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Connector board members show support for Gruber

Nancy Turnbull, a member of the Connector Board, wore a pin depicting a cartoon of fellow board member Jonathan Gruber.Felice J. Freyer/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Jonathan Gruber got some unaccustomed love Thursday morning.

On Capitol Hill earlier this week, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and architect of the Massachusetts health care law faced withering attacks from Republicans and Democrats for his controversial comments that seemed to ridicule the American voter and denigrate the political process.

But Thursday in Boston’s McCormack Building, his image appeared at the center of a little red heart.

It was a show of support from fellow members of the Health Connector Board, who wore small, heart-shaped pins displaying a cartoon of Gruber at the board’s monthly meeting.

“Jon’s been an extraordinarily important member of this board since he was appointed by Governor Romney in 2006,” said board member Nancy Turnbull, associate dean for professional education at the Harvard School of Public Health. “He’s devoted, he’s knowledgeable, and it’s been great to have him on the board.”

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“I think all of us feel that way,” said Louis Malzone, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition of Taft-Hartley Trust Funds.

Gruber’s comments last year about the “stupidity of the American voter” at an academic conference recently resurfaced, igniting criticism on Capitol Hill and among conservative pundits. He apologized repeatedly during a four-hour grilling Tuesday.

“I am embarrassed and I am sorry,” Gruber told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Connector members wore Jonathan Gruber pins.Nancy Turnbull

The Republicans on that panel said his comments about the advantages of a “lack of transparency” show that the Affordable Care Act was crafted deceitfully. Democrats expressed resentment that Gruber handed a new weapon to the law’s opponents, potentially overshadowing the news of high enrollments in the program.

In Boston, though, the response was different on the Connector Board, which oversees the state agency that allows people to shop for insurance if they do not have coverage through their employer. The Connector is the cornerstone of the Massachusetts law that expanded health insurance coverage to 97 percent of the population, a law that Gruber helped craft and that became the model for the federal Affordable Care Act.

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Gruber was not present Thursday to appreciate the gestures of support from his fellow board members, who made their comments in interviews after the meeting. He and another board member participated in Thursday’s meeting by phone. And in an e-mail later, he declined to comment.

“I think he’s been treated extraordinarily badly and disrespectfully,” Turnbull said.

“He’s a stand-up, wonderful guy,” said Celia Wcislo, vice president at large of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and another board member who sported the Gruber pin. “We’ve worked collaboratively. We’ve always come up with a consensus even though we come from very different views.”

The picture on the pin was taken from Gruber’s book, “Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It’s Necessary, How It Works,” which explains the Affordable Care Act with cartoons. Board member George Gonser and Jean Yang, the Connector’s executive director, also wore the pin but declined to comment. Members Dolores L. Mitchell and Rick Jakious were not wearing the Gruber heart and also declined to comment.

Support for Gruber is far from universal in Massachusetts. Republicans in the state Senate called on Governor Deval Patrick to remove him from the Connector Board, saying his comments undermine the public’s trust in government.

A letter sent Dec. 1 by the Senate Republican Caucus said Gruber’s statements “call into question his ability to act impartially and in a manner that upholds the integrity of the Health Connector Board. Professor Gruber’s advocacy for an ideology founded in deceit should have no place in our government.”

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But Patrick says he has no plans to remove Gruber in the waning days of his administration. The governor said Gruber’s comments “embarrassed” him, but he accepted the professor’s apologies.

“He is going to stay on the Connector Board as long as I’m governor,” Patrick said, “because I think he’s made a real contribution. And I think people say stupid things and they apologize for the stupid things and we move on. His contributions certainly so far have outweighed the stupid things.”


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer