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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Hang tough on casino repeal referendum

Casino czar smart choiceApparently, the number of Massachusetts voters willing to accept casinos has grown from 37 percent to 53 percent, that according to a Boston Herald poll.  I had even begun to think that, well, if Springfield needs jobs and wants casinos, why repeal its opportunity to have them?  Same thing with the slots parlor in Plainville.  Probably the gambling industry is counting on us at this point to take the line of least resistance, especially in the face of millions of dollars in cleverly deceptive ads now flooding the air waves to defeat the casino repeal referendum.

An article in The Weekly Standard   is a must-read antidote for such wavering.  It’s amazing to think that such a sleazy, counter-productive, meretricious job creation strategy could turn out to be the most significant legacy of Deval Patrick’s two terms as governor (notwithstanding his significant achievements in green energy), if  the casino repeal referendum fails.

That same Herald poll showed that roughly a third (give or take) of voters support ballot questions on repeal of casinos, eliminating the gas tax CPI indexing law, and expanding the bottle bill.  On all three referenda, between 51 percent and 58 percent are opposed.  The lack of differentiation among the responses reminds us that, when voters are asked to make any change, our first instinct is to say No.  Depending on the wording of the question, this can be a good thing or a bad thing.  In the case of repealing casinos, voting no isn’t such a great idea.

Former Speaker Sal DiMasi, now languishing cancer-ridden in federal prison in North Carolina doing eight years for corruption,  had actually saved the state from casinos and Governor  Patrick from himself. Successor Speaker Bobby DeLeo pushed through the current three-casino law in a sentimental tribute to his father, who had worked at a restaurant at Suffolk Downs, which claimed it couldn’t survive without the introduction of casinos.

I wonder: if Speaker DeLeo had known that the Gaming Commission would award the casino bid to Everett, not to Suffolk Downs, would he have been so quick to throw his arms around the gambling industry? Especially given the number of casinos that have gone belly up of late, having sucked legitimate jobs out of local communities? Even Donald Trump bailed out of Atlantic City.  What does he know that Massachusetts voters are turning a blind eye to?

I welcome your comments in the section below.


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Congress: a profile in cowardice

photo NBC News

photo NBC News

Will it take a Baltimore Orioles/Washington Nationals World Series to bring members of Congress back to Washington soon?  If so, it only highlights Congress’ cowardly unwillingness to exercise its Constitutional responsibility and vote on the ISIS war. This least productive, shortest session of Congress ended with no debate on President Obama’s new response to the terrorist threat roiling in the Middle East with potential spillover far beyond Iraq and Syria.  Shame on them!

Prime Minister David Cameron called members of Parliament back to London to hear the case for military intervention. That was leadership.  Some in Congress fault President Obama for waging war without their approval.   He acknowledged that a decision of this sort is stronger with bipartisan support from the legislative branch of government. The President could have called them back but failed to do so. He follows a long line of Presidents who have acted the same way, even though Obama (2008 version) talked about the importance of Congress’ role and differentiated himself from Hillary Clinton on Iraq, winning the nomination.

Speaker John Boehner and Senate President Harry Reid could have called their members back from electioneering.  There is bipartisan support for the President’s strategy of targeted air strikes in Iraq and Syria, counter-terrorism actions against the leadership of ISIS, going after ISIS’ financial sources and training indigenous ground troops.  Is the fact that they agree a reason why the GOP doesn’t want the discussion before the elections, when they’re intent on running against the President?

Action was essential in the wake of dramatic events culminating in the beheadings of American journalists Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff. We do need to be deliberative when embarking on a course putting American lives at risk, but the President’s slowness to retaliate was frustrating. Now, finally, he is acting. His muscular UN speech last week was a 180-degree turn from his highly qualified  foreign  engagement principles pronouncements at West Point not long ago.     But where do we go from here, for how long, and at what cost?

The 1973 War Powers Act gives the President the authority to act militarily without Congressional approval if the U.S. is in danger.  After 60 days, there must be a Congressional vote on declaring war.  It’s a reasonable concept, but the last time Congress formally declared war was 1942, and we have had numerous wars since then. Congress did authorize military force to combat terrorism in 2001 in Afghanistan. A year later, another vote authorized war in Iraq.

The volatility of the region, coupled with complex tribal, religious and ethnic rivalries, makes the stakes very high.  But intractable regional issues and lives on the line aren’t the only reasons we need a full debate now. Remember, President George W. Bush’s  going to War in Iraq without saying how it would be paid for was one of the prime reasons for the economy-weakening deficit President Obama assumed when he took office. What new taxes are we willing to pay or programs are we willing to cut to pay for this new open-ended engagement? We also need all our elected officials to debate our relationships with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as with the Syrian opposition— and with our so-called Saudi and Qatari allies who have also been funding the ISIS cause.

Clearly, some of the difficulty of assembling a coalition is the President’s  having walked away from his “red line” in Syria. How steadfast should our commitment be? Remember Reagan’s bailing on Lebanon when  our marines were killed.  What happens if other nation’s ground troops aren’t up the to the task? Mission creep has  started. We already have US personnel in boots on the ground in  Iraq.

There’s widespread agreement that achieving the goal to “degrade and destroy” ISIS will take a long time. Probably years. You can’t do this without public debate.  Whether our Congressmen or women are for or against this third Iraq war plus, they don’t deserve our votes in November if they’re not willing to return to Washington now for a full debate and vote on the issue.

I welcome your comments in the section below.



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