Another ‘outsider’ fails in a top Boston job. We shouldn’t take pride in that
I don’t know whether Luis Ramirez and Tommy Chang have ever crossed paths, but they would probably have a lot to talk about over lunch.
Both came to Boston for high-profile jobs after successful careers elsewhere. Each of them struggled to find his footing in a town notoriously hostile to leaders from elsewhere.
Neither of them — whether they knew it or not — ever stood a chance of succeeding here.
Chang was ousted a few months ago after three years as Boston’s schools superintendent, and Ramirez left the MBTA on Tuesday.
State officials have been careful to avoid the word “fired” in regard to Ramirez’s exit, but his mutually agreed-upon separation bore more than a passing resemblance to a firing. He was the fourth MBTA boss during Governor Charlie Baker’s four years in office.
No real reason has been given for Ramirez getting the boot, but it came as a surprise to no one. From the moment bonuses in his contract were withheld pending further review, his leaving was presumed to be just a matter of time.
Perhaps Ramirez — who arrived at the T with no experience in running a public transit system — wasn’t a good fit for the job. Certainly, running the MBTA is one of the truly thankless jobs in state government. But he impressed someone enough to be hired after a nationwide search, and 15 months is a stunningly short time to be deemed a failure. He didn’t even make it to the halfway point of his three-year, $320,000-a-year contract.
Ramirez joins a long list of “outsiders” who somehow failed to make if in Boston.
You might remember Beverly Scott, for instance. Hired amid fanfare from Atlanta, she quit in frustration during the heinous winter of 2015, when one blizzard after another regularly brought the T and the commuter rail to a standstill.
Scott was entertaining, at least. In a folksy and frank press conference a couple of days before she quit, she commented that “God Junior” wouldn’t be able to make the T’s decrepit equipment run effectively in the weather she was forced to cope with.
Ramirez, I’m told, made sincere efforts to improve conditions for the workforce, and to try to shore up customer service. But that clearly wasn’t enough. Still, it raises the question of whether the people who hired him really gave him the support and time any newcomer would have needed to fully take the reins of the agency and have any real impact.
And if only “traditional” leaders can succeed here, Boston will be hard-pressed to build, or attract, the more diverse leadership it desperately needs.
That whole newcomer issue will be a moot point now. Ramirez is being replaced — permanently, no search needed — by a deep insider. Steve Poftak, currently the vice-chair of the T’s governing board, is taking the helm on Jan. 1. He was the interim boss for two months before Ramirez came on board; perhaps the Baker administration has concluded that they should have given him the job last time around.
This is a crucial time for the MBTA, with $8 billion in capital improvements scheduled for the next five years. This is the best opportunity in years to get the T right. As a daily Red Line rider, I can tell you that there’s plenty of work to do.
But the Ramirez “separation” — or whatever the right word is — only reinforces Boston’s reputation as a insular place where only entrenched insiders seem to have access to the secret codes it takes to succeed. I suspect it’s actually a perverse sense of pride that outsiders don’t seem to “get” Boston.
So Luis Ramirez is out. But is the lesson here that no one from outside can run Massport, which is currently looking for a new leader? Or the Boston Public Schools, for that matter? We should all hope not.
Will Boston ever become a city that can look outside itself for leadership?