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A thankless job done well

Rich Davey did not just survive the job. He thrived in it.
Rich Davey did not just survive the job. He thrived in it.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File

When Rich Davey became Massachusetts transportation secretary just over three years ago, I suggested he might have a loose screw or two.

Why else would anybody willingly go into that job? Of all the posts in state government, that is the second-most difficult, thankless and prone to public execution (Department of Children and Families commissioner is number one). Everybody uses transportation, and has strong opinions about it. It is a massive bureaucracy, with a huge basket-case of a budget. There is the constant potential for serious mishaps, for which the secretary is held personally responsible. Davey was the fourth transportation secretary named in just over four years.

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But he survived. He is leaving the job on Oct. 31 because, he says, he's spent: "I can't think about one more snowstorm, or one more construction season." He is that rare Cabinet secretary who is leaving because he wants to, and not because people have clamored for his head.

"There's still time," jokes Davey, 41.

Davey did not just survive the job. He thrived in it. He has been a stellar transportation chief, the kind of Cabinet member who restores even a cynic's faith in government. But I'm still not sure whether he has all his marbles.

More on that later. First, his accomplishments. The biggest, by far, was his selling revenue increases to pay for our financial disaster of a transit system. Before the Legislature passed a giant transportation package last year, Davey was all over the state, selling it to citizens, business groups, and legislators. Getting the Legislature to raise the gas tax for the first time in 23 years was not easy — especially after the governor attached massive increases in education spending and tax reforms to the transit package.

The state ended up with about $600 million a year in new money — way short of the $1 billion advocates hoped for, but still huge. His efforts left many people impressed with Davey's political savvy, and speculating about whether he'd run for office.

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Under him, the transportation system has become way more transparent and accountable. He has introduced new performance measurements, and has given commuters countdown clocks. They may still have to wait 29 minutes for a bus some days, but at least now they know how long they must suffer.

"People don't expect perfection," Davey says. "They expect you to tell them if there is a problem, and how you're going to fix it."

Building on the work of his predecessors, Davey has gotten some very big projects moving, and has promised more across the state (how else to sell those revenue hikes?). The next administration will have to do a better job of prioritizing them.

Davey hasn't been around long enough for us to know whether he's as good at managing as he is at vision and politics, whether the initiatives that won him national recognition are hard-wired, changing the culture of the transportation agencies he has led. He worries about slippage, he says, but has worked hard to avoid it.

"What I am most proud of," he says, "is that I have instilled what I perceive to be public faith back into transportation."

So what's next for the wunderkind?

Davey wants to go into the private sector for a bit, but not for good. "My public service itch hasn't been satisfied," he says. This is where we get back to the sanity question.

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He has spoken about the possibility of a Boston Olympics in 2024 with excitement, given its vaunted (and to my mind, iffy) potential for spurring transportation investments. So, could Davey end up leading that cockamamie enterprise?

"I have had no conversations with anybody about that, but that is the kind of exciting thing I would want to do with my time," he says.

Interesting. More interesting: He thinks about running for something.

"The two best jobs are mayor of Boston and governor," he says. "You can do so much good."

Now, those are intriguing possibilities. And they lead to an inexorable conclusion about the marbles, and lack thereof.

Everyone knows you've got to be a little crazy to run for office these days.


Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.