Marriage equality to go to referendum; that’s because equality is the same no matter where we live. He was less successful with casino legislation, until a new Speaker took office, and continued to face casino conflict, because casinos are location items, and our state has 351 political locations. Transportation funding aroused unending controversy because our 351 communities have about 351 different public transportation priorities.

Our Governor has to know the state in detail, geographically and culturally, if he is to lessen the potential for missteps, the chance of mistke. It really does begin here. Baker and Polito have both served as town selectmen; Baker made a point of it in his campaign speeches; again and again he emphasized that his and Polito’s selectman years matter a lot to the performance potential of his governance. He was very right.

Knowing the towns and cities, a governor knows each legislator’s voters and thus what those voters expect of him or her. The Speaker, too, is such a legislator. Speaker DeLeo’s Winthrop is not next-door East Boston. If the Governor grasps this basic, he has gone a long way to getting every legislator’s attention and thus the Speaker’s. Add to that a willingness to treat every legislator — the forty Senators too — as a partner in governance, and a Governor is well on the way to accomplishing stuff that actually matters and to enacting legislation that he wants : beause his wants are those of the 351 communities and recognized to be such.

Lastly, a Governor needs to be ready to deliver the services that the legislature has enacted, and he needs everybody in state government to accept that he knows how to get it done as well as why and for whom.

It sounds simple. But few governors master all of this simple-sounding stuff, or care to. Paul Cellucci did it. Other than him, I can’t recall a single one — not even Mike Dukakis, as dedicated a policy person as the corner office has ever seen — who mastered these basics of the job description we’ve written for our governor.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

Author: hereandsphere

Here and Sphere is an online journal of news, opinion, reviews, advice, & bits n' pieces of everything else - from HERE to SPHERE...... Co-founded by Michael Freedberg, a long-time Boston Phoenix journalist, and Heather Cornell, a South Coast Massachusetts columnist and editor.

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