Setti Warren for Governor?

The sun shone brightly on Saturday’s Beaumont Avenue block party in Newton, complete with kids, dogs, tee shirts and balloons.  Setti Warren, the Garden City’s two-term mayor, was announcing for governor  in front of the house in which he grew up.  The mood was warm; the mayor’s message, visionary and upbeat. After his speech, some of his supporters quietly acknowledged that his is an uphill battle, running against a popular Republican governor whose approval ratings are consistently over 70 percent, and whose support is even higher among Democrats. But, as one optimistic supporter whispered to me, “you never know.”

The driving theme of Warren’s campaign and the defining issue of his generation, he said, is economic inequality. And how do you deal with that?  By providing free public college education and moving to a single-payer health system.  He’d  pay for that (though there were no numbers on cost) by eliminating tax breaks for rich people and businesses (though there were no specifics on which tax breaks), and he’d also raise taxes (though no details on which ones and by how much.) He does support the so-called millionaire tax, which could be on the ballot in 2018.

He sounds a little like the Bernie Sanders of the gubernatorial race.  His values and big-picture philosophy are appealing, but shoulders shrug at the question of how much it would cost and how we’d pay for it. (Vermont tried single payer unsuccessfully. What has Warren learned from that?)

There’s a history of public service in the Warren family. Setti’s grandfather had served in the military in World War II. His late father, Joe, had fought in the Korean War been a had been a supporter of Governor Mike Dukakis, (who was present with his wife, Kitty).  Setti Warren, a veteran of the Iraq War, has been mayor for seven years.  Each generation making things better for the next generation is the American Dream, he said.  His commitment to free college education is rooted in what the GI Bill did for the previous generation.  He says that the question of whether we leave the world better off than we found it is a moral question as much as an economic one.

He conceded that “Massachusetts has been on a roll” and notes that the Commonwealth weathered the Great Recession by investing in education, infrastructure, and in 21st century sectors like life sciences and clean energy. But, he repeated, we’re not doing enough. And that means raising taxes. Warren talked about reforming the Beacon Hill budget process, providing multi-year revenue projections, eliminating one-time revenue sources, providing more transparency.

One couldn’t disagree when he decried the divisive rhetoric in today’s civic discourse and talked about the need to listen to one another. But his overarching message was one in which he could as easily have been announcing a run for U.S. Senate, something he tried when just 15 months into his first term. He withdrew when even his mayoral supporters said, whoa, this was really premature.

It won’t be long before Setti Warren has to go beyond painting his vision and reveal the details of how he’d get from here to there.  His lack of data didn’t serve him well on Monday night when pressed for specifics by Greater Boston’s Jim Braude. When Deval Patrick ran for governor in 2006, he had similar lofty rhetoric, which, when he was elected, didn’t always translate into effective administration. Charlie Baker lacks the “drift-of-the-driving-dream” skills, but polls consistently show that people like him and his ability to manage. (Could more articles like Frank Phillips’ piece in this morning’s Boston Globe about Baker-Polito administration Environmental Affairs patronage  dull his shine?)

I’m glad that the younger generation includes accomplished individuals like Setti Warren, who has served Newton pretty well, has enlightened values and takes a long-term view of the challenges we face.  But he’ll have to go a long way to prove that the incumbent governor, Charlie Baker, needs replacing.

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