Political lessons from the New England Patriots

tom-brady-on-fieldSet aside the friendships between Donald Trump and New England Patriots MVP quarterback Tom Brady, or coach Bill Belichick or owner Bob Kraft (who, as a young man, stood with his late wife as leading progressive Democrats), there’s still plenty of inspiration to be found in last night’s epic comeback by the Pats in defeating the tough, aggressive, skilled and energetic Atlanta Falcons. And never mind the comments on CNN this morning by Florida Republican Congressman Tom Yoho, who drew an analogy between Brady’s first half deficit and Trump’s historic low approval rating for a new President.  Sorry, Congressman Yoho, you can’t appropriate Brady to predict Trump’s ultimate excellence. Even if Number 12 is Trump’s golfing partner, he is ours.

What we in New England must take from the Super Bowl is that, no matter how beaten down Democrats, Independents and moderate Republicans might be at this moment, aghast and afraid of the Divider-in-Chief in the White House, a comeback is possible. It will take courage, intense focus and very hard work, not just by yeomen on the team but by those in leadership as well.  Commitment, study, practice, strategy and tactics, collaborative teamwork and skilled execution are some of the major elements to beat the opposing team.

If we’re serious about halting attacks on economic justice, educational opportunity, civil liberties, religious and reproductive rights, health care, environmental and consumer safeguards, not to mention thoughtful global engagement, we need to reach beyond the bubble of blue state, bicoastal, urban America.  We need to share resources and get to work. Feel-good marches will only go so far.

Just as the Tea Party learned from community organizer Saul Alinsky’s handbooks, left-leaning folks should selectively learn from the Tea Party’s organizational abilities. A group of former Congressional staffers has put together a 23-page document to influence Congress under the title of Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.    Town Hall Project 2018 is a guide to town halls scheduled by members of Congress.    A college friend provided some useful information for people whose elected officials are already enlightened and want to extend their influence.  Flippable.org is focusing on state races where there’s an opportunity to flip state politics from red to blue. This year, they’ll work on gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia (where blue margins are slim) and on redistricting in North Carolina. In 2018, there will be congressional mid-terms, 36 governor’s races and 6000 legislative seats opening up.  Another site is swingleft.org, which matches activists with the nearest swing district. Progressive politics must be rebuilt brick by brick.

On a more philosophical level, a website under the auspices of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, also named “Indivisible,”  uses the work of photographers and interviewers to tell the many personal stories of individuals in the communities that make up the fabric of our nation. Having empathy for others is essential to enhancing comity.

Like the Patriots, we are down  28 to 3, and the game clock is ticking. But the lesson of the Patriots, for kids and adults alike, is don’t give up. The task we face is enormous. The work starts at the foundational level. Rigorous preparation daily is a springboard to victory. And it starts immediately.

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Walsh positions Boston in the vanguard

marty-walsh-for-nec“We face a new reality in our relationship with the federal government,” and mayors, city councilors, state legislators, the public and the business community have to tackle the challenges together, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told the business community Thursday at a meeting of he New England Council.  In a focused and forcefully delivered speech, the Mayor stressed the need for bi-partisan, public-private teamwork in fighting to protect our immigrant community and preserve the benefits of the Affordable Care Act.

Walsh, who not long ago was getting on-the-job training,  has developed a solid track record, a clearly articulated set of values, and enough confidence to put Boston at the forefront of cities across the country fighting the negative effects of Trump policies.  Boston’s economy is booming, including 60,000 new jobs since he took office and an unemployment rate cut to 2.4 percent.  He has data to back up his assertion that Boston is a global leader in education, life sciences, quality of life, environmental protection, innovation, equity and inclusion.   Boston, he says, can offer “leadership by example.” Our success, he says, is “the result of teamwork.”

While positioning Boston to be a national player in efforts to counter the cataclysmic changes we’re experiencing in Washington, Walsh is just 10 months away from having to run for reelection. The 2017 mayoral race, still in its infancy, seems quaint, even charming, in comparison to national politics. Walsh’s only announced opponent, City Councilor Tito Jackson, seems a well–intentioned fellow who may be itching to move up but has yet to make a case for ousting Walsh.  In his announcement, Jackson tried to portray Walsh as the candidate of corporate interests, insensitive to the needs of the middle class.

Class divisions helped drive Donald Trump’s national campaign (and that of Bernie Sanders), and municipal candidates have tried for years to work that angle. I don’t think that Jackson can make the strategy work for him.  It’s pretty difficult to portray Marty Walsh as the mayor of the haves, not the have not’s.  Among other accomplishments, the mayor can point to success in reducing chronic homelessness, creating an Office of Recovery Services, building new affordable housing, and improving education. This includes a 10-year capital plan for new schools, the provision of free community college for Boston high school graduates who maintain a 2.0 gpa, and a proposal to expand pre-school kindergarten paid for with proceeds from hotel taxes.

Both Walsh and challenger Jackson have impressive life stories, overcoming tremendous odds to achieve leadership positions. Jackson’s challenges today are different. Walsh has a war chest in excess of $3.5 million, and Jackson has $60,000 – $80,000. Beyond that, Jackson seems bent on portraying Walsh as elitist, but this strains credulity based on Walsh’s achievements in office and goals for the rest of his term.

Big cities need thriving economies to undergird their middle class residents.  Being mayor always involves achieving a balance between downtown business and the neighborhoods. The late Boston Mayor John Collins was touted as the voice of the Hub’s business community, especially the secretive organization of poohbahs known as The Vault. His successor Kevin White also had tight business ties and was the first to speak of Boston in “World Class” terms. Partly in response, his successor Ray Flynn rode to office pledging to be mayor of the neighborhoods.  Longest-serving mayor Tom Menino presented himself as an urban mechanic, getting the potholes fixed and helping the little people, but over his reign he forged strong ties with corporate Boston. It’s always a balancing act, which Walsh seems to be doing well.

Walsh is not without weak spots. To what extent did he have any involvement in arm-twisting to require a certain share of jobs on Boston projects to go to union members. (Two staffers have been indicted on extortion charges.)  Jackson has called on Walsh for transparency regarding any activities in which he was engaged, though there has been no evidence against him to date.

Early in his term, Walsh  made some missteps by getting suckered into advancing the Boston 2024 Olympics bid and trying to bring an Indy Car race here with inadequate financial support though I don’t think the damage to him on either was lasting. He also needs to push harder for new disclosure rules governing municipal lobbyists.  Both those ill-fated proposals might have benefited by greater transparency and lobbyist disclosure rules.

An emerging problem for Walsh is his support for the proposed Millennium Partners’ 775-f0ot tower at Winthrop Square, which violates two state laws limiting the height of buildings that will cast shadows on the Boston Common and Public Gardens, both highly prized Boston treasures. City Hall is lobbying to change those state laws, but doing so for a single project is highly questionable and opens the doors to future unsavory deals. Vigorous public discussion earlier in the process might have spurred solutions that would have avoided the dissension that now seems inevitable.

Despite all this, the Marty Walsh who stood this week before The New England Council has grown significantly.  He makes his values clear, shapes data-driven cases to back them up, and has become an effective communicator of what he stands for. Being opposed in an election is never a bad thing if it yields healthy discussion on these and other issues.

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Charlie Baker on tightrope, moves carefully

charlie-baker-state-of-stateGovernor Charlie Baker’s life is a balancing act – a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, a reasonable and enlightened moderate while the top of his party is anything but. With an entirely blue Congressional delegation, he will be, for better or worse, this state’s interlocutor with a potentially vengeful Trump administration.

He took a rhetorical stand in his state-of-the-state address. Its high point – and the one that drew the most sustained applause – was when he decried the character assassination and misrepresentation that today passes for political dialogue.  He emphasized his obligation to put progress and results ahead of partisanship. His job, he said, is “to represent Massachusetts to Washington and not Washington to Massachusetts.”  That was as explicit as he got regarding any fealty he might have felt to the leader of his party in the White House.

Unlike Donald J. Trump, Baker extolled the value of compromise, “a sign of strength,”  yielding another enthusiastic round of applause. This was the part of his speech where he seemed most comfortable and energized.  The rest may have been substantive, but his delivery was rather flat.

Despite that, if you’d landed here from Mars, you might think that Charlie Baker was another in a long line of Democratic governors.  He made the listener feel pretty lucky to live in Massachusetts notwithstanding the cold weather.  We have among the strongest state economies in the nation, job growth that has spread even to struggling cities like New Bedford, leadership on climate change and clean energy, six straight years of our schools being #1 in math and reading.  While we’re not perfect, we’ve had success reducing homelessness, tackling opoid addiction, improving services at the Department of Children and Families (though he spoke of the need to expedite adoptions.)

He spoke of accomplishments that highlighted his skills as a middle-of-the-road technocrat: cutting red tape, closing a budget gap and stopping the tendency to borrow inappropriately from the Rainy Day Fund. He also bowed to his fiscally conservative Republican values of opposing broad-based tax increases. His proposed budget, however, includes some pretty hefty specific taxes, like the one on employers of ten or more who don’t provide their workers health insurance. Baker also wants to extend the existing hotel tax to high-volume air BnB’s.

The budget also includes new money for social initiatives. Much remains to be done, especially regarding the schools.  Some pundits speculate that Baker will be hurt in his 2018 reelection bid by having been on the losing side of the charter school and recreational pot legalization referenda.  I  believe that substantively he was on the right side of those issues and that his positions won’t hurt him measurably two years down the road when he’s likely to run for reelection.

If anyone wants to challenge, he or she will need a strong rationale beyond personal career advancement. Some critics lament his failure to show up at the Women’s March event last Saturday, especially given his support of the issues raised at the event.  While he had to be at the Mass. Municipal Association meeting that morning, he still could have put in an appearance or, at a minimum, sent a high-level member of his administration to represent him. But let’s face it: he has a good record on rights for women, reproductive rights, gays, pay equity.  He will be judged by how he deals with the Trump administration on substantive matters, using his GOP credentials to protect Massachusetts (including, among other  things, access to health care, the state’s Medicaid waiver, funding the Green Line extension, NIH research grants and more). His symbolic participation in what was a largely Democratic event could have cost him leverage in Washington.

Setti Warren is widely believed to be planning to challenge Baker in 2018.  The Newton Mayor certainly lacks traction at this stage in the electoral cycle, and you’d have to say he is a heavy underdog. So, too, with former Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez. Some supporters of Attorney General Maura Healy want her to get in the race, and she’s the only one now who could make it somewhat interesting.  I think she and the state would be better served if she runs for reelection.  Baker has higher favorability ratings than any other politician in Massachusetts, including Healy and even Senator Elizabeth Warren. Support for Baker is strong among Democrats and Independents as well as Republicans.

We live in challenging times, times that require leaders with backbones along with the ability to compromise and to administer. Finding the right balance is important for Baker. His fellow Republicans are still in a spineless go-along-to-get-along mode, a posture that will not work well for the highly popular Baker, now or over the long haul.

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Women’s March Boston: life in the bubble?

womens-march-bostonI hate being in large crowds but had to be at Boston Common yesterday for the local version of the Women’s March occurring in hundreds of cities around the nation and on all continents.  As with anti-Vietnam War marches in the late sixties and early seventies, this was a time to stand up and be counted, to bear witness to certain important values at a critical time in the history of our country. Will the emotional outpouring amount to anything more than a feel-good day?  Only if the energy displayed translates into action. As one speaker exhorted, “Organize around your issue. Show up with your allies for other issues.”

The purpose of the march, as Senator Elizabeth Warren stated, was to make sure that “as our country enters a new political era, the voices of the people will be heard.”  She made it clear that what’s at stake are Roe v. Wade, gay rights, tuition debt, pensions, Social Security, climate, equal pay and more.  “We can whimper, we can whine, or we can fight back,” she said. “We won’t play dead.”

womens-march-en-familleIt was gratifying to see young women and girls there, perhaps beginning to learn what the older generation had to fight for, and what  may now be in jeopardy.  Much of the day’s story was told in the handmade signs:  “Our bodies, our minds, our power;” “Us and Them;”  “Less Grope, More Hope,” “Show up, Dive in, Stay at it,” “If I incorporate my uterus, will you stop regulating my body?” “Privileged white woman seeking truth, justice and equality for all,” “I march against racism, sexism, xenophobia.”  There were speeches from African-American, white,  Muslim and Latina women, immigrants, and others maligned by Donald Trump.  All manner of activists were heard from, including unions and Native Americans from regional tribes some marchers didn’t even know lived here.

So will yesterday’s huge turnout matter? As Boston Mayor Marty Walsh noted, “It’s not what we do today that counts; it’s what we do tomorrow.”  The battle, however, will not be won in Massachusetts, the bluest of blue states.  We are already in a bubble, and the crowd in the Boston Common was a bubble within a bubble.

womens-march-bahamasIn addition to buoying each other up, we need somehow to be communicating with Trump supporters here and elsewhere in the country. If we want block a dangerous agenda,  we need to provide resources and encouragement to women who marched yesterday in Trump locations like Little Rock and Phoenix. They need to be in the vanguard of activism, confronting their politicians at a grassroots level.

We need to move beyond our comfort zone bubbles and find common ground on economic issues with people who voted for Trump. Trying to understand their fears and anxieties doesn’t mean selling out our commitments on issues affecting women, gays, people of color, Muslims, the disabled.  Donald Trump, his acolytes in Congress and his soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice now have the power to reverse the course of history.  The Women’s March must be Step One in a concerted movement to stop them.

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President Trump little changed from candidate Trump

1484933200823The newly elected president of Gambia had to be sworn in in Senegal, and Senegalese and other African military may be needed to force Gambia’s despotic president to relinquish power he’s held for 22 years. It was quite a contrast to events at the same time in Washington.  The peaceful transition of power from one President of the United States to the next is a signature of our democracy, one that we hope to survive despite the unfitness of the new Chief Executive and Leader of the Free World. Watching the grace of President and Mrs. Obama as they welcomed President-elect and Mrs. Trump to the White House this morning could only bring tears to the eyes and a lump in the throat.

There were many ceremonial moments that reinforced the continuity of government: outgoing and incoming president (44 and 45) traveling in a limo, both having denied the Presidency to Hillary Clinton, who, on split screen, is walking into the Capitol ceremony with her husband (42), and joining Jimmy Carter (39) and George W. Bush (43), all chatting amiably.

But the new President was all about change. He gave the angriest inaugural address I can remember, one with serious international policy implications. Compared to the spontaneous ramblings of his rally speeches, his inaugural address was notable both for his longstanding campaign themes but also its compact structure, no ad-libbing, no attacks on the media, more use of “we” than of “I.” There was no acknowledgement of the more than half the country who had voted against him, many of them scared about his Presidency. Nor was there any gracious remark about his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as George W. Bush had made of his opponent, Al Gore. Trump’s speech was a populist manifesto, a declaration that all decisions would be made in the context of putting America First.  The only policy hinted at was a pledge to rebuild roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railroads. But right now his plans for doing so, depending on privatization, could hurt hardest the pocketbooks of those who put him in office.

The speech had continuity, too. His address could as easily have been one of his hundreds of campaign speeches, painting a facts-optional picture of the despair of Americans, overrun by crime and drugs, borders unprotected, military depleted. He announced that the “American carnage stops right here and right now.”  He spoke to those who had elected him, confirming their dark view of the world, fueling their anger at real and imagined enemies. But to those across the country who haven’t enjoyed the benefits of our growing economy, who have been left behind as factories closed and their dreams died, he displayed little honesty about the complexity of technology and globalization that have contributed to the despair.

Trump also attacked the Washington insiders who surrounded him on the platform, including past presidents, for doing nothing even as they have feathered their own nests. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”  This comment, if he were serious about  draining the swamp, could be promising, but it  stood in contrast to his own ethical challenges and his cabinet nominees who, for the most part, have reaped the rewards of a rigged system. His rhetorical flourish,  that “what truly matters is not which party controls government but whether the government is controlled by the people,” ignores that his plans are designed to further foster inequality and enhance those already at the top.

There were phrases apparently included to reassure – “when you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice” – but the constant “America First” refrain portends a nation comfortable abdicating a leadership role in the world, a nation not inclined to collaborate and build alliances.  It’s hard to see how an unyielding  America First attitude, without regard for the interests of others,  will help the First Businessman solve international crises or negotiate agreements with our adversaries.

To those who might fear an isolationist posture, he proclaimed: “We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.” Wow!  Can we infer that Donald Trump sees himself as God’s representative on earth? (Was this his substitute for “I alone can fix it?”)

One can only hope that the burdens of office will humble him and moderate his self-image and behavior.  Like it or not, 45 is our new reality.

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Black arm bands not boycott for inauguration protest

trump-clownSo, Ringling Bros. is closing down the circus after 146 years. But, in this inaugural week, the circus hasn’t left town.  We can’t be sure where the lions and trapeze artists are going, but we certainly know where the elephants and marquis clown are headed. And it’s not to entertain little children.

Until now, I never understood fear of clowns. It seems to be a recent phenomenon, and it has a name: coulrophobia.  The fears are elicited by the clown’s unfamiliar, distorted, disturbing and dangerous impulses and mannerisms. Children thus terrified are said to be affected throughout their lives. It’s not mere coincidence that the clown about to be sworn in as 45th President of the United States has a shock of red hair and erratic movements. We know he’s not a Clarabelle or Bozo, but we don’t know yet if he’s more a Creepy Clown or Killer Clown.

We’ve never seen a President like him.  There have been other Presidents with reckless temperament, including  John Adams (given to tirades and contemptuous of the press), Andrew Jackson (raging, petty and vindictive) and John Tyler (lewd). But no one in my lifetime resembles what Trump represents, and his pathologically unbridled narcissism and embrace of know-nothingism are unprecedented for a Leader of the Free World.

His undisciplined tweeting puts his non-normative behavior all the more in our face. Consider his recent rants against Georgia Congressman John Lewis, the heroic embodiment of the Civil Rights movement, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, and nearly killed in Selma. Lewis says he will, for the first time in 30 years, not attend the inauguration. Because of Russian interference,  he doesn’t see Trump’s Presidency as legitimate.

In response, Trump blasted Lewis as “all talk and no action, no results.” Trump decried Lewis’ district (which includes some of the toniest communities in the nation) as crime-infested and scoffed that Lewis should spend his time solving housing and crime issues in the nation’s cities (and not worry about Trump’s relationship with the Russians.)  Republican establishment voice Bill Kristol observed that “Trump shows more respect for Vladimir Putin than for John Lewis.” The Sunday morning political shows were filled with reactions to Trump’s tweets as “the new abnormal.”  (There may be a method to his craziness inasmuch as each tweet distracts from the darker stories that need our attention.)

Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark is among those who will boycott the inauguration along with Lewis.  Clark refuses to normalize Trump’s bigoted, misogynist, anti-Semitic and racist claims.”  Lewis says “If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.”  I agree, but, because the peaceful transition of power is a signature of our democracy, I would rather they attend the inauguration in silence and express themselves by wearing black armbands.  In doing so, they will take a symbolic stand and affirm democratic norms. We look to them for leadership in speaking out vigorously over the coming days, weeks and years.

Some Republicans and many Democrats have moved from actively grieving the 2016 electoral college results to trying to figure out action plans to save, if not advance, the values of reason and civil discourse, not to mention the specific issues of climate change, health care for all, job creation and a nuclear-free peace. It’s still far from clear what concrete next steps are to be taken, and there’s work to be done instead of just waiting to exhale after Friday’s ceremonies.

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Obama still stands for hope, alloyed with action

obama“When they go low, we go high,” is Michelle Obama’s credo.  Last night, her husband exemplified that commitment.  He spoke to the best that is in the American people, the power of faith, the ability of ordinary people to come together over shared values.  We will remain the most powerful and respected nation on earth only “if our policy reflects the decency of our people” and a sense of common purpose.

Wisely, he called on people of color to walk in the shoes of the fearful middle-aged white guy at the same time he called on whites to know that minorities are not seeking special treatment, just equal treatment. He called on all of us not to retreat into bubbles, reinforced by niche media using facts selectively to reinforce biases. The bottom line was that we can’t take democracy for granted. We must embrace the responsibility of citizenship and resist any attempt to weaken the ties that make us one.

We’re reminded daily that democracy can buckle under the threat of ignorance and fear. No matter how bad the morning headlines may be, President-elect Donald Trump provides some new item to shock or disgust.  Note that Friday, as he should have been focused on the intelligence community report detailing the severity of Russian hacking, the President-elect was tweeting to denigrate Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance on The New Celebrity Apprentice and compare the replacement host’s ratings to his own some 17 years ago.  (He is so thin-skinned (and insecure) that he has to spend time attacking Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin.) This is the incoming Leader of the Free World!

Whatever Barack Obama’s failures, and there have been many, especially in the area of foreign policy, he has been thoughtful, articulate, purposeful, and rational. His administration has been pretty much scandal-free. His farewell address was yet another reminder of what Donald Trump is not.

President Obama reversed the Great Recession into which we had been plunged, adding 16 million jobs over his tenure. It has been the most sustained economic expansion in history. Great swaths of the country, however, were not touched by the turn-around. He made significant progress on climate change policy, but those whose fossil fuel-jobs were lost saw the promises of new opportunities as abstractions. The Affordable Care Act took the first step forward on health coverage in half a century, but partisan animosities prevented necessary adjustments. He was an exemplar of diversity and inclusiveness and slowed the Iran nuclear expansion.

Sadly, he failed on measures to increase gun safety.  Despite prematurely receiving the Nobel Peace Prize just because he wasn’t George Bush, President Obama left the Middle East a boiling cauldron. While he destroyed Osama bin Laden and drew down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan,  ISIS sprung up in the vacuum we left there and elsewhere. While he opened the door to a more rational relationship with Cuba, he weakened our posture vis-à-vis Vladimir Putin. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, his administration was notable for its lack of transparency. And his failed early efforts to build bridges across the aisle are leaving a level of bitter partisanship we may suffer from for a long time.

As with his predecessors, Barack Obama’s lasting legacy may not be known for decades. His immediate legacy in various policy areas could be undermined or overturned by his successor. But last night’s speech reminded us of the best of what we can be, and of the work that lies ahead in dealing with four years of what could be the worst.

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