Saturday, March 31, 2007

More Thoughts on

Readers of the Boston globe may notice that I was quoted today in an article by Lisa Wangsness about Deval Patrick's new website. Lisa had contacted me earlier in the week to find out what people who had used the campaign's old system thought of the new endeavor. Here's what made the paper:

But Steve Owens, a Watertown organizer for the Patrick campaign who writes a political blog called .08 Acres (, said the real advantage of the website for activists is not winning the most votes for their issue online, but being able to connect with other like-minded people whom they would not otherwise meet.

"The point is to get action on your issues, and the way you do that is by working with people who signed up," he said.
First of all, hooray for the Globe for putting my URL in the paper (at least online, I haven't seen the dead-tree version yet) and welcome to any Globe readers who may have followed the link here. To elaborate on my point a little, I think that too much has been made of what issues end up on the leaderboard on the issues page of the site. It's not like you win a prize if you get to the top. You "win" when your favored policy gets enacted, and the site is a tool to help you organize to achieve your goal. The people who have created issues to embarrass the governor are, in my opinion, unlikely to use the site that way. They're more likely to show up just to add a "vote" to that issue and never think about the site again. Still, the vote option is useful since it might make people who disagree with the issue think twice about adding their name to the list since by doing so they make it look like the issue has more support (though, this does not seem to be happening currently).

Now it's true that the site is a little unidirectional right now -- you can only contact the creator of an issue, they can't contact you -- but that's okay for now. It lets people opt-in to real-world organizing and makes sure that by signing up to this site your email doesn't get passed around to every progressive organization that has an email list (trust me, there are a lot -- I'm on half of them). More can probably be done to foster group communication, though, and maybe private messages or issue-based message boards would help with this without adding to people's already overburdened inboxes.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Special Election Roundup

While I've focused a lot of my attention on the special election to replace Marty Meehan -- which has yet to be scheduled -- there are also three special elections for the legislature which are happening in next few months. I've talked about some of them before, but I thought I would put some links to information in a single post.

14th Worcester Rep District

As reported here, Jim O'Day won the March 20th Democratic Primary and now faces unenrolled candidate (and former Democrat) Joseph Cariglia, the owner of JC Auto Sales in Worcester. Cariglia has vowed to re-enroll as a Democrat after the election, should he win the April 17th general election.

11th Norfolk Rep District

I've been neglecting the race to replace Rep Bob Coughlin, who resigned to take an economic development position in the Patrick Administration, largely because there has been great coverage of the race in places like DedhamBlog and myDedham, both of which have video of the latest debate.

The April 17th primary features Doug Obey, who ran unsuccessfuly against Senator Marian Walsh last November and Bill McKinney, a former MDC Commissioner for Mitt Romney on the Republican side. The Democratic candidates are Stephen Bilafer, a former aide to Attorney General Tom Reilly; Dedham Town Meeting Member Thomas Boncek; Dedham School Committee member Joanne Flatley; and Cheryl Schoenfeld, the Chairman of the Precinct Chairs in Dedham. The winner of each of those primaries will face Paul McMurtry, the owner of the Dedham Community Theatre, in the general election on May 15th. As I understand it, of these candidates Bilafer, Flatley and Shoenfeld would vote against the marriage ban at the next ConCon -- not sure about the others.

1st Suffolk and Middlesex Senate District

The race to replace former Senate president Robert Travaglini is shaping up to be a contest between Democrats Revere City Councillor Dan Rizzo and Rep. Anthony Petruccelli and Winthrop Councillor at large Phil Boncore, who is apparently running as an independent. Cambridge City Councilor and state Rep Tim Toomey had expressed interest in the race, but announced that he is not running. Petruccelli has the backing of Boston Mayor Tom Menino and has earned the ire of Howie Carr, so he must be doing something right. The field will be set on April 17th when petitions are due to City Hall. Right now, I'd predict a low turnout for the primary on May 29, which is the day after Memorial Day. The general election for this race will be June 26.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Interview with David O'Brien - Candidate for Congress

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to talk with David O'Brien, a member of the Democratic State and National Committees who is one of the candidates running to replace Congressman Marty Meehan (D-Lowell) as he vacates his seat in the fifth district. While O'Brien has never held elective office himself, he pointed to his extensive experience working at both the state and federal level. In the past, he has worked with former state Senator Patricia McGovern; he was one of the first staffers with Americorps, and was chosen by President Bill Clinton to be the regional advocate for New England in the U.S. Small Business Administration. More recently, Mr. O'Brien has worked to bring affordable housing to Lowell. He told me that he would like to see our troops out of Iraq "safely and soon" and that he supports the idea of universal health care. He is also in favor of imposing campaign finance regulations of 527 groups and would like to see a path toward legalization for undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.

Mr. O'Brien is the second candidate for MA-05 that I have spoken with. Last week, I posted my interview with Representative Jamie Eldridge. I'm hoping to conduct more of these as the election nears.

For more information about Mr. O'Brien, you can read this profile in the Concord Journal, or visit his website, which should be live by the end of the week.

Read excerpts from the interview inside
Q: Almost all the candidates running for Marty Meehan’s seat have some experience as an elected official. Do you think you have the experience necessary to be an elected Congressman?

I do. I’m not sure that elective office is the only thing that should be measured when the voters look at all of us and our qualifications to be their next Congressman. I’ve got a pretty diverse background of experience in state government, in the federal government, in the private sector and working for nonprofits.

My first job out of college was working for State Senator Patricia McGovern, back when I graduated from Merrimack College in 1986. I have experience working in the federal government under President Clinton when he tapped me to be one of the first staffers to help start the Americorps program in 1993. I also worked at the U.S. Small Business Administration as the regional advocate for New England.

I have experience working not only for federal government and state government, but also with candidates for president. In the last four and a half presidential campaigns, I started with Mike Dukakis’s campaign, worked on the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Al Gore twice, and traveled in the 2000 campaign with the Gores occasionally but more often in the general election with Joe Lieberman as his trip director. The moment he was picked as a candidate, I was one of four staff people to fly out to Connecticut, pick him up and bring him to Nashville for the announcement and I was with him for the entirety of the campaign, including the protracted, painful recount.
Q: Of those experiences, what would you say is your most important achievement in your public life?
I would say working on national service, because it was Eli Segal, who just passed away last year, was our CEO and chairman and if you will, the founder of the modern-day Americorps movement. He was the man tasked with getting it up and running by President Clinton. The challenge of that organization and bringing that idea from poetry to prose, as Eli would often say, was really about getting the Americorps program up and running. It was a merger with the old action agency where Vista and older American volunteer programs which all started as a result of the war on poverty back in Lyndon Johnson’s day, merging that with a new brand of service which was President Clinton’s Americorps program. So it was a merger, a startup.

It was exciting to work there but it was not without its challenges. Working with bureaucracies was something that we had to learn to work through, but also at the end of the day prove results of a new program. It turns out that the motto of the Americorps program was getting things done. The debate about whether service would be about those who do the service and then come back and reflect on it, or about what service they do in the community, in part so they could justify spending federal dollars on it. In the end that’s what it became, it was about getting things done in the community. A byproduct was that people felt good about the service, the community felt good about people dedicating a year of their lives to either come in the community or come from within the community to make things better.
Q: Is that the sort of work you’d like to encourage as a Congressman?
I’ve thought about what I’ll run on, and I’m still not quite fully there yet, but Americorps is something I believe in. It’s something that has worked in three presidencies and in different forms now, so it’s an opportunity for young people to give back to their community but also earn college tuition or pay off old student loans in the process. It’s a powerful thing when you see the product and the end result, not only the work done in communities but the work of an individual, what they feel as part of a team. It’s a learning opportunity -- too often when we’re kids and we’re learning we don’t realize sometimes when we’re having fun and we’re doing something that’s not learning out of a book, sitting in straight rows in a classroom. We learn at different phases and at different speeds in our lives.

I think the Americorps program is just that kind of a program because you’re part of a team, you’re working through challenges and cultural differences, and socioeconomic differences, maybe on a team with someone who’s all the way across the country or maybe from the neighborhood you’re serving, and figuring it out on the spot is really what that’s about, and for a young person to be able to do that in the community before they go on to their work life is really pretty compelling.
Q: What do you think is the number one issue on the minds of voters in the 5th District?
Of the voters I’ve talked to, I’ve been to some Democratic Town Committees, I’ve been to some Democratic events, I’ve spoken to folks at a Lion’s Club in Tewksbury, and I think, while we all presume that the war in Iraq is top of mind and people do talk about it, but people are still concerned with issues that don’t seem to go away and don’t seem to get the attention they need. I don’t think they are unsolvable, but there’s only so much time in the day that our leaders in Washington can commit to working with the troublesome issues, and I think one of the problems is, the attentions on the domestic front have really suffered as a result of everyone’s time, attention, frankly budget focus on the war in Iraq.

We’re spending billions in Iraq. It’s a lot of money, and it’s money not being spent on something else, whether it’s foreign programs or foreign aid somewhere else or trying to rebuild another country, or rebuilding our country. I mean, we have issues that are challenging here, like affordable housing or heath care, K-12 education, higher education. It’s not always about dollars. Too often in Washington, it’s a sense of priority and we’re not investing in the things that are helping our own people get ahead. That’s what they expect us to do. They expect us to do the people’s business, and for the past four years Iraq has been something that in large part has been distracting our leaders from keeping their eye focused on solving the challenges here.
Q: Recently the Senate voted on the Iraq appropriation with the strings attached of a timeline. The House also approved an appropriation last week. Would you have voted for that?
I didn’t see the vote today so I can’t speak to that. I did read about the vote in the House last week. Here’s my general sense of it, and I try to follow it like any good citizen can, through news accounts and online and otherwise. It seems to me that we are in a situation in Iraq where we are in the midst of a civil war among the Iraqis. Our troops are not fighting a common enemy; they don’t always know who the enemy is. To that end, I’m not sure how much longer our troops can stay there and frankly risk their own lives for something that is not a conventional war.

To the extent that we can help them secure their borders, reestablish their security, get their army back -- we disbanded our army when we went over there four years ago, and I think in hindsight that was a mistake -- and get out of Iraq safely and soon, I am for a timeline, I just don’t know which one works best, whether it’s the House or the Senate. We do have to trust our military leaders to give us guidance so that we’re not going to lose more lives leaving, and get shot in the back while drawing down our troops.
Q: You mentioned heath care is one issue that the war is draining resources from. How should the federal government lower heath care costs for Americans?
I think if it were as simple as lowering the health care costs for all Americans, it would be done. The goal of having universal health coverage for everyone, I do believe that health care is a right in this country, not a privilege. You shouldn’t have to be born into having a situation where you have good health care. Even people who have decent health care plans are one illness away from a very expensive cost. It strikes me that there needs to be some balanced system so that we’re not bankrupting families just to stay alive.

My sense is, that I share with many of my colleagues on the Democratic State Committee and Democratic National Committee on which I serve, the goal of universal health care access and affordability and how we get there still needs to be worked out. But I think with Democrats in Congress, and a Democratic President, I think we’re going to get there sooner than with Republicans, because they’ll let the market work and the market doesn’t seem to be working for everybody right now. Not everybody has an equal and fair opportunity to have coverage. I think there’s still 42 million Americans who don’t have coverage. Why in this day and age is that allowed?
Q: Do you favor any particular way of getting to universal health care? A single payer approach or something similar to the current Massachusetts law?
You know, I’ve tried to follow the Massachusetts plan and I know the bugs and the kinks aren’t worked out of it yet, but it strikes me that if companies have the means to provide -- and this is where the small business exemption would come in -- that they need to provide it for their employees. I also think that individuals do need to step up and pay their fair share. I mean, if someone’s in poverty and unable to pay for their basic human needs, I’m not sure they’re going to be writing a check for a health care plan, but those that can afford to pay should.

Health care isn’t free; doctors don’t work for free; hospitals don’t work for free. Too often, the easy one to beat up on is the insurance companies, but everyone else in the health care food chain, they all work for a living. Now they’re not going to give it away. To the extent that everybody should pay something for the coverage they get, I think they should pay what they’re able to. Even if it’s a modest amount of a couple hundred bucks.
Q: Congressman Meehan’s was very involved in campaign finance reform. What solutions do you favor, if any, and would you continue the work he’s done?
I support the notion of having greater transparency. I think even at one point in time the Republicans talked about having same day or fairly quick online postings of who’s giving money. I think we still have an issue with the soft money, kind of sneaking its way into 527s which are not all reportable -- you don’t have to report where the money comes from or who the donors are as long as those organizations don’t, say, vote for or against somebody, they get away with getting very close to the line of convincing people to vote for or vote against someone. So it seems like a loophole to me, but from what I’ve watched in Marty’s career, it strikes me that that’s one they can try to tighten up but it seems that it might be headed to a showdown in the Supreme Court because it comes back as some form of limiting speech.

I don’t know how we resolve that but if there’s a way to make maybe even reporting of who gives the 527 so there’s a sunshine aspect to it at least then we know, so that the media can write it up and the public’s aware of it, that somebody’s dumping millions of dollars into an effort like Swift Boat Veterans, for example, that are clearly trying to stop one candidate over another as opposed to educating people on an issue.
Q: Speaking of campaign finance, I know that Jamie Eldridge announced today that he raised $100K, Niki Tsongas raised $150K. Can you raise enough money to be competitive in the system today?
Part of the challenge of a candidate like myself is that I don’t come from a wealth of money – I won’t be able to write a check, I don’t have a famous last name or a big donor list. Every donation I get is going to be from somebody I know or a friend of a friend, I don’t have a big donor history of people giving me money to run for office, so I start from zero. But I do believe I’ll be competitive. It’s an interesting race in that it’s a special election, so the conventional wisdom that he who raises the most money wins doesn’t apply. I think the voters in the end are going to decide. I think in some respects they’re going to look at the people with the most money as the institutional players and they’ll scratch their heads and wonder why everybody’s giving money to that top dog.
Q: What do you think America should do with its immigration policy?
I’m disappointed that Senator Kennedy and Senator McCain couldn’t stay on track and get a bipartisan bill passed to allow people who are already here to become citizens after a time as long as they applied and didn’t have a criminal background. The tension in immigration is two things as I see it is: people who want to build a big fence and not let anybody into our country because we’re already too full and the challenges of people feeling like someone else is getting the job they deserve. It seems to me that the people coming here illegally or otherwise are people just trying to provide for their own families and doing jobs that, as I understand it, are not being done by Americans. Migrant farm work is not something that Americans are stepping up and doing.

I’m hoping to get back on track with the tenor of what Senator Kennedy and McCain were trying to do and get people an opportunity to become legalized in this country. As I understand the law, if children are born in the United States -- even of illegal immigrants -- they’re Americans. They should be able to go to school... The fact that the law says they’re American citizens means they should be treated like Americans.
Q: I understand that you were involved in bringing affordable housing to Lowell?
The project we’re working on in Lowell, the Julian Steele project, is a federally built public housing project built after WWII for veterans coming home to have places to live. For a time it was in great shape and running along well and at full capacity. Over the years it became rundown. The plumbing was deplorable, and the physical condition reflected issues of the community itself. They had crime and drugs and prostitution. There were police officers afraid to go in there because it was so bad. So, the greater Lowell delegation, Senator Panagiotakos, all the state Reps, and others decided it was time to tear this place down. There was actually a lot of opposition to this from various community groups, the Catholic Church, tenants organizations. They did not want to displace the people who lived there. The argument made by the Lowell delegation was that we can’t let people live in these conditions, and they won the day. Beacon Hill passed legislation to tear the site down -- first rehouse the families that were living there throughout the greater Lowell area -- level the site, and start fresh.

That was a process started more than seven years ago. The site was empty for three or more years and they had a local group of five builders ready to go and develop the site. In February or March 2005, I happened to be reading the Lowell Sun and saw that the five local builders were not doing the job. They walked away. So I knew they were going back up to bid with it at some point, so I started doing some homework on the project. My brother’s a builder... I approached him and he told me, those other guys walked away for a reason. Why would you want to do this? So I said, I don’t know, but it will be a challenge. He said okay, set up a meeting and see where we go with it.

Fast forward a couple of months, there were nine different organizations or interests trying to apply to be the developer. We won the day, were fortunate enough to get through the process, and did our due diligence on it and figured out we couldn’t make any money as the developer. So we approached the nonprofit group doing the RFP and said, let us be your general contractor. You share the risk with us. You market them, you sell them, and we’ll build them for you. At that point they didn’t have too many other people in line, so they said let’s do it.

To me, the gratifying thing about this project is, it had its challenges, but right around Thanksgiving of last year the first 21 families moved into the units. In April or May the next 27 units go online. It’s a beautiful place. They’re all brand new, modern homes. There are low, moderate and market rate units, they’re singles and they’re duplexes, about 1100 or 1200 square feet apiece, they’re all two stories and three bedrooms. They’re not huge, but they’re home. To give someone the opportunity to have a new home, to me, is really exciting.

I’m running for Congress in part to extend the opportunity to everybody in this district whether they were born in a middle class family, an upper class family, or came from a lesser background, which I feel I did. I was raised by a single parent. My father and mother divorced when I was five months old. I didn’t find this out until I was in college or high school, but my mom had to rely on her large extended family, she was one of eight, to try to keep us together, and I further found out that she had to rely on welfare for several years. My brother and I were both students in the Head Start program. My mom became a teacher... To me, when we talk about not leaving a child behind today, I’m just grateful that the federal government, that the Democratic party, that people just generally in society said it’s important to be there for those families and for those kids. In my case, somebody didn’t leave five of us behind and I’m grateful for that.

It’s in part why I have the activism I do in the Democratic Party, and on behalf of candidates for president or governor or Congress. To me, it’s to give something back and extend that opportunity to everyone, whether you’re born in a single parent household or whether you grow up in Lawrence or Lowell or Haverhill or Concord. You deserve a shot. The beauty of this country is we’re born here. If we were born in some other country, the likelihood that we’re going to have to live on $2 a day is very high. The likelihood that we’re going to die before our 30th birthday of some waterborne disease is very high. We’re blessed in this country. We’re blessed to be born here and we have the opportunity to make something of our lives provided we have proper education and proper nourishment and proper health care and proper upbringing. But just being born in the United States isn’t enough. That’s where I think the federal government has a role to play, to give people an even hand and an even shot at it. That’s in part why I’m running.
Q: How can people get involved with your campaign?
We’re going to be putting up my web site probably in the last day or two, it’ll be and it should be up within 24-48 hours.

Privacy and Public Information

Before the Deval Patrick campaign's inadvertent creation of a searchable statewide voter registration database, someone else caused controversy for posting public information on the Internet. Author and journalist Stephen J. Dubner noted yesterday a Roanoke, VA reporter who received death threats after publishing a database that contained the names and addresses of citizens in the region who had received a concealed handgun permit earlier this month. He did it half as a public service -- saying in part that "parents might like to know if a member of the car pool has a pistol in the glove box" -- and half as an exercise to show how much of a hassle it is to get information from the government.

Needless to say, gun owners complained that this was a breach of their privacy, possibly put people on the list in danger, and the newspaper took the database down. In response to the hubbub, Dubner wrote:

This raises an interesting conundrum for journalists, bloggers, and anyone else who has access to public records — which, these days, is pretty much anyone with a computer: At what point does the aggregation and dissemination of public records cross the line into a violation of privacy? For instance, the real-estate sales data that Chad Syverson and Steve Levitt analyzed in their paper about agents’ misaligned incentives was derived from public records; but real-estate agents strongly objected to the accumulation of all these data.
That is a discussion we sort of had here in Massachusetts over the past few days. At what point does the government's duty to give us access to information end and the individual's right to privacy begin? Why is it so important to have some small barrier to get this information -- even one that would certainly not deter someone determined to use it for unsavory purposes? The drive to town hall or the fee one would have to pay to get public records seems to be like a security blanket; for some reason it makes us feel better, even if it doesn't keep the monsters away.

My personal feeling, as I mentioned previously is that public records should be public. That means, yes, they should be on the Internet so that people who can't make it down to stand in line at City Hall during business hours can still have access to information. Of course, with regard to voter rolls, the risk would be to disenfranchise those who would rather keep their false sense of security. That does not seem to be worth the benefit.

By the way, if you have not read Freakonomics, which was co-authored by Dubner, and you are the kind of person who is fascinated by data, like I am, you're missing out on a fun read.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Question of the Day

If Rep. Thomas Petrolati (D-Ludlow) is so in tune with the wants and needs of his district, then why is he upset at Governor Deval Patrick's suggestion that people should call their legislators? If he's meeting his constituents' needs, wouldn't all those calls be just to tell him he's doing a great job?

Patrick Town Meeting Tour Continues in Worcester

The Worcester Telegram & Gazette has the story of yesterday's latest Town Meeting with Governor Deval Patrick, this one at South High Community School in Worcester. The article describes it as a cross between a "political rally and a revival church service," which sounds very similar to the meeting I attended on Saturday. The story also includes this nugget:

Paul G. Kosky, chairman of the Auburn School Building Committee and a 50-year member of the Republican Party, said he could save thousands of dollars by moving out of Massachusetts. He cited a property tax bill up from $1,726 seven years ago to $3,850 now; a $2,700 heating bill, and a $23,527 annual health insurance bill.

But he said that he spoke to Mr. Murray and state Sen. Edward M. Augustus Jr., D-Worcester, during last year’s primary, and said he’d vowed to change his party registration if they would do what they said they would. With that, he strode up to Mr. Murray last night and placed a slip of pink paper in the lieutenant governor’s hand showing that he was no longer a registered Republican.
Also in the Telegram & Gazette, Kenneth Moynihan has a column on the potential of Patrick's new website. While others focus on the system's bugs or the rankings of the top issues, Moynihan seems to be the only one I've read who gets why Patrick opened his site up in the first place.

Update: User WorcP has a firsthand account from the event at Blue Mass Group.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Sloppy Coding Derails

I should have seen this coming.

As a town coordinator for the Deval Patrick campaign, I was a heavy user of their online Community tool during the campaign. When the Patrick Committee announced that they were inviting everyone to use a new version of the tool, I thought it was admirable. It really makes organizing that much easier, and I credit it in no small part to Deval Patrick's victory in November. I was a little nervous, though, because I had been to several training sessions where people were queasy with the amount of information available at the click of a button. No problem, they said, because unless you were given permission by a higher-up, you couldn't see much other than what you yourself entered in. Fair enough. I logged into the new version of the tool over the weekend and found that you could not do a lot of the searching that made the original version so useful, but I was happy that they had locked down that aspect of the tool for the wider audience.

Except they forgot one thing -- the login. Many excellent coders have fallen victim to the login screen, so this is not a judgement on the developers who have been doing great work from day one. Usually, however, a login screen is slapped on at the last minute and given much less thought than the meat of a program and it's a trap I've fallen into myself as a programmer. Since my login account was an artifact from the previous system -- and I assume the people who beta-tested the new site were in the same boat -- I never played around with the login screen and did not realize that it now acted as a search of the voter rolls, the same search function that left a bad taste in so many peoples mouths. This could not have been the developers' intent since, after all, they locked down the search after one was successfully logged in.

Now, it's true that this is public information, available at any town clerk. Frankly, I believe that the voter rolls should be available online, with an option to opt-out. Still, is not the appropriate place for this information to live. It seems to me that there's no longer any reason for the voter rolls to drive logins on that site, and they should be decoupled. They should admit that this is a bug, and remove the search function as soon as they are able.

Kerrigan Out in 5th District Race

Former Lancaster Selectman and one-time Tom Reilly Chief of Staff Steve Kerrigan has announced that he is withdrawing from the race to replace Congressman Marty Meehan in the fifth Congressional district. You can read his full statement at Blue Mass Group. To my knowledge, this leaves seven Democratic candidates:

  • Middlesex County Sheriff James DiPaola
  • Eileen Donoghue, former Mayor of Lowell
  • Representative Jamie Eldridge
  • Representative Barry Finegold
  • Representative James Micelli
  • David O'Brien, member of the DNC and DSC
  • Niki Tsongas, wife of the late Senator Paul Tsongas

Can Local Governments Spend Funds Wisely?

On the heels of this weekend's call by Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino to pass a set of reforms to give local communities more flexibility in raising revenue, the Globe has an op-ed on the subject by David Luberoff of Harvard's Rappaport Institute. The piece has some suggestions for passing and tweaking the governor's proposals. What struck me was this paragraph:

Governor Patrick, with enthusiastic support from many local officials, has proposed legislation that would give local government more money in several ways, including the power to impose local hotel and restaurant taxes. However, the governor's plan is floundering because many people do not believe that local governments have the ability or will to spend new funds wisely.
Leaving aside for the moment that "many people" includes state legislators who just don't want to lose the control of state taxes, I found that last statement troubling. Our local governments are the places where one person can make the most difference. After all, the smaller the voting population, the more difference your one vote can make.

Unfortunately, local governments are often the places with the least amount of scrutiny. That, in my opinion, is why "many people" don't trust localities to use money wisely. Luberoff suggests that the way to get people to trust municipalities is to threaten them with state intervention and oversight. That might make state legislators more willing to give up some of their authority, but I don't know how much that speaks to the trust issue. I can think of few communities that would trust Beacon Hill to manage their affairs better than the locals. Even Springfield right now is bristling under their state-appointed control board. Luberoff's ideas may make the municipal reforms more palatable to state legislators, but by doing so, he may make them difficult to pass on the community level. It seems to me that the way to make towns more accountable would be to perhaps force them to submit to state audits, but perhaps the consequences of those should be left to town officials to decide in all but the most serious situations.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Notes From the Blogger Q&A With Governor Patrick

After Saturday's town meeting in Boston, I was part of a group of bloggers who were invited to chat with Governor Deval Patrick about his website relaunch and other issues that our readers might be interested in. Prompted by Dan Kennedy's post to his blog, I asked the Governor why he put his civic engagement portal on instead of Mass.Gov. He explained that his site was intended to be a place to build communities online, whereas was mainly an information based, non-interactive site -- and one that needed a fair amount of work to be made more effective as it is. He did not think it was appropriate for people to engage in political organization on the public servers, something which might cause ethics problems. The purpose of his site is not just to contact the governor, which could be done at the state's website, but is to move and influence government, and that means lobbying state reps, writing letters to the editor, and connecting with other people. These are political activities and it seemed that he felt uncomfortable with putting them on the state-owned servers. Later in the session, he mentioned that he did not want his site to be a partisan endeavor, and the he expected that people who disagreed with him would use this tool as a way to organize for issues that he did not support. He was fine with that, and accepted it as a risk.

I did get a chance to look at the website finally, and I am mostly pleased. There's a lot that I want to do with it that I can't do, but I chalk that up to wanting it to be a version of his campaign's Community Tool, which I credit with winning him the election. The "coalitions" that you can create seem to have been an afterthought, but that's where I'd like to see more work done. I'd like to be able to create a Watertown Progressive Coalition, for example, and invite everyone I know to participate and use the system to facilitate organization around ad hoc issues. That is, I'm less interested in promoting issues -- something the site seems to focus on -- and more interested in getting people to find each other.

Anyway, the rest of the Q&A session was very interesting, and you can read other people's thoughts from it at Dick Howe's blog, Marry in Massachusetts, Talking Stoneham, Ryan's Take, Know Thy Neighbor, and Below Boston (who also took video of the event that I hope they will post). The most interesting part of it for me, aside from my question of course, was when Governor Patrick described his conversations with telecom industry representatives who were opposed to his plan to allow cities and towns to charge telecommunications companies property taxes on utility poles and wires -- taxes that the electric company has to pay, but phone companies are exempt from. They noted that having to pay these taxes might inhibit their plans to bring broadband to Western Massachusetts. When the Governor asked them for more details about their broadband expansion so that he could potentially work that into his legislation they admitted that they actually didn't have a plan and were only talking about a theoretical expansion.

As an aside, I'm kind of surprised that the Globe put an article on Patrick's late father on the front page, while the fact that he basically threw down a gauntlet toward the legislature was relegated to the metro section. Patrick finally realized that he would only be able to accomplish his goals if he kept his grassroots effort intact. Maybe it's just my wishful thinking, but it seemed to me to be a transformational event. The Governor seems to me to have finally realized that winning an election doesn't mean you get the power to enact your agenda -- no matter what some out-of-state political scientist says.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Weekend Baby Blogging

Helping with laundry

Helping with the laundry.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Liveblogging the Relaunch

I'm here at the Boston Latin school at the relauch for I found a wifi network, so I thought I'd liveblog it.

Speaking now is the headmaster of Boston Latin, who welcomed the Governor and the Mayor. I spotted a few state senators -- Walsh and Tolman, and the gymnasium is fairly crowded (the parking lot filled up a half-hour before the event started). Lt Gov Tim Murray is also here. The podium is set up in front of a set of risers that is filled mostly with students, but a couple of ringers, too I notice. Some of them are part of the school's youth climate change group.

A senior from the school whose name I did not catch is now speaking, she's giving the indroduction for Mayor Menino.

Menino starts off acknowledging the other elected officials in the room, thanks the Governor and Lieutenant Governor. He wants to talk about our shared goal of strenthening the partnership between cities and towns and Beacon Hill. Last few years, there have been a lot of cuts in state aid -- Boston lost $80 Million. Boston depends on the property tax for 57% of its revenues, more than twice the rate of any other major city. Homeowners and municpalities need relief.

He wants to close the telecom tax loophole -- telecom should "pay their fair share, that's all." They're trying to scare the public, but "the truth is on our side." Look at how well they're doing in the stock market. They're moving a lot of their property off shore, so they're paying very little in prop. taxes. He calls this the full employment act -- any lobbyist who knows an elected official is working on this.

He also wants a municipal meals tax of 1%. It allows non-residents to pay some of the municpality budget. Boston has the lowest meals tax of the 11 largest cities in the country. It could add $30 Million to the tax stearm, and allow us to continue reducing the commercial tax rate. Addressing the problem with grow the economy and make our state more competitive. If the Governor continues to lead us, we will prevail . He's grateful for the Governor's leadership in this issue, particularly his Municipal Partnership bill.

Together we can make them understand that this is about people -- they've paid an unusual burden in real estate taxes. He urges everyone to talk to their elected officials "eyeball to eyeball".

Now another student is speaking, talking about the Boston Latin School's mission of a "contemporary classical education." Part of their mission statement is to become responsible and engaged citizens. He's now introducing the Governor. He notes that he's a subscriber to his podcast.

His introduction was great -- Governor Patrick notes that, joking "What is he running for? My job? It's taken!"

We're here today to particpate not only in a rally -- the campaign's over -- byut to participate in a vision. He asked us to imagine, during the campaign, a Massachusetts where every child gets a world class education, a place where everyone can afford a home, a place where there are cops on the beat on neighborhood patrols, everyone has decent health care, etc. That's what we brought into the corner office 75 days ago. Govt must reflect our common values and ideals, shared responsiblilty, fairness, etc.

The values don't become real because we won the election. There's still work to do. His top priority is to help business create more jobs -- they cut the average time it takes to get permits from 1-2 years to six months. Business now have one-stop-shopping for dealing with all the permits that state and local regulators make them deal with. They signed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Inititive, because it was a great opening for the kind of economy we're trying to build here -- clean energy technology. They passed a $1.7 billion bond bill. They've proposed to double the investment in extended day programs.

The vision is not enough to govern. He needs us to govern. Passive citizenship doesn't work to make the vision real. He needs to make a daily claim on your citizenship. "You want lower property taxes, come and get them." That means that we have to engage our reps and senators and tell them that we are behind his proposals. "You want more cops, after school programs? Come and get them!" Tell your reps and senators that you support the measures. When there's a hearing, Show Up.

"Governing is about power. My power has never come from insiders with connections. My power comes from you. Own it."

To enable that kind of engagment, our committee is working on two things -- a series of town hall meetings so that people can offer their ideas and put their questions to him. Bring your problems and your solutions. We'll be doing this all over the state, so every community can be heard.

Second, is the redesign of It's not just prettying up the website. It's unlike any other website he's heard of, and it's about to change the way we govern. Gives any MA citizen to engage directly with the governor and vice versa. Everyone should have access to the governor, not just people with insider connections. It's also a way for people to connect with eachother. You can find and create communities of interest -- organize around issues or communites. He needs to know what we care about, and what we're willing to fight for. We need to know when he needs us to show up on Beacon Hill to press our agenda. That's what citizenship is all about, and it's what our government should be all about. Real change begins at the grassroots.

It doesn't matter that we won. What matters is what we leave behind. Let's go to work for that.
I have to say, after listening to this, that this was the governor that I worked for. This was the man I voted for, not the stumbling neophyte that took over his body for the past 75 days. I hope that this is the turning point in his administration. Now he's taking questions, but the wifi died, so I didn't get to blog them.

Q: We don't know how to lobby our legislator to help you, because we don't know who is opposed to closing the loopholes.

A: Not everyone is on the record yet. He hands of to Senator Marian Walsh. Walsh notes that it's a myth that we're the highest taxed state in Massachusetts. Since 1990, the mantra has been, if businesses pay no taxes they can create more jobs. That's not true. Since 1990, we've done about 45 tax breaks. Corporate taxes are now 6% of revenue. It's 2007, and we're still at 2001 revenue levels. They've had more layoffs in state and local govt than any state in the union per capita. People are working more hours than ever. In 1982, a CEO earned 42x the average worker, now the CEo makes 420x the average worker. Part of that is exacerbated by our tax policy.

Update: The wifi connection died before the Q&A session was over, and then we were herded down to the bloggers-only conference. More on that later.

Liveblogging the Relaunch

I'm here at the Boston Latin school at the relauch for I found a wifi network, so I thought I'd liveblog it.

Speaking now is the headmaster of Boston Latin, who welcomed the Governor and the Mayor. I spotted a few state senators, and the gymnasium is fairly crowed (the parking lot filled up a half-hour before the event started).

Update: For some reason, blogger created a second post while I was updating this one. Read the rest of the liveblog here.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Interview with Rep. Jamie Eldridge

Earlier in the week, I had the opportunity to talk to state Representative Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) who is one of the candidates running to replace outgoing Congressman Marty Meehan (D-Lowell) in the 5th Congressional district. We chatted at length about his accomplishments in the legislature, and he talked about increasing local aid to schools and the Individual Development Account program as well as his work building legislative coalitions. I asked him whether he was too young to be a Congressman and he pointed out that the district has already elected candidates younger that he is. We talked about the war in Iraq -- he's in favor of stopping funding for that war as a way to end it; health care -- he's in favor of a single-payer system; and campaign finance reform -- he would like to see public financing of elections and would not like to see political blogs regulated by the FEC (something the current occupant of the 5th district Congressional seat is in favor of). He also mentioned that he would like to see the federal government help communities pay for the needs of special education students.

His website launches next week, until then if you would like to help with his campaign, email his campaign address ( or call the campaign office at 508-274-0055.

Look for more interviews with candidates in the 5th district Congressional race. There are, I believe, a total of eight candidates for the race and my goal is to get at least half of them to talk to me. My thanks go out to Rep. Eldridge for being the first.

Read excerpts from the interview inside
Q: You are the youngest candidate in the field, and you have just over two terms as a State Rep.

That’s right, just beginning my third term.
Q: Do you think you have the experience necessary to be a congressman?
I do, and it’s interesting, the 5th Congressional actually has a history of being represented by young Congressmen -- Chet Atkins, Paul Tsongas, Jim Shannon, were all Congressmen before Marty Meehan, and they were all in their late twenties to early thirties, so they were actually all younger than me when they ran and won. In terms of my experience, I think my strengths are that, yes, I have the legislative experience, but before that I was a Legal Aid attorney in the city of Baltimore and worked for Merrimac Valley Legal Services doing community economic development law, and then I had worked for State Senator Pam Resor and Bob Duran, and had been the Senate coordinator for the Deval Patrick campaign. What all that means is that I have experience working throughout the 5th Congressional, a mix of experience that I don’t think anybody else has.

On top of that I have a record of building coalitions, whether in the legislature where I served as the 4th division whip for the effort to stop the amendment to ban gay marriage, worked with a coalition to pass the minimum wage in the past year, and last year worked with my colleagues on establishing minimum education aid for every community, which meant an increase in state aid for all Massachusetts communities. On the grassroots level, in addition to my work for Deval Patrick, I have worked with a lot of different organizations in the district I represent, Habitat for Humanity, I’m on the board of directors of the Watershed Council. So I have a real progressive approach, not just ideology, but also a commitment to the grassroots, to outreach, to keeping my ear to the ground about what people are thinking and what their concerns are.
Q: Speaking of that, what do you think are the biggest concerns of the people you’ve talked to so far in the 5th district?
The biggest issue, probably around the country, is ending the war in Iraq. I was opposed to it from the beginning and believe we need to bring our troops home immediately. That seems to be the biggest issue, and it’s not just the fact that thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis are dying overseas. It’s also that it’s destabilized the region and created a whole new generation of terrorists who hate America. In many ways, most countries have a problem with our federal government, so it’s destabilized things. The other side of it is our soldiers coming home injured, having physical or mental stress and the burden that’s putting on the veteran’s administration in providing for the needs of our veterans. I think it’s really affecting the psyche of our country and that seems to be the biggest issue for people I’ve gone out and talked to over the last five weeks.
Q: Currently the supplemental funding bill for Iraq is being debated. Would you be in favor of voting for that particular bill at this point?
I’m not in favor of that. What I would be in favor of is expending the funds to bring the troops home and the military contractors, and reinvesting money in peace efforts, diplomatic efforts, a regional diplomatic approach to the conflict in Iraq. I think, especially given the arrogance of our President and that the war powers lie within Congress, it’s time to cut off funding because that’s the only way we’re going to get this President to change.
Q: What was your most important achievement in the legislature?
I would point to two things I feel equally strongly about. The first, which I referred to earlier, is when we passed in the budget last year for the first time ever, minimum state education aid for every community. There were many Massachusetts communities that were not receiving enough state aid for education, and it was not only hurting the schools but was proving a real burden on middle class families and seniors with rising property taxes. I worked with a group of House and Senate members and a lot of town officials and filed legislation to establish minimum education aid. The bill that I filed did not pass but it was part of the effort for the Chair of the House Ways and Means to pass education aid. That’s had a real positive impact; education aid increased by 173 million dollars last year, and now under the governor’s budget it’s an additional 200 million. I was proud to be part of that effort.

The other piece, which goes back to my roots as a Legal Aid attorney doing community economic development law, is that I worked with some nonprofits in Lowell and Lawrence which had a program called the Individual Development Account program, or IDA. The program is geared toward the working poor and allows a family that saves $100 a month, through a program with the respective nonprofit, to take a financial accountability class and learn how to save money and avoid getting bad credit. Through government funding, that savings is matched 3 or 4 to 1 and can only be used to buy a house, start a business, or send a member of that family to college. What we passed in the budget last year, and I filed the legislation, is creating for the first time a statewide IDA pilot program. I was able to get $500K appropriated to that, and that money is being used right now to help families across the state.

I actually got an award from Lawrence Community Works a few weeks ago – they’ve had the IDA program and because of the additional state funding, they’ve been able to expand their number of graduates. It was great to go to the graduation ceremony and see – in this case it was all women in the program – and see what a difference it was going to make in their lives to own a home or start a business and go to college, and how it would change their lives and the lives of their families. That was a program we passed last year, and Governor Patrick in his budget made a commitment not only to spend that same amount of money but also to increase that program this year. That was great to see in the budget, and I’m equally proud of that program.
Q: Is that something you’d like to see expanded to a federal level should you make it to Congress?
Absolutely. Right now there is some federal money through community development block grants. I would look to specifically create a federal IDA program specifically tailored to nonprofits across the country to make a difference in people’s lives. The big issue there is making sure everybody has equal opportunity to buy a house, to go to college, if they’re an entrepreneur to start a business. Without that initial capital, you’d have a lot of families who, because they’re starting out poor, would never be able to go to a bank and get a loan. But through this program they can take the next step.
Q: Now you are the only candidate elected through the Clean Elections Law, as I understand it.
That’s right, the Boston Globe referred to me as mere footnote in history, which I’m proud to take.
Q: What solutions do you favor for federal-level campaign finance reform? I know Congressman Meehan has been a big advocate of that. At what point would you continue the work that he’s done?
I’m proud of Congressman Meehan’s work on that. His progressive legacy on campaign finance reform and his work had been an inspiration for me to work as a volunteer to pass the Clean Elections law in 1998. So when I had the opportunity to run, I ran under the law. Unfortunately I was the only clean elections candidate to win.
Q: Maybe the only clean elections candidate ever to win.
Exactly. Basically what I believe -- especially now after four weeks having to raise money to be competitive in a congressional race -- is that public finance of federal elections is even more needed due to the fact that in a competitive race, you have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public finance, not only improves the system in that it eliminates the influence of special interest money and rich donors, but also I look at it as a civil rights issue in that someone who might be very qualified, might be an elected official who just happens to be poor or working class would not have the same opportunities to run for higher office. The person who doesn’t come from wealth or have a lot of connections or is not a professional, I think deserves to participate in democracy and should have the option to run for office.

Without public financing, you not only lose that opportunity but really once you get to the federal level, when you look at the line items for pork projects -- infamously the bridge to nowhere in Alaska -- where big contributors get public works projects that are not in the public interest to happen, public financing could actually save the federal government a substantial amount of money.
Q: You mentioned that you have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to be competitive. How is that going -- are you going to be able to compete under the rules as they are now?
I am, yes. I’m associated at the statehouse to this day with clean elections, which I’m very proud of. Unfortunately that law was repealed in 2003. In the beginning of my first term, I had to start raising money privately. I’ve been successful at it; I’m good at raising money. As a state rep, I’ve always had an opponent. I’ve raised money in my state rep campaigns and now I’m stepping it up to the next level. I’m doing very well. I have a lot of support, and a full-time finance director. We had fundraisers in Boston and elsewhere, and I will be successful enough to be competitive.
Q: Now one thing that Congressman Meehan was in favor of, regarding campaign finance reform is that he was looking to apply campaign finance rules to political blogs. Basically what he was in favor of was counting political blogs as contributions and having them subject to FEC regulations. Is that something you’d look to continue or is that something you disagree with?
I would not be in support of that. I think that one of the great things that has happened over the past couple years – and I really saw it with the Deval Patrick campaign – blogging has brought so many new people into the process and created a real community. I think that’s the kind of free speech we need to encourage, and not the special interest dollars that have been determined to be free speech by the Supreme Court.
Q: What do you think the Federal Government can do to combat rising health care costs?
Well, as proud as I am of what the Massachusetts legislature passed last year with the health care law, I think it’s clear from reports in the Globe that the law is not providing comprehensive health care to all Massachusetts citizens. I think because of all the money and resources that need to be invested into it up front and the fact that health care costs are so large cuts across state lines, that we need universal health care. I’m a strong proponent of that.
Q: Do you favor a single-payer health care system or are you more flexible in how it’s implemented?
My preference would be for single-payer. I’m open to other models, but certainly from the books I’ve read about different health care systems, I think that would be the best way to reduce administrative health care costs while improving the general quality of care. I think that America is a country that’s rich enough that we can do it in a way that can surpass the other health care systems in the world.
Q: If you win, you will be the least senior member of the majority party. If you can only do one thing to help your district, what would it be?
One thing that I think would make the greatest short-term difference and solve a source of frustration would be to have the federal government take over the special education costs for all communities. The special education law is a federal mandate, but the federal government does not pay for any of the costs. What I’ve seen in the towns that I represent is that you have a school district that due to a couple of children who might move into a school district midyear that have high special education costs, it really skews the budget for the school district and the municipalities. The value of the special education law, which I fully support, is that it guarantees that every child gets a great education. But oftentimes small towns, and in many ways all communities, cannot provide for all these education costs.

So if the federal government could step in, which I think is reasonable since a federal mandate and pay for those costs, it would first of all guarantee that all children receive a great education. Second of all it would relieve a burden for homeowners, for property taxpayers, and I think as a result would reduce some of the division that happens between parents of schoolchildren with special needs and without, and that’s something I don’t think should happen in any community.
Q: How can people get involved with your campaign?
I’m going to be launching my website next week. In the meantime, I have my campaign email which is so they can email me there, and the campaign number is 508-274-0055. My campaign manager is Mike Moschella.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Trav is Out -- Race to Replace Him Begins

Now that former Senate President Travaglini has resigned for greener pastures (he has three kids to put through college, after all), the Boston Globe has the early cattle call of the candidates to replace him in the First Suffolk and Middlesex district. The article lists Dan Rizzo, a city councilor and insurance agent from Revere; Representatives Anthony Petrucelli (D-East Boston) and Tim Toomey (D-Cambridge); Phil Boncore, a Winthrop city councilor at large, attorney and poker enthusiast(?); and Chuck Famolare, the Winthrop harbormaster. For those keeping score at home, both Petrucelli and Toomey voted against the gay marriage ban in January's Constitutional Convention. Other than that, I don't know much about the candidates. Petrucelli is said to have the backing of both Menino and Trav.

The First Suffolk and Middlesex District consists of all of Winthrop, all but three precincts in Revere, all of East Boston, Boston's North End, East Cambridge and Cambridgeport. The voting population center of the district is Boston, but not by as much as you'd think. In 2002's general election, the first year after redistricting, votes from Boston only accounted for 31% of the total vote with Cambridge coming in at 27% and Revere at 25%. In a special election, there's no reason why a candidate from Boston would necessarily have a built-in advantage.

As always, Blue Mass Group has more.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Who Votes in MA-05 Primaries?

Yesterday, I looked at the open seat Congressional elections in 1998 and 2001. I made the comment that, if the vote split in Lowell, any candidate who won big in Lawrence, the next largest community, would probably win the election. I'm no longer sure that's the case. While Lawrence is the second biggest city in the Fifth district by population, it does not seem to be the second largest source of Democratic primary votes in the district. To measure this, I took the combined primary vote in the 2006 gubernatorial election for every town in the Congressional district. Since Congressman Marty Meehan has not had a contested primary, this would have to be a good enough approximation. As it turns out, last year Lawrence did not have the second largest turnout in the district -- it was fourth. More Democrats turned out in both Haverhill and Methuen than in Lawrence. Here are the results from the entire district:

Town 2006 Primary VotesPercent
Lowell 9,392 11.74%
Haverhill 6,403 8.00%
Methuen 6,201 7.75%
Lawrence 5,525 6.90%
Chelmsford 5,030 6.29%
Billerica 4,743 5.93%
Andover 4,528 5.66%
Tewksbury 4,174 5.22%
Concord 3,828 4.78%
Dracut 3,612 4.51%
Acton 3,569 4.46%
Sudbury 2,819 3.52%
Westford 2,655 3.32%
Hudson 2,205 2.76%
Wayland 1,971* 2.46%
Maynard 1,814 2.27%
Groton 1,331 1.66%
Tyngsborough 1,326 1.66%
Littleton 1,245 1.56%
Stow 1,068 1.33%
Harvard 1,019 1.27%
Carlisle 929 1.16%
Shirley 847 1.06%
Lancaster 806 1.01%
Boxborough 794 0.99%
Ayer 760 0.95%
Bolton 657 0.82%
Berlin 413 0.52%
Dunstable 354 0.44%
The Wayland votes are an approximation, since the fifth district includes only three of the four precincts in Wayland, but other than that the numbers are straight from the gubernatorial primary results.

Now of course, the turnout is not going to be as high in a special election than in a hotly contested gubernatorial race. Still, the percentages of the district vote are instructive. I did the same analysis for the 2002 gubernatorial primary and the results were very similar. Again, it was Haverhill, not Lawrence that had the second highest turnout. The only thing that I can think of that would significantly change these percentages would be if the special election occurred on the same day as the fall elections in the four cities -- Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill and Methuen. That would dampen the impact of the larger towns like Andover, Chelmsford and Billerica since they would not have local elections going on at the same time.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

James O'Day Wins 14th Worcester Primary

West Boylston social worker Jim O'Day has won today's special election for state Representative in the 14th Worcester district. That seat was vacated by former Rep. James Leary, now Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray's chief of staff. Clearly, what put him over the top was his recent .08 Acres interview. The Worcester Telegram & Gazette has the results:

James O'Day94937.29%
Paul Shea79131.08%
Philip Palmieri65625.78%
Tammy Vescera1465.74%

Surprising to me is how relatively poorly Palmieri did given that he is a sitting Worcester city councilor, and the only candidate with any electoral experience. What's not surprising, however is the low turnout, which was only 68% of 2002's Democratic primary turnout, by way of example. O'Day now goes on to the April 17th general election versus Democrat-turned-Independent Joseph Cariglia, a Worcester lawyer used car dealer.

The Last Two Open Seats

In advance of the impending special election for Marty Meehan's Congressional seat in the 5th district and prompted by Susan M's prediction that only four candidates will survive until election day, I thought I'd take a closer look at the two most recent elections to open Congressional seats in Massachusetts. The most recent, as the press keeps reminding us, was in 2001 -- on 9/11, actually -- with a special election to replace the late Congressman Joe Moakley. Then state Senator Stephen Lynch (D-South Boston) was the winner of that election with a total of 39% of the vote. That year was a battle of sitting state Senators, with Lynch besting a field that consisted of then-Senator Cheryl Ann Jaques and current Senators Brian Joyce (D-Milton) and Mark Pacheco (D-Taunton) and a few other minor candidates for a total of seven candidates on the primary ballot. Here are the final results of that primary:

Stephen Lynch44,90539.44%Boston
Cheryl Ann Jacques32,93328.93%Needham
Brian Joyce16,81814.77%Milton
Mark Pacheco15,00913.18%Taunton
William Sinnott3,1102.73%Boston
John Taylor7670.67%Boston
William Ferguson2530.22%Milton
All Others540.05% 

The community that was the largest part of this district was, obviously, Boston, and Lynch won the election mainly because he won Boston convincingly, with 55% of the Boston vote. His closest competitor in the Hub was Jacques, who only mustered 30% of Boston. Of course, there were other factors to Lynch's win, but in this case, the crowded field was an advantage for the candidate from the largest community.

The 1998 election to fill Joe Kennedy's seat in the then 8th district was slightly different as it was a regularly scheduled election, and not a special election. As such, no sitting member of the legislature was willing to risk their seat to run. Even so, the 2001 special primary garnered more votes than the 1998 primary, which I did not expect. This election featured two former Reps, two Boston City Councilors, a former state Senator, a sitting and a former mayor, and three other candidates for a total of ten. Here are the results of that election:

Michael Capuano19,44622.88%Somerville
Ray Flynn14,83917.46%Boston
George Bachrach12,15714.30%Watertown
John O'Connor11,09213.05%Cambridge
Marjorie Clapprood10,44612.29%Watertown
Chris Gabrieli5,7406.75%Boston
Charles Yancey4,4375.22%Boston
Susan Tracy2,8583.36%Boston
Thomas Keane2,1502.53%Boston
Alex Rodriguez1,8022.12%Boston
All Others210.02% 

Note that Current Congressman Mike Capuano won this election with less than 23% of the vote. That low bar should be encouraging to aspiring candidates in this year's election. In any case, in the 1998 election, the largest communities were split -- former Mayor Ray Flynn won Boston with only 24% of the Boston vote and former state Senator George Bachrach won Cambridge with only 23% of that city's vote. Contrast that with Capuano, who destroyed the competition in Somerville, winning it with 55% of the vote there.

What I had been wondering was whether it was a foregone conclusion that one of the candidates from Lowell, the fifth district's largest community would win the election. From the results of the past two open seat elections, that does not necessarily have to be the case. In 2001, the vote from the largest community in the district did not split, and the candidate from that community won the election. In 1998, the opposite happened, and the votes from the two largest communities split among several candidates, and the candidate who dominated one of the smaller communities won. My feeling is that this year's race to replace Marty Meehan will be more similar to the 1998 election than the 2001 special election. This year there promises to be two candidates from Lowell who have the potential to split that city's vote, former Mayor and current city councilor Eileen Donoghue and the widow of former Senator Paul Tsongas, Niki Tsongas.

This suggests to me a slight advantage to Representative Barry Finegold (D-Andover), who represents part of Lawrence, the second largest community in the district. If (and this is a big if) Finegold can win Lawrence convincingly and the Lowell vote is split between two or more candidates, he might be able to clear the low threshold needed to win such a crowded race. Given that Finegold only represents four precincts in Lawrence, however, it seems unlikely that he'd be able to win that city by the margins necessary.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Monday Morning Catchup

I've been way behind posting on current events, and I have to admit that I haven't really spent any significant time watching the news or reading the paper in the past three weeks. There are a couple of things, though, I would like to comment on before I forget about them.

  • It looks like Senate President Robert Travaglini has one foot out the door already. If he wasn't looking for a way out, these stories wouldn't be written. It's astounding to me that in Massachusetts, someone can be senate president one day and a high-powered lobbyist the next. Sure, he's barred from lobbying the House and Senate for a year, but everyone else in state government is fair game. The other thing I noticed was that almost every single one of these "Trav is about to leave" articles mentions how he has to put three kids through college on "only" $90,000 a year. I understand the sentiment, but Travaglini is not the first person in the world to have to put his kids through college, and most people in Massachusetts have a lot less than $90,000 annually to do so.
  • The special election for state Rep is tomorrow in the 14th Worcester district (part of Worcester and all of West Boylston). Good luck to candidate Jim O'Day, who was kind enough to chat with me last month.
  • In what universe is Politician Sends Email to Supporters a front page news story? I get so many messages from campaigns that I have a separate account for it. I'm becoming convinced that Andrea Estes is not a human being, but a machine that converts dropped dimes into front page articles. Andrea, just because someone sends you an email does not mean that you are obligated to print their story.
  • Here at home, the Watertown Tab announced that former School Committee member Steve Aylward is running again for town council in District C. The Tab describes his tenure on the committee as "frequently combative" and marked by "battles with more liberal members." That's perfect, because if there's one thing that the Watertown Town Council needs, it's more battles.
  • I'd also like to point out that my Mac iBook handled the early daylight savings changeover perfectly, while my machine at work, and our Windows laptop (which I just updated the system software for shortly before the time change) are still an hour behind.
I hope whatever readers I still have managed to enjoy the interviews from last week. I have a couple more planned for this week, and I think that I'll be doing more of those in the future.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Weekend Baby Blogging

Happy St. Patrick's Day
Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Q & A With Rep. Rachel Kaprielian

In Feburary, I got the chance to ask my own state Representative (and friend of the blog) Rachel Kaprielian (D-Watertown) a few questions. This was a little different than a normal interview, however, because certain life events took place before I got to ask any followups, but I think that instead of waiting until the interview gets even more stale, I'd post the responses that I do have.

Keep in mind that this exchange took place last month before the Patrick administration unveiled their budget and before Rep. Kaprielian and others hosted Governor Patrick here in Watertown when he announced his reform package for cities and towns here in the Watertown Town Council chambers at Town Hall.

Q: Up until now, you've served your entire career under Republican
governors. What's the biggest difference now that there's a Democrat
in the corner office?

I already feel a real difference in cooperation with the new Governor and his staff. I was very encouraged and heartened by the depth and breadth of experience his cabinet appointees bring to the table, and already they are reaching out to legislators for input. I think we will be better to better examine the Governor's priorities when he files his budget, but I expect there to be more shared values within it than in the past with the Republican administrations.
Q: At the January ConCon, the gay marriage ban passed to live for another vote. What are the chances that it will make the ballot in 2008? What can those who support marriage equality do to stop that from happening?
The January ConCon was indeed the first step in a 2-step process to add language to our state's constitution to define marriage as one man-one woman. No one knows exactly, but it is believed that those legislators (myself included) who do not want to see this language written into our constitution have some ground to cover. So far, of those legislators who "switched" from wanting to add the language to simply letting things be as the SJC ruled, had undergone a change of heart--some sooner, some later. I believe that this matter can be won, but it is through the changing hearts and minds. I also believe that personal life stories told person-to-person by gay people themselves have made a tremendous difference.
Q: You've also gotten some criticism from voting to adjurn the ConCon before a vote was taken on the health care amendment. Why did you do that?
With respect to the Health Care ballot question: While I agree that adequate, affordable health is among the most critical needs in this state and this country, I support the landmark health care plan passed by the legislature last year and it needs to have time, and follow-up to work. It was a herculean effort, and a great and solid first (major) step to deal with the growing problem of the uninsured.
Q: What's your biggest legislative priority for this session?
I have many legislative priorites this coming term-- growing the economy, addressing the critical need for affordable housing, and working to implement the new health care program. However, we must do more for our cities and towns as they grapple with higher costs and shrinking options. That is why I am leading the effort to enable our cities and towns to participate in the state's Group Insurance Commission pool to lessen their costs to provide health care to municipal employees while ensuring nothing less in terms of quality. My hope for that measure to be taken up very soon in the session.
Q: You were challenged for reelection for the first time in many yearslast fall. Has that challenge changed your outlook as a legislator at all?
Having had a spirited contest this past fall, allowed me to more fully open myself up to my constituents-- explain my priorities, my record and my intentions for the future. When I first ran 12 years before, I was 26 and was just starting on my legislative career. Now I am 38, a parent, a homeowner and taxpayer and have 12 years of legislative experience with a record I have been proud of. I was able to reconnect with old friends--plus, meet so many new ones, and much does change in over a decade. Now that I am re-elected, the zeal I have for the job is only augmented.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Tonight's DSC Meeting: Johnston Steps Down

Pardon the brief interlude from interview week, but I just got back from the Democratic State Committee meeting tonight in Newton, where I sat in the peanut gallery with Susan of Beyond 495 and Andy of Mass Revolution Now. Two notable things happened tonight. The most important was that State Democratic Party Chairman Phil Johnston announced that he is stepping down from that post within the next thirty days. This announcement had been rumored for the past month or so, but tonight he made it official. Johnston has served the state Democrats for the past six years and oversaw not only last November's successful gubernatorial election, but the percentage of Democrats in the Legislature increased over his tenure. While I did not always agree with his actions, I have a lot of respect for Chairman Johnston and I appreciate his service to the party.

The other important event was that former Deval Patrick campaign manager John Walsh was unanimously elected to Deputy Treasurer of the Democratic State Committee. As such, he becomes an instant member of the DSC, which paves the way for him to replace Johnston as party chair next month. As I understand it, Walsh will not face any opposition in that election. Congratulations to him, and I hope he brings to the state party the sense of the importance of the grassroots that carried Patrick to victory.

Interview with Stephen D'Amato - Massachusetts Insurance Expert

Way back in January, I posted a response to a Boston Globe opinion piece written by former Massachusetts insurance regulator and current Executive Director for the Center for Insurance Research Stephen D'Amato. D'Amato's piece focused on workers compensation insurance reforms from the early 1990s. I found the article frustrating personally, because D'Amato never gave many details of how we got from workers comp disaster to the "happy ending." In the post I wrote, I tried to learn a bit about what exactly happened to get to that ending and I did a little research on the 1991 workers comp insurance reforms. Shortly after I posted, I received a phone call from none other than Stephen D'Amato to chat at length about his article and about the insurance situation in Massachusetts.

A business that sells widgets, for example, likely wants to increase their market-share until they are the dominant supplier of widgets for their consumers. An insurance company however isn't necessarily worried about their total market share. What they want is to corner the market on the individuals least likely to collect a claim. That is, a health insurance company would rather insure only healthy people than insure more total people than its competitor. This leads to inefficiencies that don't necessarily exist in other markets. When one widget-seller lowers its costs, the price of widgets in general should go down as competitors follow suit or suffer. When an insurance company lowers its cost, it does so by "finding the right people to insure" and the system-wide costs are largely unaffected.

One of the things that we talked about that unfortunately did not make the transcript below was how to reduce the system-wide costs in the health care marketplace. Two obvious ways jumped out. The first is prevention. It's a cliche that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but in this case it's true that there is nothing more cost effective than limiting incidents. This is true especially when you take into account not only the health care costs, but also the societal costs -- lost wages, lost productivity, risk of infections spreading, etc. This can be achieved in part and right away with targeted flu shots or other vaccinations.

The second way to reduce system-wide health care costs had to do with where you received your care and how soon problems were detected. Part of this means getting people to their doctor first where care is cheaper than at the Emergency Room -- generally the most expensive, least efficient form of health care. The other part of this is early detection of health issues. Not only does identifying problems early lead to better health outcomes for the patient, but it also tends to reduce the number and severity of procedures necessary to produce those better outcomes.

Keep in mind when reading the excerpts below that this conversation occurred in late January. My intention was to post it up after the baby was born -- something I expected to happen only a week or two after this conversation, and not more than a month.

Read excerpts from the interview inside...
Q:Can you tell me a little about what you did as an insurance regulator? Did your group perform the same function that the Attorney General's office does now in setting insurance rates?

My group didn't make rates, we would actually propose rates on behalf of the consumers. In the late 90's the AG duplicated our efforts, but we were considered to be the primary litigation arm and the AG mirrored us. When I left state government, I left complaining about the fact that I thought the insurance commissioner was trying to push us to be more pro-industry and since I left, it has become much more pro-industry and the AG has picked up the slack dramatically. So, it used to be that the AG would file a few things but was mostly saying, "Yeah, we agree with the state rating bureau on this and that." Now, my two main experts at the state have now gone to work at the AG's office -- they're very talented people.

After 12 years there, I began to realize that insurers don't tend to think about containing costs. They tend to think about shifting them to consumers in particular, and my fear with heath care reform is that that's exactly what people are talking about. It looks like we're getting skimpier and skimpier plans in an attempt to have the premiums be lower. But that doesn't mean that the cost is lower, it just means that the up-front premiums are lower, and then people who are sick end up paying even more after the fact.

My experience with worker's comp was that until you had a real crisis, that no one got serious about really looking for efficiencies that took costs out of the system, but not at someone's expense. And some of the stuff did come at people's expense. You point that out in your blog, that there were some benefit cuts, but what I loved about the '91 reform is that in hindsight, we can see that the vast majority of the reforms really were targeted at reducing the number of claims.
Q: And reducing the amount of lawyer involvement?
When I say everyone won back then, everyone won but the lawyers. The main way we reduced lawyer involvement was by reducing claims dramatically. It's hard for a lawyer to argue that we shouldn't be investing in safety because it takes money out of the lawyer's pocket. They really don't have a good response to that. So when claims dropped, and they dropped dramatically, that took a lot of money out of the bar's pockets. But that kind of cost reduction is very hard to argue against.
Q: So, what do you mean by containing costs versus shifting them to consumers?
Because I've been focusing on cost containment, and I think it's the critical thing that insurance systems should be focusing on, I'm getting everyone to realize that this really is a mutual effort that we need to engage in. What tends to happen in all lines of insurance is that you get everyone trying to reduce their own costs, but they don't necessarily look at the entire picture and try to reduce systemwide costs. For instance, in auto insurance, what you see a lot is that if you're an insurer trying to reduce your costs, you try to find people who are better risks than others. You try to find the safest drivers. Unless everybody else is trying to charge those people too little, then you try to find the next group of safest drivers. Or sometimes you even want the lousy drivers, but then you jack up the premiums if you can get away with that. But it usually tends to be about finding the right people to insure. And this is true in all lines of insurance, that certain kinds of things you'd like to do to reduce costs just aren't cost-effective for an individual insurer to do.

The best example I have is this: if you knew there was an intersection that was terribly designed, and was causing accidents left, right, and center, if you're an insurance company you wouldn’t want to spend any significant amount of money on your own to fix that intersection because you’d be spending your own money and you’d be benefiting all your competitors at the same time you’re benefiting yourself. So, there’s a glitch -- insurance markets don’t work like other competitive markets. They’re not as efficient because they’re all trying to maximize their own bottom line, which happens in other markets, but they don’t want to take over the entire market. They don’t want to maximize their market share, necessarily. It’s a lot cheaper to hire an actuary to tell you who you want to insure than it is to go out there and get people to drive more safely. If you took over half the market but accidents were increasing, you start to find out that your bottom line gets terrible.

So that’s an underlying tension with a lot of insurance, and that’s why there are times when you really need to centralize cost containment. That’s what I was mostly interested in, in pointing out that there are areas of worker’s comp reform where there are deficiencies. We saw that there was a crisis, people got together and started looking for ways to reduce systemwide costs instead of trying to reduce their own costs or trying to shift costs from themselves to somebody else. And it took a crisis to get people into that mindset, and it took a centralization of cost containment through the legislature and through administrative agencies to get people to focus on some of the things that, if one party did it on their own it wouldn’t make sense, but getting everybody together and saying, what makes the most sense, it actually did work.

So, when you said, “Hey, what if we all get together and work really hard at it,” believe it or not, there’s more truth to that than you can imagine, because that doesn’t happen usually. One of the things I’ve loved about Governor Patrick is that he gets that, that there are times when you really do work better as a group and no area I know of do you see that more than insurance, where if you do focus on the big picture you come up with ideas that would never be attractive to any of the individual participants.
Q: How much of that working together is happening now on health care?
Not nearly as much as I think should be done. In fact, there are a couple of attempts to get that to happen as we speak. One of those attempts is called the Quality and Cost Council, which was part of the health reform law. That’s just getting off the ground, and I’m hopeful that will be an area where you’ll see some real centralized thinking about what we should be doing.

There’s also the connector, but it really hasn’t been a cost containment analysis, it’s mostly been “let’s try to get the premiums down to a low level.” They’re not the right place to lower systemwide costs – they’re trying to create a market for people who can’t get insurance through other mechanisms. There are some things they could probably do, but what you really want is for somebody to step back and say, “How can we reduce systemwide costs? Where are we being inefficient? Where do we need to spend money and invest in areas where we can actually save money?”

In worker’s comp, there are a couple of things that people realized. One was that it was hard to get employers to front the money to do the kinds of things that everyone knew were cost-effective. If you have something dangerous in your workplace, that’s an accident waiting to happen, but it costs money to fix, it’s hard to get people to spend money up front on the chance that there’s going to be an accident down the road. But then when the accident happens everyone runs around and starts fixing things.

Or, there were people who had certain experience with reducing costs in worker’s comp and one of the main things they did was to consult with the employer and say, if someone has an accident these are the procedures we want you to follow. In general, employers’ tendency when there’s an accident is to ignore the person -- the person goes to the hospital, and then they go home, and then you just hope that you don’t hear from them again. It’s very easy to do that. And these cost containment specialists said no, what you really need to do is, you need to call the person up and let them know that they’re part of the workplace team, that you want to make sure they get good-quality health care, that you want to make sure they come back to work, even if they can’t come back to the job they were in for a little while. You still want them back on the job because they’re part of the workplace and they think of themselves as being part of the team, not someone who feels ignored and wants to sue you.

The analogy that they always use is what happens when the starting quarterback goes down in a football game. He breaks his leg. The next week he’s on the sidelines, with a clipboard running plays. He’s not at home, he’s part of the team, and he’s happier that way. So, there are people who would check your workplace for safety hazards and would check to see if people were directed to quality heath care, because particularly in worker’s comp, you want to make sure there’s good quality health care. If there’s not, then you might be saving money on health care but you’re losing money on lost wages because the person isn’t coming in to work, and you’re losing productivity.

There are people who spend a lot of time thinking about things you need to do, but the employers didn’t want to hire these people. They didn’t want to spend the money up front because they’re already getting killed with workers comp costs and health insurance costs. The last thing they want to do is shell out thousands of dollars for cost containment specialists. So, a large part of what we tried to do is to create a scenario where we give employers a large financial incentive to hire these people. We said we’ll give them a discount on their premiums, because we know this stuff works, and we’ll reduce their premiums by more than the cost of the cost containment firms. So if you’re paying $50K in premiums, and it costs $5K to hire these firms, if we give you $7500 off your premiums, you’re going to jump at that. Then your losses go down, and in the future you have a better safety record, and fewer losses, and your premiums go down in the future.

That kind of synergy of bringing in these specialists and funding it with the insurance system itself is essentially creating dollars out of thin air. It all depended on these people being cost effective and they were.

What I try to look for is areas in various insurance systems where you know that there’s cost-effective stuff that can be done, but there’s not the funding for it. In worker’s comp that was one big example. In auto insurance, we’re not spending a lot of time making our intersections safer. Individual cities and towns may get around to doing it, but there’s a huge insurance cost for all of us because we have some of the craziest roads and intersections, not to mention people who drive crazily too. So, if you use the insurance system to fix these things, if they’re really cost-effective, that’s a way to save a lot of money for all of us. I spent time looking at those issues and realizing that it’s not cost-effective for any individual participant to push these things, but it makes sense for everybody to do it.
Q: Can you talk a little about the recent push for auto insurance reform? I know that New Jersey enacted some reforms recently and they claimed to save consumers a lot of money.
Let me start with an example. We know that the main reason losses for insurance companies were high in Lawrence is that a very small number of people were involved in the fraud ring. Let’s say that 1% of the people are engaging in fraud and that’s why the losses are so high. That 1% is causing the losses to be twice as high as they would be otherwise. Are we really going to say the other 99% of the people are going to be charged twice as much because they live in Lawrence? And that’s what New Jersey style reforms would allow.

When you look at the so-called reductions in NJ, they said $400M in savings, and if you pushed them I think they’d say overall costs went down slightly in NJ. But costs are going down nationwide. In MA, costs are going down by much more than that. It’s not the insurance system that caused costs to go down, it’s that the costs were going down and they wanted to make the insurance system changes and justify what they had done after the fact. Similarly, you could say MA costs are going down and that means our current system is perfect.

I don’t think that’s true. There are lots of things you can change about our current system. It’s the correlation/causation problem all over again. Was it the NJ reforms that caused them to go down, or the fact that baby boomers are now in the 40-60 year old range, and as a result nationwide costs are going down? So, I’m not a big fan of the NJ reforms but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t do things in MA to make our system saner and introduce some more creative ideas.

I find myself in a weird situation because I used to be the head of the Center for Insurance Research and now I consult for them on things like auto insurance and homeowner’s insurance. But MassPIRG and I work together on lots of things, auto insurance in particular, and we found ourselves in the strange situation where we were exactly on the same side of the fence as Commerce Insurance Company, Arbella Insurance Company, these insurance companies who have terrible reputations -- I don’t want to be throwing stones at them, but we’ve found ourselves on the same side of the fence for extremely different reasons.
Q: That’s what made me skeptical about insurance debates here in MA – seemed like a battle between large out-of-state insurers and small local insurers. Consumers are almost an afterthought.
The reason that the big insurers aren’t in this state is because some of the regulations are unnecessary, but MA overall has probably the best consumer protections. It doesn’t allow people to use all these crazy rating factors, and it doesn’t all people from Lawrence or Roxbury to pay through the roof just because someone else in their town happens to be causing a lot of losses. That’s why we don’t have these other insurers in the state. They want total flexibility in rating. That explains their behavior.

What explains Commerce and Arbella and the local insurers is, they are used to our system and know how to make money in it. The last thing they want is for State Farm and Progressive to come into the state and take away market share. So they like the pro-consumer system only because it’s a barrier to the big people. If you said to them, we’ll let you do whatever you want in terms of rating but we’re not going to let these other insurers come into the market, they probably would like that. But they know that’s not feasible, so they use all of my arguments, all of MassPIRG’s arguments, and what am I supposed to say? I agree with them, but not for the same reasons. They’re not saying it because they care so much, they’re saying it because they want these other people not to come in. I want these other people to come in, but only if they come in on our terms, and they won’t. So it’s a strange position to be in, but what the heck – there’s only two sides to the issue and you have to be on one side.