Bob Massie has not led an ordinary life. You can read about his life experience on Wikipedia — most of which I won’t reproduce here. Briefly: He was born to author parents in 1956 with hemophilia, which caused pain and hindered his movement; he says that from a young age, it gave him a sense of empathy with the vulnerable. Bob went to Princeton, where he was heavily involved in South Africa divestment movement. He went on to Yale Divinity School and became an Episcopal priest. He later did doctorate work at Harvard Business School, while a minister at Christ Episcopal Church in Somerville. His work @ HBS was concerned with the intersection of business and ethics; since then he co-founded the Global Reporting Initiative, an organization which produces a framework for measuring corporate social resposibility — “a bald attempt to alter the way the global economy worked”, he says. To that end, he ran Ceres for years, and last year he became an advisor to Domini Social Impact Fund. He was an election observer for Nelson Mandela’s election in South Africa, and wrote an award-winning 800-page history of US-South Africa relations vis-a-vis the anti-apartheid movement.
In the 90′s, he was tested as HIV positive …. but miraculously, possessed a natural resistance to the virus. In 2002 he contracted a debilitating case of Hepatitis C, which took him out of commission for years. He’s now completely recovered, thanks to a liver transplant.
Is this a normal career arc for a politician? No. Bob Massie neither looks, sounds, nor acts like someone who is mostly concerned with ambition and power. He doesn’t speak in sound bites. He has never been an elected official; his public service has been in activism, the church, writing, and working with the private sector on social responsibility.
Massie believes in setting a bold goal, and reverse-engineering a sequence of practical steps to achieve it; and we have to not lose hope that the big goals are “important, worthy and inspiring.” He is interested in not simply the hot-button issue of the moment, but in underlying causes. He has a sense of historical arc that is rare among politicians, because he’s lived it and studied it, and in the case of South Africa, he’s seen and experienced a smashing victory for human rights, after long struggle.
In spite of his unconventional background, Massie describes himself as a natural campaigner. He describes his campaign as a block-to-block, person-to-person grassroots effort. He’s proud of his showing at last month’s state convention. Here’s his convention speech from last month:
He notes that unusual people have indeed been elected: Paul Wellstone, Daniel Patrick Moynihan … and Barack Obama. He says, “The frustrations of politics are not frustrations that are going to bring me down.”
A debate between Massie and Scott Brown would offer a stark contrast indeed. We asked him to assess how he matches up against Brown:
If people look at Scott and say, Is he a nice guy; is he genial; is he handsome; is he tall? and that’s what they want in a Senator, then he fits that bill pretty well. And if they say: And he’s not so bad … That’s the message his folks are putting out. And the other side is that he has a crushingly large amount of money, and do you want to lose the seat you’re in if you’re a sitting official …
… The alternative is that he could end up being seen as — as nice as he is — is just kind of out of his league … Reagan [or] Quayle is what he’s facing.
Massie is now working on a book, and also a vision statement for the campaign. He compares it to urban planning: If you could build a society from the ground up, how would you do it? How would you accomplish many goals at the same time — in a sustainable way? “First thing we need to do is stop doing stupid things,” he says. We need to be careful about doing things that slash consumer demand, like cutting public employees. We need to talk about the multiplier effect of public spending. We spend $20 billion on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance.
I asked him specifically about how to overcome the resistance to action on global warming. He made the analogy of global warming denialism to arguments for the positive good of slavery in the 1850′s. He says that historically there’s an intensification of resistance, with more and more desperate arguments, before there’s a breaking point. And regardless of whether US politicians believe in it, the rest of the world is “pedal to the metal” on creating technologies to adapt. And the worldwide consequences will become more and more apparent. He also sees that local groups will innovate and move forward, and the country will catch up — somewhat like gay marriage is doing currently.
“People always get threatened when there’s a major shift in thinking … This comes down to personal relationships … you have to figure out, one by one, where the potential for movement is. And that is an intensely personal process between leaders. I’ve been through it with the Global Reporting Initiative; I’ve worked with very big companies that thought they might lose hundreds of millions of dollars if they took any public step; and I just have the confidence that as a participant in a wider process, I could make a contribution.”
He points to his work on the Investor Network on Climate Risk, working with portfolio managers to understand and act — internally and politically — on the risks of climate change.
I can’t tell you that Bob Massie is necessarily my guy to win the nomination and go up against Scott Brown. I don’t know whether his temperament is suited to the ultra-intense rat-a-tat-tat of an election season. Even with a clean bill of health, I wonder if he’s physically up to the challenge, being so relatively fresh off a liver transplant; the next few months will bear that out, one way or the other. But I find his presence in this race extremely welcome: His perspective, life experience, and approach to problem-solving are valuable lessons for anyone who wants to see how progress is actually made.