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Jay Ash could be the state’s economic secretary for all

Chelsea City Manager Jay Ash (center, seated) meets with Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen (far left) at The Neighborhood Developers in Chelsea on Oct. 16.Elijah Plymesser at the Neighborhood Developers

Last I talked to Jay Ash, he was hanging with Janet Yellen, the most powerful woman in the world.

Today, the Chelsea city manager is governor-elect Charlie Baker's first Cabinet pick and will oversee housing and economic development. Job creation became a mantra during the Republican's campaign, and he wasted no time in getting down to business.

Chelsea, as I've said before, is the last place you would expect to find Yellen, but the Fed chair was there last month, trying to gauge the US economy by talking to people who work and live in one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts.


Turns out Yellen and Baker know something we don't. Perhaps the pulse of the state's economy should be measured in places like Chelsea, and job creation should be viewed from their vantage points.

Much has been made about Ash being a Democrat and Baker reaching across the aisle to build a bipartisan administration, but the appointment says a lot more about the governor-elect's economic priorities. He's reaching across to close a wealth gap that divides this state — and threatens our growth.

The game is no longer about getting existing companies to expand and new ones to move here. It is about how to bring economic opportunity to all parts of the state. It's not enough that Kendall Square and the Innovation District are flourishing. We need to spread wealth from Mattapan to Springfield, from Lawrence to New Bedford.

Our differences can be so stark it's hard to believe we all live in the same state. Take, for example, Cambridge and Lawrence. They are about 30 miles apart, but might as well be worlds away when you look at their unemployment rates. Cambridge: 4.4 percent. Lawrence: 12.3 percent.

Previous economic secretaries arrived with private-sector experience: Dan O'Connell, Deval Patrick's first economic chief, made his money in commercial real estate. O'Connell's successor and current economic czar Greg Bialecki was a longtime real estate lawyer. Ranch Kimball, before he served as the economic secretary under Mitt Romney, helped start a private equity firm.


What Ash brings is a perspective deepened over three decades in the public sector. Appointed in 2000, he has become Chelsea's longest-serving city manager. Before that, he was a chief aide to Richard Voke when he was House majority leader.

Ash famously engineered a renaissance in Chelsea, which was in state receivership for much of the '90s. But can he create any jobs?

I'll leave it to Barry Bluestone, an economics professor at Northeastern University, to answer that question. Bluestone spent a year working with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to analyze 20 struggling cities, including Chelsea.

Of those communities, Chelsea experienced the biggest job growth, a rate of nearly 11 percent between 2001 and 2013, according to Bluestone's analysis for the Fed.

Keep in mind, this period covered two recessions. Chelsea's rate is even more impressive when you compare it with statewide job growth during the same period — less than 1 percent.

In another analysis, Bluestone looked at what was the secret to Chelsea's success. Key factors: how well the city markets itself and how fast it approves permits.

"Jay may know more about economic development and business attraction than almost anyone else in the Commonwealth," he said. "This was an absolutely spectacular appointment."


Chelsea has come a long way, but the city still has far to go. One in four residents live in poverty. Nonetheless, we should want Ash to replicate Chelsea's progress elsewhere.

But bringing economic growth to everyone has been the major challenge for anyone holding the cabinet post Ash is about to step into.

"Nobody has gotten this right statewide. It has been a struggle," said Gloria Larson, who served as economic secretary under Governor Bill Weld and is now president of Bentley University.

Blame our economy — it's built like a halo around Boston, powered by tech, biotech, financial services, teaching hospitals, and Harvard and MIT.

But Larson has high hopes that Ash can figure this out.

"Jay did amazing work in Chelsea," she said. "It wasn't magic. It was smart, visionary thinking."

Whatever you call it, our state economy needs more of what Ash has to offer.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.