Analysis: As Guv, Healey Faces Thankless Tasks Far Greater Than Peacemaking…
SPRINGFIELD—It was a perfect day for peacemaking last month outside Union Station. Longmeadow Senator Eric Lesser had already given his blessing to the woman he had defeated him in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. The triumphant Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll was there along with up-ticket running mate, Attorney General Maura Healey.
The theme was unity for the ticket, but the defining feature of the event was Lesser’s pet project: East-West rail. While he had conceded days before, the stark divide in the commonwealth between east and west merited a proper hatchet burial. It was a savvy way to tie up loose ends for Healey and her campaign, to which Driscoll was now a part. Yet, the political and practical challenges of stitching east and west together pale in comparison to the broader task before Healey.
“I know that Kim Driscoll and I are grateful to have his support in this campaign and this journey ahead,” Healey said of Lesser. “He certainly has been a leader in the advocacy of East-West rail.”
There should be no doubt that Healey will press for East-West rail to happen. She also spoke to broader needs in the region and across the state. It comes not a moment too soon. The commonwealth’s ship of state has been taking on water, running aground and even sinking for years now.
If Healey prevails on November 8 as most believe, she will inherit a state in decay. To the average person, this is hardly obvious. Outgoing Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has not fouled the economy. Proving any negatives is difficult. Statewide the picture is brighter than not. Aside from pouring gas on already raging fires of geographic inequality, the Massachusetts most people see looks just fine.
Of course, barring recession, this will not be what Healey must address. Behind the curtains of Baker’s Oz is a wrecked bureaucracy, ailing civil service and countless unmade no-win decisions. It will take more than great managers, working from home and grand spin to correct these. In addressing these, Healey will get little credit and plenty blame as the public only notices them things go awry.
To be clear, Baker is not solely responsible for the decay of the Massachusetts state. A cowardly legislature and a parade of governors since at least Bill Weld have chronically prioritized the short-term political pizzaz of meager tax cuts.
Rather than rebuild decimated workforces or reform processes to be truly more efficient, Baker rushes checks to voters out the door in lawless fashion. The legislature dares not to stop him or even insist the money go back with tax refunds as the law commands.
Over the years, officials could have leveled with Bay Staters and conceded the state must do fewer things in exchange for tax relief worth less than one or two Dunks a month. Instead, residents get blather about doing more with less. They get less. Perhaps the people deserve it. Voters approved revenue ballot questions that have all but displaced the Bible as a sacred text on Beacon Hill.
The results are dire. Agencies are chronically understaffed. Whether it is justice at the Commission Against Discrimination or permitting, action is glacial even for government. It is important to remember that understaffing was a factor in the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home disaster. Hopefully nothing so deadly lies in wait for Massachusetts’s other organs, but we really do not know.
Arcane and costly processes have glommed onto everything including hiring and procurement. A gored ox or two is the sacrifice to clean up such things without throwing good and ethical government to the wolves.
The poster child now is the MBTA. Flaming trains and accidents forced the Baker administration to concoct very public displays of “Do Something!™” But the MBTA’s usual rot and service deterioration rarely get much public attention outside riders. When the lumbering transit agency passes the hat, it draws ire and discord throughout the land.
This is what Healey shall step into next January. The task will be far different than bringing peace to east and west after a fraught primary that decided her running mate. Fairly or not, some Western Mass players and residents still looked askance at the pro-Driscoll SuperPAC and worried about the effect on Healey’s administration. Driscoll took pains to tip her hat toward the defeated at Union Station.
“I’m really grateful not only for not only the work you’ve done, but the passion you bring to Western Mass and particularly for East-West rail,” she said.
Driscoll praised not only Lesser’s advocacy for the 413 but others there with him, including US Rep Richard Neal. The congressman, like many there, had endorsed Lesser as the region had in the primary.
“You trounced me pretty good in Western Mass,” she said to Lesser.
Lesser responded with grace in kind.
“I look forward to working and campaigning with them across Massachusetts and across Western Massachusetts,” he said.
Subtly, he alluded to the need for regional cooperation rather than a Hunger Games-type existence between east and west. The issues facing one region are, to some extent, an inverse of the other.
“The challenges facing western mass and the challenges facing eastern mass are complementary,” he said.
In that sense, the unity event had something for everybody. Driscoll gets a nod to salve lingering local indigestion. Lesser gets to be a team player and his key priority feted. Healey remains the star even as Lesser, Neal and others pass the rail ball to her.
If only restoring state capacity in Massachusetts would be so easy.
So far, Healey does appear to recognize the scale of her challenge. She has not shied away from proposing a solution for the MBTA. Yet many such solutions will be somewhat theoretical until her team is in place to separate reality from the super-happy-fun-time rhetoric from Baker, Steve Poftak and friends. Rinse and repeat for each Massachusetts bureaucracy.
At that point, there can be an honest discussion about what agencies do, how well they’re doing it, and how to make it better. If that last part cannot happen, Healey should ask for those legislative mandates to simply go away. The legislature cannot enjoy the good politics of popular legislation and then refuse to finance those laws’ goals.
Even assuming Healey can drag the legislature into reality and fund a functional state, staffing will take time. Along with the feds, the state’s hiring process is glacial. Casting deadweight overboard is even harder. Fixing it will almost certainly require legislation.
Pushback will fall along labor and equity concerns, at least partly. There is no reason to think Massachusetts cannot grow a workforce that reflects its talent and diversity. Yet, taking six months to hire a widget technician or assistant deputy director for lulz is ridiculous. Pointedly, there is no reason to assume the answer lies anywhere near privatization.
One area of the MBTA Baker has done well is restraining the price tag of the Green Line Extension. Yet, it did not become a comprehensive effort. If Healey wants to have an impact, she will need to tackle the absurd costs of capital expenses. There are limits. The United States overall is cartoonishly inefficient at building big projects, even compared to some infamously graft-prone European nations. The feds are no better and their rules prevail when their money funds a project.
Still, Massachusetts cannot wait for federal reform. Some savings will require playing the bad guy when every community group under the sun demands a something. State bidding and procurement need reform. That throbbing sound you just heard was hearts skipping a beat inside the chests of countless campaign treasurers.
There is no reward in doing this. Good government and good administration of government is not really an ideology. Indeed, today’s problems are a mix of the progressive reform that may have exceeded voters’ commitment and neoliberal penny-pinching that costs residents more than they think they get in tax breaks.
It is a truism in public life that leaders never get credit when things go well. Yet, Massachusetts cannot afford any further delay.
Citing the infusion of federal money and brimming state coffers, Healey called for action at Union Station last month. But there was more, she indicated.
“We have the wherewithal and more importantly I think all of us feel the urgency of the moment and the need to deliver and get things done,” Healey said.