IT’S BEEN ALMOST 12 years since a Democrat has occupied the governor’s chair. In that time, Republican William Weld lost interest in the job and moved to New York City. Republican Paul Cellucci traded up for a cushy job as ambassador to Canada. And Republican Jane Swift, after being unceremoniously dumped by her party in favor of nominee Mitt Romney, now sulks at home in Western Massachusetts, effectively abdicating her responsibilities. Make no mistake, Romney will be a formidable candidate. He’s a Teflon man, thus far unstained by the legacy of disappointment and disillusionment that is the rotten fruit of the Republican tree — Weld, Cellucci, and Swift.
Any one of the four Democrats competing for their party’s nomination would do a better job for the majority of our citizens than the last three Republican state chief executives. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. All share similar core values. In many ways, the most important thing anyone can do in this election is simply to get out there and vote.
In terms of accomplishments and weight of electoral experience Senate president Thomas Birmingham might well be the first among equals. His record on issues of social justice, health care, and education — to name but three areas of accomplishment — are sources of pride. But as we write, Birmingham is stalled. That may be due to a lack of political imagination or to the fact that few Beacon Hill power brokers can shed the seemingly unavoidable negatives that accumulate as they amass their sway. Perhaps that’s why no Massachusetts legislative leader has been elected governor since Republican Christian Herter in 1952.
Warren Tolman has waged the state’s first high-profile Clean Elections candidacy. His advocacy on behalf of the law is impressive — as are his ideas on housing, health care, and the environment, which are laid out in his 107-page booklet, "In Your Interest: Taking Government Back." But as a candidate, Tolman is consumed with House Speaker Tom Finneran. Finneran has amassed his power because there’s been a leadership vacuum in this state since Weld was elected to his second term in office. As soon as we elect a strong Democratic leader, Finneran’s seemingly unbridled influence will be moderated. Tolman’s obsessive focus on the admittedly powerful Speaker reveals the candidate’s Achilles heel: he has little to no management experience.
Robert Reich is perhaps the most intriguing candidate we’ve seen run for governor since John Silber did it 12 years ago. His career as a professor, a lecturer, and especially his tenure as secretary of labor for President Bill Clinton certainly gives him big-picture experience. So it should come as no surprise that he is the only candidate who could rightly be described as promoting big ideas. He articulates a grand vision and inspires people to believe that government can, in fact, work better for working people and the disenfranchised. But his late start and underfunded campaign have kept him from making the needed impression on enough voters to triumph in November.
The candidate who appears to have the best chance of winning the final election is State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien. She’s climbed the political ladder one rung at a time, and, like other professional working mothers, she’s raised a family at the same time. Her story is compelling. She comes from a political family involved in Democratic politics for five generations (her father is on the Governor’s Council). First elected to the House as a state rep during Michael Dukakis’s governorship, she ran unsuccessfully for the treasurer’s office against Joe Malone in 1994. She ran again in 1998 and won. Once installed, she ordered a top-to-bottom audit of the lottery — the first in the lottery’s history — after it was discovered that Malone’s underlings had embezzled some $10 million. She also refused to sign off on Big Dig bond offerings until former Mass Turnpike chair James Kerasiotes came clean with accurate financial statements for the massive public-works project. Those who claim she has mismanaged the state’s pension funds recklessly distort the truth.
In some ways, O’Brien is too conservative. But just because she came up through the State House ranks doesn’t make her one of the boys. She has a marked capacity for growth and shows signs of having the grit that will be needed to bring a male-dominated and ego-driven legislature to heel. She promises to bring the best people into state government, and her tapping of venture-capitalist-turned-public-policy-wonk Chris Gabrieli shows that she means it. They would make a terrific team on Beacon Hill. Lois Pines, the former Newton state representative, does have far more experience with and working knowledge of state government than Gabrieli does. But we think that the O’Brien-Gabrieli team has the best chance to win the final election in November. Twelve years of Republican rule in the governor’s office have left the Commonwealth shortchanged. O’Brien and Gabrieli can fix that.
ONE OF the most important and under-considered elective offices in the state is that of the treasurer. The office oversees the state pension, the lottery, and the Commonwealth’s debt offerings. As O’Brien showed during her tenure, it’s a powerful post. Just ask James Kerasiotes, who lost his job as Mass Turnpike Authority chair after O’Brien refused to sign off on Big Dig bonds until Kerasiotes revealed the real figures for the Big Dig. All told, it’s a $50 billion job — at least. Of the candidates running in the Democratic primary for treasurer, the best is James Segel.
Segel’s qualifications and experience easily outpace those of his opponents. Today, there are several layers of responsibility separating the state treasurer from the pension — a set-up that all but ensures that the day-to-day management of Bay State municipal employees’ retirement funds is free from political influence and meddling. This arrangement was put in place back in 1983, when Governor Michael Dukakis commissioned a group to overhaul the state-pension system, which was then rife with political cronyism and corruption. Dukakis appointed Segel to the commission, which designed the Pension Reserves Investment Trust and Pension Reserves Investment Management board system that took the pension out of the hands of political hacks and put it under the management of money professionals. Segel understands the pension system better than any of his opponents.
He also understands the role the lottery plays in local aid. The former state legislator was the executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association when Proposition 2-1/2 was passed, plunging nearly all of the Commonwealth’s 351 municipalities into fiscal chaos. He lobbied Beacon Hill hard to increase local aid — money that finances public schools, police departments, and fire departments — to cities and towns. He knows that the lottery needs to be protected, particularly in tough fiscal times, from those tempted to reduce payouts in order to help fund the general budget.
Beyond Segel’s fine understanding of the state’s financial needs, he also understands the important role the state treasurer plays in funding the arts. On his Web site (www.jimsegel.com), he notes that the treasurer’s office oversees the Massachusetts Cultural Council, perhaps the chief grant maker to the Commonwealth’s art organizations. The council was brutally slashed in this year’s budget, losing 62 percent of its funding. He has pledged to lobby Beacon Hill to get some of that funding back. In these times, it’s tough to advocate for something as seemingly superfluous as the arts. Few politicians understand the importance, both economic and psychic, of a rich culture in civic life. Segel obviously gets it. As he obviously gets the need to manage the pension conservatively and to protect the lottery zealously. These qualities give him the makings of a very good treasurer indeed. The Phoenix is pleased to endorse him.
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