An open letter to Angela Menino

Dear Angela,

Boston Globe photo

Boston Globe photo

Reams have been written and will continue to be written about your beloved husband, Tom; hours have been spent broadcasting his myriad accomplishments as Boston’s longest running mayor. History will reflect on the many things he did to leave his imprint on the city and, indeed, the region. Future generations will marvel at the still wondrous fact that, after all those years, those new skyscrapers erected, the Innovation District created, the summer jobs generated for young people, the arts institutions resurrected, his authentic support for gay marriage and human rights – after all that and more, he still left the office with an 80 percent approval rating.  (As one Boston Magazine writer noted, he was “more popular than kittens.”)

I want to offer you – and his children and grandchildren – my deepest condolences. If the city is grieving, one can only begin to imagine the void you are feeling.  I want to thank you for the loving support you gave him, during good times and bad.  He couldn’t have accomplished what he did without your underpinning. You were always with him, at events large and small.  You watched over him, especially during his health challenges, like a hawk.  You were always engaged in his civic activities but projected friendliness along with quiet dignity, there to be his helpmate and boon companion, never seeking the spotlight for yourself.

Most of all, I want to thank you for sharing him with the city, with its hundreds of thousands of residents, a majority of whom had actually met him, most of whom felt they knew him. He was always on call, and so, like a doctor’s or plumber’s wife knows, you had to accept  that your own life was never your own. You never made Bostonians feel that this was mere forbearance on your part.  You accepted the role. You embraced it.

And so, I hope you now feel the embrace of all those, big people and small (from a political power perspective) who want to put their arms around you and say, well done, Angela. May the happy memories lessen the pain for you and your family during these difficult days.


Margie Arons-Barron

I welcome your comments in the section below.


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Getting a grip on ebola

Ebola hits NY headlineNew York City likes to see itself as informed and sophisticated, but the city’s response to its first case of ebola was anything but.  The headlines screamed “Ebola in NYC.” News stories on television and on the electrified sides of skyscrapers flashed danger. Photos of the doctor diagnosed, who had ridden the subway, eaten at a restaurant and gone bowling, made him out to be one of the FBI’s most wanted. Mayor Bill de Blasio felt it necessary to ride the subway to reassure the public it was safe for travel.

The fear on the streets was probably heightened by the terrorist hatchet attack on four policemen the very same day.  Fear was rampant. North of Manhattan a teenager got a nosebleed and worried that he had Ebola.  Governors Cuomo and Christie, both of whom have reputations as bullies, issued a quarantine mandate for health workers returning from West Africa whether they were symptomatic or not. A nurse landing in Newark International Airport from West Africa was forced into an isolation tent despite the absence of any evidence she might be contagious. She was released to travel to Maine, where she is still fighting that state’s mandatory 21-day quarantine.

Politicians are integrating fear-mongering into their campaigns, with New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown calling for travel bans, and interdiction at the Mexican border.

Ebola is very scary. If you doubt it, read The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story, by Richard Preston, published in 1994.  Public health data bear out the assessment. Seventy percent (up to 90 percent according to the World Health Organization) of ebola victims in Africa die.  There has been one death in the United States.  Medical experts know what to do, and in the U.S.  they have the resources to do it. The small handful of additional patients here who have tested positive and been treated have all ultimately been declared free of the virus.

The best protocol is stopping ebola at its source in West Africa, especially Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. That will take the continued involvement of Western health care workers, dedicated doctors and nurses trained in treating ebola cases and willing to go to the source to help stop its spread.  The worst outcome of demonizing them upon their return and imposing excessive restrictions on their lives is deterring others from going to Africa to treat the afflicted.

We should be treating these health workers like heroes. If you’re going to impose a 21-day quarantine for anyone who has had direct contact with ebola patients, perhaps it should be an all-expenses-paid vacation at a specifically designated resort, where they could be monitored, eat well, work out, relax, be in touch with their families – an upgraded R & R.  U.S. troops building treatment facilities in West Africa are quarantined for 21 days in Italy and are apparently in good spirits.

Nor should these nurses and docs lose any income from extreme protocols. They should receive full pay for their time in quarantine. Anything less is an unfair punishment that penalizes them for their service and discourages others from helping.

For those who are not symptomatic, self monitoring, along with restricting access to public places like restaurants and public transportation, would seem reasonable and effective to reassure an anxious public. We should remember that the disease is not contagious until a patient is symptomatic, and then only with contact with bodily fluids or contaminated objects like clothing and bedding.   Health workers know best what the stakes are in the spread of this terrible disease. Why should we expect them to act anything other than prudently, respectful of the general population and the public health implications of exposure to ebola?

I welcome your comments in the section below.





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Coakley v. Baker – almost a yawn

debate photoTonight’s televised benign if mildly tense debate between Charlie Baker and Martha Coakley was clearly a draw, which may have been the defensive  objective of all concerned. Comfortably  moderated by WGBH talk show hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, both candidates stuck to their well honed, but by now shop-worn messages, spoke calmly, and smiled wanly but just a little.  They articulated some  subtle policy differences, but it’s hard to walk away with any overwhelming sense of great differences between them. Both are decent people who care about children,  women,  the mentally ill,  the middle class…..well, you get the idea. The question remains as to whether what is said in the campaign will play out in office.

I don’t know if  the debate rules prevented the moderators ( or the Globe interlocutors ) from asking crisp follow-up questions.  Clearly missing was the feisty engagement Eagan and Braude often exhibit on their program– not letting a guest get away with non-responsive palaver.   The stupid question asking each candidate to say what movie stars should play them in a film was  only slightly better than Barbara Walters asking what trees they would be.

When the candidate answers were lame (e.g., responding to the moderators’ call to them to disavow PAC ads now airing over and over and over), they both were lame.

I wish they had asked questions the candidates couldn’t answer in their sleep. For example,  which governor, living or dead, would each chose as a role model and why?  To what extent are  Baker’s views of public service and work ethic  closer to  those of  Romney than those  of his hero Bill Weld?  Does Martha Coakley still believe that she was right to block the release of Fells Acre convict Gerald Amirault  after the Parole Board voted 5-0 to release him? Would Charlie  Baker have given the same advice?

Baker scored in chiding Coakley for blocking access to the ballot for the casino repeal referendum. But we still don’t what each would do as governor if the repeal fails or succeeds.  Coakley is slightly more compelling in her support of the sick leave referendum. Baker differs in what he considers the threshold for the size of companies to which it should apply. Both blew their answers to the inequities of the lottery.

Where there are legitimate questions about their ethical decisions, both are flawed. For Baker, it’s the pay-to-play investigation of a $10,000 contribution to the Garden State’s Republican Committee from Baker’s company.  General Catalyst then got a $15 million investment of New Jersey pension monies.  NJ  Governor Chris Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, also funneled millions into Baker campaign advertising.  The NJ investigation results will not be made public until well after the election.  Yecch!

For Coakley, the issues are misuse of campaign funds (which she rectified)  and of advancing a lawsuit that would benefit one of her finance co-chairs who happens to run the  only program in the country to restructure loan foreclosures and earns a very high salary for doing it.  Coakley denied that any further disclosure of this seeming conflict of interest was in order. And, indeed, better context is provided on that somewhat overblown issue in Boston Magazine.

The candidates were asked which public misconceptions about them that they most regret. Baker said it’s the notion that he is more about (budget) numbers than about human beings.  Coakley says it’s the idea that she doesn’t have a sense of humor. They’re probably both right.

Coakley is trailing Baker in the money department, which is why she has brought high visibility players (Bill Clinton, Michele Obama, for example) to campaign for her. Baker has used Mitt Romney. Endorsements, however ringing, can go just so far. It’s all about the cash, and Baker has four or five times as much money in the campaign as does Coakley. That can translate into lots of last-minute advertising, and that could make a difference. Coakley and her minions may have a better get-out-the-vote ground game, and that too could make a difference.

Tonight’s debate will not.  With the candidates margin-of-error “tied” in the most recent polls (Boston Globe, for example,  has them each at 41 percent, with each of the three independent candidates drawing three percent or less), this debate did nothing to break the race open.  There are two weeks left to suffer through a barrage of ads that most of us have grown adept at tuning out. We’re left with two decent but hardly stellar candidates, and a steadily growing wish that the end comes quickly enough to put us out of our misery.

I welcome your comments in the section below.


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No on 1- keep the gas tax COLA

MA symbolForget the Pilgrim, the Minuteman and the Indian (Squanto?).  The real symbol of Massachusetts is the pothole.  The state has done a dreadful job of keeping up our infrastructure.  There are particularly bad places where hubcaps pile up by the side of the road.  Fixing our roads and bridges is paid for by gas tax revenues, and, until last year, our cowardly solons, ever fearful that dealing with these problems would mean voting for taxes, had gone 21 years without increasing the gas tax. The backlog of needed infrastructure work is enormous.

When in 2013 the legislature finally raised the tax by three cents a gallon (to 24 cents a gallon), they decided to link future adjustments to the rate of inflation. Not exactly a profile in courage!

Now Question 1 on the ballot would repeal that escalator.  The gas tax would stay the same unless the legislature voted affirmatively to raise it.  Supporters of repeal call the escalator “taxation without representation.”  But what we had for more than two decades was representation without taxation, at least as far as the gas tax was concerned.

It’s very nice to say that it is our legislators’ responsibility to do so every year that road work makes it potholenecessary, and that we should vote our solons out of office if they fail to act responsibly.  It’s a pretty civics class description of how things should work. But, especially in this overwhelmingly one-party state, generating that turnover to protest irresponsibility,  isn’t readily achieved. As a practical matter, we need that link to the Consumer Price Index to fix the half of all bridges that are deficient or obsolete and repave the rotten roads, which cost drivers an estimated $2 billion a year in repairs.

I’m not happy with this state of affairs, and I don’t normally like such escalator clauses.  But reality dictates a No vote on repealing  gas tax indexing.

I welcome your comments in the section below.



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Shelley Cohen, the Boston Herald and racist cartoon

Today Boston Herald Editorial Page Editor Shelley Cohen has a heartfelt and candid apology for the racist cartoon it published showing President Obama in his bathroom squeezing toothpaste onto his toothbrush while a White House intruder looks on from the bathtub.   The uninvited visitor asks, “Have you tried the watermelon-flavored toothpaste?”  The intent of the cartoon two and a half weeks ago was to mock how close to the President the Secret Service has allowed intruders to penetrate the White House. But it screamed a reference to old stereotypes of blacks as watermelon eaters and a whole lot of other negative adjectives.

The cartoon went viral and the Herald took a hit, deservedly, in public outrage. Cohen immediately told media critic Jim Romenesko she was “guilty as charged” for not picking up on the import of the cartoon.  The paper apologized (though somewhat limply in saying the cartoon “has offended some people and to them we apologize.”) Since then, the Herald has asked the NAACP to join with it in making recommendations so this kind of thing will never happen again.  And today Cohen (reminding everyone about the firewall between news and editorial)  assumes total responsibility and explains internal procedural missteps that allowed the cartoon to slip through.

We’ve all hit the send button on something and half a second later we wished we could call it back. But this situation reflects a deeper problem, ably identified by media critic Dan Kennedy as the need for greater newsroom diversity. The Herald has made strides in that regard, but perhaps it’s not enough.  Here’s a thought: how about start by bringing African-American journalist Robin Washington back to Boston.  Since leaving the Herald years ago, he has had a distinguished career as editor of the Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota and might make a real contribution to today’s Boston Herald.

We all find it easiest to react to cartoons or spoken slurs about our own groups.  Shelley Cohen doubtless would have quickly spiked a cartoon of a “shyster” (read “Shylock”) lawyer with a beak-like nose and money bags.   The watermelon toothpaste should have prompted that quick a reaction.  We all need to be more attuned to slurs on groups not our own. Her candid response today is on target, if late in the game.  There’s a big difference between being racist (which she is not) and doing a racist thing. Just as when we tell a small child, “you did a bad thing,” not “you are a bad person.”

Shelley Cohen is not racist, nor is Herald editor Joe Sciacca. Neither do I believe the cartoonist, whom I do not know personally, is racist.  But the cartoon itself was.

The need for increased sensitivity is probably playing out today most dramatically in how Muslims in America are portrayed.  We’re also witnessing a rise in anti-Semitism here and abroad. Catholics before Pope Francis were experiencing similar stereotyping in the wake of the priest abuse scandals.

This is not a call to go overboard in political correctness or to stifle free speech.  (I’m a big fan of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight stinging satire, for example.) What’s clear is that the election of Barack Obama does not mean we are in a post-racial society. The need for a national dialogue he called for in his first campaign has, with a few local exceptions, yet to take place. It’s equally clear that we still have a full plate of racial, ethnic and religious biases that need addressing.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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Globe food editor Gail Perrin and her link to Peter Frates

Gail PerrinTwo trumpets, a horn, a euphonium and a tuba, a brass quintet performing the music for Saturday’s memorial for the late Boston Globe food writer and editor Gail Perrin. The music was loud, bold, brassy and confident: how very Gail Perrin.  Gail was remembered for her warmth, her whimsy, her hospitality, her lust for international travel, her love of culture, and, of course, her passion for food.

A newspaper woman through and through, she had started at the Washington Post. Worcester Telegram & Gazette food editor Barbara Houle praised her friend as an experienced and talented food journalist, and a lifelong source of fun and whimsy.  Houle recalls Gail being invited to Julia Child’s birthday celebration in Vermont and Gail’s judging  a tomato contest at an event where Gail’s funky tomato earrings drew as much attention as the tomatoes she was judging.

Wellesley College roommate Judy Lasca reminisced about convincing Gail one cold November night to go into Boston to view late Boston Mayor James Michael Curley lying in state at the State House.  It would, promised Lasca, be an historic event. They had to wait two long hours to get in to view the body.  They returned to their Tower Court dorm room only to discover that some “spirited classmates” had tied their clothes  together and left them hanging in the frigid air outside their dorm window, frozen stiff.   Lasca and Perrin laughed about that night for many years to come.

Lasca and her husband spent many vacations with Gail at the Cape and travelled together to Antarctica, among other places. At home,  Gail’s house was always a mecca for entertaining, for feasting, for great conversation.  She’d stage lobster races across her kitchen floor before the cooking started and always refused help in the preparation.  Gail’s recipes are being gathered into a cookbook and made ready for what would have been her 55th Wellesley reunion next June.  She leaves, said Lasca, a legacy of good times, good living and good recipes.

Gail had struggled with her health for the last couple of years, but she wasn’t diagnosed with ALS until last June. She died in September, a remarkably short time after the diagnosis.  My husband and I had watched our dear friend, Providence Journal editorialist and columnist Brian Dickinson struggle with the disease for an unusual ten years, connected to the world through his eye-activated computerized writing system, still churning out columns long after every other part of his body was wasted.

Boston Globe copy editor Gerald D’Alfonso, a close friend of Gail’s, spoke with deep emotion about her last days and weeks.  He also spoke feelingly of the Ice Bucket Challenge, started by former college athlete Pete Frates, diagnosed just two years ago. The Challenge has raised $140 million since its inception this past summer.  Frates was honored Thursday night by The New England Council.

I had heard him there. Frates is a handsome young man, a 29-year-old former Division 1 college athlete, captain of the Boston College baseball team,  already ravaged by the disease.  This lovely individual had spoken from his wheelchair to the NEC audience of 1700 through a computer-generated voice message that left no dry eyes. Gail’s friend Gerry D’Alfonso spoke to those gathered in the Brooksby Village Chapel in Peabody on Saturday, reminding them about the challenges ahead for those dealing with ALS. At the end, he added, “and Peter Frates is my grandson.” There was an audible gasp among Gail’s friends and family.

Saturday’s memorial service ended as Gail would have wanted it. Trumpeter Thomas Palance played a slow moving rendition of Amazing Grace. The full brass quintet repeated it as a hymn, and the third time it erupted in full Dixieland throttle. Gail wanted  a party, and she got it, a fitting tribute to her warmth, energy and exuberance.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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Gubernatorial debate: too crowded for clarity

WBZ debateWBZ performed its civic duty by including three independent candidates for governor in Tuesday’s gubernatorial  debate, but the three added little to the process.  It’s one thing to give everyone equal access in the early stages of the campaign, helping the independents get themselves known,  make their views known,  raise some money and perhaps gain some traction.  With just a month left, however,  with none of them coming close to garnering 10% support and especially where frontrunners Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker are separated only by the polls’ margins of error, having Jeff McCormick, Scott Lively and Evan Falchuk as equal debate participants on any more of the debates is an unwanted distraction.

So what were we able to learn from tonight’s  political theater?  Charlie Baker was the one with executive presence.  On question after question, he had the facts; he was firm but not bullying (always a challenge when his chief opponent is a woman).  He was calm and projected authenticity.  Martha Coakley didn’t make any mistakes, but she seemed more to be executing her consultants’ playbooks.

At the outset, WBZ reporter Jon Keller, moderating well as always, asked what went wrong in one after another agency crisis (pharmacy, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), marijuana dispensaries, health connector) and what needs to be done .  Baker, the first to answer, was unequivocal.  “The Commonwealth took its eye off the ball.”  Coakley’s first response was to defend the Patrick and talk about “what went right.”  People don’t want to hear that.  They want to know that someone is going to get in there and clean things up.

Coakley did go on to talk about her plans for DCF, but Baker’s line, “The next governor should be a weed whacker,” had much more resonance.

Keller pressed the candidates on state budget-busting health care. Falchuk pressed Coakley on the deal she struck with Partners Health Care, which many experts believe will increase already high health costs. Coakley, for her part, pressed Baker for taking a high salary at Harvard Pilgrim when premiums were going up.  Obviously expecting the question, Baker didn’t get defensive but answered the only way he could (board sets the salary; it was consistent with marketplace).  Coakley did give him credit for executing a massive turnaround of Harvard Pilgrim, saving people’s jobs and health coverage. In other health care discussion, no one on the  stage knew  more than Baker.  What he conveyed was the sense that he would be best at standing up to Washington bureaucrats in the battle to have the destiny of the state’s health care system decided by Massachusetts.

Where Coakley shone was on the topic of the referendum that would repeal the indexing of the gas tax.  She made a compelling case regarding its importance to the state’s investment in infrastructure, essential to economic growth. Baker insists that, if the legislature believes more gas tax revenues are needed, members should have to vote for it, rather than dodging it.  That may be true in a 7th grade civics course, but historically the legislature refused to raise that tax for decades and it’s doubtful that new members will be more proactive. Baker’s been around long enough to know better. Our roads and bridges have fallen to rubble in too many places.  We need to preserve that revenue.

Falchuk is the most credible of the three independents, but his top theme of how we’re ill served by Republicans and Democrats can only go so far.  McCormick sees technology as the answer to nearly every question.  And, while Lively may be a convenient far right foil to Baker’s moderate Republicanism, his  litany– the abject immorality of  anything sounding liberal and  unremitting evils of  big government– tires quickly.  The three of them combined don’t poll at more than five percent, while a  much smaller polling margin of error separates Coakley and Baker.  It’s too bad it seems we’ll have to wait till October 21 for the first one-on-one televised debate (on WGBH-TV). It won’t come a minute too soon.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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