A time for beginnings, endings, opportunities

For Democrats, a political vacuum looms

It’s a time for beginnings.

The election of a new governor brings an end to eight years of Democratic hegemony on Beacon Hill. For Charlie Baker, it is both a beginning and a continuation. Baker is no stranger to Beacon Hill or the executive branch, and he comes to office with a better understanding of how things work than any governor since Paul Cellucci. Maura Healey’s victory means that for the first time since 1991 the Attorney General will not be the former District Attorney of Middlesex County (although she did work there). A new state treasurer takes control of one of the Commonwealth’s most powerful and influential offices. Stan Rosenberg assumes the duties of the Senate President, bringing what most observers expect will be a more progressive ideology and inclusive approach to running the state Senate.

In the aftermath of Tom Menino’s death after a very public display of personal courage, there is a sense that this may also be the true beginning of Marty Walsh’s term as mayor of Boston. For the past 10 months, it sometimes seemed that Boston had two mayors – the elected mayor and the “mayor emeritus.” Tom Menino did not leave center stage easily. Instead, he reveled in the limelight, making frequent public appearances and basking in the affection that Bostonians had for the man they had known as mayor for two decades. Mayor Walsh accepted this and managed it with grace and generosity. With Menino’s passing, it’s as if a reset button has been pushed and Marty Walsh can now begin his own term as mayor, unencumbered by the past.

It’s a time for endings.

Deval Patrick, Martha Coakley, and Steve Grossman are about to pass (probably permanently) from the political stage. After a long goodbye following the selection of her successor last year, Therese Murray leaves the Senate Presidency, and Robert DeLeo enters what is likely his last term as House Speaker.

For the Democratic Party, this is a watershed moment not unlike what it faced in the early 1990s. In 1991 the party was reeling from the turbulence and unpredictability of the 1990 election, when John Silber effectively took control of the party for a brief, tumultuous two months, before losing to Bill Weld. It was the first time since the mid-1970s when the party was not dominated by Michael Dukakis and Frank Bellotti. January 1991 saw the inauguration of a new speaker (Charlie Flaherty), a new (Republican) treasurer (Joe Malone) and new secretary of state (Bill Galvin).

It took a long time for the Democratic Party to regain its footing. A short list of capable people – Mark Roosevelt, Scott Harshbarger, and Shannon O’Brien – tried to take on the mantle of gubernatorial leadership. All were destined to fail. Patrick’s imminent exit doesn’t quite resemble the vacuum that was caused with Dukakis’s exit in 1991, but it will likely leave state Democrats repeating the pattern of the 1990s. There will be decentralized nodes of power, centered most obviously in the House and Senate, but also thriving in the offices of the new Attorney General and Treasurer. Rosenberg, who has waited for his moment of leadership for well over a decade, serving for a time as Senate Ways and Means Chair, comes better prepared to lead the Senate than any of his recent predecessors. Neither he nor the governor-elect will need a nano-second of on-the-job training.

There is a straw in the wind and it will be interesting to observe how it lands. Evan Falchuk and his United Independent Party achieved their initial goal of securing more than 3 percent of the gubernatorial vote, thus legally legitimizing the UIP. The question now is whether Falchuk and others have the interest, persistence, patience, and skill to build a new progressive independent party that can actually win seats in the Legislature and city halls. There is an increasingly independent-minded streak in voters. Liberals and Progressives who were left scratching their heads watching a Democratic governor introduce casino gaming to Massachusetts as the centerpiece of his second administration question whether party labels – or ideological labels, for that matter – mean anything.

Politics today isn’t what is used to be. As recently as the 1990s, there remained remnants of a certain kind of politics, times when loyalty meant something sacred and it was taken for granted that politics was not a hobby but a way of life. That political world is unrecognizable today, as the notion of political loyalty is deemed an anachronism at best, pejorative at worst. Political activists today are likely more drawn to a principled, action-oriented approach to governing without regard to party affiliation or personal relationships. If Falchuk and the UIP are able to build a viable new political party, they will do so primarily at the expense of the state Democratic Party. This may be the largest short-term challenge laid before Sens. Thomas McGee and Benjamin Downing, who appear poised to pick up the pieces of the party apparatus. They are both highly regarded as level-headed, progressive thinkers who know how to build consensus, compromise, and get things done, so they ought to be up to the task.

It’s a time for looking forward.

Charlie Baker takes office during a time of great change, the arrival of a techno-centric era that challenges old assumptions about business models, the delivery and value of services, mobility preferences, and the generation and use of energy. In the energy sector, the emerging paradigm of a greener, more interactive energy system where users are also providers requires a revamped regulatory system that enables utilities to comfortably and profitably move toward new, more agile business models. In the transportation sector, technology can advance the kind of multi-modal mobility platform that is increasingly desired by a changing generational demographic. In all sectors, the pervasive presence of technology demands that government proactively find ways to adopt a regulatory system that incentivizes the private sector to enable and encourage access for all citizens – access to education and training on line, to health care through telemedicine, to affordable multi modal transportation options.

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Innovation is driving jobs creation in Massachusetts, notably in Boston and Cambridge, but it comes at a price. Inequality – both income inequality and inequality of opportunity and access – threatens to grow worse without strategic interventions. Professor Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT’s Sloan School warned recently that technology has become “the main driver of recent increases in inequality.” This is happening for several reasons, some of which (like paying inordinately high salaries and lavish perks to the top .01 percent) are beyond government’s ability to alter. Government can play a role in reducing the negative impacts of other drivers of inequality: particularly displacement of workers and the need for more affordable, accessible, tech-oriented training and education for those desiring to enter the innovation workforce. We cannot let the innovation juggernaut move forward without proper consideration of the public and private sector roles necessary to ensure that it does not leave a majority of our citizens behind.

These are not easy tasks to accomplish, and in many cases they require a disruption of the stubborn status quo, but they must be done. The governor-elect appears to be both entrepreneurial and willing to disrupt in a positive way. Those instincts are necessary if we are going to adopt new technology-based approaches to raising robust and sustainable net new transportation revenue. And they are necessary if the Commonwealth is going to provide the private sector with effective tools and incentives (through aggressive regulatory reform and strategic tax inducements) to adapt profitably to our techno-centric times while ensuring that the poor and the middle class are not left behind and have a fair and equal opportunity to access the benefits of our innovation society. This is an enormous challenge, one that if met will strengthen our state across demographics, making this an exciting time for those who excel at forward looking thinking.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.