John Winthrop Sears – they don’t make ‘em that way any more

john searsJohn Winthrop Sears would have been 84 years old last Thursday.  He died November 4th.  As far as I can tell, he was the last of a breed.  Family and friends gathered the evening of his birthday at Christ Church Longwood in Brookline.  The event was a musical remembrance, a magnificent program he had planned himself, obviously as a  gift to those gathered.

A patrician in the best sense of the word (to whom much is given, of him shall much be required), Sears gave of himself in public service and philanthropy.  Many of us knew him as the Republican Sheriff of Suffolk County, or in his terms as state rep or Boston city councilor.  He also led the Boston Finance Commission and the Metropolitan District Commission and was active in many civic organizations. Perhaps you connected with him when he ran for governor or secretary of state, or headed the state Republican Party back in the day, when GOP meant Herter, Saltonstall, Hatch, Sargent and Brooke. A really smart and decent man, grounded in a sense of mission to improve the world while preserving the best of our historic past.

He came by his commitment naturally, proud of his lineage going back to the 18th century Massachusetts Bay Colony and, before that, to 13th-century England. It all came together at his memorial service, in the Sears Chapel at Christ’s Church Longwood, an interdenominational gathering place built by his great, great grandfather and restored and maintained by John.  His family tree includes abolitionists, philanthropists, financiers, doctors, national tennis champions, a United Nations Ambassador.  The Sears family was a prominent thread in the Massachusetts landscape for centuries, and John Sears was imbued with the history of Boston. I fondly remember when, during a national meeting of editorialists convening here more than   20 years ago, John agreed to lead us on a bus tour of the old and new Boston.  He was spell-binding, and he clearly relished every minute of it.

John’s GOP was liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal matters. He believed in cultivating young talent, including women and minorities, and he knew when people were authentic and dependable. He hated the politics of sound bites, and his nuanced parsing of issues was not necessarily salable in this era of slogans and twitter feeds.

As quoted in a 1998 Commonwealth Magazine article by David Denison, John differed from many of today’s Republicans, who oppose all but the most minimal government. “Government is not the problem. Bad government is the problem.”

He loved classical music and gave us Bach, Handel and Mozart and the Battle Hymn of the Republic in his memorial service.  His selections signaled his deep faith that the very best of the past has something significant to say to us today. I hope others are listening.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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Cuba: Obama’s push for legacy

Google map

Google map

Hmm, the country has an authoritarian regime, a Communist credo, a record of human rights violations, no open elections or free press, and we’re liberalizing relations with it? How can we do that? Well, it worked with China, Richard Nixon’s legacy foreign policy initiative. And Vietnam too. Why not with Cuba?  To paraphrase President Obama, our hardline embargo and lack of diplomatic relations for five decades hasn’t dramatically improved political conditions in Cuba. Why think that continuing the approach will bear positive results.

New, more relaxed regulations have still to be worked out in a whole range of issues.  What will be the rules for U.S. businesses  eager to tap new markets?  What will be resolved regarding lands confiscated by the Castro regime, many owned by people who are now American citizens?  Will Cuba be taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism? Oddly, North Korean was taken off, while Iran, Syria, and Sudan are on.  We do have diplomatic relations with Sudan.  Consistency has never been our strong suit, so why fear flexibility in Cuba relations?

This move toward normalization shouldn’t come as a surprise.  President George W. Bush had allowed some limited medical supplies and agricultural products to go from the United States to Cuba.  President Obama has talked in vague terms for years about his goal of accelerating normalization.  Tea readers have seen bits of evidence gathering for the last year, including President Obama’s shaking hands with President Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.  Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will visit Havana next month.  In April, Cuba will, for the first time in half a century, attend the Organization of American States meeting in Panama.  Feedback to this week’s announcement from other Latin American countries has been positive.

Negative reaction from older Cuban Americans is understandable.  They, and their families, suffered horribly at the hands of the Castro brothers and their compatriots. They view the President’s move as caving in before any reassurances of Cuba’s willingness to institute reforms.  Younger Cuban Americans are more positive.  But scalability and reasonability must be integral to what the United States does.

There are immediate opportunities for cooperation. Cuba’s doctors have been poster children for the island’s health care system and have played a key role in fighting ebola in Africa.  But on the home front, Cuba’s economy is shaky, with many household necessities in scarce supply.

Tourism from the nearby United States, limited now to specific arts and culture groups licensed to travel there, could expand dramatically under loosened restrictions, bringing money to ordinary people to ease their daily lives, if the money really gets to them.  (My husband and I are going with a “people-to-people” group this winter, a trip planned last summer. It may be too soon to use U.S. credit cards there, but, yes, we may be able to bring back Cuban cigars when we go.

The embargo imposed by the Helms-Burton law in 1996 can’t be lifted without Congressional input.  The real question is whether Raul Castro can make incremental moves quickly enough to reassure Congress.  The release of political prisoners, including Alan Gross, is step one, but it is a step in the right direction.  Years from now, normalization with Cuba could be regarded as a positive aspect of Barack Obama’s legacy.

El diablo está en los detalles.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

 

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Boston 2024 Olympic bid: we could – but should we?

Olympic ringsYesterday, the city of Rome included itself among the potential hosts for the 2024 summer Olympics.  Now, where would you rather be that August – Boston or Rome?   Italian Premier Matteo Renzi said, “it’s unacceptable not to try.”  Boston’s self-appointed elite apparently feel that way.  Today, Boston’s bid boosters are in San Francisco to persuade the United States Olympic Committee to choose Boston over  San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington.

Do we have such an inferiority complex that we need an Olympics bid to see ourselves as  a true world class city, a global player? I would suggest that we are there already, with our education, health care, innovation, life sciences and clean energy sectors.  The annual HUBweek festival planned by the Boston Globe, MIT, Harvard and that Mass. General Hospital is just one terrific low-impact way to showcase the city’s innovation, science, technology, engineering, and art.  Even if we could pull off the Olympics, it’s not clear that we should.

Years ago, the late Mayor Tom Menino got suckered into an earlier pitch to bring the Olympics here.  In the year before his death, he reversed himself, acknowledging that it would be a huge distraction.

Mayor Marty Walsh is right to espouse internationalism for the city, which can be a boon for the economy and showcase our talents and multi-ethnic diversity. He is right to have brought arts, culture, and tourism, up to cabinet-level attention. But advocating global connections doesn’t necessarily argue for bringing the Olympics here. Walsh hasn’t exactly drunk the Koolaid, but he has embraced the arguments of  heavies (many with private interests at stake) like Suffolk Construction Chief John Fish, Bob Kraft, and more, on the Boston Olympics Organizing Committee.

The Mayor says he won’t do anything that will leave Boston with a pile of debt.  He doesn’t see the bid  prep as drawing ourselves ineluctably into a whirlwind situation.  He sees us at an early stage of a multi-step process. But, if the USOC taps us, one fears the process will be hard to control.

The Committee talks about raising $4.5 billion in private financing, insuring against a public bailout of over-runs, while relying on $5 billion in public dollars for roads and infrastructure. I suspect they’re low-balling this.  According to No Boston Olympics, the average cost of the summer games is $19.2 billion.  London’s games were three times over budget.  Most host cities have emerged with huge debt, white elephant structures,  and significant regrets that other needs –  education, housing, health care, environment, and routine road and transportation projects – got shunted aside.

Irrespective of the Olympics, we do need to improve our roads and infrastructure.  Supporters claim that infrastructure improvements needed for the Olympics don’t represent new outlays but are already in the long-term plans of the Commonwealth. But how much should we cherry-pick future infrastructure projects without hurting other, more immediate needs and geographic areas untouched by the Olympics?   Should we allow the Olympics to reorder priorities for the whole state?

Just because a project is authorized in a long-term plan doesn’t mean legislators will be willing to raise taxes to pay for it.  They did not smile favorably on Governor Patrick’s transportation vision earlier this year. They routinely lack the courage to raise the gas tax to pay for desperately needed road and bridge repairs! Massachusetts was bailed out by the feds when it came to Big Dig overruns, helped by the powers of Tip O’Neill, Ted Kennedy and Joe Moakley.  Alas, that clout is no longer with us.

The organizing committee has not made public all the terms of its proposal. It would be helpful if it did. What has come out is that the universities would play a key role in providing Olympics housing. A temporary 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium would be built in South Boston, and then taken down. Would Bob Kraft then spend his own money to convert the stadium to a soccer facility for The Revolution, (with infrastructure paid for by the taxpayers)?

Neither the state legislature nor the Boston City Council has ever voted on supporting the 2024 bid.  Some of the neighborhoods that would be directly affected believe they too have been left out. But the impact of the Olympics would extend far beyond Greater Boston and for years to come.

Mayor Walsh told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last week that there have been a couple of public hearings, and there will be more if Boston is tapped as the USOC choice to compete.  Clearly there needs to be a full public review, including the opportunity to opt out.

To quote Chris Dempsey of No Boston Olympics , “We need to think big, but we also have to think smart.” Amen to that.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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From Selma to Ferguson to Boston

selmaIt’s hard for millennials  to imagine that not so long ago, blacks, who Constitutionally had the right to vote since 1870, were routinely blocked from exercising that right.  But antagonistic county commissioners and viciously contrived regulatory barriers in the South routinely denied even the ability to register. In Selma, Alabama, a majority of the people were black, but just one percent had been allowed to register. Often, assertion of their rights led to violence, including death. That battle is the subject of a powerful new movie, Selmaopening here in January,  specially screened on Monday night at AMC Boston Common Theater.

In 1965, during the early weeks of the Selma voting rights campaign, 70 million people watched in horror as our black-and-white televisions broadcast how peaceful protests were met with tear gas and clubs.  Local sheriff Jim Clark was a Bull Connor type, out for blood.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to persuade President Lyndon Johnson to introduce a voting rights act to end the nefarious practices, but LBJ insisted over and over it was just not the right time (I wish Bryan Cranston had been available for the role).

MLK was determined to bring about change, and called for a peaceful march across the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge to start the 54 mile trudge from Selma to Montgomery to petition Governor George Wallace. The resulting beatings and deaths (including the killing of Massachusetts Unitarian minister James Reeb, a white man) prompted national outrage.  Finally, LBJ bowed to pressure and promised to file a bill the following week to effect needed changes. King and his colleagues continued to lay plans for the march.

Following a local hearing, legendary federal Judge Frank Johnson defended the protesters’ right to  do so under the First Amendment (A George Wallace law school classmate, he had earlier ruled in favor of Rosa Parks.)  King was joined by clergy from the north and south, white and black, some celebrities (notably Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne) but mostly clergy and ordinary people of principle and courage- who included Ralph Abernethy, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Hosea Williams and many outstanding individuals who later became leaders and household names. From 2000 marchers, the crowd grew to 25,000. Sit-ins occurred in Washington and elsewhere. This was a pivotal and emotional moment in the civil rights movement, giving voice to the despair of longstanding injustice and hopelessness.

Director Ava DuVernay’s movie delivers a powerful impact, effectively using grainy old news footage of the march, tapping into a range of emotions.  Following the screening, journalist Carmen Fields moderated a thoughtful panel that included former mayor Ray Flynn, Mayor Marty Walsh, and ministers Jeffrey Brown and Liz Walker, commenting on the ingredients for building a social movement.

All reflected on Ferguson and Staten Island, where grand juries refused to indict police who had used excessive force, killing unarmed black men in situations of minor infractions. All spoke passionately about the need for social and economic justice and the  importance of exercising those hard-won voting rights.  “Fifty percent participation isn’t good enough, or 18 percent in a state election in an off year,” said Walsh.  “People have put their lives on the line for the right to vote.”

The message of Selma, (event and movie) clearly resonates with Walsh. On Wednesday, in his annual report to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, he outlined his initiatives in economic development, housing, early education and public safety.  He spoke of “police and community working together” to build trust and the importance of going beyond feel-good rhetoric.  Boston’s economy is soaring he said, but “growth itself isn’t good enough.”  “Inequality is slowing down the economy.”

Selma should be required viewing for millennials and teens who didn’t live through the civil rights movement of the sixties.  It could help them understand the despair that still exists when people are treated unequally by the law and by habit. The film could help move today’s protests to the next step and foster the conversation necessary to make substantive change.

Whether we admit it or not, bias remains deeply ingrained. Prior to today’s Chamber meeting, a highly placed black executive shared with me the subtle forms of bias she experiences, such as when upscale Boston restaurant maître d’s regularly seat her and her husband at out-of-the way tables, something, she said, that doesn’t happen in the western suburbs. The time for constructive dialogue is long overdue.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

 

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Mark Wahlberg, meet Nam Phan

photo The Guardian

photo The Guardian

Mark Wahlberg, star of box office hits Boogie Nights, The Perfect Storm, The Departed, Lone Surivor and more, and executive producer of Entourage and Boardwalk Empire, was one vicious dude in his teens.    His rap sheet from the 1980’s reads like a series of scripts from brother Donnie’s NYPD series Blue Bloods. Of particular relevance today is that the former Marky Mark, now a huge Hollywood success, has business interests that could be helped if he were pardoned for his earlier crimes.

At age 15, in June 1986, he and two other Dorchester toughs chased three black children, yelling “kill the nigger, kill the nigger,” and threw rocks at them.  The next day, one of those children on a field trip from the Mather School to Savin Hill, recognized the three assailants from the previous day. Wahlberg and his friends followed the teacher and the students, yelling racial epithets, again throwing rocks and hitting them.    The court ordered them to stay away from the neighborhood children.

Two years later, in April 1988, things got more serious. Wahlberg attacked Dorchester resident Thanh Lam as he was crossing Dorchester Avenue carrying two cases of beer.  Wahlberg brandished a heavy wooden stick, called Lam a “Vietnamese fucking shit,” and  beat Lam over the head, breaking the stick.  As the criminal complaint describes,  Lam “fell to the ground unconscious.” He was treated overnight at Boston City Hospital.

Wahlberg and his buddies fled the scene and, not long afterward, came upon another Vietnamese man, Hoa Trinh. He put his arm around Trinh’s shoulder to evade the police and, when the police had passed, punched Trinh in the eye, knocking him to the ground. Trinh lost the sight in that eye.

Later that evening, Wahlberg was arrested and readily admitted the attack, seemingly proud of what he had done and spouting a stream of racial slurs. The prosecutor asked for a two-year sentence for attempted murder, but Wahlberg pled guilty to assault. Instead of two years, Wahlberg did just 45 days in the Deer Island House of Correction.

He was into drugs and kept getting into scrapes, including a 1992 attack on a neighbor, in which he beat and kicked him “without provocation,” breaking his jaw. Eventually he started to turn things around.  During the ’90’s, Marky Mark cut some records, had a couple of hits and was memorable posing in a provocative Calvin Klein photo campaign. Movie opportunities rolled in, and for the last 20 years he has been a highly paid celebrity.

So now he has applied to the Massachusetts Board of Pardons .  He says he has been a model citizen, and, as the Wahlburgers restaurant chain he owns with his brothers seeks permits to expand, he wants to wipe the slate clean.

Some in the old neighborhood don’t want to forgive him for the fear and brutality he rained down on them.  One critic wrote that Wahlberg shouldn’t apply for a pardon as a lesson to troubled youth that “their actions have repercussions even it they later become wealthy celebrities.”  But Nam Phan, the executive director of VietAID, a Vietnamese community center that opened in 2002, told me that he believes Wahlberg’s regret is sincere.  Pham left commercial banking to work in the community, and the VietAID mission, he said,  is all about helping people and providing second chances.

Wahlberg’s statement in seeking a pardon includes an apology to those whom he injured.  But apparently he has never sought out the two Vietnamese men and asked them face to face for forgiveness.  Even if he can’t find them to do so, here’s an idea.

Wahlberg created the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, which donates to youth causes, among them the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester.  For the last three years, VietAID has sought a grant from Wahlberg’s  Foundation but has never received any response.  I would think that the Board of Pardons, and indeed the entire community, would look very favorably on a significant Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation grant to the Vietnamese community.  To start, how about one to VietAID? Make it big, and make it annually.  Maybe he could even get brother Donnie to bring the Blue Bloods cast (including Tom Selleck and Tom Brady’s ex, Bridget Moynihan) to headline a fundraiser. If Mark Wahlberg were to get a pardon, perhaps he could commit an annual percentage of Wahlburgers’ profits to Boston organizations fighting racism.

Mark Wahlberg terrorized his Dorchester neighborhood, and backed his racial  slurs against blacks and Vietnamese with brute force. People were traumatized, some for life. Wahlberg has turned his life around.  The neighborhood still faces challenges.

Pardon him perhaps, after a full public hearing and a thorough review by the Governor, who should be less star struck than the Governor’s Council if Wahlberg comes before them. But first let Wahlberg engage his victims, provide substantial support and make it personal.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

 

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Rosenberg’s partner makes mess for incoming Senate president

Stan RosenbergIt’s not the same story as Steve “Hot Buns” Gobie  undermining the reputation of Congressman Barney Frank. That 1985 scandal involved Gobie’s illegal prostitution activity based in Frank’s apartment, of which the Congressman was ignorant.  But it was also a liaison just before the politician’s coming out and it also called into question the public figure’s judgment.

The behavior of incoming Senate President Stan Rosenberg’s domestic partner, 37 years his junior and his former Senate employee, has humiliated this longtime public servant with a reputation for being a serious, hardworking, thoughtful and effective policy-oriented legislator. Ultimately Gobie didn’t bring Frank down, but there was a permanent damage to his reputation.  Rosenberg’s assumption of outgoing Senate President Therese Murray’s powerful leadership position may not be doomed, but, in the wake of recent Boston Globe coverage,  there are serious questions that need to be answered.

Gossips will have much to say about the 37-year difference between Rosenberg and his mate.  The actual years though are far less important than the difference in maturity. At 27, Bryon Hefner seems far more immature than my teenage grandsons.  He is said to have been responsible for sending out nasty tweets last spring about outgoing Senate President Therese Murray, likening her to the Wicked Witch of the West and hinting she is alcoholic, and dissing other state officials as well.  Worse, he has boasted that he will have influence over Senate policy, including the naming of committee chairmen and staff assignments.

Rosenberg, attempting to defend himself,  has sought to reassure colleagues that there would be a “firewall” between his private relationship and his public responsibilities. According to the Boston Globe, Rosenberg learned about the problem “weeks after the tweets” and told Hefner to stop. The timeline here in unclear.

Rosenberg also told Michael Jonas of Commonwealth Magazine, in a story liberally borrowed from by the Globe, that Hefner helped him through a bout with serious skin cancer and also gave him the courage to go public as a gay person. They also bonded initially as products of the state’s foster care system. Now, he says, they are in a committed relationship.

Partners gay and heterosexual alike find each other for all sorts of reasons, and those are irrelevant to the story here.  What is relevant is why Hefner felt empowered to do what he did, why Rosenberg didn’t know about Hefner’s misdeeds earlier, what else is out there to blindside the Senate President-in-waiting, and what all this may say about his judgment.

A job was found for Hefner at the public relations firm of George Regan, (as columnist Adrian Walker notes, Regan “has long claimed Murray as a great friend and client),  but Hefner’s immature and reckless behavior seems inimical to success there. As for Rosenberg’s future, this mess aside, he seems to be just the kind of individual – judging issues on merit and thoughtful analysis, mediating consensus, being inclusive, quietly making things happen – that state leadership needs.  The next steps for him are all about reputation management, rebuilding confidence and restoring his brand. And that won’t happen overnight.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

 

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Pay hikes for top state officials no laughing matter

State House MAGovernor-elect Charlie Baker said in no uncertain terms that “now is not the time to be talking about pay increases on Beacon Hill.”  No doubt a majority of the public  agrees with him. The trouble is: There’s never a good time to be talking about pay increases for politicians – not even, or perhaps especially – for those at the top.

Which is why a special advisory commission, under the leadership of highly respected UMass McCormack School Dean Ira Jackson, was tasked by the legislature with reviewing the salaries of top state officials, seeing what other states do, understanding official responsibilities and recommending changes. The advisory commission urged increasing the Governor’s salary from $151,800 to $185,000, with a housing allowance of $65,000 to serve the functions the Parkman House does for the City of Boston. (Massachusetts is one of a handful of states not providing a governor’s mansion for functions related to office.) Making the change would move our governor’s salary from 26th to 2nd among the 50 states.  Really, is this leap necessary in a state that ranks 14th in population?

Our auditor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state would each go from just over $130,000 to $165,000. This would give us the highest earning Lt. Governor, second most expensive when adjusted for cost of living. The secretary of state and auditor would be nearly as high (5th) in the rankings.  The treasurer and attorney general would go to $175,000,  second among the 50 states and sixth based on cost of living. The Senate President and the Speaker of the House, with recommended 75 percent increases, would go to first in the nation.

That 75 percent increase is especially hard to swallow when those holding the positions typically have had outside jobs as well. Any large leadership increase should be made contingent upon implementing a ban on outside work, which the commission recommended.  As for rank-and-file legislators, the commission would change the formula for computing automatic adjustments. That’s wrong and possibly unconstitutional

;  it should stay as it is, linked to median household income.

Some raises for the top Constitutional officers do make sense, though I’m tempted to say they should be financed by eliminating the post of lieutenant governor, an office that wasn’t filled for the last two years and would surely not be missed.

The commission notes the illogic of having 1254 state employees earning more than the governor, who is in effect the CEO of the largest business in Massachusetts. And that’s true. The thinking is that raising the salaries to be more competitive with the private sector would help attract talented people. But I haven’t noticed a shortage of qualified candidates for statewide office. For all the commission’s national analysis, what’s the evidence that good people haven’t run because the pay is too low? With all the report’s charts, what evidence is there that more generous states got better candidates or officeholders than Massachusetts?

Public sector salaries are never going to compete dollar-for-dollar with the private sector, and the commission acknowledges this. That’s not why people go into public service, which brings different kinds of reward – value, mission, ego nourishment and connections for more remunerative positions after office.

What those in the public sector do get are more generous pension benefits than those working for private companies.  Even longtime service in lower-paying statewide office can pay off handsomely in retirement.

So, where do we go from here? Elected officials are barred from voting to increase their own salaries, so any action taken would only take effect after the subsequent election.  The total annual cost of the increases is under a million dollars, a pittance in a $36 billion state budget, but it is more significant rolling forward with its potential impact on state pension commitments. The commission seems not to have considered the pension implications.

The state has a shortfall of about $350 million, which needs to be  addressed now and absolutely should not come out of local aid, or, for that matter, from direct support for services like those for the homeless or developmentally disabled. The advisory commission recommends the cost of the raises be paid for by commensurate savings in the agency or department’s own budget, and that those entities be required to report annually on how they’re doing that. The legislature should deal with today’s budget deficit and find efficiencies to cover the raises before implementing the salary increases.

I don’t think Massachusetts has to move to the very top of government executive salaries, even adjusting for our higher cost of living.  None of those now in office or just elected ran with the expectation of dramatically higher salaries. The bottom line for me is that some increases may be in order, but they should be less generous than those recommended by the commission and phased in over time as was done with the minimum wage.

The thoughtfulness of the advisory commission report should at least be matched by the carefulness of the deliberations to implement its recommendations.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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