A novel idea
Tripp Jones, a lifelong Democrat somewhat frustrated with his own party, hit on the idea of creating a nonpartisan think tank and an independent magazine
tripp jones traces most of his career path, including the founding of MassINC 15 years ago, to a chance meeting in Washington, DC, in 1986. At the time, Jones was in the middle of his sophomore year at Hamilton College in New York, and he was interviewing for an internship in the state of New York’s Washington office. That interview ended with the head of the office suggesting Jones, who grew up in Weston, might have better luck across the hall at the DC office of the state of Massachusetts. Jones poked his head into the office and found its director, Mark Gearan, eating a sandwich. It was the start of a relationship that would lead to two internships in Washington, several jobs at the State House in Boston, and a career steeped in politics and public policy.
“Gov. Dukakis was getting ready to run for president,” Jones says, “and Mark was getting ready to play a significant role in that campaign. I can trace everything that’s happened to me professionally back to that connection with Mark. Literally, every experience I’ve had can be tied back to the network I began building through Mark and the Dukakis network.”
Michael Dukakis had a policy of meeting with any intern taking a job in his administration, and Jones was no exception. Jones got to know Dukakis better during the governor’s unsuccessful 1988 run for the presidency and later as an aide in his Executive Office of Administration and Finance as the state struggled through a budget crisis.
“Despite the big loss and how badly outspent we were, I still feel incredibly proud of the substance of that campaign,” Jones says. “We put a book out framing the issues and in many ways a different approach a Democrat could take in confronting a lot of the issues facing the state at that time. Substantively, I walked away feeling really good about how that worked and at the same time really inspired about what was not happening in the Democratic Party.”
Frustrated by the public debate and convinced that there was a need for some fresh public policy thinking and advocacy, Jones went on to found MassINC in 1996. He and his co-founders, high-profile businessman Mitchell Kertzman and lawyer/political activist Michael Gritton, focused the organization on developing a public agenda that would promote the growth and vitality of the middle class—the backbone of the American experiment, as they liked to call it. They chose to engage like-minded Republicans as well as Democrats, business leaders, and labor leaders and were committed to focusing on the importance of private initiative and the private sector as well as public policy and the public sector.
After eight years of leading MassINC, Jones left in 2003 to pursue his interest in social enterprise and business as an executive with the Boston-based MENTOR Network. Jones spent the next eight years helping to build what had been a regional company into a national health care and human services network providing community-based services for adults and children with disabilities and special needs in 38 states. Ready for a change and passionate as ever about the opportunities for non-profit and for-profit social enterprise, he left Mentor at the end of last year to plan the next chapter of his work in the private sector.
While Jones has been focused primarily on his business work and his family, he has remained actively involved in local affairs and has not ruled out jumping into politics himself someday. When a ballot question surfaced last year attempting to repeal the state’s controversial affordable housing law, Jones chaired the successful effort to defeat it. He has also remained involved in various education reform work as an advocate in the charter school and extended-learning-time movements. He has also remained on the board of directors of MassINC. He lives in Wayland with his wife Robin, his sons Hugh, 12, and Tucker, 10, and his daughter Eden, 6.
I interviewed Jones at MassINC’s offices. This is an edited version of our conversation.
cw: What prompted you to launch MassINC?
cw: And the third formative experience?
jones: The third was my work on the campaign, and once again seeing the extent to which on the political left the debate and set of options and topics that were getting focused on were driven by the powerful interests that controlled that part of our political infrastructure. That was certainly not the peak of Democratic influence in the state, to be modest about it. The party was in tough shape. The Republicans were driving what was going on around here. There was general consensus at the time that the Democratic political base had lost its way from a policy standpoint. I stepped back and sort of said there’s got to be ways we can change the way we’re thinking about the most important issues facing the lives of ordinary working people.
cw: What role did Mitchell Kertzman, the founder of PowerSoft and the chairman of the Roosevelt campaign, play?
jones: It’s very simple. MassINC would not have happened without Mitchell’s leadership and his and his wife Julie’s extraordinary generosity. Shortly after the Roosevelt campaign, he asked me what I’d like to do if I could do anything. I had spent an awful lot of time following the work of think tanks, going back to when I was at Administration and Finance and watching the way conservative Republican constituencies used think tanks to affect the public debate but more importantly to shape the way they were thinking about the issues that needed to be addressed at the time. And the way they used think tanks to generate new ideas, to lay the intellectual groundwork and foundation for policy initiatives. So Mitchell and I, who at the time shared frustrations with the political left, decided that it would be pretty cool to go off and create a different organization that would create a new progressive approach to issues affecting the state. I had watched the development of the Pioneer Institute, the way Charlie Baker and others were setting that organization up. It occurred to me, when I was at A&F, I thought we could use an alternative view to what they were doing.
cw: So you were thinking about something to counterbalance Pioneer?
jones: Many observers and critics made an assumption that MassINC would be the liberal alternative to Pioneer. But pretty quickly into the process Mitchell, Mike Gritton, and I decided to take a very different approach. We decided that we wanted to create an organization that would be genuinely nonpartisan, that would attract the interest of Republicans and Democrats, that would get the financial support and backing of business, and hopefully some labor leaders, and individuals of all stripes. We wanted to create what we called a PC-free zone, a politically-correct-free zone where we could ask a lot of questions that we knew from our work in politics and government that you could rarely ask in an environment where there was always an agenda that was going to be connected to helping the Democrats do better or the Republicans do better.
cw: What about MassINC’s focus on the middle class?
jones: All of us felt America had gotten to the point where for the first time we did not have a middle class that felt confident about their future going forward and what would likely happen to their kids. Every generation up until 25-30 years ago had basically been able to advance economically, get ahead, do better than the previous generations. All of a sudden that was changing. We had a very well laid out essay-like document that sort of explained why the middle class was so important and the backbone of our society. It’s what made America unique. A lot of other constituencies had groups that were set up to push the interests of those populations. What didn’t exist was any kind of organization that was focused on the broad middle class, the silent majority as many people would often call it.
cw: How do you define the middle class?
jones: One of the great things about the middle class in America is that people who may have done exceedingly well economically still think of themselves as having a sort of middle class outlook on life. So when we talked about middle class people we talked about people who had a middle class outlook, as well as people who fit into what we defined as the middle three quintiles on the economic spectrum.
cw: What does that mean?
jones: There’s a top quintile, people who are in the top 20 percent of income earners—and then people in the bottom 20 percent, and we sort of separated those guys out. We talked about those people who were in those three middle quintiles—the 20th percentile up to the 80th percentile of the economic spectrum. And generally we were talking about families who were earning anywhere from $30,000 up to, I think at the time, close to $100,000, something like that. I think it’s hard to argue that in today’s society those people at the 20th percentile really live a middle class life, have a middle class standard of living in Massachusetts. Given how expensive it is to live here, I think where it gets more interesting is at the upper end. I know an awful lot of people who may be making $150,000, even $200,000, who feel as though, in this community, in this state, at this time, given what they are trying to do, they are living what in their minds would be more of a middle class quality of life.
cw: Do you think the American Dream is threatened?
jones: I think the evidence suggests it overwhelmingly. When you look at the broad majority of middle-class—working and middle-class—families and look at the challenges they are facing, particularly those populations of people that do not have educational attainment levels above a high school degree—or might not even have a high school degree, and there are a ton of those people that are around here—and you look at their ability to have any choice that can affect their future economic health, there are way too many people who have no choice, who are fighting like hell every single day to hang on.
Tripp Jones with wife Robin, sons Hugh and Tucker, and daughter Eden.
cw: You made a decision that MassINC should do research and policy analysis but also get involved in a different kind of journalism. What was the thinking behind that?
jones: I wish I could tell you that we had our own, you know, original work here in cooking up the agenda for what tactics we would use to do the work on the issues we want to look at. In reality, we just cribbed from the best policy organizations in the country, and what became clear pretty quickly was that most of the high impact places had some version of a magazine. And I can remember getting together with Shelley Cohen at the Boston Herald. Shelley walked in and dropped the Manhattan Institute’s magazine on my lap—City Journal—and it reinforced for us that magazines were something that good think tanks did.
cw: Was everyone on board with that?
jones: We were probably lucky we did not have a board of directors at the time. When you are launching something, you know, you have got to make sure that whatever you do, it meets an impressive, serious standard, and so, to his credit, when Mitchell and I would talk about the magazine he would kind of look back at me and make that point. He said, “If you think it’s a good idea, and you want to talk about how it fits in with the plan [for the think tank], let’s do it, but you better make damn sure that you are talking about a legitimate magazine.” I managed to persuade my sister, Allison, who was in between her first and second years of business school, to take that summer and to put her business skills to work developing a plan for a magazine—a new magazine, a different kind of magazine. She really did the work in putting together a very solid business plan for this kind of magazine. She did all kinds of analysis and research on magazines. We had a very good business plan for a bunch of yahoos who had never been involved in publishing anything.
cw: What kind of journalism did you want to do?
jones: We spent an awful lot of time looking at other publications that organizations put out. We opted for public policy journalism with enough space to allow for the type of evidence-based analysis we don’t get in our typical daily coverage. I think it’s fair to say that it’s maybe become a little longer form than we originally envisioned [laughs] with all due respect to our tremendous editors.
cw: Is it a house organ?
jones: The single best decision we ever made was to embrace the idea of having real journalists edit and manage the magazine’s work—not the business side of it, but the editorial side.
cw: So you didn’t control the content at all?
jones: No. It was pretty clear to us that going out and hiring real journalists to edit and manage the editorial content would help us to have a non-partisan independent think tank. We didn’t want it to be a bunch of political operatives trying to do journalism. So it was very much a tactical decision.
cw: What did you think were the odds of success?
jones: With the possible exception of our significant others and some family members, even our closest friends thought the odds of us pulling this off were slim to none. The concern was: Could the think tank really ever be nonpartisan, not just because of our background in Democratic politics but because of how Massachusetts works and has worked? Could we ever really publish research with world-class experts that would be groundbreaking and different? Could we manage the wide range of issues? And publishing a magazine? I know many people thought we were full of ourselves and setting ourselves up for all kinds of embarrassment and failure.
cw: As publisher, did you ever intervene in the writing of a story?
jones: I honestly can say that there was never a time where I pulled a story as the publisher of the magazine. There were many times where I found myself in an extremely uncomfortable position of having serious concerns about what our editors were doing on a variety of issues.
cw: What did you do?
jones: Most of the time I would try to control myself and simply accept the importance of the editors doing their jobs. In isolated cases, I made a case that I thought that the risks to the publication were so great in going ahead that the editor decided to think differently than perhaps he was inclined to prior to that discussion. I can remember early on a situation where we had just brought on a very well respected, high profile, internationally recognized leader on all kinds of important public policy issues who agreed to do an interview with our editor, to talk about some of the issues that he had been working on. And our editor did the interview and we learned after the interview that it was customary in that individual’s experiences working with journalists, to have the ability to edit his own content. And we told him no. And I can assure you that it didn’t make that individual, as well as the people that connected me to him, happy at all. It was extremely difficult. And it was one of the early, big tests that we confronted, and I think it all worked out for everybody just fine.
cw: I understand you also had a situation with a story about Sen. John Kerry.
jones: In the case of that article on Sen. Kerry, I expressed my concerns, and really felt strongly that it would have been a very unfortunate stoop for the organization to publish something that was so, as I said, disrespectful, non-substantive, just over the top. And to the editor’s credit at the time, my good pal Bob Keough, he listened to me and thought a lot about it, and he ultimately felt that I was making a legitimate case. He and the journalists then went to work figuring out a way to take that piece and make it a pretty good piece that got published.
cw: So the piece did run?
jones: Oh yeah, absolutely.
cW: And how was Sen. Kerry, with the piece?
jones: Never heard from him.
cw: Where do you think the organization, in its 15 year history, has made the biggest impact?
jones: One of the things I’m most proud of is the mix of people that have been involved in making MassINC what it is. We brought together Democrats, Republicans, labor leaders, and business leaders—civic leaders of all stripes. In addition to Mitchell and Julie [Kertzman], I think of my pal Andy Calamare, who’s been a coach to every one of the key players in the organization—and a most important member of the board, helping very much to develop this nonpartisan, independent model that we’ve pursued. I also think of the leadership of Chris Gabrieli—without whom this organization would not be around—and Gloria Larson and Mark Robinson from the Weld Administration, the late Jack Rennie, Gov. Dukakis—who, given the times in which we were launching the organization, had to keep his extensive counsel and involvement largely invisible. Sen. Tsongas, who had just created the nonpartisan Concord Coalition and provided all kinds of important input. Hubie Jones, Peter Meade, Rev. Ray Hammond. I could go on and on. I think of our first two institutional sponsors—then BankBoston and the Carpenters Union. The carpenters were picketing the bank at the time. Joannie Jaxtimer, who got her company, Mellon Bank, to be the first company to sponsor research. And our many other key donors, including Foley Hoag and Mintz Levin, the firms that have done all our pro bono legal work.
cw: But when you think back on your time, what jumps out at you? Is it a piece of research?
jones: Yeah, well you know. No. 1, I guess, is the way in which we framed the analysis of what was happening to the middle class, mostly with Andy Sum and Paul Harrington over at Northeastern’s Center for Labor Market Studies. That was how we put the stake in the ground. It was an incredible collaborative effort that allowed this organization to frame in a dramatic but fact-based way what was going on with the middle class. It also highlighted for people what the drivers of that reality were. It was also unique enough to New England, on the eve of a New Hampshire primary, that it really got peoples’ attention, inspired people to talk about that problem, to get interested in what could be done to address it. We have updated and continued that work with Andy and his team on a regular basis. That certainly stands out. But there were other signature research efforts as well, including our work on community corrections and probation reform; the costs of living and housing in particular; the role of immigrants and immigration on our economy—and therefore the middle-class; education reform; and adult basic education and workforce development.
cw: What do you think MassINC and CommonWealth have accomplished?
jones: In looking back, I think we have certainly changed the public debate on a number of critical issues and played a key role in mobilizing our political and civic leadership to address those issues. I am certainly proud of the legislation that we have helped get passed—the additional funding for such important investments as adult special education, for example. I’m also proud of the various ways our work has affected private initiative—philanthropic investment, companies deciding to make change, the way in which our research on the costs of living mobilized all kinds of constituencies to collaborate in addressing the need to build more affordable housing. One of the most important things that I continue to remind funders, and this is something that the conservatives get far better than people on the left, is that the best think tanks lay the groundwork for change that will happen many years down the road. The best think tanks do research, stay at it, understand that it’s going to take, in some cases, decades to get that change to happen. And that’s something that I hope that the organization continues to focus on. Just because we’re not necessarily seeing change happen today, tomorrow, next year, or the year after doesn’t mean that the work that MassINC is doing isn’t going to ultimately be unbelievably valuable in making real meaningful policy impact.
cw: Do any articles in the magazine stick out for you?
jones: My favorite was the work that our editors did pretty early on looking at the role of teacher unions in shaping what was happening in education reform. It was a tough piece that raised a lot of serious questions about the extent to which teacher unions were impeding the ability of the state to implement a lot of what was in that 1993 law. The story made a lot of people angry, a lot of friends of mine. The teachers union, which at the time was a financial backer of the magazine, pulled its financial support. To this day I still hear about it, and I continue to hear about it, and I continue to feel that was the best use of that sponsorship money.
cw: Does MassINC’s work have relevance beyond our state’s borders?
jones: One of the things that makes the mission here even more relevant is that, as we look around the world, we’re seeing middle class populations built in other parts of the world, inspired by what happened in America. It’s happening in China, all over Eastern Europe, parts of Africa. Literally, continents all over the planet are now at a point where they are experiencing and having the capacity to experience what America went through years ago. They are inspired by our experiment. At the same time, America’s at a point where our middle class, the great success story of this experiment, is in the worst shape ever, some might argue.cw: What do you think of the magazine’s shift toward more investigative pieces?
jones: Just the use of the words “investigative reporting” scared a ton of people off and created all kinds of friction and challenge for you. But it came at a point when it was critical for the organization to have the courage and the guts to shake things up a bit. You’ve defined what you mean by investigative reporting in a way in which it frankly increases the credibility and enhances the reputation of the place. That’s huge. Those are the kinds of risks that I would hope the organization would continue to take. It doesn’t always make everybody happy. We’ve lost funders as a result of the decision to do that, but only if an organization like this continues to take risks, innovate, and change will it continue to get the support of the kind of people and organizations that it’s going to take to fund and support what we’re doing. So I hope that kind of change will continue. I fully hope and expect that there will be plenty of days where I get up, shaking my head, saying: “What the hell are they doing on this? God, that tees me off. I disagree.” That’s what this place was supposed to be about, and I hope there’s more and more of that.