Sunday, January 31, 2010

Good News From Beacon Hill Winter Dance

I slipped into my (rented) tux last night and attended the Beacon Hill Winter Dance, organized by the Beacon Hill Civic Association. This year's gala shifted locations to the new Mandarin Hotel in Boston's Back Bay (last year the venue was the Liberty Hotel on Beacon Hill).

It was great to see so many familiar faces. In addition to numerous fellow BHCA board members, including Lori Bate, Ania Camargo, Steve Young, Meghan Haggerty, Colin Zick and others, I ran into State Representatives Marty Walz and Aaron Michlewitz.

Representative Michlewitz had great news from the current House session. The House passed the infamous green ticket law, which will allow municipalities to enhance enforcement efforts for certain local rules. In Boston, this would mean the city could connect trash and other violations (which are noted by the issuing of "green tickets") to a property's tax bill. A bill including this local-option provision passed both the House and Senate a little over a year ago but suffered the fate of a "pocket veto" by the Governor, who let the bill sit on his desk.

As I have written about in this space in the past, better enforcement of green tickets is absolutely essential for making the city's streets cleaner. To this point, green ticket violations are largely ignored, especially in densely populated areas of the city, such as Beacon Hill, where many property owners of large buildings live elsewhere and are not often held accountable for the actions of their tenants.

Rep. Michlewitz says he expects the Senate to pass the law soon, and the Governor has indicated he would sign it. Bravo to both Representatives Michlewitz and Walz for their support of this effort.


It's a balmy 27 right now in Boston. People are out on the streets enjoying the bright sunshine. After two days in the single digits and teens, one can handle 27 without a winter hat... for a few minutes, at least.

Public Garden (View From Center Island)
January 31, 2010

Throw Them All Out!

A conventional wisdom is that voters dislike politicians as a whole, but they like their elected officials. They don't trust members of Congress, with the exception of their own. It's a pretty amazing concept, for it helps explain why the make-up of Congress doesn't change in most elections, even though the approval rating for Congress is usually low.

This year is an exception. No one is happy with their elected officials. The anti-incumbent mode is so extreme that it took a finger-bitingly close vote to re-elect Ben Bernake to be chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Bernake studied the causes of the Great Depression while earning his academic credentials at Harvard and M.I.T. It would be tougher to find someone better suited to the economic situation of today; yet even the obscure role Fed Chairman could not survive the rampant desires of the public to "throw the bums out."

It's turned into a year where voters will have to either show their frustration by turning against their elected officials, or hold their noses while they vote for the incumbents. Martha Coakely, the Massachusetts Attorney General who lost to Scott Brown in the recent Massachusetts special election, in many ways ran as an incumbent. The approach backfired.

I certainly have never seen a more populist mood in the minds of voters. Certainly, I share those frustrations, but it worries me when a populist wave obscures the issues and views within a given election. Bad performance is a good enough reason for voting to remove someone from office, however it needs to be balanced with the actual positions of the candidates.

One definite positive effect---Citizens are using their right to vote as a way to channel their outrage. Turnout in Massachusetts was extremely high. Hopefully that interest will carry into November.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Healthcare: A Complicated Bill Doesn't Make it Bad

In the Spring of 1996, I took Tobe Berkowitz's famous political communications class at Boston University. We studied the populist campaign of Steve Forbes, who won the Republican primary in New Hampshire in February of that year. Forbes signature proposal was the flat tax. He advocated tossing out the current tax code and replacing it with one tax rate for all Americans. He showed off his idea by carrying a post card that would become the new tax return. The idea resonated with legions of frustrated voters put off by the complicated nature of government, which was astonishing. Forbes' idea would raise taxes for the vast majority of Americans who benefited from the graduated tax rate system. It would reduce what is paid by the wealthiest citizens.

Yet, Steve Forbes idea resonated because people could understand it. The lesson learned: Simple sells, even if the idea doesn't benefit the consumer.

Today, the government is having the exact opposite problem. President Obama is pressing for a massive, complicated health care bill that no one really understands. It includes numerous programs for the various groups affected by health care---drug companies, insurance agencies, doctors and patients.

The bill is so complicated, that the general voter's innate mistrust of government causes them to simply oppose it without even trying to understand it. Friends tell me the Massachusetts election of Scott Brown last week really was a referendum on President Obama's plan. The verdict? Since I can't understand it, the bill must be trying to take advantage of me.

Certainly that is not true. The health care bill is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. Scott Brown was prone to say during the waning weeks of his campaign that the health care debate in many ways is about fairness: We have health care in Massachusetts; why do we have to pay (via taxes) for the rest of the country to also have health care?

In reality, Senator Brown, the inverse of your argument is true. We have the requirement of universal health care in Massachusetts, and yet, we suffer from the lack of industry cost controls. We are now required to pay for a system with costs that are spiraling out of control. The bills in Congress seek to control these costs; on paper they would reduce health care costs over a ten-year period.

Health care reform in D.C. was in many ways modeled after the Massachusetts program. In addition, it adds a few elements of reform that do not currently exist in Massachusetts. It prohibits denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions. It prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage when patients get very sick. These elements do not help control costs, however. And that's where the bill gets complicated, since no industry wants the government to restrict their growth.

The great majority of people in the United States have health care and like it. A lot of those people have a health care plan provided by the government (medicare or a program provided to veterans). Yet, health care reform is needed badly because health care costs are out of control.

The health care reform bill is very complicated. Since there is some sense of transparency when legislation is created and passed, the American people are tired of how this piece of sausage is being made. The public's support of health care reform has fallen as the debate has ensued, probably because citizens are just sick of talking about it. They don't understand the bill at all, and they don't trust the process. That's a shame, since the legislation could do much to help health care as a whole. Even for voters in Massachusetts.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why Scott Brown Won

Congratulations to Massachusetts Senator-Elect Scott Brown. He is a smart, capable politician, and I hope he will be a great Senator.

For the past few days, I have been listening to many political pundits note how it took "the perfect storm" for Senator Brown to win. His opponent, Martha Coakley, had the institutional advantage. Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1. This is Massachusetts, for heaven's sake. There hasn't been a Republican Senator here since... well I can't remember. And finally, we're talking about Senator Kennedy's seat. Why would voters elect someone who would counter the late Senator's life-long mission---universal health care?

For the final debate of the campaign, held yards away from the Kennedy Library on the campus of UMASS Boston, organizers asked David Gergen, political strategist and former aide to Presidents both Republican and Democrat, to moderate. The choice seemed strange to me. Certainly Gergen is politically smart. I have listened to his wise commentary many a night on CNN. However, Gergen is a political insider. I doubt he spent time talking to large numbers of Massachusetts voters before the debate. Like other analysts (and on many occasions, me), he gets caught up in the political horse race at the expense of commenting on the pulse of the public.

David Gergen, in my opinion, sealed the victory for Scott Brown during the debate. At the very least, the moment encapsulated why Brown won.

In asking Brown a question about the health care debate in Washington, Gergen turned to face Brown and, rather incredulously, noted "you're talking opposing health care reform as a Senator from Massachusetts... [dramatic pause and with emphasis] Ted Kennedy's seat."

"With all due respect," Brown quickly retorted. "This is not Ted Kennedy's seat, nor anyone else's seat. This is the people's seat."

I admit that many Massachusetts Democrats feel safe on this side of the "Blue Curtain." We often speak with hubris about the Democratic majority here. And while I don't really think that hubris showed in this race (except perhaps breeding complacency), that hubris certainly was portrayed by the media.

Gergen's question was in some ways offensive to all Massachusetts voters. I am a Democrat, but that doesn't blind me in the ballot box. I would imagine most other Democrats are not similarly naive to the issues and debates of any given race. The days of the party lever are over. Better than 20-percent of Democrats voted for Scott Brown this past Tuesday. I bet many of them were swayed by Gergen's hubris; they might have voted for Brown to spite the moderator and all others who feel Democrats here are naive to the challenges facing our country.

Everyone is hurting right now. Democrats understand that as much as anyone. I haven't enjoyed reading stories in Newsweek and BusinessWeek that say workers in my generation should look forward to years of less and less benefits and longer and longer hours, without wage increases that match inflation. We are frustrated.

Enter into this environment an election in which everyone-- including David Gergen-- just assumes Ted Kennedy's seat will go to a Democrat. The populist frustration boiled over, among independents and many Democrats.

Enter into this environment a candidate, Martha Coakley, who until the final weekend just didn't really seem to be working very hard.

Enter into this environment a candidate, Scott Brown, who jammed his schedule---meeting with regular voters---and whose pick-up truck symbolized the common person.

The perfect storm in Massachusetts was created by universal frustration and a reaction to the conventional wisdom---that because Massachusetts is a blue state, it doesn't matter. That this election doesn't matter. That the voters don't matter.

Well, we matter. And even though I voted for Martha Coakley, there's no doubt the nation was listening even to me this past Tuesday. Fundamentally, it's just another example of how our democracy is indeed working.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

My Choice is Martha Coakley

It's probably not a surprise to regular readers that I am voting for Martha Coakley on Tuesday to be the next U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. Over the past week, the temperature in the race has risen many degrees. One cannot watch a local news program without encountering numerous ads for Coakley and her opponent.

I had originally not planned to write this post; but given how the race as turned out, I feel compelled to state my reasons for supporting the Attorney General, despite the fact that I did not vote for her in the Democratic primary last month.

1) Massachusetts universal health care is not enough. While we enjoy nearly universal health-care coverage in Massachusetts, we suffer from industry wide problems, including the uncontrollable rise in health-care costs. The most attractive provisions of the health-care bills in Congress protect all of us from loss of insurance if we get sick, and they forbid insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. Those provisions are not a part of the Massachusetts heath care overhaul. A vote against Martha Coakley is a vote against health-care reform so desperately needed.

2) Martha Coakley agrees with many of my international priorities. Certainly there are still those in Afghanistan that mean us harm, but the fight against terrorism is not as black-and-white as simply targeting countries or regions. Coakley believes that the right answer isn't always to send in troops. The right answer is to target our efforts based on good intelligence and recognize that this effort is truly global in nature.

3) Martha Coakley is tough. As Attorney General she's represented Massachusetts, returned money to the state's taxpayers, and remained committed to her core values. This is not a party sock puppet. Martha Coakley will stand up for what she believes in.

Tuesday's election is serious. Many of my fellow Massachusetts residents are upset. But they should not let that anger cloud their judgement about what's best for the state. And what's best is to make Martha Coakley our next U.S. Senator.

Friday, January 01, 2010

The Traveled Road

I keep a calendar at my desk at work where I log, among other things, the trips I take. Yesterday, on the final day of 2009, I reviewed my travel for the year.

I spent forty-five days on the road, including eight separate trips to San Francisco. I went to Los Angeles, Tampa, Houston, Austin, Washington, and New York. Almost all of the travel was for work, save three days in Hampton, Virginia visiting my brother Brett.

I have written before about travel on this space. I do like travel, but I also like coming home. At the same time, there are a few perks of traveling that are worth mentioning.

Dulles Airport

Chantilly, Virginia

December 4, 2009

1) Experiencing local eateries. I am told there is a Five Guys burger place in Dedham, Mass., but why the heck would I go there when I can enjoy a double cheeseburger at Dulles Airport, close to where Five Guys was founded in northern Virginia. Trips to San Francisco allow for a quick stop at In-N-Out Burger before hopping on the red eye at Oakland airport.

2) Catching up with friends. One of my best friends from high school lives in Salinas, Calif. about two hours south of San Francisco. My trips sometimes allow me to catch up with old classmates, co-workers and teammates.

3) Getting to wear my Yankee gear. I have a closet-full of Yankee gear that I cannot wear in Boston. But on the road, my fellow travel companions don't seem to mind.

My first trip in 2010 is already planned, and it will bring me back to San Francisco for three days this coming week.