HARWICH — The political system is failing the electorate, both parties are to blame, and nothing short of a transformational shift in how insular Beacon Hill does business can fix the “systemic failure of our democracy.” That unsparing critique comes from a man who, some say, is looking to be the state’s next governor.
Democratic state Senator Daniel A. Wolf — a commercial pilot, airplane mechanic, and chief executive of Cape Air — is increasingly seen by associates as a likely challenger to Governor Charlie Baker in 2018.
In an interview, Wolf said it’s too early to be definitive about a run, but he offered something other Democrats have avoided: criticism of Baker, the widely popular Republican who is expected to run for reelection in 2018 and has been stockpiling cash for such an effort.
Baker, the senator said derisively, is effectively running “an austerity program,” shrinking the size of state government through a voluntary early retirement program, ruling out tax and fee increases, and raising MBTA fares on the backs of working people.
“Most of what we’re seeing from the Baker administration is really about short-term management,” Wolf said. “It’s not about long-term vision. And this is a time, historically, when we really need long-term vision.”
Wolf, a 58-year-old father of three, said Beacon Hill leaders have become mired in the insular, often lobbyist-driven back-and-forth of the State House, content with modest tinkering that will leave the next generation with a broken transportation system, untenable health care costs, and an even greater gap between the rich and everyone else.
His solution? Political leadership that seeks out the voices of everyday people, lessens the influence of powerful interests that seek to maintain the status quo, and expands government spending for the common good. Wolf backs a proposed constitutional amendment that would increase taxes on the very rich, but also repeatedly emphasizes the importance of government frugality.
Wolf, the co-founder of Cape Air as well as its chief executive, is not running for re-election this fall, after six years in the Senate and a short-lived 2013 bid for governor. He said the 2018 vote is more than 30 months away, but he left the door to a statewide bid wide open.
“I want to be part of, and I will be part of, continuing to look for ways to reconnect our democracy to our people,” he said.
Wolf also offered a searing critique of his own party, which he says is increasingly “controlled by well-intentioned, affluent people who believe that they speak for others — as opposed to a Democratic Party that strives to give poor and working people a voice of their own.”
And he knocked the Democratic narrative about its marquee policy achievements, such as Massachusetts’ better-than-average economic recovery from the Great Recession, the state and federal health care overhauls, and, in his view, insufficient efforts to address income equality. Democrats, he said, have effectively adopted Republican economic metrics that allow the political class “to declare victory that we’ve really saved the economy,” as huge swaths of people remain mired in poverty and near-poverty, and the middle class shrinks.
“The interesting thing about Massachusetts is: We can’t say it’s a bipartisan problem,” Wolf said, voice rising. “We can’t say it’s because the two parties don’t get along. Because we’re a one-party state. Anything the governor of Massachusetts does can be overridden by [the Legislature], if the Democrats really had a vision and really had a plan.”
His message, delivered in an interview over tea at his Cape Cod home as his dog, a gigantic Leonberger named Tessa, padded by, offers a preview of how the gubernatorial race might play out in 2018.
Political observers and Wolf associates who have spoken with him recently see the senator as increasingly interested in the race and having a path, if difficult, to the Democratic nomination and maybe the governorship.
Philip W. Johnston, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, said Wolf would be able to articulate a strong liberal message and “would presumably be able to raise the money that would be required to run a strong bid.”
Should Wolf run for governor and stick with the themes he laid out in the interview with the Globe, his campaign would be a unique amalgam of the antiestablishment message that has resonated with varying degrees of success with the Bay State electorate over the years.
It would channel aspects of Elizabeth Warren’s victorious 2012 US Senate message: The system is rigged against working people.
And it would pull from Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, whom Wolf has endorsed, embracing a decidedly proactive vision of government: More spending for common good must be the way forward.
Wolf, running as a liberal businessman, also set up a contrast with Baker, a one-time state budget chief and health insurance company executive who worked at a venture capital firm between his unsuccessful 2010 run for governor and his victorious 2014 bid.
A 1980 Wesleyan University graduate who later spent two years training as an airplane mechanic, Wolf argued that all businesspeople are often seen the same way. But, he said, an entrepreneur like himself, who helped build and grow a company from eight to more than 1,000 employees, has a very different perspective on business and the economy.
Someone “in the financial services world, like a Mitt Romney, or venture capital world or banking world. That’s very different than somebody who, with their hands, works on things, builds a business from the bottom up.”
He said it gives a person a different perspective on the economy: “It’s bottom-up versus top-down.”
Still, Wolf’s most pointed comments were aimed at his fellow Democrats and their policies.
He leveled a sharp critique of President Obama’s health care overhaul and the 2006 Massachusetts law upon which it was based, calling both of them Republican-inspired plans endorsed by hospitals, insurance conglomerates, and pharmaceutical companies, not regular working people.
“Where did democracy work in devising this health care plan, either on a state level or on a federal level? The answer is: It didn’t,” he said. “This is no better for the businesses like Cape Air, that have provided health insurance for 28 years, or my employees.”
He said the overhauls are burdening the small businesses that they were meant to help. Wolf supports transitioning Massachusetts to a single-payer system like Medicare.
And he offered both praise and criticism of Governor Deval Patrick’s two-term reign, calling him a progressive outsider “who never really had an effective relationship with the Legislature.”
Wolf argued there is a fundamental failure of the system when, after eight years of Patrick, a liberal with a supermajority in the Legislature, Massachusetts remains among the most economically unequal of any state in the country.
And, he says, there are other big problems.
The economic success of our society, he said, should be measured by metrics like people’s access to early-childhood and higher education, economic mobility, and middle-class wages — not GDP, top-line unemployment numbers that don’t include the many who have given up looking for work, and the success of the stock market.
Wolf, first elected to the Senate in 2010, announced his candidacy for governor in the summer of 2013, but soon faced a major hurdle.
The State Ethics Commission ruled that Wolf’s ownership stake in Cape Air, which has contracts with the Massachusetts Port Authority, violated the law prohibiting state employees from having a financial interest in state contracts.
So Wolf, it said, either had to end the airline’s contracts with Massport, which Wolf said would have effectively killed Cape Air; divest himself of his about 20 percent stake in the employee-owned company; or resign his state Senate seat.
Wolf disagreed with the ruling, but ended his gubernatorial bid. Later, the Ethics Commission created an exemption that allows Wolf and others in similar situations to hold public office.
Still, Wolf says his desire to serve never wavered.