And almost immediately after taking office, the fresh new Governor disappeared behind the curtain, presumably in order to familiarize himself with the real levers of power: the budget. Leaving the noisy public square created a vacuum, soon to be filled by the middle-school hijinks of the press: Oh. My. God. You so totally did not buy a Caddy. As we all know, middle-schoolers don't always mean what they say. They missed you, Governor — they really did. So did the rest of us.
Hey, we got some interesting new twists, mostly of the techo-fix variety. We got a podcast. The governor went on the radio to take questions on a regular basis. A good faith effort, the “civic engagement tool” at DevalPatrick.com briefly was a point of interest for some productive mouthing off to the governor … and then became ignored by both the petitioners and the petitioned.
The Governor introduced his Municipal Partnership Act, a raft of sensible and very necessary reforms to strengthen and rationalize the revenue streams of cities and towns. Acting predictably as the sockpuppets of Verizon et al, the legislature balked. Patrick threatened to sic his grassroots hordes on the legislators, who yawned. The cities and towns are in crisis, but the legislature is not. Their jobs are safe, their phones are safely staying on the hook. Why?
The groundwork hadn't been laid. People could be forgiven for asking, What's in it for me? Property tax relief? Well sure, but it wasn't billed as the “Property Tax Relief Act”, or the “Save Our Schools Act”, or the “Keep the Firehouse Open Act”, or whatever. The Governor's side of the engagement was never couched as What can I do for you? It was Help me sell my agenda. Sure, it was and is a good agenda, but who knows that? What's a “municipal partnership”, anyway?
And what else will you remember about the Governor's legislative proposals? The Life Sciences bill — which sounds like something the lobbyists can take care of pushing without all that much grassroots help. Again, what's in it for us? Oh, and then we've got the casinos. Let me just ask this: If Gov. Patrick had spent the first few months attending town meetings and really getting a feel for what the people of Massachusetts hold near and dear to their hearts, do you think casinos would be in the Top 10? Don't think too hard, you might hurt something.
I know, I know … you've got to have money to accomplish big things, and that means economic development — and theoretically the state skimming some casino cash. Yeah, we're in deep trouble on infrastructure, and we want to expand rail to New Bedford, and have universal pre-K and a health care law that doesn't go pffft. Can I suggest that this approach is completely backwards? People don't mind casinos, but there's little case to be made that we absolutely need them, as opposed to other kinds of more benign economic activity. No: First you find out what we need, then you find the money.
The public is much more likely to support getting the revenues if they know what they're for, with as much specificity as possible. They'll be much, much more likely to give you a real shot at the more ambitious, expensive goals if they know that you've scoured the budget for savings. That means everything from health care and nursing homes all the way down to police details. Some of these things Patrick has gotten right, but on other things he's given up some frugality-cred presumably for the sake of easy, nice relationships with the lege: The budget restoration in early 2007, the 70% compromise on the GIC bill. (Hey, how's that working out? Here's one mayor who is unimpressed.)
Here's the problem, and the solution: People don't care about public policy. Not inherently, not for its own sake. Sure, I care, but even I have to squint my eyes and wait for the momentary headache to pass before I read about health care policy. I mean, I'd rather watch baseball, all things being equal.
No, they care about their own lives: Their incomes, their kids, their houses, their jobs, their commutes, their health, (yes) their taxes. And contrary to the conservatarian FYIGM (F#$% You – I Got Mine) attitude, most people have some moral imagination — or at least a sense of social reciprocity — and do include their wider communities in their concerns. And if you're lucky, you get a critical mass of folks who really care about “externalities” like the air, water, or global warming catastrophe … things that really aren't external at all, as it turns out.
The Governor gets this — no, scratch that, Candidate Patrick understood this:
“We have got to have the resources for the shared responsibility of citizenship,” he said, explaining why he resists the no-new-taxes gimmick. Of course it's the taxpayers' money, he went on. “But it's also their broken road. And it's their overcrowded school. It's their broken neighborhood and broken neighbor.”
Governor, if you're not out there, in public, talking directly to your constituents, driving the agenda … someone else will do all that. The legislators will claim that they know their territory better than you. And they'll be right. The business interests will claim that they know where their bread is buttered better than you. And they'll be right. The radio show hosts will claim that they know their callers better than you. And (for what it's worth), they'll be right. And the rest of the media will simply follow the ball wherever it's kicked.
It's your job to go out and listen, endlessly; to help us define the common good, over and against the parochial, the narrowly self-interested, the inertia-laden; to illuminate and delineate the choices we face; to show what we have to gain by working … uh … together. As in, Together We Can.
Sure, we know you complained about governing by sound bite and photo-op, and professed to want to do the work of governing. We're not asking for more ribbon-cutting ceremonies at pharma plants, newly-rubberized playgrounds … or casinos, for that matter.
But we're asking you to delegate some of the details to an empowered, brilliant, ambitious team of department heads. (Hey, there's Leslie Kirwan. There's Ian Bowles. More like that.) And start to set the agenda again. Most states — heck the Democratic Party as a whole — would kill for a guy who can listen, persuade, and define the agenda the way that you can. That's real work — it's not showboating. Nah, put it this way — the showboating is the work.
Go back to that tremendous, intoxicating night, November 7, 2006:
Tonight we celebrate, but soon our thoughts must turn to governing. We are charged with an awesome responsibility. We have a mandate to revive this economy, to assure excellence in every public school and college, and to deliver on the promise of decent health care. We have a mandate to make the streets safe and housing more affordable. We have a mandate to get the Big Dig right and to help the creative economy flourish. We have a mandate to change the way we do business on Beacon Hill and to keep the grassroots aliv
e and growing. And that mandate is Commonwealth-wide, and it comes from everyone here and everyone in the Commonwealth in search of a reason to hope.
The grassroots is where things grow. The substance and success of Gov. Patrick's agenda will come, must come from that.
Next, in a few days: The landscape, the obstacles, the money.