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.




^ in the post-Obama era, insurgents find common ground : Elizabeth Warren and John McCain

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The 2014 mid-term elections are under way, and both parties are preparing a battle which won’t resemble that of 2012 much at all.

We’re moving into the post-Obama period. Agendas are advancing that the President either does not want or has little to do with. Even in foreign policy he doesn’t have his way undisputed : witness the Senate bill, presented by 13 members from each party, to toughen Iran sanctions if the recent Interim Agreement doesn’t lead to a permanent one. The bill’s point is hard to disagree with, but it’s hard to see how diplomacy is assisted by legislation that feels like interference.

I agree with the Wall Street Journal that the hiring of John Podesta as a Presidential adviser announces that Democrats will campaign 2014 as a “class warfare” election. But it’s difficult to see how that translates into support for Obama’s remaining initiatives : immigration reform, gun control legislation, tax reform. The “class warfare” cry seems geared to invigorating the Democratic party for 2016. Same is true of nominating Senator Max Baucus of Montana to be Ambassador to China. Baucus was up for re-election next year; he had already announced his retirement. Montana was carried by Romney in 2012, by 14 points. Electing a Democrat to succeed Baucus was going to be difficult. Now, however, a Democrat — probbaly Lieutenant governor John Walsh, as the Wall street journal says — will assume Baucus’s seat, by appointment, and run in 2014 as the incumbent. It’s a smart move and a party move. Retaining the senate is a must for their 2016 basis.

Obama has wiggle room to pursue party-building stuff because the Republican Party is having to change as well, in the direction of compromise, so that it can be seen as a realistic governing party and not as obstruction. Republican strategy now accords vital budget and funding agreements, even as Obama concentrates on party-building in opposition.

As I have noted in several columns, Democrats at ground level having been moving for many months now to advance an agenda largely (but not entirely) Left-populist : union workers’ rights, higher minimum wages, banking reform, teacher union control of public education, alleviation of pay inequities, greater public spending on infrastructure and aid to families in need. It was easy to see that the infusion of these priorities into Mayor elections in Boston and New York was not happening only for local reasons. Clearly the leaders of this agenda had in mind the 2016 Democratic nomination for President.

At times the intensity of this movement has threatened to split the Democratic party, and i have decried that. we don’t need the Demotratic party to become “Left-tea’d,” as I have put it. But I wonder now if my warnings have been superseded by events. The 2014 campaign is upon us, the Democratic Party as a whole seems committed to the Left-ing agenda, and this is probably a wise decision for the party to make at mid-term time.

What must not happen is for this agenda to appear the Elizabeth Warren for President campaign. THAT would personalize the issues, and generate all manner of opposition to from Democrats threatened. Speaking of Warren, how come I do not see as much love for Senator Bernie Sanders as for her ? Sanders has been an eloquent voice for a Left-populist agenda — much of it very needed — long before Senator Warren appeared on the scene. My suspicion is that Warren Love arises from the 52 million dollars she raised for her 2012 campaign. It is ironic that the Left-populist movement wants big big money even while decrying its influence.

Readers can now ask me : what, if any, of the Left-populist agenda do I support ? Answer : I support quite a bit of it.

1. We do need a higher minimum wage. Substantially higher. Why should taxpayers have to sbsidize low-wage employers who pay their workers so little that they need public assistance to make ends meet ?

2. Employers should not be allowed to use job seekers’ credit scores as a hiring factor except if the job being sought is a financial one such as a comptroller or bank employee.

3. Financial institutions that specialize in customer deposits should not be allowed to use those deposits to engage in arbitrage trading. Or else such trading should be subject to the Federal Reserve’s margin requirements just as these are already imposed on customer accounts at stock-broker firms.

4. Union workers’ pension and benefit rights, as contracted for, should never be subject to legislative negation.

5. Infrastructure is as communal as anything in our society. Maintaining and improving our infrastructure is a vital economic duty. If tax dollars are needed, they should be granted.

But :

1.Education reform. This was the big divisive issue in the Boston Mayor election. I do not agree that teachers’ unions should control public school reform or that corporations have no defensible interest in school performance. I support school competition, because it is from competition that we find out what works well or not so well. I accord teachers unions a central voice in school reform because it is they who must do the teaching and who must work competigtively. But decsions on how to proceed with education reform must be collegial. Corporations have a vital interest in public education because the jobs they must fill depend on school graduates being prepared sufficiently to do them.

2.Unions in general : as I wrote almost every day during the Boston Mayor campiagn, union workers deserve strong representatipon in the halls of power, but they shouldn’t own the halls of power. Union workers number only about 10 %, nationally, of all employees, and no next-generation jobs in the innovating economy easily translate to unionization because almost all such jobs are individually dfifferent, employed by small units constantly reshaping, and involve pay that isn’t just a paycheck but includes benefits, stock, bonuses, and collaboratives. How to accommodate the innovation economy will be a major challenge for Democratic policy leaders facing 2016. Many in the innovation economy might just find a newly reasonable Republican Party more sympatico than a Democratic party committed to Left Populism. Take the fake-“Christian” stuff, the contempt for needy people, and the anti-immigration bigotry out of the Republican agenda, and the possibility is very real for the innovation community to prefer Republican entrepreneur-ist reform to Democratic Left-Populism.

After all, if Elizabeth Warren and John McCain, insurgents both, can co-sponsor banking reform legislation — and they have — then economic innovators are as free to find a useful home on the McCain range as on the Warren one.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere



^ Geoff Diehl (R-Abington) : a good guy makes his pact with an unserious rant

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Massachusetts voters going to the polls next November face at least two referendum questions. One, we support : raising the minimum wage to $ 11.00 an hour. we have already editorialized our reasons for casting a “yes’ on this referendum. The  proposal, we strongly dislike. This one seeks to cancel the three percent gas tax hike enacted earlier this year, by which our state will fund all sorts of needed road and public transit repair and upgrades.

That “Transpo Bill,” as it has come to be known, has already taken one hit : repeal of the software tax included in the original enactment. We agreed that taxing technology was a wrong idea. Technology should be encouraged and aided, not nicked. It is different with the gas tax. Driving wears and tears our roads and bridges; their upkeep is a public charge –and we make it so because driving keeps the economy moving, pun intended — and thus the gas tax.

The same people who initiated the software tax repeal now initiate the gas tax repeal. This time, their motives are suspect. From what they say at facebook and on twitter, they appear to oppose all public spending, or to view it suspiciously, as if public spending were a kind of con man come to scam us. Many of these opponents are Tea sorts, who view public spending as extortion money paid to “moochers” and “illeagl aliens.” We’ve already seen their impact upon the EBT program, a food-buying fund by which those living on the margins try to survive.

A referendum that begins with this mindset is tainted ab initio. By two arguments, its sponsors seek to justify it. We reject both :

1. they tell us that gas tax revenue is often spent by the state on programs other than road and bridge repair and transit upgrades. True enough, but so what ? This happens because the anti-public spending crowd denies the state funds that it needs for those other programs, many of them immediate, such as policing, courts, and administration, to pay for which the State’s Commissioner of Administration and Finance simply decides to defer road and transit work. Denying the State new gas tax revenue is going to worsen this situation, not improve it.

2. they say that pegging gas tax increases to the cost of living index is “taxation without representation.” Representaive Geoff Diehl (R-Abington), one of the repeal referendum’s leaders, and usually one of the really good guys, actually tweeted last night that every single “COLA” hike, every year, should be voted on by the legislature !

Keep in mind that the gas tax hike itself is three percent. On a 20-gallon fill-up at current gas prices — about $ 3.35 a gallon — that’s a tax of $ 2.01 per fill up. the usual “COLA” hike these days runs about two percent. two percent of $ 2.01 = $ 0.04 ! For four cents a fill up we’re to call the legislature into session to vote ?

The entire argument crashes and burns. We already peg our sales tax to prices; and prices go up, automatically, without the legislature voting. That the gas tax hike takes effect without a legislative vote is simply to tie it to the price of gas. Otherwise the gas tax hike would be assessed upon gas only at the price of gas on the day the tax hike took effect.

The referendum proponents already know this. They know the whole flap is a nullity. Its  REAL purpose is to raise the hue and cry against “moochers” and “illegal aliens,” anti-spenders’ favorite scapegoats, and thus to help elect no-spending legislators in Districts outside the Boston media zone, within which the unseriousness of this device would be fully and quickly debunked.

Someday, if and when the no-spending crowd actually adduces a serious reason — and attacks upon its scapegoats’ desperate lives is both flip and despicable — for why they oppose taxes to fund State spending, we will listen respectfully to their arguments and maybe even agree. I’m not holding my breath.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere