#MAGOV : ELECTION OVERLOAD ? DON’T KNOCK IT

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^ five of the seven US Senators who have represented Massachusetts since 2009. can you name the other two ?

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A couple of days ago I was conversing as usual about Massachusetts politics with a friend who suddenly stopped me. “Do you realize we’ve had seven different US Senators in this State the past four years ?”

I had not, in fact, realized that. He counted them out : Ted Kennedy, Paul Kirk, Scott Brown, Elizabeth Warren. John Kerry, Mo Cowan, Ed Markey. Yup, seven it is.

We’re not used to such stuff. Before 2009, Massachusetts had sent the sme two men to the Senate since 1984, when John Kerry replaced Paul Tsongas. That’s what we do. We want our Congressmen and Senators to build up huge seniority, to outlast their opponents, to leave the Federal bureaucracy no chance to put off reforms in hopes that the reformer would just go away. It work. Kennedy and Kerry got a lot done in their 47 and 29 years in the Senate. Meanwhile, the seven who have followed them had, in comparison, barely time to put a name plate on the office door. It’s the same deal for a Massachusetts Congressman. Get him or her elected and then re-elect him or her every time until the seniority passes critical mass. Almost no Massachusetts Congressmen get defeated. The last time it happened was 1996, when Peter Torkildsen was beaten by John Tierney, who has held the 6th District seat ever since.

Given our state’s political habits it’s no wonder that people here are now calling the tide of elections, special and otherwise, rolling through Massaachusetts as “election overload.” In addition to the US senate elections there’s been a Special election in the 5th Congressional District, a Boston Mayor election, several State Legislature “specials” — and more of these to come — and, in eleven months, the regular election for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and more. For some of these “specials,” very few voters have bothered. Even the dramatic, confrontational Boston Mayor election only induced 37 % of the City’s voters to cast a ballot.

About the same percentate of the State’s voters balloted in the now legendary 2009 US senate “special” in which Scott Brown became the only Republican that we have sent to the US Senate since 1978. It seems as though 36 to 37 % of voters is our State’s participation ceiling other than on “normal” election dates. On those dates, between 70 and 80 percent of our voters vote. The state has two classes of voters : the “always active” 36 to 37 percent and an equal number of “only at the usual time”people.

What is the difference between these two groups ? I’d say that the only-at-regular-time people see voting as a duty, while the participant actives see it as connection. Those who vote whenever an election is called actually expect, or hope, that their vote will move things. The duty voters probably vote as skeptics, not believers. That’s healthy. Politics is an arena of agendas, not saviors. We should be skeptical of agendas. But we also need believers in agendas; and my point in this column is that we should welcome, not shrug at, the tide of elections now rolling over Massachusetts. Our democracy was not set up for lifetime office holders. Well into the 20th Cehtiury it was uncommon for Senators and Congressmen to serve for 20, 30, 40, even 50 years, as some have done since. Citizens stood for office, served, and came home again to their lives and communities. The Massachusetts custom, since the 1920s, of saying “why replace someone who’s down there doing his job ?” now gives way to a series of fresh faces, one after another, many people voicing our State’s concerns, each in his or her own way, and — we hope — voicing the concerns of more voters than just the insiders who for so long had everything their own way.

Almost all of our state’s political indsiders are Democrats. It is totally a good thing that, since 2009, they have had to campaign to the 70-80 of voters who vote in elections rather than just to the 15 % who control the Democratic primary, For decades, our state’s politics was — with the exception of Governor elections — the purview of a very small core whose members spoke only to themselves. That’s not true now. With so many elections at hand for so many offices, vast numbers of candidates who, in the period 1960-2008 would never have had a chancve, now have that chance. Many of therse newcomers are Republicans. Some are Tea Party. Much of what the Tea candidates, in particular, have to say shocks and disgusts; but better that it be said out in the open, where it can be confronted, than seething in silence. As for the Democrats, they now divide on many issues, between Obama-Clinton centrists and the labor-Left who would like to use Elizabeth Warren as their banner. All of which assures me that in the foreseeable future, Massachusetts will be a state with three — maybe four — political parties stepping into a never-ending exercise of democracy in action. After all, there’s at least five major candidates going for the Governorship, several others, and a lengthening list of new names vying to be Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Treasurer, and state Legislator. Don’t knock it.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

LEFT-TEA-ING THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY IS A REALLY BAD IDEA

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^ apostasy to party ? to most of us, it’s the way things should be. To the activists, just the opposite

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The Democratic party looks on the verge of cleaving, Left versus Left-center, even though the Left’s avatar, Senator Elizabeth Warren, will not be a candidate for President. I seriously hope this does not happen. The Democratic party’s unity is the major factor holding America steady on forward. Splitting the party can only impede. Sometimes it seems as though those who would move the Democratic party to the Left want America to NOT proceed. This is a huge policy mistake.

One sees the signs. Senator Warren has done a lot of talking, challenging the money interests at every turn, and though much of what she talks about needs saying, at a time when the Congress is finally of a mind to take small, fragile steps forward, Warren’s insurgency seems as ill-timed as Ted Cruz’s in October. Warren acolytes abhor the comparison, but I am hardly the first or only one to make it.

Both Cruz and Warren are fanning flames that want to be flamed and which would likely find other bellows if Cruz and Warren were not stoking. At a lower level, here in Massachusetts, in Boston, the decision by newly elected Councillor Michelle Wu to support the “conservative” — but Democratic — Bill Linehan for Council President has generated a huge flare of Left flame, even though the selection of a Council President has almost no policy consequences.

This Left split is not new. I wrote of it three months ago, during the Mayor of Boston campaign, noting attacks, by Left-minded Democrats, upon John Connolly for his school transformation call — a policy advocated by Democrats for Education Reform as part of what Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, was seeking. Connolly was also attacked as the candidate of moneyed interests generally : yet the bulk of moneyed interests supporting his candidacy was Democratic. All of this sounded strange in a local, one-City campaign. But there it was.

The polarization of national party politics have no business deciding a purely local election. Yet for the Left, polarizing party politics were a key to victory for their candidate, who, after a primary in which the Left made various personal choices with few partisan consequences, became Marty Walsh. He was well advised to take advantage of the opportunity. By no means do I criticize him or seeking out that support : it’s what he had to do. But at the time, I noted that the potential Democratic party split was a rehearsal for a wider split in 2014 and 2016 and a direct consequence of the Tea Party capsizing the GOP. As I wrote, “you can’t radicalize an electorate in one direction only.”

The timing could not be worse for those who, like myself, desire a workable forward national agenda. Even as the Democratic party split aggravates, the split in the GOP is resolving, in favor of the pragmatists. The Tea Right is under serious attack from all quarters — business, incumbents, centrist money PACs, even from evangelicals — and is losing as GOP House (and Senate) incumbents free themselves from the fear of a serious primary challenge. Many states are considering legislation similar to California’s, in which all candidates run in the same primary and then a final between the top two. This process has already made California’s parties move to the center and away from domination by “base” activists.It would hardly be good for Democrats if the nation and the GOP are moving toward unity while the Democratic party is splitting. But activists do not care about consequences. For them, it’s their way or the highway.

I prefer the highway.

You may argue against me, that in the Budget Deal that passed the Senate today, the Democrats stood united, the GOP quite split. True enough; yet the Budget Deal was criticized often and loudly for its omission of unemployment insurance extension. Democrats voted “yes’ as a bloc because to reject the deal might have made any deal impossible, given the fragility of the House GOP’s new pragmatism. My thinking is that the more the House GOP commits to pragmatism, the more that Left Democrats will feel that they can split the Democratic party without endangering the nation.

The warning signs are there. People continue to Cruz-ify Elizabeth Warren.

All of this you would expect to go away were the President to exert his power of office effectively, as he sometimes knows how : in foreign policy always, during the “shut down” too. His weak management of the Federal bureaucracy — ah, the Annals of Health.gov — has opened an effectiveness  gap, however, into which people are stepping who really don’t like the President’s agenda all that much anyway. It’s a cliche now that President Obama’s most activist supporters wanted a messiah but got a mishugas. In other words, a President ; but they don’t want a president, they still want a messiah. When that happens in American politics, we usually get an anti-messiah instead. With Obama, an Abraham Lincoln saved us. Unless things change, I doubt we’ll be as lucky in 2106.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

2016 PRESIDENT : NOT A SENATOR AGAIN, PLEASE

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^ Lions of the senate ; the Presidency, not so much. At least not now.

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UPDATE : last night Senator Warren announced as follows : “I pledge to serve my full Senate term.” Her term ends in 2018. And so ends speculation about her plans to seek the Presidency. I applaud her decision.

— MF

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Three letters appear in today’s Boston Globe, all of them telling those who would Pres-boom our state’s Senator Elizabeth Warren, to cool out. I agree with the letters and their reasons. as the letters point out : (1 ) Warren in 2016 will still be working her first term and ( 2 ) her uncompromising stance makes her a kind of reverse-coin Ted Cruz. Advocacy for advocacy’s sake  becomes anti-advocacy; and in any case, while a Charles Sumner can advance a cause, the actual Charles Sumner would have made a horrible President.

This is not to say that I don’t applaud much of what Senator Warren advocates. I do applaud it. The financial regulation bill she has co-sponsored with John McCain is needed, and her call for he expansion of social security voices the needs and hopes of many, many Americans for whom Social Security is the difference between making it and not. Yet the progress that she calls for is going to be hard enough to enact into law, and as Ted Kennedy’s decades of work make clear, the Senate is the Forum in which to do it, and that only by long service. The Presidency is not the place to vanguard things.

That Warren is being touted for President seems a reaction, on the Left, to the radicalization on the right that has all but swallowed the GOP. As I wrote during the Mayor’s race, watching the Connolly versus Walsh battle come close to splitting the Massachusetts Democratic party, “you can’t radicalize an electorate in one direction only.” Radicalization on the Left is growing, fueled by an inflammatory Right. This we understand — and decry. It must stop short of engulfing the Presidency, the one office that all of us choose.

The greatest presidents are principled, dogged centrists : Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt, Harry Truman, George Washington, Ronald Reagan all held firm to their chosen course but refused to be hurried, bullied, or pushed over an edge. Confronters like Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson have done less well. Roosevelt and Wilson both achieved much, in a hurry, but they did not when or how to stop. Flame out was the result for Roosevelt, humiliation for Wilson. Jefferson’s terms, brilliantly begun, ended in disaster. Elizabeth warren is a confronter. (So is John McCain, but that’s another story.) There is a lot of Teddy in Warren — on much the same issues, too — and much Wilson. That alone should give us pause.

Frankly, I think we’ve had enough Senators in the Presidency for a while. The worst failing of President Obama, a Lincolnesque figure for sure, is his demonstrated inability to manage the Federal bureaucracy. We’ve seen it time and again, vividly in the stumbled roll-out of his signature legislation, the ACA. It is time to elect a Governor. Men and women who govern have to administer. it’s what a Governor is all about. those who succeed as a governor pass the first test — the most basic test — of a President. Managing the bureaucracy may not look sexy, sound dramatic, or feel like a crusade; but a President who cannot do it can’t succeed at much of the high drama and loud crusades that define the office for most voters.

The only reason that Obama’s failings as an administrator haven’t decimated the domestic agenda of his Presidency is that he knows his policy goals bottom to top, they’re modest enough, and he pursues them relentlessly, opposition be damned. He simply refuses to lose. That’s a good thing; but capable administration of his policy in action would be even better.  Conversely, the numerous triumphs of Obama’s foreign policy, an arena in which administration defers to manoeuver and decision, Here, Obama has had no equal since Reagan ; no Democratic equal since Truman.

2016 should be a Governor’s time for another reason : the office is chosen by all the people of a state and, in the hands of the most responsible governors, unites people rather than divides them. Cases on point : Andrew Cuomo (NY), Jeb Bush (FL) , Chris Christie (NJ), and Martin O”Malley (MD). In this time of radicalization, that has cleaved the GOP, paralyzing it, even rendering it a danger to the nation, and that threatens now to set Democrats at each other’s throats, the last thing we need is an inflamer of passions, a Senator Microphone, an advocate in a hurry.

Of course even a great governor can’t be an effective president without a responsible political party to lead, or tame. Mitt Romney had administrative ability to spare; but the party he led in 2012 had rendered him unthinkable, to a majority, by its virulence and its contempt for all but the successful, viewpoints that he unfortunately seemed to share.

To sum up : 2016 should be a Governor’s time. Let’s elect Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush or Martin O’Malley — and leave Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, to advocate, advocate, advocate all she needs to, a Charles Sumner but no, NOT a president.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

PROFILING THE BOSTON CITY COUNCIL CANDIDATES : CATHERINE O’NEILL

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^ Catherine O’Neill, of the Lower Mills O’Neills, conversing with a roomfull of Seniors at Foley House, South Boston

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There’s something of a Dorchester revival afoot in the City of Boston, an irish-name revival too. Here, in a city decreasingly peopled by those of Irish-name, we see on the Council at-Large ballot a Mike Flaherty; a Stephen J. Murphy; a Jack Kelly, Marty Keough, Chris Conroy, and — by no means the least — the subject of today’s profile, Catherine M. O’Neill, of the large and well, well-known O’Neills of Lower Mills.

It would be hard to have been any sort of active Boston citizen these past forty years and not known at least one of Catherine O’Neill’s siblings. Her brother Tim has been a public prosecutor since the early 1970s; brother Tom was a legendary principal at Mattapan’s famed Solomon Lewenberg School. Brother Ted O’Neill has been well-known too, and her late brother Mike — known to hundreds of politically busy Bostonians as “wide Mike,” — who always reminded me of what the poet and playwright Brendan Behan must have looked like, a presence as physically awesome as he was likeable.

Catherine O’Neil has Mike’s fierce eyes and Viking face, and something of Tim’s soft forehead, and it’s hard to figure how this writer somehow did not meet her back when her brothers were a constant presence. Turns out that her career  followed an entirely different trajectory ; she’s a published playwright (that Behan connection ?) and a media person who hosted The Boston Connection, All About Boston, and the Dorchester Connection, all on BBN-TV.

O’Neill went to St. Gregory’s School — where her Dad was a janitor — for thirteen years, then got her degree from Suffolk University in communication and journalism. She also has a master’s degree in Fine Arts.

She never married — a loss for the best Boston men of my generation — but as a child growing up in a large family, it comes second nature to her to care about people. And so, when Elizabeth Warren, who knew of O’Neill from television , asked her to work on her Senate campaign, O’Neill was ready to take her caring into the formal political groove,

Cath O'Neill and Sen Warren

^ Catherine O’Neill with senator Elizabeth Warren

She found the experience to her liking, and after Warren was elected, went to work in the campaign of her Lower Mills neighbor, Linda Dorcena-Forry — wife of Bill Forry, whose father Ed was “Mr Dorchester News” for several decades — for State Senator. Dorcena-Forry was already the Lower Mills area’s State Representative; indeed, O’Neill had been her field director in her 2005 first campaign. Dorcena-Forry’s Senate campaign made history. She won over the South Boston candidate, becoming the first Dorchester candidate to do so, and the first person of color to represent the District.

O’Neill was now ready to become a candidate herself; and when Tom Menino’s decision it to run for a fifth Mayoral term opened up two of Boston’s four at-large Council seats, her time had arrived.

We chatted with O’Neill three times; stood with her as she greeted voters at a Marty Walsh rally in East boston; and saw her in action conversing with voters at the Foley House in South Boston. There was never a minute in which she did not connect eye to eye with voters together an d singly; the experienced media hostess this was ever in command, credible, likeable. Thus our first question — what special qualities do you possess to make you uniquely qualified as a Councillor ? — answered itself.  Not many Council candidates are published playwrights and accomplished television show hosts,

Our conversation continues (Here and Sphere as “HnS”) :

HnS : Your first priority as a Councillor ?

O’Neill: Seniors. My Mom is 93 years old. I know the needs of seniors first hand. Seniors need all the help they can get. Longer stop lights at crossings, better curb cuts. Safety of the neighborhoods !  I will be an advocate for seniors ~!

Here and Sphere (HnS) : Do you favor lifting the charter school cap ?

O’Neill: no, I do not favor it.

HnS : What school reforms do you favor ?

O’Neill: I think a longer school day is a good idea.

HnS : The BRA : replace / reform ? If so, how ?

O’Neill: There needs to be separation of planning and decision, so that the community can have input.

HnS : Speaking of safety, Marty Walsh has said there’s a heroin epidemic in the city. Do you agree ?

O’Neill : The first documentary I did, for BBN television — in 2001, produced and wrote — was on the heroin problem in the city of Boston. It was epidemic in proportion then, and I know we still have that problem with it in our city. The shame is not to be a heroin addict; the shame is not to do anything about it. Heroin addicts, and addicts generally, usually have no advocate. There’s nobody out there beating a drum for people who unfortunately are addicted to heroin.  and I…i would be an advocate. we need more beds for women (addicts too). I really do know a lot about his subject, because of my friend, now deceased, who was the head of the drug corps at South Boston District Court,. it was he who asked me to do the documentary.”

That O’Neill proved so conversant of Boston’s heroin problem surprised me. It probably shouldn’t have. It’s the kind of problem that a television discussion show, such as O’Neill hosted, wants to focus on. Proof that her television experience offers more than just show time to the City Council if she’s elected.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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^ Catherine O’Neill advocating to Seniors at the Foley House on H Street in South Boston.