Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Year-End Sked

There will be little or no posting here for the next week plus. I intend to enjoy the end and beginning of the years. I wish you the same.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

More GOP Wishes and Whines

The newt has spoken, rather Newt Gingrich has spoken. On today's Meet the Press (click the Panel examines politics of health care clip) he spoke per usual — with great assuredness and at increasing volume and several times.

As so many GOP gee-whizzers, he was pretending that saying something makes it so. That's faith-based jive. Name something and it is real. Chant it and it happens.

In reality of course, claiming Republican Congressional victories will follow in 2010 and 2012 does nothing of those kinds. We saw how it didn't work when McCain/Palin and crew predicted a stream roller win over Obama and progressive politics. We have seen so many times that saying the same thing at increasing volume and many times doesn't make you right or your prediction accurate. It just makes you loud, repetitious and annoying.

It was 15 years ago that Gingrich had his questionable success with the Contract With America. It didn't do most of what it promised and failed miserably fiscally. Yet, it made him mythic in the party. He seems not to have gotten over it.

I have my own prediction and I'll stand by it. Others see the possibility of what I see happening, that as former President Bill Clinton said, after the health reform becomes law, the public will warm to it. Then the mindless gang of GOP obstructionists who opposed including 31 million more Americans in care plans and starting to reduce costs will be seen for what they were.

Yet, that Newt is far from the only gee-whizzer chanting the fantasy. In a droning PR blitz, the official position of the party seems to be just you wait, boys and girls, we're set for massive victories in the next two elections. We'll roll back this bill, strip the pinko health aid from those unworthy citizens and pretend that we suddenly have learned to be fiscally responsible.

Let's just see, kiddies. Let the reality set in. Let the public weigh the huge benefits over the wee tax costs. Let the opinion polls report. Let people hear who is covered for the first time or finally again. Let the projected cost savings from even this weak initial reform take shape and find projections.

I predict the up-yours-Obama-Congress-and-the-nation Republican lawmakers will break ranks. Let's see who the first dozen or so are who admit there's good here, it was overdue and perhaps they were a tad harsh. Let's see who wants to tweak and augment health reform to begin to claim some ownership. Let Newt come back after the next two elections and explain what he really meant.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

GOP Disembowling Themselves Before Our Eyes

Could we, should we rob Americans of our deeply treasured delusions? In the case of politics and economics, the responsible answer is that we must.

In this case, the Democrats would be the beneficiaries. We must set aside the knowledge that as a group, D.C. legislative and executive branch members are only marginally deserving. Yet, the nation can only gain.

It is time to calculate the damage points. The Republicans have been extremely generous in their headlong, headstrong rush to self-destruction. Dems from President Obama through party functionaries need to gather up the goodies.

Dems were dumb enough not to steamroll Republicans and obstructionist DINOs in the health-care overhaul death march. Much has been in the news and blogs about the various procedures they could have used and which the Republicans eagerly wielded in their majority years. Let's face the fact that as a group the Dems are not that left-wing or progressive or they would have. They're not being nice so much as they are as disunited as the GOP, with multiple flavors on the same political plate.

Right now, the Republicans in Congress have exposed themselves outrageously. It's time to point and squeal.

The GOP sorts are trying their damnedest to turn health reform into its fiscal opposite. They are chanting with all irrationality — at increasing volume and repetition — that this lukewarm and watery bill will bankrupt the nation for generations to come. They gleefully proposed and supported spending trillions on unnecessary wars, resulting in many thousands dead, but they attempt now to find economic terror in funding physical health and security for the nation's citizens.

Call it, Obama. Call it, Reid. Call it, Kaine.

The Republican claims are particularly risible for the last century's economic record. You don't have to look far to see that Republican Presidents and Congresses (sometimes with help from DINOs) spent us into huge holes. Dems lower our deficits and national debt and Republicans make them soar. The records of Clinton, both Bushes and even the plastic saint called Reagan are stark evidence in recent times.

Amusingly, they would prefix tax-and-spend to the Democratic Party. They campaign on that and often win with such emotional, irrational scare tactics.

Why don't Dems scream borrow-and-spend Republicans? That's actually the provable truth.

Since WWII, we have seen a return to the most destructive economic fantasies. Right after the war, with the economic engine perking along, the nation believed in an endless growth spiral. All our dinghies would rise with this tide...forever and forever.

While comforting, that was crazy thinking. It was particularly delusional considering that under 20 years before, the majority of the nation was on the skids, without enough cash or prospects. Yet, we chose to believe that and based our economic decisions, personal and political, on that premise. The WWII generation deserves great thanks, but they rewarded themselves beyond all reason based on that fantasy.

Of course, it didn't work forever and forever, just a decade plus. Even then, it was working largely for the white middle class. Huge segments were ignored. Their little boats could sit the in the economic mud.

Another key problem was that our national growth depended heavily on using others' resources. We could call that stealing, unfair or smart. We continued to use the labor and other resources outside and inside our nation, profiting without reasonable payment.

As third world nations developed and develop, they invariably demand fairer prices for their resources. The U.S. sees the effect in lower profit margins. Our companies still move production to the cheapest labor markets, pretending that U.S. costs are the driver. Really what's changed is that they have to show up more frequently to control overseas resources. Aww.

Domestically too wages rose modestly and equal employment regulation stopped the worst of underpaying our own for their labor. At the same time, formerly poor countries like Korea, China and India churned out products from cars to fridges to electronics of better quality and lower prices than we did. Our own companies' shares of domestic and foreign markets slid.

The punchline of course is that fantasy of an endless growth spiral had to stop.

Never mind. We had a new one under Republican administrations. We could have guns and butter. We could and should borrow and spend our way to prosperity. Trickle down (better described as piddle on) economics has been the new fantasy. Despite its repeated failures, many in and out of Congress cling to this one.

Its corollary is borrowing the money through budgets passed but unfunded is not taxing. Bovine feces! Pushing the days of reckoning out a decade or two does not make it cheaper or less of a tax.

Point and Shout!

Dems must begin calling out this terrible fantasy — in the wells of Congress, in the hustings on campaigns, in media interviews, in publications, and even to each other. Say it with me, borrow-and-spend Republicans.

When Dems say that often enough, they are likely to temper even their own hunger for pork, even their own impulse to borrow against their children and grandchildren's futures.

This is a fabulous moment for Democrats. The Republicans have shown they are indifferent or hostile to the health and economic needs of the majority of Americans. Their puerile and bullying obstruction on health reform is a great object lesson and teaching moment. If they would destroy the chance for even modest improvements in health care for perhaps 31 million fellow citizens to harm progressives and Obama, they need to be called on it.

Already they are talking about how they can use this moment to gain seats in the mid-term election and aim for the Presidency in 2012. I think not.

Let the Dems call them out. The GOP threw the big finger repeatedly at the public. Let the Dems say it. Republicans in Congress spit on decency, common sense, and compassion for Americans. Let the Dems make them pay politically.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Term Limits

Slicing, slashing cold on the bike ride to Boston City Hall did not please me. I was unhappier on the way home. While the gusts blew me on my bike toward the Common, I thought instead of the narrow defeat of mayoral term limits.

Yes, indeed, it was masochism that prompted me to spin those 10 or 11 miles in a wind chill of maybe 7F. I had a damned good idea the result before I left a much warmer house and a mug of black coffee.

The short and brutal reality is that the City Council came closer than it ever has to mandating term limits for the mayor and maybe even for itself. The votes were 7 to 6 against two mayoral terms (8 years), 8 to 5 against an amendment that would expand that to three terms (12 years), and 7 to 6 against councilor limits of six terms (12 years).

As clarified by one proponent of limits, those were to be consecutive terms. Nothing denied today would been a life ban or limit. A popular pol could serve the full term limit, sit out a term and come back to renewed glory.

I certainly don't want to cast Councilor Sam Yoon as our Don Quixote. He sponsored the mayoral term limits change, in keeping with his campaign issue. Interestingly enough, he was joined in this windmill joust by Councilor Michael Flaherty. The two did not run for re-election so that each could take a flier at mayor in the last election. Yet, during the race, Flaherty hemmed and hawed about term limits. He has come around.

For those keeping score, the vote on mayoral limits were:
  • Con: LaMattina, Linehan, Feeney, Yancey, Consalvo, Ciommo, Murphy
  • Pro: Tobin, Turner, Ross, Connolly, Flaherty, Yoon

Whose Ox?

My first question during the hearing period on this proposal was whether they were covering their own butts. The Globe ran a nifty chart of terms on council, which blew that thought away. It's true that the two longest serving councilors (Yancey at 13 terms and Feeney at 8) are anti, but Turner, Ross and Flaherty at 5 and Tobin at 4 are pro.

Another unsuccessful mayoral contender this year, Kevin McCrea, has his own theories. He espoused them on a Blue Mass Group post of mine on the hearing. Other than Turner, who at mid-60s is Mayor Tom Menino's age and senior on Council, and Rob Consalvo, who is one of the youngest councilors, the vote on limits broke by age. Oldsters opposed limits.

That brings up the most fascinating extrapolation. Yoon and Flaherty are off Council in January, replaced by Ayanna Pressley and Felix G. Arroyo, newbies. Neither of those campaigned on or to my knowledge has commented on term limits. Arroyo's dad was a Councilor for a couple of terms. Pressley is a blank slate on this.

I sat through a couple of hours of delays and drivel today, so you didn't have to.

The meeting jerked around all week with at least three or four time changes due to funerals. It was noon, 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and so forth, settling on the latter. At 10:35, Yoon was like the Easter bunny, leaving loving parting gifts and cards to his fellow councilors, but by 11:14, Connolly and Tobin were still with the dead. At 11:37, Yoon and Yancey, yin and yang on limits, were convivially chatting, smiling and joking in their adjacent seats in the chamber. Only about two dozen were in the three spectator sections, with maybe nine among those to be honored for a 911 response or related to those and another half dozen among staffers. It was a sharp fall-off from the many dozens for the hearing two days before.

Maureen Feeney chairs the Government Operations Committee that held the limits hearing. She clearly found the subject distasteful. She repeatedly reduced the issues to sing-song platitudes. In many ways, she is the Pooh of the body, a bear of very little brain.


At the hearing and meeting, she went on about being raised to vote, vote, vote. When several voters testified at the hearing that they had little interest in municipal elections, she did not take that as a condemnation of pre-determined outcomes. Rather, that was mortal flaw in the testifier. She represented the anti-limits contingent in declaring that voters had their say (and duty) every two and four years to decide who deserves to be in office. She also represented the related view that it is anti-democracy to limit the voters' choices by precluding perpetual office holders.

Her proposal to increasing voting participation was definitely not to increase turnover in office. Instead, she would have voter education in schools to prepare eager future citizens.

She returned at both meetings to the recently late Sen. Ted Kennedy. She said how much poorer (literally and figuratively) the commonwealth would be "if we imposed term limits on his leadership."

Chuck Turner suggested that we look to the national example of executive term limits. He noted that since Franklin Roosevelt's extraordinary extension in WWII, we have been well served by the two term (8 year) limits on the President. He said likewise, "I think we can be well served by having term limits for mayor."

Sam Yoon cut to the essence. He said this was not an indictment of Menino any more than the enactment of national term limits was of Roosevelt. Instead, he spoke of fresh ideas and noted that "the power of incumbency can be overwhelming."

Unfortunately, he is not the best spokesman for some of his best ideas. I relate to that in being stronger in both research and passion than rhetoric. However, two other councilors who favor limits were fine orators. The Johns, Connolly and Tobin, were far more grounded and intellectually sound than any of the opposed councilors. Unfortunately, as is the norm in legislative debate, no minds changed or even opened during the debate. It was all commentary.

Connolly noted the weak turnout in the municipal final and the disgraceful (16%) in the recent U.S. Senate primary. He contrasted that with the relatively strong voting for the at-large council in both preliminary and final elections. There were two open seats for the first time in decades. He said that term limits could ensure that this happened more frequently, increasing both voter interest and encouraging greater candidate participation.

He spoke several times of the dreadful dampening power of incumbency, money and special interests. Those were the reasons we have not defeated an incumbent mayor here since 1949. Even then, James Michael Curley only lost after his latest disgrace, five months in prison on mail fraud.

Likewise, Tobin alleged that the present system discouraged those who would be willing to run for office and serve. When they see a prohibitively wealthy and connected incumbent, they are unlikely to run. He said in that context, term limits "are not about personalities; they are about the future."

Just Posturing

At the hearing and meeting, it was increasingly difficult to believe that the anti-limit crew was at all sincere. To a one, they claimed that term limits took choice away from voters and were in fact anti-democracy. They held that every four years, voters could decide whether the mayor had performed well enough to continue. They discounted Connolly's evil triumvirate.

My own district councilor, Rob Consalvo (I recently moved from Tobin's neighborhood after 21 years), was perhaps the lamest here. He waxed that term limits would hurt democracy and the voter. He said the notion was "a dangerous and slippery slope when we begin to restrict who people can vote for."

Interestingly enough, among the bluster from the anti-limits crowd, several councilors mentioned that they had heard from constituents who favored limits, but were unswayed.

Yancey was certainly the plainest spoken of all those. He kept his high spirits, noting that he was aware his reputation was that Menino had him in his back pocket. Yet he said he honestly believed in term limits only by voter decision every for years for the mayor. He said he decided to go against his constituents on this.

The mealy mouth of the day was Salvatore LaMattina. He suggested that if there were to be term limits, they should come through a voter referendum.


I really hadn't been paying enough attention to the abstracts. Of course, we are in the territory of MassResistance, the Mass Family Institute and the Christian Civic League of Maine. Let the people vote is the call. It is the perfect way to pass the buck and pretend you are being true to the roots of our nation and commonwealth. Treat each important idea as though it were a town meeting discussion and you don't have to be a leader or be responsible for any resulting decision and its effects.

In that context, the points of the anti-limits folk fit perfectly. Give the voters a say every four years. If that isn't enough, make them petition for a referendum and force the issue on their own. Those are two fabulous cop-0uts that fail to address low voter turnout, low candidate participation, and stagnant government. Done and done.

Back on planet Responsibility, we don't know yet where Pressley and Arroyo will fall on this limits fence. We do know that two term limits champions are off Council in a couple of weeks. That can mean:
  • Limits maybe out to the indefinite future
  • Limits have only taken a December rest and will be a big issue early next year
  • Pro and con-limits councilors will woo the newcomers
  • Voters will hear about and talk about the seven old and young farts who may need to move along
Oratory note: I have long considered Sam Yoon the smartest person in city government here. Brain power doesn't often translate into the very different skill of speechifying. I recall some councilors with pretty dreadful politics (think Jim Kelly and Albert Dapper O'Neil) with brutal wit they mingled with their assertions. Not every speech does or can rouse us rabble. Council meetings would be a lot more fun if we heard more stirring rhetoric, the kind that inspires councilors to settle or change their minds on the spot.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

God Bless the Town That's Got Its Own

The oxymoron home rule plays out constantly on Beacon Hill. If Boston's city council passes and its mayor signs term limits for its chief exec tomorrow, figurative kowtowing and knee walking remain standard procedure. Municipalities in Massachusetts may not rule themselves.

Even the League of Women Voters show disdain in their white-glove way. A history of home rule here includes:
In the late 1960s, the Special Home Rule Commission recommended legislation to facilitate the use of home rule, but the General Court did not accept any of its proposals. The governor, in 1975, established a home rule committee to explore ways to strengthen implementation of home rule. The committee, on which the League was represented, reviewed the state statutes governing municipal affairs and recommended a number of changes. The Legislature, however, has been reluctant to relinquish its authority in local matters. As a result, a disproportionate number of bills dealt with in the Legislature are so-called home rules bills, i.e. bylaw changes and matters passed by city councils or town meetings. Many of these matters should not have to go before the Legislature.
That's right, boys and girls, the General Court just won't give up its paternalism. Sure, municipalities aren't allowed to pass ordinances that conflict with commonwealth, but that's the way of the legislative food chain all the way through the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court. It's the making them bring every damned tweak to daddy and mommy on Beacon Street that is so absurd.

Consider Boston, where:
  • The city council is nominally the legislative body.
  • The council can pass whatever it wants, but must beseech the mayor to approve the change.
  • The mayor can veto or sign anything the council gives him.
  • Nothing of substance has the effect of law or charter revision without prior approval of the GC.
Chapter 43 of Massachusetts Laws details the smothering limitations. For one example related to the current debate on term limits for Boston's mayor, consider the punchline of it Section 13:
...No exercise of a power or function denied to the city or town, expressly or by clear implication, by special laws having the force of a charter under section nine of said Article, and no change in the composition, mode of election or appointment, or terms of office of the legislative body, the mayor or city manager or the board of selectmen or town manager, may be accomplished by by-law or ordinance. Such special laws may be made inapplicable, and such changes may be accomplished, only under procedures for the adoption, revision or amendment of a charter under this chapter.
Home rule is more aptly described as you-may-not-rule-yourself legislation. Moreover, as the League notes, a disturbing amount of GC bills deal with largely pissant subjects that are really not the legislature's business.

I'll channel the Tick here. He would bellow, "Villains, I say to you now, knock off all that evil!"

Our General Court is charged with serious business and this is a particularly serious time in Massachusetts. Playing control freak to cities and towns is inappropriate, inefficient, and well, evil.

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Media Predictions Candor

A media pundit ran a refreshing recap of his many predictions over the past year. Others should be so thorough in their cataloging and as frank in their self-judgment.

Click over to News After Newspapers to read Martin Langeveld's scorecard.

Disclaimer: He and I went to high school together. We also had him on a Left Ahead! show discussing the future of the press.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Pols Hugging Base in Boston

"We have six votes and one more day," said Boston City Councilor Sam Yoon's chief of staff, Mary Grissom. His term-limits law could need seven of the 13 for Wednesday's vote. It would be an excellent way for him to exit after four years as an at-large councilor.

You surely recall that Yoon did not run for re-election to go instead for mayor. He lost, as did Councilor Michael Flaherty, who got in the final against longest-serving Boston Mayor Tom Menino. (Links in this paragraph are to their Left Ahead! podcasts.)

Today, I joined a hundred or more citizens, including Universal Hub's Adam Gaffin, at the operations committee hearing on mayoral term limits. UH has a lengthy report here. The gist of it is that Yoon wants two term (eight-year) limits on mayor. He want to limit council terms as well, but figured he had a shot at the seven votes for mayoral limits, and the council piece would naturally and shortly follow.

This has inspired the Left Ahead! crew to revisit this subject for its podcast tomorrow, Tuesday, December 15th, at 2:30 p.m. Eastern. The live stream is here. You can head there, to Left Ahead! or iTunes to catch it in the can.

If you can't get enough of this, you can also check our podcast two years and a few days ago with Councilor John Tobin. He has long called for term limits and supports this version as well. Like a couple of his peers, he also calls for councilor term limits as well.

I'm not a regular at council meetings and can't tally the six or seven who might side with Yoon. On the Government Operations Committee, John Connolly joined Yoon and Tobin at the hearing testifying in favor of term limits. Bill Linehan, Charles Yancey, and Committee Chair Maureen Feeney were against. Absent were Chuck Turner and Vice-Chair Rob Consalvo (coincidentally my new district councilor). I bet they split, with Turner for lmits and Consalvo against, but that's my felt sense.

As such, the committee's report would be favorable for passage in two days. In that vein, the other mayoral also-ran this, Kevin McCrea, testified for limits at the hearing. Intriguingly enough, he said he had very recently spoken with Menino, who he said pledged to sign the bill if it came to his desk. That's delicious hearsay.

Councilor Sal LaMattina was briefly at the meeting but did not testify. Councilor Mark Ciommo opposes limits. Council President Michael Ross was absent but Fenney said he'd watch the hearing on council TV. Councilor Steve Murphy had no reason to be there.

If the dozen plus citizens inspired to rush through two-minute drills of testimony are any indication, term limits for mayor are very popular. Also, the number showing up for a hearing on Monday morning was extraordinary. Only one testified against term limits. The passion and calls for meaningful democracy definitely favored limits.

So, we can find out Wednesday how persuasive Yoon is in his last three weeks in office. According to his chief of staff, this is as close as Boston has ever gotten to mayoral term limits. Passage would require the councilors to put public interest above self-interest. If they hadn't allowed themselves to consider it before, they heard today that limits on their jobs are in the chute if this comes down first.

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Friday, December 11, 2009


As a Southerner in childhood, I knew January 19th as a holiday. Here in 2010, it happens to be the final in the special election to replace Sen. Ted Kennedy (vote Martha Coakley, certainly).

In elementary school, I lived in Danville, Virginia, and knew that date as a holiday, Robert E. Lee's birthday. Also, that city is just a couple of miles above North Carolina in the middle of that wide state. It had a particular stake in the date, serving as the capital of the Confederacy for the last 13 days leading to Lee's surrender. In my youth, the pubic library that I visited constantly was in the mansion of Major William Sutherlin and had served briefly as the seat of government when the C.S.A. cabinet met there.

Virginia had a day for Lee from the late 19th Century. That was no surprise. Even President Abraham Lincoln respected the head general of the Confederate armies and had offered him that role for the union version first. I also doubt anyone there was surprised early in the 20th Century when Virginia doubled the honorific by adding Stonewall Jackson to that holiday. After all, his birthday was only two days after Lee's.

Yet, even as a former Virginian, I was appalled when that commonwealth tucked the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into the same. The resulting Lee-Jackson-King Day was legal from 1984 into 2000.

Disingenuous Virginia politicians said that this only made sense not to duplicate and gang holidays after President Ronald Reagan set January 15, 1983 as the first King Day. I think we all know an insult when we see one on the calendar.

The year before the Virginia legislature corrected this boner, the Washington Post spoke with some of the political players there on it. A Virginia Commonwealth University history page details some of the hoo-ha leading up to and following the separation of the holidays in 2000.

Here and now, I think we can be pretty confident that the date to hold the special election to replace our Senator was coincidental to any of this holiday history. In fact, I doubt Gov. Deval Patrick knew of Lee-Jackson (erstwhile King) Day. He surely was driven by Secretary of State William Galvin's mandates for when the election had to be complete.

Still, the coincidence lends itself to musing and perhaps augury. It it auspicious to replace our great progressive leader on this day? Does this bespeak of any special duty for the almost certain to be Sen. Martha Coakley? Does a day draped in history and honor and contention and the resolution have any powerful meaning?

Nah, but it is amusing to note.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

1/19? Time to Vote for Martha!

Time to make the donuts Senator.That is, on Tuesday, January 19th next, first hie thee to your Massachusetts polling place, assuming you are a registered voter here. Then, vote for Democratic Martha Coakley as U.S. Senator. Done and done.
For the inert: If for some (don't try to explain) reason you are of legal residence and age here and not registered to vote, do it now. You have 18 days, until government offices close on Wednesday, December 30th. The process and downloadable form are here. No excuses and no regrets later.
Here and at Left Ahead! in the next several weeks, discussions of the candidates and issues will appear. Note that there will be a choice among at least two and probably three contenders. We'll discuss Republican Scott Brown, he who is badly out of sync with the electorate being anti-same-sex marriage and such. Also, assuming Secretary of State Galvin certifies enough petition signatures to get Joe Kennedy (no, no relation to the late Senator) on the ballot, we'll include him.

Meanwhile, it's not enough that you know to vote for Coakley in this liberal-leaning commonwealth. You have to vote.

As a disclaimer, for many elections, I have been a poll worker in Boston, first as an inspector and now as a clerk. I care whether people vote. The under 20% in this special-election primary was way too low. Voting is a low-effort activity with high rewards in citizenship points, self-righteousness, and sense of ownership of your government.

Get with the program. Vote Dem. Vote progressive. Vote.

I am Michael Ball, a.k.a. massmarrier, and I endorse Martha Coakley.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Triumph of the Mighty OK

Cutting crystals of icy rain made me aware of my baldness as I got the papers from the walk a little before 5 this morning. That was an apt mood continuation from last night.

After working 15 hours as a clerk at a Boston poll, I followed the online and TV news simultaneously to see what I had vaguely dreaded for weeks. Massachusetts went with the adequate to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

I went the extra 20 feet to extract the Capuano lawn sign.

The three of us at Left Ahead! will kick this election can up and down our virtual hallway this afternoon at 2:30. (Live stream here.) Meanwhile, there'll be tons of analysis. You can start with the Globe for wee morsels of analysis or for Yvonne Abraham's lament that for all the bluster about glass ceilings, this has only shifted this state's highest elected woman from one office to another rather than any net increase.

I have no doubt that come Robert E. Lee's birthday, January 19th, Martha Coakley will trounce Republican Scott Brown in the final and become junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. I also am sure she'll be a lot better for us economically and politically than Brown would have been.

Yet, this looks like serious regression. We already have a good, quiet, timid Senator. Now, we have almost certainly chosen another one just like the other one.

We did it statewide too. The Boston/Cambridge/Somerville urban axis went heavily for Capuano, as did Maynard, and Amherst and a number of Berkshires towns. (Only Alford went for Khazei and nowhere for Pagliuca.) Coakley owned the rest of the state from a little to a lot.

Were voters tired of all that Ted Kennedy demanded of them? Was it time to hunker down and let some other Senator from some other state lead national debates and call for progressive crusades?

Moreover, is there a closeted John Kerry? Does he have an heroic side he deferred to Ted Kennedy's power? TBD.

For all of her self-congratulatory campaign rhetoric, Coakley hasn't done much. That shouldn't be a surprise, as that is typical of prosecutors and attorneys general. They tend not to be big-vision sorts or machers. I can now hope that people can say to me in two or six years, "See. She really was a progressive activist like Ted!" Likewise, wouldn't it be great if Kerry has been the great political tree disguised as a sapling stunted in Kennedy's shadow?

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Monday, December 07, 2009

A Vote for Decades

Your vote in tomorrow's MA special election is huge. Not only should turn out in the plebiscite to replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate be very light, but think of the implications. As elsewhere, our new Senator is likely to serve 12 to maybe 36 years.

I made it plain that I'll vote for Mike Capuano. I want the one who has already shown he thinks progressively and has done the job in Congress. We don't need a second tentative Senator or anyone who may, if we're really lucky, grow into the job.

If you don't have your candidate, go with mine. You can hear him on our Left Ahead! show.

Even if you want someone else, vote for sure. No excuses.

Polls here open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

Tell your neighbors, friends, coworkers, the toll collector and the grocery cashier. It's election day. The winner of the Democratic primary is almost certainly the next Senator...for a long time.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

Coakley Kind of Answers

Real journalist (not someone who plays on a blog or cable TV) Bill Densmore did us all a great service. He extracted first 18 questions from a bunch of us and in turn pulled out answers (sort of) from the reticent Martha Coakley.

To cut to the chase, see his comments here and download the PDF of the Q's and A's here. You get a bonus for reading all, which ended up as 21 instead of 18.

MinM aside: I have been masochistically fascinated by the would-be Ted Kennedy replacement in the U.S. Senate's seemingly successful remote-control campaign. Only in the last partial week is she doing retail politics and in that, just visiting five towns. Contrast that with the other extreme of Mike Capuano's 200-plus events, plus dozens of Open Mike grillings by voters.

So, is this a way to federal office or a hapax legomenon (term appearing only once in a document or language)?

In Massachusetts for this foreshortened voting cycle, her poll-confirmed strategy has been:
  • Make a jack-rabbit start
  • Target a couple of high-profile endorsements
  • Claim front-runner status
  • Minimize positions and record-based claims
  • Avoid direct contact with voters as much as practical
Certainly in the Boston end of Massachusetts, that's not what we're used to. Yet, voters have not demanded more of her and have apparently continued to reward this behind-the-glass campaign.

I am left wondering, if she wins, will this become the new or at least a new campaign strategy for others?

To Bill's questions, make your own judgments. I see the replies as squishy and run through the PR factory to neuter them of power and meaning.

The only real insight we gain is that she is never likely to fall on the civil liberties side of the fence instead of the tough-on-bad-guys side. Prima facie, that looks conservative Republican, but really it makes sense for a career-long prosecutor. That's what she knows and why her PATRIOT Act debate answers are scary.

Unfortunately, despite Bill's effort here, Coakley ended up with a take-home exam. Her minions returned answers copied out of the textbook. The replies are technically right, but not revealing.

That's been her strategy. It seems to have worked. She's sticking with it.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Capuano vs. Pagliuca

U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano and venture capitalist Steve Pagliuca get personal.
"Lovey, he's a mean man!"

The jack-in-the-box class warfare of the current race for Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat was wonderfully loud and comic last evening. Actually a fairer comparison would be Steve Pagliuca in the role of Thurston Howell III.

Cappy haters had their treats. While I endorse him and am fine with his candor and brusqueness, others see him as arrogant and classist. That is, he came from blue-collar Somerville, was its mayor for five terms and led its turnaround. He strongly identifies with that background.

Amusingly enough, Pagliuca tries to mingle with mortals. His website has to go to an immigrant grandfather to approximate blue-collar ties. Oh, he throws in that he had a furniture moving gig at Duke in undergraduate school. However, he may be worth a half billion dollars and admitted in an earlier debate he hasn't felt the recession — but he knows someone who has.

In a couple recent debate exchanges, Pags clearly shows his pedestal perspective from a privileged position. It is a classic classist example. The VC is clear accustomed to deference. That is likely in his desk and business lunch job, but not so in a campaign...particularly against a proud working-class champion.

Consider the brief clip above. Thurston Steven has no problem dissing Cappy and trying to yell him down repeatedly. Yet, he will not tolerate what he considers disrepsect.

Following that sniping came Capuano, with a moderately patronizing tone, saying "I’m not suggesting we collapse banks. . . You believe in concentrated wealth. It’s concentrated wealth in you more than others." Pagliuca forwent the smelling salts to snap back, "I don’t believe in demagoguery. There’s another personal attack."

To an anti-Cappy observer, like the Globe's Soctt Lehigh the fault is all on one side. As he wrote, "He was just as dismissive when the matter came up again later. His disingenuous and haughty reply showed viewers something instructive about how he responds to critics."

Another way to look at it is that Pags exhibits what many learn in prep school and the Ivy League. Typical arguing tactics include stating your position at increasing volume many times. If you win a point that way, it really doesn't make you right though. It makes you loud and repetitive. It's a style thing.

From their different class postures, this pair are not likely to become great buddies. Thurston Steven expects and is clearly accustomed to deference. Mike from Somerville was not in the mood for that last night and will not likely be so anytime soon.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Hot and Cold Running Candidates

  • I'm a lawmaker and I know the right answer.
  • I have a position paper on that.
  • I'll study that and get back with you.
  • I'm the businessman and can create jobs.
Thinking about Dorothy Tennov, who coined limerence, I revel in the clear distinctions among the Dem contenders for Ted Kennedy's Senate spot. Anyone who has been at all alert can surely peg a candidate for the above comments. (For the others, from the top, Mike Capuano, Alan Khazei, Martha Coakley, Steve Pagliuca.)

Until Pagliuca's brief flashes at last evening's debate, he's been pretty accommodating. Coakley's typical smug prissiness finally was too much for him yesterday. His testy retorts to her even then seems incongruous coming out of his Winnie the Pooh face with round black eyes.

For Capuano and Coakley, the personality differences are stark. They do lead to comparisons with love and limerence. Tennov analyzed the differences between those who are limerent, who fall deeply and passionately in love, with the other half of the world, people who can grow slowly in loving someone else. The latter group looks at limerence as some sort of madness and say how terrifying it must be to lack self-control like that. In contrast, limerents say they pity those who never know the depth and range of love in all its power.

This pair exhibits the political version of that. Coakley seems devoid of passion and Capuano bubbles over with it. Critics of her use C words — cool, cautious, calculating, cold, controlled. Her fans seem to see a rational efficiency and even wisdom. Capuano's detractors claim he is too emotional and see him as abrasive. His supporters are wont to compare him to Ted Kennedy in intensity and purpose.

At its extreme, we can look to the hatchet job the Boston Globe performed on Capuano. His profile in the series on the candidates led with "And then there was the time he threatened to kill a dog." Then in the set-him-up-to-knock-him-down routine, the paper's endorsement of Khazei included, "Capuano could well broaden his approach in the Senate, but his decision to base his current campaign on populist anger suggests that he doesn’t really want to change."

How very, very British to denigrate passion and twist it into sociopathic behavior. Tsk, tsk. Get me my smelling salts, Mable.

Yet if polls are believable, styles have held influence throughout this short sprint to the Senate. We have a candid, expressive and sometimes prickly Capuano, a distant and often opaque Coakley, a policy wonk who keeps people at distance by letting position papers "speak" for him in Khazei, and the amiable and overly agreeable Pagliuca, who is hard to picture as the captain of the Good Ship Future.

So far, voters report to pollsters they are more comfortable with Coakley's calmness. That is odd in two ways:
  1. We already have a cautious and quietly sincere Senator in John Kerry.
  2. The leader she would replace was vastly more like Capuano than like her. Ted Kennedy was passionate about his goals and politics.
She notes occasionally that she is the woman in the race, which plays well with gonad voters. The closest she gets to passion is her resolute support for reproductive rights. There she made it plain that she would sacrifice even health-care reform if it got in the way.

Yet in the main, she has been pretty wishy-washy liberal in her issues statements, debates, and actions as prosecutor and AG. Again, this is OK by our commonwealth's standards and pretty similar to Kerry.

It may well be that our voters want two John Kerrys. Another state could be the source of real leadership and ardent advocacy for those who need help most. There's no law saying Massachusetts has to have the progressive leader in the Senate.

As someone who endorsed Capuano, I think ceding that role would be a great mistake and a shame.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mike for Mike - Dukakis Endorses Capuano

Two Greeks and an Italian walk into this pub...

Ethnic humor doesn't bother former Gov. Mike Dukakis. In fact, he seems to delight in such allusions to his Greek heritage, as he did today when he endorsed U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano in the race to replace the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy. While the causes he champions are complex and serious, the Duke is one funny guy.

Today at the Washington Square Tavern in Brookline, it was that blend of jokes, sincere affection and serious statements all around. After the banter though, Dukakis drew strong parallels between Kennedy and Capuano in endorsing him. He used that to explain why this was the first time he ever endorsed a candidate in a Democratic primary.

First though, there was good humor starting with warm ribbing of Kitty and Mike Dukakis. They have been married for 46 years and seem to have a great time of it. He described himself as an example of the ancient Greek ideal of nothing in excess and everything in moderation, adding "with Kitty, it's everything in excess, nothing in moderation." In her introduction of her husband, she had said to hoots of Brookline residents that "All of you who know both of us know that Michael always listens to me."

She noted that she had endorsed Capuano on November 11th at his Open Mike rally at the Park Plaza. Today, she said of her husband, "It took him a little while to catch on."

When Mike Dukakis got down to the praise and reasoning, he showed he had indeed synced with his wife. Key in his comparison with Kennedy were:
(Ted) had a gut understanding of average men and women, their concerns, their battles and the things that collectively we can do to make sure that every single one of them had a piece of the American Dream...He felt that and sensed it instinctively. And so does Mike Capuano.
You didn't have to tell (Ted) how to vote or where to be on the critical issues that face the country and the world. He was there over and over and over again. And so is Mike.
The former governor said he was pleased with the field in the Dem primary. He implied that the other candidates may have the potential to grow into the job, but that Capuano was a sure thing.

YouTube option: The endorsement vid is available here.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Lawn-Sign Gap

Ah, the risks of relying on empirical knowledge. In my tiny world, Mike Capuano owns this Dem primary to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Allegedly — according to small polls conducted by the likes of the Boston Globe and candidate Martha Coakley's campaign — the gate-bolting early leader retains a strong plurality. Yet in my apparently isolated world, Mike is king.

After numerous attempts to figure out what she is really about by reading the news, raking her campaign site, sitting through those debate-like objects with my clipboard and pen, and trying to get her as a guest on our Left Ahead! podcast, I finally gave up. In contrast, Capuano's people came to me. They invited me to blogger round tables, he came on our podcast, his folk had me to the big Open Mike rally at the Park Plaza, and they gave me a yard sign. Back to Martha, her campaign appears to have two components:
  1. Announce early to get the edge in contributions and endorsements
  2. Don't take any risks by unnecessary public exposure or meaningful debate
If I've gotten any indication of how the candidates might handle constituent services from all this, Martha will be behind a high wall.

The polls would suggest Martha's avoidance is working in a very foreshortened race. It only has to hold through December 8th. The Dem nominee is then a virtually certainty to roll over the virtually certain Republican nominee state Sen. Scott Brown.

So with just a little over a week to the primary and lots of media coverage, I have been steeling myself for the Martha signs and literature. My new neighborhood was awash with signs, mailbox stuffing, doorbell ringing, standouts and more for the September and November votes. Hyde Park may not be Jamaica Plain in political activism, but it didn't seem too far behind.

Instead, Mike owns Fairmount Hill and seemingly the whole area. I put his sign up and was the first to do so, but by far not the last. Huge and wee, the signs are everywhere. More to the point, there are fewer than one Coakley equivalent.

Yesterday, I finally saw a law sign for Martha. I went on a 35-mile bike ride to cover my Thanksgiving excesses to come. After pedaling by numerous Capuano signs, on the way home, I did encounter one Coakley one in Dedham. I have yet to see one in Boston.

In the same vein, I posted a call to the bloggers and other readers at Blue Mass Group, calling for their endorsements in the race. While I revealed mine after the call, I included a poll about whom they endorse. In this very unscientific finding, at last count one minute ago, it was running:
  • Capuano - 46 votes (63.89%)
  • Coakley - 16 votes (22.22%)
  • Khazei - 7 votes (9.72%)
  • Brown - 2 votes (2.78%)
  • Robinson - 1 votes (1.39%)
  • Pagliuca - 0 votes (0%)
The comments and revealed endorsements were strongly pro-Capuano.

From these two maybe non-definitive indications, I have to wonder:
  • Are BMG's readers and my neighborhood's residents so left-wing they are outliers in this election?
  • Is Coakley's support so soft that it rests in name recognition and will not translate into votes?
  • Is her support out in the burbs?
  • In a likely very low turnout election, who'll be able to get supporters to trot to the polling places?
  • Do these tiny indications suggest that his supporters are real and hers not?
I had really hoped to chat with Coakley and see if she had any substance. She blew me off as she did so many other chances elsewhere to make her case. She apparently figures that minimal exposure is her safest route to the Senate. Yet, we already have a cautious Senator in John Kerry. He has been the counterpoint to the courageous Ted Kennedy. I don't think we need a pair of those.

My endorsement of Capuano nootes that he doesn't say we should just trust him to turn into a dynamic and visionary legislature, as Coakley asks of us. He already has shown those traits for 11 years. It is risky for us all but will be fascinating to see on December 8th how many voters will be willing to take a flier on her instead of going with a sure thing.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Endorsement: Capuano Only Proven Candidate

Michael Capuano is by far the best choice to replace U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy. In the special election primary on December 8th, go with the only candidate sure to do the job and do it right.

This job would be a moderate step up for Capuano. With six years between elections and almost certain re-election, he would gain a freedom to advance policies and forge alliances much more effectively than he can in the House. There, he has been founding and joining progressive caucuses to reach for goals piecemeal.

Who can predict whether anyone from Massachusetts would ever approach the influence and accomplishments of Senator Ted Kennedy. Out of the four Dems and two Republicans this time, we have a very good idea who isn't ready. We would be taking a huge gamble on any of the other five.

Because of my association with the weekly Left Ahead! podcast, I've been holding onto neutrality, but it has become increasingly obvious what to do. Capuano is the only one with Congressional experience. Moreover only Republican Scott Brown has any legislative experience at all among the others, and his is an undistinguished five years in each house of our General Court, as well as his being wrong-headed politically.

In his 11 years in the U.S. House, Capuano has had:
  • A solid impact in all major debates as well as delivering services and programs back to the commonwealth
  • A consistently progressive record of voting for women's rights, larger civil rights, LGBT concerns, and sane foreign and domestic policy in insane times
  • Multiple courageous stands speaking out and voting against such blunders as involvement in Iraq and the PATRIOT Act

Overall, with any of the other candidates, we would be taking a high-risk gamble. We would have to suspend doubts and trust magically that any of them might somehow morph into a worthy Senator. It is a much surer projection that Capunao will go from a solid Representative to a solid Senator. As others have said endorsing him, this is not the time for on-the-job training. Ted Kennedy may have started out green 47 years ago, but we don't have to take that chance in replacing him.

I should be plain that I like Mike's candor as well as his votes. Moreover, not only do I know from his voting record and public statements what he stands for, but I agree with him on nearly everything. He is a true progressive.

The three other Dems seem bright enough and pleasant enough. Yet, with Capuano's record, you don't have to knock them to build him up.

Touching briefly on them, consider:
  • AG Martha Coakley has hidden from numerous media and blogs instead of exposing her ideas and principles to examination. I had hoped to know her better before endorsing anyone, but clearly she does not see the future in openness. She has been a pretty good, but not stellar AG, and was an OK DA. Neither of those in any way qualifies her for this job.
  • Alan Khazei seems damned smart and probably has the most fleshed out policy statements on what he might theoretically go for in the Senate. More than Coakley's, his experience with City Year was impressive, but might or might not predict anything about his performance as a Senator.
  • Stephen Pagliuca has managed to make a lot of money as a venture capitalist, but has no germane experience. Moreover, he doesn't seem to be a leader, grunting and agreeing with the other three Dems.
Honestly, there's no choice. One of the candidates has relevant experience, with an unimpeachable progressive voting record. One of the candidates has repeatedly shown courage and leadership on legislation and policy. One of the candidates can obviously make the transition to Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Mike Capuano is that candidate.

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No Breakthroughs in Senate Race

The candidate who gets the most loyal voters to the polls on December 8th wins. Polls to date say the Dem who'll run in the January 19th final for Ted Kennedy's seat will be AG Martha Coakley. For the life of me, I can't understand why. She needs to show more to get my support.
Personal whine: We at Left Ahead! had hoped and tried to have her on a podcast, but requests to numerous people from her campaign staff as well as direct appeals to her have been ignored for many weeks. Each of us will have to judge whether that says more about the insignificance of LA to her, of her fear of any possible misstep or exposure or her campaign's decision on how to mete her time. Regardless, we got U.S. Rep Mike Capuano but not her for your listening and analysis.
In last evening's final scheduled TV-broadcast debate on GBH's Greater Boston, we got too much Emily Rooney but still plenty of the four candidates. The style of the five should have given voters all the info they had lacked before. Despite Rooney's waste of a lot of time with silly, parochial questions, the candidates showed their stuff.

For one stumble through the woods, Rooney demonstrated her provincialism by pounding on Rhode Island R.C. Bishop Thomas Tobin's demand that U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy not take communion because he favored women's choice including abortion. She asked the hypothetical about what the candidates would do if their local prelate wrote the same letter to them. Not only is that out-of-state, but it has little other relevance to this race or the role of the Senator.

As an Episcopal, Steve Pagliuca was obviously delighted to be above this manufactured dust up. Then all four of them smeared rhetorical oatmeal on the wall — their religion is between God and themselves.

The glib Globe, whose reporters seem to be moderately favoring Coakley in articles, ran coverage of this Q&A as though it were the key part of last evening's debate-like-object. If you have any doubt it was not, do watch the show at GBH.

Rooney also alluded to two heavy recent pieces in the Globe, one slamming Capuano and one Coakley. The lengthy profile of Capuano made him out from the lead sentence to be a potential dog killer, someone you'd not want to meet on the streets of Somerville at night. He did a pretty good job last evening at turning that around, referring to himself as the reasoned, yet passionate candidate. Speaking of Congress, he added, "The lack of passion to me shows a disconnect with the real lives of regular people."

The Globe also broke with their normally gentle and even effusive coverage of Coakley. While many voters and others call her cold and opaque, today's article typically said of her answers that "the attorney general mostly stayed above the fray." Instead, I saw her has far less involved and substantial than the others, on a par with the spongy Pagliuca.

Yet to its credit, the Globe did run an article on how she gave eventually convicted pedophile priest John Geoghan a bye. When she was Middlesex DA in charge of child abuse cases, she did not aggressively prosecute him as an abuser. To this day and last evening, she claims she didn't have the evidence and wouldn't change anything. To those who would say gathering such evidence was clearly part of her job if she had strong reason to suspect the evidence was there, she says she did the right thing. That he was protected and shuffled around parishes by the R.C. hierarchy, while abusing boys all along, seems coincidental to her.

Oddly, Rooney brought this up and gave Coakley a chance to try to shift blame to the church. She (and the Globe) did not note that this seems a similar pattern to AG Coakley's decisions not to go after corruption in local government, which turned out into federal indictments of a House speaker, a senator and a city councilor.

The three other candidates did not ask her why voters should think she'd be a strong Senator when she seemed a hands-off DA and AG. Media wisdom has said that they avoid acting like three male bullies beating up on the woman.

For my occasional shallowness, I found myself distracted by Rooney's appearance and mannerisms. Of substance, she not only asked some nothing questions, but she repeatedly spoke over the candidates while not moderating the discussion meaningfully. How nice for her that she thinks her points are more important than those of the candidates, but she wasted a lot of time cutting off candidates as soon as they began answering her questions. That was exasperating.
Petty aside: At the risk of reading like Cintra Wilson, I think Rooney needs a makeover and some advice. My shallowness overwhelmed me as Rooney's purse-lipped appearance and clumsy behavior dominated. Most obviously, with apologies to Sarah Palin, Rooney didn't go rogue, but she did overdo rouge. Her clown makeup goes on top of skin that looks like she spent her life on a fishing boat or in a tobacco field. Moreover, she wore a plunging blouse that exposed far too much flesh that looked like it had lichen growing on it. As a blond and fair skinned (think pink), I empathize a bit, but she should be more self-aware.
I don't know how many folk listened last night or will head to the Greater Bostons site. There's a fair chance few viewers would change their mind, but the show might help some of those 50% or more undecided. Some might pick a candidate and others might decide to vote.

My own takeaways from the show, by the alpha order in which they sat, include:
  • Capuano —In appeals to both mind and emotion, Capuano owned the stage. That may or may not play well. I find him refreshingly candid as well as highly principled. Others seem put off by his passion.
  • Coakley —She remained too cool and too evasive. She liked the trope that her favorite animal is a giraffe (as is mine), that she sticks her neck out. Listening to what she said were risks, I envision a turtle instead, with very little exposure. I didn't know her any better after this session than before.
  • Khazei —Set aside his flares of Ralph Nader style self-righteousness about society's duties, he was both highly reasoned and personable, a likely good dinner companion. He clearly likes to lay out and follow road maps to policy destinations. It remains surprising that he carries the red lantern in polls.
  • Pagliuca —Stayed pretty much a me-too candidate. His big effort was to contrast himself with Coakley and Capuano in how he'd vote on health reform even if it contained abortion-funding restrictions (he'd pass this essential bill). He seems like a good soldier, which isn't enough. Also, his admission that the recession impacted him only through knowing some people (unlike him) not thriving didn't help.
If you turned in liking your candidate's style, nothing much happened yesterday for you. The cool giraffe was there, as was the impassioned fighter. On the other side, a policy wonk and some rich guy roil the waters, likely helping Coakley, who polls report may have 10% gonad voters supporting her because of gender.

We don't have any measure of voters who go with one of the three men because they would rather not have a woman in the office. We can reasonably surmise that it is fewer than Coakley's gender-driven supporters. She will have at least that edge if her candidacy gets them to the polls in two weeks.

The U.S. Senate could certainly use more women, as it would benefit from more members of color. There's no way to vote in this race for someone with Capuano's decisiveness and voting record who meets those other criteria.

We'll likely not get another chance at the candidates. The wild card is whether Coakley answers the 18 questions journalist/blogger Bill Dinsmore collected and provided. She skipped in and out of a coffee shop in North Adams, not taking any live questions. He sent that list, which should be to her campaign's liking — they can squirrel away and spin and spin. Her press secretary and political director got the list yesterday. They may be batch processing all 18 and take a couple of days, but here's betting the answers are squishy. I hope she (they) prove me wrong and, to invert Gertrude Stein, there's some there there.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Tax By GPS

Do you want to recalculate? Like most GPS boxes, ours can ask that in various tones, languages and as man or woman. It's an apt question for the efforts to implement driver fees based on miles traveled instead of per gallon of gas.

In a post (also at BMG) about recently ex-transportation secretary of Massachusetts James Aloisi, I was certainly not surprised by what to me was nitpicking and literalism. I think though to those commenting, they were trying to add value, much as Talmudic scholars refine concepts through argument.

The mention of VMT (vehicle miles traveled) systems and pilots was one of Aloisi's proposals for transportation fixes that seemed most upsetting. At the least, there were calls for solid proof that this was viable technology.

The basic idea is simple enough. Cars in Massachusetts would get GPS chips installed, likely at annual inspection if they did not already have one. This miniature computer would report on how far the driver went at various times and total. The commonwealth would charge a fee in lieu of increased gas taxes that would be more for distance, more for traveling at rush hours, and less for rural distance.

That last part is a strong selling point. Those in Western Massachusetts and other exurban areas are given a break on the turnpike tolls with free travel out there. Yet, they still pay disproportionately for gas taxes in the sense their required commute, shopping and average trips are longer than in urban areas. Let's ignore that their housing and many other costs are lower than those of urban folk.

Another important objection would be the Big Brother aspect of the GPS. The pilots in Europe and the Puget Sound show that it is very easy to track the miles and times with no record of where a vehicle was or went, just how far and when.

Yet, the underlying question for me is why the devil bother? Short of a break for rural drivers, the current gas tax does the job. Drive more, pay more...flat and not increasingly as the natural gas and electric people hit us.

Unfortunately, there is a solid reason for looking at a GPS-based VMT system. Our General Court collectively lacks the vision and courage to raised the gas tax. It has been the same for 18 years, is lower than most states' and has not kept pace with inflation or the Consumer Price Index. As a driver as well as cyclist and mass-transit user I should likely bite my tongue, but we are underpaying. As a result, we are getting fewer road and T improvements and less maintenance. We suffer from the legislators' cowardice.

Our lawmakers are too incestuous and insular. They seem to have spread the no-new-taxes virus one to another. They believe that is what keeps them in office — cushy, well-paid, powerful employment.

While none of us wants to pay taxes, much less higher taxes, the lessons our parents and grandparents taught us seem to have gotten lost. Most important, delaying the essential is generally dumb, destructive and asking for worse in the future. Thus after Gov. Michael Dukakis, a series of Republican governors sang in a chorus with bipartisan legislators, "No new taxes! No new taxes." To accomplish this, they did such dumb deeds as deferring maintenance on highways and bridges. Now that infrastructure is in such bad shape and costs have inflated so much, we face crushing bills to do the minimal repairs that would have been much cheaper earlier.

Voters should be mad at both the government and themselves.

So even now, the legislature has turned down every funding source Gov. Deval Patrick proposes, including gas taxes. They instead look to the lie and failure of casino gambling and other fantasy fixes that have failed to provide lasting solutions anywhere.

Perhaps the fairly equitable VMT might pass the cowering, self-protective incumbents' test. They might enact that instead of the much easier, more obvious and long overdue gas-tax hike.

Truth be told, the VMT with GPS will layer expensive technology and a new accounting bureaucracy to accommodate it. Heck, the price of inspection would probably bump up to for the extra steps and materials.

We have an in-place system for collecting by distance traveled without the VMT system. That's the gas tax. Moreover, to be fair to rural drivers, we could give them a break at tax time, as state and federal governments do with various housing, sales tax and other accumulated expenses.

It's really time for the lawmakers to stop the silliness and raise the gas tax. We have other transportation issue to address.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Act Now on MA Transportation Podcast

“The days of highway expansion in Massachusetts are over,” declares James Aliosi, who stepped down last month as Secretary of Transportation. He said now is the time to act and particularly to level the playing field by developing passenger rail and public transit.

In our podcast today, he ticked off such benefits as sparking industrial development and job creation, improved public health and safety, and increased energy security. He figures that the federal government under President Barack Obama is ripe for aiding just such development. What we need here is a coalition of the affected group in all those areas, including transit specific, health, our legislative and executive branch leaders, energy and more.

We discussed some of the key issues in his 12-page exit letter he sent to Gov. Deval Patrick. These include funding rail projects, getting the MBTA solvent, shaking votes and funding from the legislature to enable transportation improvements, and making multi-modal transit practical for all of us.

Aloisi is not shy about proposing innovations. He’s a proponent for VMT (vehicle miles traveled) payments, as proven in other states. That is big here, where the legislature is frightened of raising the gas tax to pay for existing highway needs, much less 21st Century problems. He also talked about the leadership and support he had from Lt. Gov. Tim Murry on making commuter and freight rail real and viable for us.

Podcast note: Click the arrow to play. Go to Left Ahead! to download.

He calls for courage and leadership. Those should be on the part of the transportation and other activists he worked with and hoped to empower as secretary. Also that would be our governor, lieutenant governor and a cadre of state and U.S. legislators who are champions of these goals. He also named commonwealth mayors who already fight for improved transit and equitable funding. He says that the public really hasn’t been broadly sold on this shift, but that they are hungry for such change and for the leadership to get us there.

We dealt with funding issues, which are at the core of many of our transit woes here. He has no patience with what he calls the gimmicks, like refinancing unmanageable T debt. He calls that delaying the day of reckoning and hiding the problem so the the public isn’t aware of it and our lawmakers don’t have to deal with it. Instead, he said there needs to be a restructuring of that debt (including relief of the $2 billion Big Dig portion laid on the T, with that VMT and some combination of sales-tax allocation to make the system workable).

He calls for public pressure and now, not in five or two years. Listen in as he talks about what has to be done. Many progressives can bring these issues to their own organizations and be part of that catalyzing coalition he envisions.

Cross-post note: This appear at Left Ahead! and Blue Mass Group.

Confusing Doctors Again

Not much funny about breast cancer, eh? However, the medical community is giving us a big yuk on mammogram schedules.

Like the ending of G.I. Joe cartoons, the moral of the episode invariably included, "And now we know...and knowing is half the battle." In this case, the U.S. Preventive Health Task Force announced new guidelines for routine breast-cancer screenings. Fundamentally, instead of annual mammograms from 40, the new rule would be every other year from 50.

Alas for the medical community, this is only the latest care that exposes its frailty, its reliance on fungible vetting for diagnosis and care. Truth be told, most doctors have as much to do with medical science as pop journalists do. They wave the current perceived wisdom, call, "Aha!," and congratulate themselves.

So in the media including talk shows, they find women to say this is putting their lives at risk. They find doctors who say they are confused. They find researchers who were behind the previous perceived wisdom implying that a massive die-off of U.S. women will follow. A few alarmists also say this is all insurance companies need to deny annual breast-cancer screens to women who want them anyway.

The joke here is that this is common, if less dramatic and less discussed, in the profession. With a herd instinct, nearly all non-specialist doctors have to rely on the best guesses from the most accepted reports and studies. That means they end up continually circling back pretending that each change of diagnostic or treatment protocol is a breakthrough and G.I. Joe style new knowledge.

I became aware of this first when I was in elementary school. My mother ran Red Cross chapter, putting her in charge of and teaching first aid, home nursing and such, with the accompanying textbooks. I remember her alternately laughing and complaining when the national organization revised those manuals every year or even less as the American Medical Association changed its mind.

One trigger was burn treatment. It was cover or leave exposed to air and use gooky medicine or let it form a scab on its own. Back and forth it went with one major reputable study after another.

With the imprecision of care and the reality that most primary care physicians — PCPs or what we used to call general practitioners or family practitioners (GPs or FPs) — are not particularly good diagnosticians. They reply on plugging symptoms into their experience or searching software or a book for the most likely fit. In all likelihood, they end up treating symptoms with drugs and never diagnose anything. That means 1) the body cures itself, 2) symptom relief is coincident with improvement, or 3) yet another patient on a long-term regimen of a drug which may or may not address the cause of the complaint.

We really can't fairly call that medical science. Yet, we do cut docs some slack here. Much of the time they are pretty much the best health gamble around. We know they are not likely to discover or cure underlying causes, particularly of chronic problems. We also know that the system requires them to move a lot of patients through, so that they really don't have time to muse or deeply investigate or even research beyond reading current medical journals. They aren't scientists.

Moreover, they are easily misled by extrapolations from the research on which they rely. An obvious example is the silly reliance on body mass index (BMI) for individuals. While useful as a broad-brush measurement for big groups, it is often invalid per patient. Thin looking folk with little muscular development may have fine BMI but have organs swimming in their fat. Athletes with well developed muscles are often obese or overweight by BMI while being very healthy and having a great body fat level, much more meaningful than BMI.

It is easy to see how PCPs can fall back on the lazy solution of BMI though. Plug in a height and weight and there's a number for comparison. Doctors worthy of their oaths would look at and palpate patients. They would take the same two measurements, but put them into a hand-held body-fat analyzer instead (those are very accurate and inexpensive at $25 to $50). Then nutrition and exercise recommendations would be meaningful. Oops, let's not forget that most PCPs know little about diet or exercise.

So we are stuck with a system that hurries docs along, encouraging them to be reliant on easy ways out for diagnosis and treatment. We end up with increasingly unrealistic guidelines in many areas, while the population gets widely wide and heavy. Those guidelines have not resulted in greater longevity either, we struggle around 17th in the world, despite our disproportionate health-care cost and use of prescription drugs.

Treat Cause or Symptom?

A real solution would be a hard one, finding and treating underlying causes for conditions. As our system is now, that would happen only if considerable research was done asking such questions as is the mid-term and long-term outcome for patients better with treating symptoms pharmaceutically or changing the underlying cause of their problems. In a country where nearly all medical research is funded directly or secondarily by drug companies, you can imagine how likely it will be for such massive studies to occur.

In many areas, the research that our docs rely on seems misused as well. Consider for one, the famous Framingham Heart Study. It is a massive, on-going and very useful project, even though it has the limit of covering only men, only in a age range, and with rebutted results in the British Medical Journal among other places. Yet is is a hook to hang a medical hat on and as such used for various guidelines.

One such is that acceptable blood pressure has dropped from 140 to 130 to 120 to 115 upper number, for example. One effect is from the study that the recommendation is that over 90% of men should be on anti-hypertensive drugs by 60.

You needn't be the worst cynic around to question the relationship between drug companies, doctors and that guideline. Think in contrast if PCPs worked with patients to reduce body fat, up potassium intake, reduce stress and such. would the patient be better off than a remaining lifetime of one or more drugs?

What would G.I. Joe say? Maybe, "Well, we'll never know and not knowing leaves us unprepared for the battle."

Cross-post note: I have other medical rants at Harrumph!, where I'll put this.

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