Governor Fix-It’s fix-it man
Steve Kadish is the guy in charge of delivering on Charlie Baker’s vow to make state government work
Photographs by Frank Curran
STEVE KADISH IS up most days before 5 a.m. After making coffee for himself and his wife and packing lunches for each of them, he sends his first email by 5:30, one of dozens that will go out in a day checking on progress addressing a problem in state government. When they land in inboxes, people take notice.
Kadish is Gov. Charlie Baker’s chief of staff, but the role he plays is more that of high-powered troubleshooter-in-chief.
For a while, he was focused on the Department of Children and Families, where shortcomings in procedures have had tragic consequences. He’s zeroed in on the challenge of making broadband Internet access available to rural areas in Western Massachusetts that are outcasts from the digital age without it. And he’s been preoccupied almost since the Baker administration took office with the MBTA, where longstanding problems became a full-blown threat to the regional economy two winters ago. In between, he helped smooth the way and negotiate the deal that brought General Electric’s headquarters to Boston.
Kadish does not come from the political realm, had no role on Baker’s campaign, and has an understated style that, on first blush, seems more timid than terrorizing.
“I tell him all the time, if I was in charge of central casting, he would be the last guy I would have cast to be chief of staff,” says Jay Ash, Baker’s secretary of housing and economic development. “I think of someone who pounds the desk and yells an awful lot. In two years, I haven’t heard him raise his voice once.”
All of which is to say appearances can be deceiving, for Kadish, someone with little public profile, is probably one of the most powerful—and at times most feared—people in state government.
Kadish prefers to operate quietly below the radar, rarely showing up in the press. He eschews neckties for an open collar. His preferred mode of transportation is by foot, hoofing it to the State House each morning from his condo in the South End with a backpack full of papers—and his sandwich—over his shoulders. When he speaks, it’s in a thoughtful, soft spoken manner, more Mr. Rogers than Mr. Tough Guy.
But no one mistakes that for weakness or lack of strong will.
As his team was taking over state government two years ago, Baker was quoted as saying Kadish was “going to make the lives of many miserable.”
Kadish says he prefers to think what Baker meant was simply that he is “pretty relentless in terms of actually getting things done.”
Ash says administration officials have even turned Kadish’s name into a verb that describes the dissecting of a problem and the development of a roadmap to turn things around. “When an operation in government has failed, Steve comes in and you’re Kadished,” he says.
That happened with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, which was having trouble executing the goal of ensuring all communities in the state have access to high-speed internet service. “He’s very much able to break down the larger problem in digestible segments so people can move toward achieving the overall goal,” says Ash.
“He has a nice way of calling out people if they haven’t done what they need to do,” says Ash. His approach is to say, “‘Do you need more help? Do you need me to get involved, or is it something you can handle on your own?’ I often refer to him as a cross between a CEO and a social services counselor, and he’s able to utilize the skills of both.”
Ash says having Kadish parachute into your department is the “right combination of unsettling and motivating,” just the kind of creative tension Baker seems to be looking for.
The 60-year-old Framingham native is a part of the bipartisan team Baker has assembled. A Democrat who worked on Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential race and once served as legislative director for the consumer advocacy group MassPIRG, Kadish has a long history with Baker. He worked under him during the governor’s stints as human services secretary and secretary of administration and finance in the Weld administration, and Baker hired him as a vice president at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care when Baker was brought on as CEO to right the sinking health insurer.
Kadish has also held top posts in university administration, at Dartmouth College and Northeastern University, and in health care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Though he is a systems and management guy, Kadish says he tries not to lose sight of the fact that most of his work ultimately is about some function of state government that people depend on. Nothing underscores that more poignantly than the front page of the Boston Globe he has taped to the wall of his spartanly decorated office. “Her name was Bella,” reads the headline over the horrific story of Bella Bond, the toddler whose case fell through the cracks at the state child welfare agency and whose body was found in 2015 and went unidentified for months.
As he moves among state departments and agencies to help untangle knots, Kadish has help from four staff members who make up a strategic operations unit in the governor’s office. They work with him on projects along with a team of three management consultants from the Government Performance Lab, an initiative at Harvard’s Kennedy School that provides pro bono technical assistance to state and local governments on various initiatives. Massachusetts is the first state the program has targeted for help with overall performance improvement.
Nothing has consumed more of his time than problems with the MBTA and its commuter rail system, which ground to a halt under the weight of record snow two years ago, prompting the Baker administration to seek and gain control over the once independently run authority.
Kadish essentially planted himself at the mass transit operations centers during the height of the crisis. These days he still spends as much three days each week at the MBTA offices or those of Keolis, the regional commuter rail operator, where officials say Kadish is the guy ultimately in charge of making all the trains run on time.
“Steve is extraordinarily helpful at cutting to the heart of the matter, putting the right people in the room, figuring out the data, and helping you move ahead,” says Stephanie Pollack, the state secretary of transportation. She says he’s been crucial to figuring out how to accelerate spending on capital projects as the T tries to dig out from a $7 billion backlog in improvements needed to bring the system to a “state of good repair.”
Since Baker has said Job 1 is getting right the basic workings of state government, a lot is riding on Kadish. The governor’s confidence in him, however, seems unqualified.
“I’ve never met anyone in my life who’s better at the ‘how’ part associated with accomplishing something than Steve is,” Baker told a conference of public sector officials in November, according to State House News Service.
Long days and weeks over the past two years have kept Kadish, a father of three and grandfather of two, from spending as much time as he’d like at the ski house he owns in Vermont. One planned weekend away that he’s not likely to give up is coming in March, when he and his wife have tickets for the Broadway hit Hamilton.
“There’s a song called ‘Cabinet Battle #1,’ which I played at one of our cabinet meetings,” says Kadish, a confirmed Hamilton fanatic. “And there’s a song called ‘The Room Where it Happens.’ All of the governor’s office staff has gotten sick of it.”
Kadish played no Hamilton cuts for me when we sat down in early December in his State House office. But his enthusiasm for history extends to the building he says it’s “a privilege” to work in each day. After we spoke, he showed me the three different places in the State House where there are paintings of a Bay State Kadish favorite, John Andrew, the abolitionist governor who held office during the Civil War and authorized the famous 54th Regiment of black Union soldiers.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
COMMONWEALTH: How did the governor present the job to you? What did he say he was looking for in a chief of staff?
STEVE KADISH: The election happened on a Tuesday. I think on Thursday he called and said, would you like to talk? I said, always. So I went on Saturday to his house. I tried to talk him out of it at first because, I thought, I am not in any way your typical chief of staff. I’m not from the political campaign and I don’t have that kind of deep political experience. So we talked about other things but he kept coming back to this. He said he’d like me to do this. I reminded him that I was a Democrat and he said, yes, I know that. So, not a campaign person, not of the same party. Why? I think it was a big statement that he knows me as a person who can make things happen in large organizations. I’ve been most recently a chief operating officer and a CFO in large organizations. I think he was really looking for somebody that could legitimately tackle the deepest, most complex operational problems, which in some ways are policy.
CW: So you’re saying policy really equates to practice or execution?
KADISH: If there are 42,000 employees in state government in the executive branch, there are very few people that quote-unquote do policy. So much of policy is actually in the execution and operation, and it often drives what an actual policy decision is. I have a strong viewpoint that operations actually are policy, that execution actually is policy.
CW: A number of people have said to me, to your point about not being the prototypical chief of staff, that you are much more focused on operations and management and a lot of your predecessors were much more focused on the messaging or political bearings of the administration. Is that fair to say?
KADISH: I spend most of my time on the most complicated operations and strategic problems throughout state government. I am literally at the T, at DCF, at environmental affairs, at the Health Connector, at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. I think this is in some ways a reflection of the governor, who is both political but is also a very strong CEO.
CW: Recently there was a State House News Service story in which Gov. Baker said of you that he’s never met anyone in his life who’s better at the “how” part associated with accomplishing something. That seemed to go to this point about operations. He also said you have a very non-confrontational style. But you might remember at the very beginning of the administration he was also quoted as saying you’re going “to make the lives of many miserable.” What do you think he meant by that?
KADISH: Well, I’m pretty relentless in terms of actually getting things done. I start my day very early.
CW: What time?
KADISH: My first messages are usually at 5:30 a.m. I’m up a little before 5. I almost every day make lunch for myself and my wife, and coffee.
CW: By your first messages, you mean you start sending out messages at 5:30 to people?
KADISH: Yeah. And we’ll stay on whatever the particular topic is at either a high level or a detailed level because I think both of those really matter. I’m really focused on being appropriate with people, kind to people, but just relentless on the product.
CW: So they’ll be miserable if they’re not willing to have the same degree of focus and attention?
KADISH: They won’t be able to enjoy the results as much.
CW: I assume you’re not necessarily calling people at 5:30.
KADISH: No, but the governor and I have a daily call. It’s often 6:30 or 6:45, and 7 o’clock is late. I haven’t had a call that started before 6 o’clock except for the winter [two years ago]. The governor is usually the first call, but I might get two or three calls in before 7 a.m.
CW: And your daily call with him is on what has transpired, or is it looking to the day ahead?
KADISH: I think about these calls as, what are the things that the governor needs to know in a relative amount of specificity and detail, that is, filling him up with critical information on all key items that occurred probably since 4 or 5 p.m. [the previous day] and then what stuff is happening during the day [just starting]. We’ll cover eight to 10 topics in 30 minutes. He will almost always have one or two things that he wants to cover. I’ll spend more time on the things where I’m looking for his guidance or I’ll present him options and a direction in terms of what he wants to do.
CW: This is the fourth time you’ve worked with him over several decades. Do you complement each other? You seem to have a similar ability to dig into systems and how things work.
KADISH: I think it’s complementary. He is a brilliant strategist who also understands the elements of battle, so to speak, and most of my career is about taking big ideas, big initiatives, working for somebody like the governor, and then driving it to successful implementation. There’s an overlap where we meet, but I so appreciate his strategic vision and advice on many, many things, and I think he appreciates my ability to, you know, make people’s lives miserable by being relentless.
CW: Among the things you’ve had to dig in on, the T has been a huge challenge. I don’t know what you thought the challenges of the T might have been at the time of the election.
KADISH: It was not on our radar.
CW: What were those days like two winters ago when things really ground to a halt?
KADISH: Sort of unbelievable. Because it was the T, an [independent] authority, it technically isn’t part of the core executive branch. Yet it became quite clear that it really was the governor’s responsibility at the end of the day. And it was an absolute crisis. And in many ways I equate what happened with the T as a massive heart attack, cardiac arrest on a system. It wasn’t breaking a bone, it was the failure of the arterials, and the heart pump, and the whole deal. It just failed.
CW: But it was a system that had been suffering from pretty high cholesterol and high blood pressure, to continue the metaphor.
KADISH: Exactly. A system that hadn’t done its daily maintenance, hadn’t taken its daily dose of aspirin, and so forth.
CW: You were basically embedded there.
KADISH: Very quickly I went down there [to the T operations center]. For about 35 days, I probably spent 13 hours a day at the combination of the T and the commuter rail. We very quickly ended up having four formal meetings a day: 7 a.m., 10 a.m., 5 p.m., and 8 p.m. And what evolved from that are now some daily performance metrics that I still look at every day, and that have been important.
CW: From that point, a lot changed obviously with the creation of the MBTA control board that summer and the whole shifting of the jurisdiction and control of the T to the governor. What’s your role now, and how do you feel things are going a year and some months in?
KADISH: I still spend a very significant amount of my time at the T and at Keolis. I spend a lot of time with Secretary Pollack, with [MBTA Acting] GM Brian Shortsleeve, [and] the new lead at Keolis. There’s at least three days a week when I’m physically on site at those places. They’ve made an unbelievable amount of progress around financials, around some of the talent that they’ve been able to attract, the development of a very aggressive repair maintenance plan. Some progress around reliability, but not enough. Some progress on communications, but not enough. But huge progress in an 18-month period. Huge.
KADISH: It’s not top-down with me in terms of the cabinet members or agency heads. All of the work that we did with the T, or Health Connector, or Department of Children and Families, or the Registry—it’s always in a supporting role to the secretary and the agency head. What I spend time on and the details of what I spend time on changes. We have something that I’m pretty sure is unique out of any state government. We have a strategic operations unit inside the governor’s office. It’s three or four people, plus three people from the Harvard Performance Lab. Think of it like an in-house consulting team, like a Bain or a McKinsey. And that group goes in really deep to provide deep problem-solving and operational support, real change in the agencies. I have gone with two or three members of that group into the agencies and we use a pretty neat methodology that is a very aggressive project management approach that’s really cool if you’re a nerd like me. Now many agencies are picking up on it and learning it.
CW: Are you concerned that despite what progress there’s been at the T—the financials, the other things involving getting the house in order that you’ve mentioned—a lot of what’s happened so far has yet to translate into improvement in riders’ everyday experience? At one point this week they were saying there was a problem with signals and tracks on the Red Line because of dew that froze on the tracks one morning. You say, wait, we’re having delays because of dew?
KADISH: I hadn’t heard that.
CW: I ride the Red Line. One day this week there was a signal problem at Harvard. I start at the far other end at Ashmont and we were delayed because of it. And the doors in one of the cars were not working, so people on the platform had to keep scurrying to another one. It still has the feeling sometimes of being held together by bailing wire and bubble gum.
KADISH: There’s huge investment that’s needed, and so every day we look at performance of all the lines and it’s not reliable enough yet. Let me take that back. The reliability of the Blue Line, the general reliability of the Orange Line, the general reliability of the Red Line—pretty solid when you see the daily stats. It comes very close to hitting 75 percent on-time performance. Green Line is the weakest line. On the commuter rail side, there are 14 different lines. Six to eight of them operate beautifully, meaning that their on-time performance is over 90 percent, better than you could do if you were driving, easily. There are another three or so lines that come close to that. Then there are a few lines that we’re really working on now.
CW: The problem children?
KADISH: The problem children. But it’s important to focus there. In the same way, I wanted to show you this. [Kadish gets up and calls me over to the stand-up desk he uses, where he opens his laptop.] My memory of the Registry [of Motor Vehicles] was always, you took a book, you brought food, and you would plan to spend the whole day there. If you were lucky, your problem would be resolved. Often you had to go back. So Secretary Pollack set a goal of 80 percent of the customers being served, in and out, in less than 30 minutes, and 100 percent of the customers served in an hour. So the daily metrics are cool, and I’m showing you this both because this is unbelievable and I’m proud. This is this report from yesterday. So the report tells me 93 percent of the customers were served in less than 30 minutes. Like, blow you away, right? And in the northeastern part of the state, 99 percent were served. This is in 30 minutes. That’s an unbelievable experience at the Registry. [He calls up another page.] This is the daily report for Keolis, the commuter rail. Seventy percent on time performance at Worcester, 85, 84, 84—[for] the different lines. Pretty good day yesterday. We’re spending a lot of time on it, and we are really focusing heavily on the details of things and big infrastructure.
CW: Broadband access, I’m told, is another area you’ve worked on. You move in and work with an office as long as you feel you need to and then move on?
KADISH: Exactly. So the first year it was, in this order, the T, then it was the Health Connector—that was the problem that we thought we were going to handle—then it was the Registry of Motor Vehicles—that was the problem that we thought we were going to handle. Then it was the sadness of DCF [Department of Children and Families], which was a problem we weren’t expecting to handle. The T I stay involved with. MBI—the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative—had just not been doing well. I won’t say it failed. So that was a three or four week intensive effort. Getting some of the right people in place, laying out the game plan. Now they’re doing great.
CW: I was going to ask you about DCF. I noticed the newspaper up there [a yellowing copy of a September 19, 2015, Boston Globe front-page on his wall with a story about Bella Bond, the toddler whose body was found on the East Boston shoreline]. Why do you have it there?
KADISH: It fundamentally grounds me in what’s really important. There’s a lot of stuff you can spend time on, and there’s a lot of stuff that happens that is not important, but you sometimes think it’s important, or other people think it’s important. The summer of the three different incidents with children that were so public—those are our collective kids from this community. What are we as a community doing? So it’s an important thing to be looking at. That’s really important for me. That’s really important for this governor in terms of what he’s trying to do. I always try to think about the person. The T rider. The child in the family at DCF. The person at the Health Connector who can’t get through and doesn’t know if they have insurance for an operation. So that perspective is very grounding and very driving. And that picture [of Bella Bond]—there’s no better example than that.
CW: You recently invited former chiefs of staff of Massachusetts governors to come in for a get together here at the State House.
KADISH: It was fun.
CW: I think if I tallied it up correctly, there were 11 in all, which is an amazing number that showed up. What did you take away from that?
KADISH: [At 60,] I’m a very old person doing this! I said that to everyone in the room. Then I think it was Ginny Buckingham [who served as chief of staff to Gov. Bill Weld] who said, do people mind saying how old they were when they came into the job? And Ginny goes, I was 29. And I’m thinking, oh my God. And people went around the room. A lot of folks were in their 30s, a couple 40s.
CW: Did it also help reinforce in your mind how unusual you are in relation to the background and orientation that people have had in this job.
KADISH: Yeah. I mean, they were all really good at the politics and communication. I’m OK at both of those. I’m not terrible at it, but it’s not a strength.
CW: I’ve been told you played an important role in the work to get the legislation passed establishing the MBTA control board—you were working the phones and talking to lawmakers.
KADISH: I can do all that.
CW: You’re a good soldier.
KADISH: Oh, I can be a general and plan the attack. But that’s not what I love.
CW: It’s the other stuff that gets your blood going?
CW: I’ve heard you’re a big skiier. Are you hoping for a lot of snow this winter?
KADISH: Yeah, and I was told they got three feet of snow this week at Jay Peak [in Vermont], where we’ve got a house. I’m not skiing as much as I would like to. It’s the only thing I do better as an adult than I did as a kid.
CW: Given your experience two winters ago, I would guess you may be hoping for less snow right around here.
KADISH: Exactly. Snow up there is great.
CW: You’ve got one of the most powerful jobs in state government, but you don’t wear a tie, you carry a backpack, and walk to work. You don’t seem too taken with the need to project authority through power ties or a $1,000 briefcase.KADISH: I know that most people, other than friends and former colleagues, return my phone calls and my emails not because they’re coming from Steve Kadish. They do it because they are coming from the governor’s chief of staff. I’m very aware of the difference between the two.