She is the master of explaining transportation disaster, standing front and center to apologize for a runaway Red Line train in 2015 (“We failed our passengers today”) or to soften the blow of soul-sucking, five-hour waits at the Registry of Motor Vehicles last year (“Lines are longer than we’d like them to be”).
Yet, suddenly Stephanie Pollack, Governor Charlie Baker’s longtime transportation secretary, finds herself in an unusually harsh spotlight, even by the standards of one of the most public jobs in the administration.
The combination of a chaotic June subway derailment and the RMV’s disastrous backroom lapses, each playing out below her, has thrust the former transit advocate into an intense debate over accountability and failure inside the Baker administration.
The governor this week reiterated his faith in Pollack, who herself has batted away questions about whether she intends to resign. And those close to the administration say there’s little reason to believe her job is in jeopardy.
But even for one of Baker’s longest-serving Cabinet members, the public pressure now is unlike anything she’s stared down — no small thing for a bureaucrat once tasked with telling aggravated Boston drivers to expect a “hellish” commute during the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge replacement.
“She’s clearly not someone who has been behind the scenes. She’s someone who has been out front,” said Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy coalition Transportation for Massachusetts. “It’s a hard job, and absolutely anyone, no matter their management skill, would be challenged to effectively manage and govern the diverse set of issues that come up when you are the top person at 10 Park Plaza.”
If the derailment of a Red Line train last month added to a simmering pot of frustration, the failures at the RMV set it to a full boil. Officials admitted last month they should have terminated a West Springfield truck driver’s commercial license before he struck a group of motorcyclists, killing seven, in New Hampshire.
The agency’s registrar, Erin Deveney, quickly resigned amid the disclosure, and after days of questions, the Baker administration hastily called a press conference Monday. There, it was Pollack — not Baker — who first took to the podium to disclose that Registry officials had ignored tens of thousands of alerts that Massachusetts-licensed motorists had broken driving laws in other states for more than 15 months.
Almost immediately, Pollack was asked by reporters if she would follow Deveney out the door.
“The governor asked me to fix this and I’m going to fix it,” she said then.
Pressure, however, has not followed from the Democratic-controlled Legislature or the advocacy circles where Pollack — a former leader at the Conservation Law Foundation — operated for decades.
Within the Baker administration, Pollack is still held in high regard. Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said this week she has faith in Pollack and praised her “creativity” in the job.
“I know that she enjoys the governor’s fullest confidence,” added Jay Ash, who served as Baker’s housing and economic development secretary until last year. “The governor really values smarts and an ability to put smarts into action,” qualities that Ash said Pollack has.
Steve Kadish, who served as a Baker chief of staff during his first term, described Pollack as a person of integrity and a creative, dogged manager who is able to make difficult choices.
“She’s been one of the best secretaries in the Baker administration. She’s been one of the best secretaries of transportation,” he said.
Pollack, whom aides did not make available for an interview, graduated from MIT with bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and public policy in 1982 and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1985. At the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, she was an advocate for urban livability and against lead paint, and she battled for more investments in public transit.
The 59-year-old later served as associate director for research at Northeastern University’s Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and worked as a public policy consultant before Baker, in a surprise pick, made her the state’s transportation chief.
“She’s one of the most talented, thoughtful, and honorable people that we’ve got in public service,” said Douglas Foy, the former Conservation Law Foundation president, who hired Pollack as a science intern at the nonprofit when she was in college and worked with her for more than 20 years.
Foy, who served as a top official in the gubernatorial administration of Mitt Romney, said Pollack was exactly the right person to tackle endemic transportation problems such as the T, ones that go “back decades and through numerous governors.”
“I don’t think it’s fair to hold Stephanie any more responsible than anyone else who preceded her over a generation of leaders,” he said.
Barry Bluestone, the founder and former director of the Dukakis Center, argued the responsibility lies with those in the present, too — namely Baker and the Legislature, whom he said have collectively failed to create a vision for state transportation.
“If she was on her own, she would be on the front lines arguing for more funding for transportation. She would be on the front lines arguing for an expansion of service,” he said. “Unfortunately, she’s trying to keep a broken system going with at least one hand, if not both hands, tied behind her back.”
That dichotomy — Pollack, once a gas tax advocate, working under Baker, an equally fierce opponent of it — has been apparent since the governor first named her secretary in January 2015. But today, she is one of just three of the original members still serving in the governor’s Cabinet. Baker’s predecessor, Deval Patrick, once had four transportation secretaries in less than three years.
Pollack’s also currently spearheading a highly touted $18.3 billion capital plan for the MassDOT and the MBTA, a key cog in Baker’s plans to inject reliability into a woeful transit system.
And even amid past turbulence, Baker has reaffirmed his support for her, saying in December she had his “full confidence” after then-MBTA general manager Luis Ramirez — whom Pollack was integral in picking — abruptly left after just 15 months on the job.
“As long as she wants that job, we would love to have her do it,” Baker said then.
It’s also unclear whom Baker would tap should he move on from Pollack, a dominant, and sometimes feared, voice in transportation policy circles who’s established herself as MassDOT’s unchallenged leader.
“I don’t think anyone can replace Secretary Pollack,” said Brian Shortsleeve, an MBTA board member who worked — and often commuted by train — with Pollack when he served as the T’s general manager.
“She’s really the architect of much of the reform we’ve driven at the T,” he added. “That work is still deeply in process. And I expect that she’s going to drive that work for the next four years.”