The next Massachusetts governor will make choices that will define the state’s economic destiny. Greater Boston may seem relatively secure in the good graces of the knowledge economy, but the next governor must have policies on taxes, transportation, energy, health care, and housing that provide incentives to convince promising startups to stay here and expand. Outside the Boston area, the choices only get harder. Can the state’s gateway cities rebuild their crumbling downtowns and faltering school systems to attract the manufacturers who are starting to bring jobs back from overseas? What happens when manufacturers’ demand for cheaper electricity collides with the need to develop renewable energy?
Governor Patrick, in both 2006 and 2010, spoke eloquently of the human cost of complacency regarding the status quo, and he adjusted his policies with a few overarching goals in mind. While development of life sciences, advancement of offshore wind and solar energy, aggressive state intervention to turn around faltering schools, and expansion of public transportation may seem like obvious priorities, Patrick’s clarity of purpose gave his administration the impetus to push through an agenda that wasn’t just fixing problems — he was preparing the state to capitalize on future opportunities.
When Democrats go to the polls for next week’s primary election, they will face a choice among three candidates who are all impressive in their own ways but may lack Patrick’s galvanizing presence. They must be judged on their ability to see and tackle the state’s big-picture challenges, using political skills necessary to meet them.
State Treasurer Steve Grossman stands out on those terms. Now 68, Grossman has been in the background of Massachusetts politics for decades. He was such a successful fund-raiser for the state and national Democratic Party that he was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1997. After a brief run for governor in 2002 ended in his withdrawal from the race, he was elected treasurer in 2010. On the campaign trail, he still carries a little of the aura of a political operator and the sense that he’s a happy warrior for the Democratic establishment. But that image obscures some unique credentials: He’s transformed his own family business from a paper-envelope manufacturer into an online marketing firm, making the shrewd investments that many companies in similarly constricting industries failed to make. He’s also been the finest state treasurer in living memory, handling the state’s finances with an unusual degree of competence while promoting local banks, urban redevelopment, and financial literacy.
Like his Democratic rivals, Grossman is a forceful advocate for abortion rights, access to contraception, and marriage equality. But more than either of his rivals, he puts competitiveness and economic growth at the top of his agenda, and backs them up with a CEO’s eye for seizing opportunities. He would be an effective advocate for the state, explaining its interests and assets to the nation and world. Some of his priorities, such as expansion of offshore wind and life sciences, align closely with Patrick’s. But he adds some significant new wrinkles: a deeper plan to speed up the siting and permitting of manufacturing facilities in order to compete with North Carolina and other states for biotech plants, and a more expansive sense of how the arts and historic restoration can transform older cities.
Some of these plans will require more government spending, and Grossman hasn’t ruled out new taxes. He promises a fresh initiative to reduce health care costs, which, in one form or another, are eating up almost half the state budget, but otherwise he has not committed to a specific list of reforms. If he were to win the nomination and take on Republican front-runner Charlie Baker, Grossman would have to put more ideas on the table. And Grossman says he welcomes the chance to go toe to toe with Baker. But in the Democratic race, he stands out largely for articulating clear goals and then offering workable policies to achieve them.
Attorney General Martha Coakley, the front-runner in the polls, is campaigning on her solid record over eight years as Massachusetts’ top lawyer, including her forceful defense of the state’s buffer zone for protests outside abortion clinics. There is much to tout in her advocacy for homeowners against predatory lending, and her production of illuminating research into wasteful health care spending. And she made the AG’s office a national leader in advocacy for gay marriage. But overseeing even a large legal team isn’t necessarily a credential for political leadership, and she hasn’t fully explained why she wants to be governor or sketched out her policy priorities in sufficient detail.
After three decades spent mainly in legal practice, she approaches political challenges with the thoughtful, even-handed diligence of an arbitrator or a judge. This parsing of issues can be a sign of wisdom. But her lack of boldness is unusual for a candidate for governor; she seems inclined to wait for problems to come to her, after which she promises nothing but to give them a careful review.
This is not a flaw that can be fixed with a more aggressive stump speech or ad campaign, for it’s a deeply ingrained part of her professional persona. It made her effective as Middlesex County district attorney and state AG, but also disappointing as the Democratic US Senate nominee in 2010. If she were to become governor, there is no doubt that the state would benefit from her solid judgment. But a governor’s race is an occasion to seek and receive a mandate for a specific agenda, and Coakley has not put forward enough of such an agenda.
President Obama’s former Medicare chief Don Berwick is, in some ways, Coakley’s opposite — a visionary and idealist who decries the practical compromises of many elected officials. On poverty issues, in particular, he conveys the spirit of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which he admired as a young man. He promises to make progress on homelessness, hunger, and reducing youth violence his moral guideposts.
A medical professor and pediatrician by trade, Berwick has spent most of an illustrious career advising governments on the delivery of health care. And he’s offered up the boldest and most intriguing policy proposal in this year’s political races: a conversion to a single-payer health system. Such a move would put a government-established panel of professionals in charge of developing health insurance products and establishing reimbursement rates for doctors and hospitals. It would essentially put the state’s insurers out of business, while dramatically reducing the market power of providers. He rightly describes it as “Medicare for all.”
Coming from an analyst as knowledgeable as Berwick, the proposal can’t be easily dismissed. But it’s reasonable to wonder how a candidate as politically inexperienced as Berwick would handle the immense task of laying the groundwork for such a change. And it’s too early to put a plan on the table and promise to deliver it. Berwick criticizes Grossman for calling for “a conversation” about single-payer health — what’s that going to deliver? — but a conversation about such a sweeping change is precisely what’s in order.
Nonetheless, Berwick deserves great credit for providing a principled contrast to politics as usual — a charge on which Coakley and Grossman are vulnerable. But experience counts, and newcomers to elective office rightly face skepticism about whether they can deliver change, not just talk about it. Some, like the Patrick of eight years ago, show themselves to have enough natural political talent to overcome a lack of electoral credentials.
Voters will be choosing both an agenda and a governor who can deliver it. Dr. Don Berwick and Attorney General Martha Coakley offer the Commonwealth a great deal, as outlined above. Only Treasurer Steve Grossman offers both a solid agenda and the skills to guide his policies through the political labyrinth.