Winter 2012

Winter 2012

Game on

Game on

The video game business is trying to move to the next level in Massachusetts. How much of a helping hand will state government offer?

 

Baker College junior Matthew Herard, dressed in a suit festooned with sensors,
moves in front of a green screen as cameras record his actions. His moves will be
used to make a digital avatar that is more life-like. Herard says he’d like to go to
work for Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios in Rhode Island after graduation.

once a month, about 200 nerdy 20-somethings crowd the back room of The Skellig, an Irish pub in Waltham, to talk about video games. It looks like a gathering of people who spend too much time in front of their computers. Sweat­shirts and scraggly beards are the norm. Only a handful of women are present. Many of the attendants are college students and recent graduates, some unemployed, giving the place the feel of a frat house as they order burgers and rounds of beer.

But first appearances are deceiving. The monthly events, called Boston Post Mortem, feature panels of local video game developers from renowned companies such as Quincy’s Irra­tional Games, known for the popular title BioShock; Need­ham’s Tur­bine, creator of games based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; and Harmonix, the Cambridge firm that created the blockbuster hits Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and, most recently, Dance Central. Since its release last year, Dance Central has sold 2.5 million copies, at $60 apiece, by challenging players to mimic the dance routines of animated characters—called ava­tars—on a screen as a soundtrack plays.

In November, the topic of the Post Mortem panel is analytics, or how developers figure out whether or not players are enjoying their games. The crowd is all business. They take notes and, when question time comes, throw around terms like “vanity metering,” “metrics of love,” “virality,” and “gamification.” They debate the ethics of making an online game so addictive that players spend too much time and money on it.

At the conclusion of the evening, panel moderator Darius Kazemi of Bocoup, a technology consultancy in Boston’s Innovation District, asks if anyone has a job to advertise. A few people take the microphone and rattle off a list of open positions for programmers, artists, writers, and marketers. The country faces a jobs crisis, but there seem to be plenty of openings in the local video games industry. Companies are looking for people who understand the interaction between technology, art, and retail sales, Kazemi explains. The pay is good: $31,000 to $57,000 a year for entry-level employees, according to a 2011 survey by Game Developer Magazine.

Timothy Loew, the executive director of the Massa­chu­setts Digital Games Institute, or MassDigi, listens from the back of the room. Loew is the point man for an unusual quasi-public initiative to take the video game business in Massachusetts to the next level. It’s currently a $2 billion business in the state with a handful of world-class companies, a number of smaller studios mushrooming from the Berkshires to Boston, and a large pool of fresh talent coming out of video game design programs at local colleges every year. Loew sees tremendous potential in video games and is leading an effort to capitalize on it.

“Video gaming is an industry here. It’s grown that way organically,” says Loew. “The question is, how can we try as an institute to grow the industry?”

The answer will involve more than just strategizing ways that the state might help promote another industry taking root in our knowledge-based economy. Some state and industry leaders want to see Massachusetts go even further and offer tax incentives to the emerging video game industry, much as the state now does for the film industry. They say that kind of industry-targeted assistance is exactly what is needed to have the video game business take off. To others, however, such a hefty state hand-out would be the tax-policy equivalent of Grand Theft Auto.

Tremendous potential

 
 
 
Characters from the video game Fate: The
Cursed King
by HitPoint Studios of Hatfield.

Massachusetts is home to more than 75 video game developers that employ about 1,300 workers, making it the fifth-biggest cluster of video game production in the country, after California, Texas, Washington, and New York. It is also an academic center for video games. For the past two years, The Princeton Review, the college ratings service, has listed two Worcester schools—Becker College and nearby Worcester Polytechnic Institute—among the top 10 undergraduate video game design programs in the country. Both are in their infancy, the outgrowth of clubs that morphed into full-fledged academic programs seven years ago. MIT’s graduate program in comparative media studies earned an honorable mention in 2011.

The traditional video game business model revolves around games sold through retail stores which consumers can play on their computers, Xbox, or other home console systems. Many of these traditional games are well known. They include variations of Super Mario Brothers and Sim City, or sophisticated epics that feature astoundingly detailed graphics and enormous worlds that can take casual players weeks to explore fully, often from the so-called “first-person shooter” perspective of a character running around a hostile city with a gun.

Nowadays, however, more and more developers are designing games that don’t fit into the traditional business model of selling software to individual players. These developers make games that are played almost exclusively online, such as World of Warcraft, where participants join a website and compete against players from around the world. Or they make games that are apps downloaded and played on smart phones or tablets. Still others make titles accessed via Facebook. FarmVille, where players manage a small farm for weeks or months, sharing their successes with friends along the way, is a good example.

Games are also increasingly used as advertisements, either as a game that pops up when surfers click on a webpage ad or as a fun tool to drum up business, an approach that the US Army has adopted with America’s Army, a game designed to familiarize would-be recruits with the military.

As video games have fragmented into different niches, they’ve become a big business that rivals movies, music, and other media in terms of value. Domestic video game sales amounted to $15 billion in 2010, while domestic box office revenues for films totaled $10.6 billion, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Games are also growing in popularity. The global video game market was forecast to hit $65 billion last year, an increase from $62.7 billion in 2010. It is expected to top $67 billion this year.

Contributing to the industry’s expansion is “gamification,” or using video game features, like characters and scoring, in computer applications that are not entertainment per se. These applications are being used in fields ranging from education to medicine to the military. Using Dance Central for a workout, rather than entertainment, is an example of gamification. Another is a project MassDigi is currently overseeing to gamify Simon & Schuster’s language-learning software. Imagine navigating an avatar on a mission through a town where you have to read and speak Spanish with locals to track the clues needed to move to the next level. Any­one who has abandoned attempts at personal enrichment with Rosetta Stone or similar software might appreciate the difference.

Dave McCool, president of Muzzy Lane, a New­bury­port studio that develops gamified educational software, says it’s possible that video games might someday be better suited to teaching than the printed word. “Schools are digitized,” McCool says. “Colleges have done it. Now it’s getting down into secondary and primary school.”

Growth of MassDigi 

 

“We have a chance in this worldwide industry,” says Timothy Loew,
executive director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute in Worcester.

MassDigi isn’t run by a tech guy. Loew got his MBA and worked in banking before filling administrative posts at Becker. When the Princeton Review rankings came out, he says he didn’t need to know the nuts and bolts of computers to see an opportunity. Here was a Massachusetts business that required a specific kind of talent, and a new crop of that unique talent was graduating in the state every year from some of the best academic programs in the field. Yet there was a disconnect: Local companies were often hiring people from out of state and all too often students from local universities were leaving for other tech hubs. It was the classic Massa­chu­setts brain drain problem, and it had been going on since the birth of video games. MIT students created one of the world’s first video games, Spacewar!, in the 1960s and then went on to found Atari in Silicon Valley.

Initially, Loew’s goal was to figure out how to connect students from Becker with local employers. Knowing that politicians were eager in today’s economic climate to create jobs, he began courting local lawmakers and Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, a former Worcester mayor who was familiar with Becker, for ideas on how to bring academia together with the private and public sectors to put grads to work.

Over the course of 2010, Loew organized panel discussions with developers and several Worcester-based politicians, including Murray, US Rep. Jim McGovern, and state Rep. Vincent Pedone. They eventually reached a consensus that the state should devote resources to help the video game industry, but there was little enthusiasm among public officials for directly appropriating taxpayer dollars to help the private sector. Becker, however, agreed to devote some money and a turn-of-the-century mansion to Mass­Digi, while Murray secured $50,000 in seed money from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a quasi-public state agency.

In April 2011, Murray presided over the official ribbon-cutting of the institute, designating it as a state initiative to promote the video game industry in Massachusetts. He also arranged for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development to give Becker logistical help in drafting applications for other grants, aid that Loew says was crucial in MassDigi’s successful application for a $500,000 grant from the US Department of Commerce in September of last year.

Loew is still renovating his new office space, but he already is planning projects, such as the partnership with Simon & Schuster where Becker students will gamify language-learning software. He’s also arranging to bring a few video game developers to MassDigi for the spring semester for “reverse sabbaticals,” where professionals will take a break from the workplace to teach or conduct research at colleges throughout the state. Eventually, he hopes to have scores of programmers cycling in and out of local schools.

 

Aaron St. John and Paul Hake, the cofounders of HitPoint Studios in Hatfield.

They’re small steps, admits Loew, but he says global competition for talented developers demands that the state encourage a community that stands out from other game clusters. He hopes MassDigi will become a clearinghouse where developers, academics, and policymakers network, with the institute then serving as a launching pad for new enterprises as video games become more pervasive.

MassDigi doesn’t lobby the Legislature for financial support, but Loew has taken note of what is being done elsewhere for the video game industry. Quebec, he says, offers some of the most generous packages for new companies, while Georgia and Louisiana have already approved tax credits for video game production. Bay State game developers are growing here now, says Loew, but efforts by lawmakers in other states could change the landscape quickly.  “Massachusetts is a brains and creativity state, and digital games are a brains and creativity business,” he says. “We have a chance in this worldwide industry.”

Policymakers are listening. Pedone has filed legislation that would add video game production to the same legislation that now gives producers of films and television commercials a tax credit equal to 25 percent of their expenses in Massachusetts. No estimates of the cost have been made. The film tax credit is designed to lure filmmakers to Massachusetts; applying it to video game production would provide a hefty subsidy to existing companies while also acting as lure to draw firms to the state. The tax credit is very attractive to companies because it can either be sold to raise cash or used to offset taxes. Pedone’s bill has 24 co-sponsors, and he and Loew succeeded in bringing House Speaker Robert DeLeo to the Becker campus twice to speak to students, tour the school’s labs, and discuss MassDigi.

“Video games are projected to grow,” says Pedone. “We should have that growth in Massachusetts. If you think back 30 or 40 years ago, nobody knew about biotechnology. Now biotechnology and the spinoffs from bio-medical devices, medical research are the lifeblood of our economy in Massachusetts. I think video game design has the same potential for economic growth.”

The tax credit debate

 

Becker College student Matthew Herard with Paul Cotnoir, chairman of
Design Programs at the college.

Video game developers generally aren’t politically active. Most prefer spending marathon hours writing code or hashing out the plotlines of a new quest rather than pondering the viability of tax credits. The strength of their support for incentives tends to be directly proportional to the size of their operations, which in turn would determine the amounts of tax credits they receive.

Paul Hake, cofounder of Hit­Point Studios, says tax credit sweeteners wouldn’t change how he operates his 27-person studio in a renovated tobacco barn in the Pioneer Valley town of Hatfield. “I don’t really pay too much attention or care all that much,” he says. “But MassDigi is good for making connections, learning pay points, and learning insights.”

Larger developers have a different perspective, says Jeff Anderson, who has been involved with two local companies that were acquired by out-of-state giants. Anderson is now senior vice president of Maj­esco Entertainment, a New Jersey firm that last year purchased Ander­son’s company, Quick Hit, which he founded in Foxborough in 2008.

Quick Hit scored a coup two years ago by acquiring a license from the NFL to develop online football games. At the time, California-based Electronic Arts was assumed to have exclusive rights to NFL logos, but Anderson realized that games played on the Internet weren’t included in their agreement. Anderson was also chief executive of Turbine, which Warner Brothers purchased for a reported $160 million two years ago.

When a large developer acquires a smaller one, says Anderson, employees find themselves vying for internal funds within the larger company. In that scenario, he says, regional advantages and disadvantages become obvious quickly. “Turbine is now competing for revenue and expense against other studios in the Warner Brothers system,” says Anderson. “If there is a tax credit in other areas, it’s very difficult for them to win those bids.”

Few events have stoked the debate over tax credits in Massachusetts as much as ex-Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s decision in 2010 to move his video game company, 38 Studios, from Maynard to Rhode Island. Ocean State officials offered Schilling $75 million in loan guarantees in exchange for a promise to create 450 new jobs. As he left, Schilling made no effort to disguise how Patrick administration officials declined to make a suitably generous counteroffer for him to remain. 38 Studios is scheduled to release its first game in February. Rhode Island’s loans remain the biggest source of funds for the company after Schilling’s personal $20 million investment.

Proponents of extending tax credits to the video game industry say the business is close to achieving the concentration of developers necessary to deliver exponential growth, enough to vault the state over the next largest clusters to take the No. 2 spot behind Silicon Valley. Massa­chusetts also has the qualities ambitious designers seek, such as venture capital, diverse residents, and good local schools. The problem, insiders say, is there aren’t enough opportunities to attract sufficient developers long enough for big companies to emerge and, more importantly, stay here for good.

“More companies here is, No.1, what you need in order to keep people here,” says Kazemi, the moderator at November’s Post Mortem panel discussion. “If you get laid off and you specialize in a very particular kind of a 3D engine [software that makes three-dimensional images], and then you only have three or four other places to go and none of them are hiring, you have to go elsewhere. Generalists do well here in Boston. People with very specific skills tend to come in and then leave.”

Many on Beacon Hill are wary of giving financial support to select industries, particularly in the wake of Ever­green Solar’s bankruptcy after receiving more than $50 million in grants and subsidies from the state. “I just worry about trying to pick winners and losers in tax policy,” says state Rep. George Petersen, a Republican from Grafton. “We have a terrible record of picking winners and losers.”

Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration appears divided on tax credits. The state’s innovation advisor, Eric Naka­jima, says the governor opposes expanding the tax credit program because of budget concerns. Even if the funds were there, he says, it’s not clear if the industry needs inducements. Video game developers are already expanding in the state and public efforts to extend broadband Internet throughout Western Massachusetts are likely to help the trend, he says. (See Head Count, p. 19.)

Broader economic currents that favor the so-called “creative class,” a term borrowed from urbanist Richard Florida, will also foster success among Bay State video gamers, Nakajima predicts. Florida is famous for his assertion that future prosperity belongs to economies where workers spend their energy on gigs or projects, with down time in between, rather than traditional 9-to-5 office jobs. Florida took inspiration for his theory from artists and scientists, whose labor resembles that of game designers.

“You can have very big companies, like Disney Research in Cambridge, but you also have a very large number of one- and two- and five-person shops who are creating some components of a game,” said Nakajima. “They are essentially acting as freelancers or contractors who are very flexible, who can change gears quickly, and who can be anywhere in the state.”

Lt. Gov. Murray is more optimistic about incentives. He floated the possibility the Legislature may consider them this year, especially if unemployment remains high and debates about the future of the US economy reach a fever pitch, as expected, during the presidential election campaign.

“There is some preliminary chatter about another economic development bill. That might be a piece of it,” Murray says about the idea of tax credits for the video game industry. “We should stand up this MassDigi institute and then we should do the cost-benefit analysis of the tax credits.”  

John Dyer is a freelance writer based in central Massachusetts.

An outside-the-Beltway strategy

An outside-the-Beltway strategy

Northampton-based Free Press has become a force in Washington by stoking public uprisings and refusing to compromise

most washington advocacy groups are based in Washington on the theory that it’s easier to influ­ence the federal government from the capital itself. But Free Press, an up-and-coming advocacy group that is an antagonist of media and Internet companies and thorn in the side of the Federal Communications Commission, is headquartered 400 miles away in the Pioneer Valley.

Free Press, based in tiny Florence, a village of Northampton, makes it clear that its outside-the-Beltway strategy is all about avoiding Washing­ton’s culture of back-scratching. Instead, the group tries to convince politicians to do what it wants by siccing an angry public on them. In other words, compromise is not an option.

In its effort to change policy by stoking a public uprising, Free Press has an unlikely range of interests. It wants to regulate the Internet to ensure that Internet service providers don’t decide to start favoring certain content over other. It’s also against consolidation of media companies and wants to force those companies to pay for expanded broadband Internet access.

Just nine years after it was founded by campaign finance activist Josh Silver and University of Illinois professor Robert W. McChesney, even Free Press’s critics say it has become the dominant consumer group in the area of media reform. It almost single-handedly made net neutrality—the idea that Internet providers should not discriminate against any content—a rallying cry in Wash­ington and played a big role in convincing the FCC to move ahead with regulations. In so doing, it became a feared opponent of big Internet service providers, such as Verizon, which strongly oppose the new rules. Free Press added to its reputation as a force to be reckoned with by fighting against the mergers of NBC and Comcast and, more recently, AT&T and T-Mobile.

Still, it’s nearly as easy to argue that Free Press has experienced more disappointments in Wash­ington than successes. Last fall, the group sued the FCC to protest the net neutrality rules it worked so hard to promote, arguing that they are too weak because they don’t cover wireless devices. More recently, Free Press took the lead in criticizing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s plan to revamp how the government funds the deployment of Internet service to rural areas, putting the group at odds with a powerful home state senator, John Kerry, who’s endorsed the FCC’s plan.

To some, Free Press’s principled stands have made leaders of the group heroes. Sasha Costanza-Chock, a professor of civic media at the Massa­chusetts Institute of Technology, says the group is nothing less than “the best respected and most visible political advocacy organization representing the public interest in media policy.”

US Rep. Ed Markey, the Malden Democrat who is Congress’s leading proponent of net neutrality, calls the group “a phenomenal force for building the movement for better media.”

To others, though, Free Press has become a prime example of how groups not well versed in the ways of Washington can eventually cut themselves out of the debate. “I don’t think they realize that sometimes the best way to get things done is to work out deals, and that’s just not their M.O.,” says Paul Gallant, a former aide to ex-FCC chairman Michael Powell, a George W. Bush appointee.

When Free Press sued the FCC in September, for example, allies who’d helped the group pursue the net neutrality rules refused to join them. “They’ve chosen to litigate it. We’re not going to,” says David Sohn, senior policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “We see the rules as a good start, and we want to try to see those get established.”

Free Press was unmoved. Craig Aaron, Free Press’s executive director, says the group believes a confrontational approach works better than compromise. “Some groups are willing to accept this or that, or believe this is the best they can get. We’re going to continue to fight,” he says.

Aaron says the fact that the group is based outside of Washington is crucial to its no-compromise mantra. “We’ve always believed in an outside-inside strategy,” he says. “Having a lot of staff outside of DC allows us not to get too sucked into the minutia of Washington.” (Free Press maintains a satellite office in Washington, with about a third of its 40-person staff—lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations staffers mainly—in the capital. Its fundraising and administrative teams remain in Florence.)

Setting up shop in the liberal western Massachusetts college town was Josh Silver’s idea. A campaign finance activist motivated by the belief that corporate lobbyists have too much power in Washington, Silver wanted to stay as far away from the capital as he could. He grew up in Shelburne, a half-hour drive north, and saw the Northampton area as relatively inexpensive and full of talent from the many colleges in the area.

At first, his primary goal was to fight efforts by big media companies—the owners of television and radio stations and newspapers—to consolidate. But it quickly became apparent that the Internet was changing the media landscape. New and diverse voices were gaining readers online, but there were no rules ensuring that Internet service providers had to transmit their content. Soon, the group shifted gears to ensuring that net neutrality would be the law of the land.

“The goal was to give the American people a seat at the table in the key media and technology debates. In order to do that, it’s clear we needed to be outside of the Belt­way,” says Silver, who left Free Press last year to start a new group focusing on opposing corporate influence in campaign politics.

During its early years, Free Press was known for attacking the Bush administration. It generated a massive email campaign and rallied activists at FCC meetings in opposition to the commission’s decision to ease its rules barring newspaper firms from buying television broadcasters in the same markets, and vice versa. The courts ultimately threw out the rules, handing Free Press a big victory. The group pulled no punches. Silver said the commission was “dominated by industry pawns” and cheered when Bush’s first FCC chairman, Michael Powell—who’d proposed easing the rules limiting media mergers—resigned.

Free Press expected its net neutrality campaign to gain traction when President Obama was elected. Liberal donors like George Soros’s Open Society Institute, Bill Moyers’s Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, and the Ford Foundation helped grow Free Press’s budget to $5 million.

Conservatives and business lobbyists have targeted Free Press as the puppet master dictating technology policy in the Obama administration. Jim Lakely, co-director of the Center on Digital Economy at the Heartland Institute, a business-backed group, says Free Press has been “very influential” in large part because “they’ve had the ear of Obama and Genachowski.”

But Silver says it would be more appropriate to cast Free Press with so many other groups on the left that have been disappointed with Obama. “This is a similar story across issues,” he says. “The Obama administration made many promises that they didn’t end up keeping. Because of our outside-the-Beltway culture, we were able to pivot and apply political pressure when we needed to.”

It remains to be seen, though, whether Free Press’s decision to protest, rather than compromise, will succeed. The group is still awaiting a decision on its lawsuit against the FCC’s net neutrality rules from the federal district court in Boston. A win would provide some vindication, but officials at the Center for Democracy and Technology are concerned that the ruling could go in the opposite direction, in favor of Verizon.

On the extension of broadband service to rural areas, Free Press looked like it might find an ally in Kerry. Both are critical of the existing taxes on phone plans that are used to pay for service to rural areas. Kerry says the system shortchanges Massachusetts residents, who pay a lot but receive little government aid in return. Free Press say profitable phone companies should chip in more of their own money to expand service.

But when the FCC released its plan in late October, Kerry endorsed the overhaul as “fiscally responsible and fair” while Free Press blasted it as a “missed opportunity.” From the perspective of Washington insiders like Gallant, it looked like another opportunity missed for Free Press to cut a deal to its liking. But Aaron says Free Press saw no room for compromise: “The FCC can close the digital divide only by recognizing that these vastly profitable companies don’t need to be subsidized,” he says.

Smart on crime

Smart on crime

Conservatives in such states as Texas and Mississippi embrace reforms that are tough sellers in liberal Massachusetts

several of the nation’s most conservative, tough-on-crime states are spearheading a growing reform movement that’s cutting both crime and prison costs. The dramatic changes taking place in Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky are designed to keep people out of jail, but they weren’t launched because of pro-prisoner compassion. They are emerging from a simple mandate to control burgeoning prison costs, and in response to a 2010 US Supreme Court ruling that ordered California to immediately release thousands of prisoners based on unconstitutional overcrowding.

 

Willie Horton: The case that haunts Massachusetts.
Photo: Boston Herald

The result is a curious political turnaround: States long notorious for their throw-away-the-key attitudes are abandoning the old campaign slogan “tough on crime” and replacing it with the softer, reform-conscious mantra of “smart on crime.” They are doing away with mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent crimes, easing penalties for minor parole violations, and investing in treatment and education programs so inmates get the skills they need to avoid turning to crime again once they are released. The approach is working. Fewer inmates are ending up back in prison after they are released. Prison populations are dropping. Prison spending is falling. Crime rates are going down, not up.

Conservatives are jumping on the bandwagon. RightonCrime.com, set up by a Texas research in­stitute, is preaching that conservatives must not only be tough on crime but  tough on crime spending, supporting more cost-effective approaches to public safety. Supporters include Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former attorney general Edwin Meese, and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. A map on the Right on Crime website indicates reform efforts are concentrated in the South, but also the Rust Belt and states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

But not Massachusetts. The liberal Bay State is continuing to pack its prisons with addicted and indigent low-level criminals. A study done for the Pew Center on the States indicates recidivism is significantly worse in Massachusetts than it is in Texas, Mississippi, and South Carolina and on a par with Kansas and Kentucky. The Massachu­setts corrections system is operating at 140 percent of capacity, with one unit inside the Framingham prison for women at 300 percent. At a cost of $47,000 a year for maximum security inmates, the Massa­chusetts corrections budget is currently $536 million and could rise another $45 million next year. Some analysts are predicting the state will need another 5,000 prison beds by 2020.

This tale of two correctional philosophies comes down to politics. Officials in Texas, Mississippi, and the other states are open to new approaches because they aren’t worried their constituents will think they are soft on crime. But Massachusetts officials are still haunted by the ghost of Willie Horton, the convicted murderer who was released on furlough and raped a woman while her bound fiancé was forced to watch. George H.W. Bush used the Horton case to portray Michael Dukakis as a soft-on-crime Demo­crat in the 1988 presidential election, and its impact lingers. Last year, when Dominic Cinelli shot and killed Woburn police officer James McGuire while out on parole, the reaction on Beacon Hill was swift.

Gov. Deval Patrick fired all but two members of the state parole board. Since the new board took over in February, releases have dropped by 20 percent. The Legislature is now considering a so-called habitual offender law, which would bar anyone convicted of three violent crimes from being re­leased from prison. The Senate paired the get-tough language with some fairly mild sentencing reforms, but the House opted for just the habitual offender language. The two branches are now trying to resolve their differences.

Patrick says he favors a balanced approach, one that includes an emphasis on crime prevention and a de-emphasis on minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders. But he makes no apologies for his tough-on-crime stance. “It’s very important for us to be hard-headed about the perpetrators of violent crimes because it’s very important to be hard-headed about how we protect public safety,” he says. “So that includes tightening our laws to be as firm as possible when dealing with habitual violent offenders.”

Before 2007, Texas was about as hard-headed as it gets. The state was spending nearly $3 billion a year on prisons, probation, and parole. Some prisons were running at nearly 300 percent of capacity. Prison doors seemed to be revolving, with 13,000 parolees a year being returned to prison, many for “technical violations” such as neglecting to perform a required community service like working a day at a soup kitchen. The Texas Legislative Budget Board predicted 17,000 more prison beds would soon be needed.

Texas Republican state Rep. Jerry Madden says the situation was out of control. “Gov. [Rick] Perry laid down the law,” says Madden. “He said: ‘We are not building another prison. Come up with a better idea.’”

Madden joined with Democratic state Sen. John Whit­mire to launch the bipartisan Justice Reinvestment Strategy. Their bipartisan diplomacy quickly convinced the Texas legislature to invest $241 million in substance abuse and mental health programs and adopt initiatives that place more offenders outside prison walls under the supervision of probation and parole officials. The state also re-examined its policy of incarcerating people prior to trial, and dropped mandatory sentences for non-violent crimes.

The results have been promising. Texas officials say billions of dollars in costs have been avoided. Recidivism has fallen by 22 percent. Since 2007, the state’s crime rate has dropped 10 percent. Instead of adding prison beds, Texas for the first time in state history closed a prison, shuttering the 2,000-bed Sugarland Central state prison. “We shifted because of money,” Madden says. “The amazing thing is, we can’t believe how much more we’re getting out of it.”

In the late 1990s, Mississippi opened seven new prisons. Within a decade, its prison population doubled. Its annual corrections budget swelled to $347 million a year. Its sentencing guidelines were draconian: Possession of 30 grams of marijuana, cocaine, or heroin—the equivalent of 30 sugar cubes—drew a mandatory 30 years. Hundreds of people a month were sentenced to maximum security prisons without the possibility of parole.

Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps had seen enough. “I decided it was time to get everyone to really think about who we’re mad at, and who we’re actually afraid of,” he says. “This tough-on-crime, war-on-drugs mentality had everyone get mad because—somebody has a roach in the ashtray? So what do we do? We run out of prison beds and stop paying attention to the dangerous lunatic who slays people at a convenience store. We have to stop wasting so much money on something that doesn’t fix anyone. It sure doesn’t help a non-violent addict.”

 In 2008, conservative Republican Gov. Haley Barbour campaigned for a second term by stating that “our duty is to live within our means.” Like Texans Whitmire and Mad­den, Epps heard the message, and sprang into action. He began to lobby the state legislature on a daily basis.

“I said, ‘Poverty and a lousy education system are fueling addiction and crime. Put the money into education to stop bringing the poor and uneducated to me,’” says Epps.

His practical strategy of prison alternatives and supervised reentry, combined with Barbour’s thrift, is helping Mississ­ippi shed its once-deserved reputation as a chain gang state. Epps says his corrections budget is down $332 million and the prison population is down by 22 percent. Repeat offenders are dropping. Out of 3,000 people released on parole in 2010, Epps says fewer than 1 percent are back behind the razor wire. “Best of all,” says Epps, “our crime rate has dropped. People are getting their relatives back.”

Epps’s advice to other states? “The only way to make really effective change and stop all this Willie Horton emotional stuff is to have a governor who’s not willing to spend another dime on prison,” he says.

Massachusetts may be at a crossroads with its pending crime bill. The Senate version of the bill would take people who commit three violent crimes and lock them up without the possibility of parole. It would also end the practice of locking up pretrial detainees and reduce—but not eliminate—the minimum sentences mandated for a host of nonviolent crimes. And it would send fewer people to prison by doing away with jail time for many technical probation and parole violations and pare back from 1,000 to 500 feet the zone around schools where mandatory two-year sentences are imposed for drug dealing. When the House took up the Senate bill, it lopped off the sentencing and pretrial reforms and approved only the three-strikes language.

Mary Beth Heffernan, the Patrick administration’s secretary of public safety, says the Senate version of the bill mirrors the legislation the governor filed in February to bring correction costs under control, curb recidivism, and be smarter on crime. “Controlling correction costs is a national problem and it’s time we did more than warehouse inmates without providing opportunities for rehabilitation,” she says.

But many activists pushing for broader sentencing reform are wary of Patrick’s commitment to such a philosophy. Some say former Corrections Commissioner Harold Clarke left for Virginia in 2010 because that state’s Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, was more receptive to reform initiatives. Clarke declined comment.

Those concerns were clearly visible at a fundraiser in November for Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, which provides legal representation for prisoners. Leslie Walker, executive director of the organization, notices the 50 or so guests at the fundraiser keep saying “no thanks” to jumbo shrimp and free drinks. “Bad mood,” she says. “It’s been years since any of us have seen a worse display of political, public-opinion fears get in the way of rational, cost-effective thinking.” She waves off a waiter with bacon-wrapped scallops. “Lawmakers, especially our governor, have got to stop having such emotional reactions to crimes that are extreme aberrations.”

Boston criminal defense lawyer Pat­r­icia Garin says it’s difficult to understand why Massachusetts is moving in one direction while most other states are moving in the opposite direction. “The shifting tide is Cinelli,” she says, referring to the killer of the Woburn police officer. “That was a tragedy, yes, but the bigger tragedy is that the reaction to such a criminal fluke will compromise public safety by taking an incredibly expensive and inhumane step backwards.”

Sen. Stephen Brewer of Barre, the chair­man of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, did not attend the fundraiser, but he says statements such as Garin’s are over the top. “If we can’t provide for public safety, then what are we doing here?” he asks. “This is a common sense, well-thought-out response to habitual offenders.”

The centerpiece of the Massachusetts Correction Legal Services fundraiser is a panel discussion called “Stem­ming the Tide: What Massachusetts Can Learn From Other States.” The panelists include state Rep. Charles Murphy of Burlington, Garin, former attorney general Scott Harsh­barger, and, by video, retired federal judge Nancy Gertner. Gertner is critical of mandatory sentences, which she says don’t promote fairness or contribute to public safety.  “The more money we put into building walls the less we have to focus on reentry into society and for crime prevention,” she says.

The lefty crowd at the fundraiser in many respects finds itself more in tune with the Right on Crime approach prevailing in many conservative states than it does with some of the policies being pursued in Massachusetts. Murphy, recently demoted to the House’s back bench by Speaker Robert DeLeo, sums up the mood. “A lot of people here, I think, feel us Massachusetts lawmakers are seriously missing the facts,” he says.  

Homepage photo by Mark Ostow.

Campaign not much of a contest

Campaign not much of a contest

Massachusetts elections are becoming a little more of a contest, but not much

two years ago, we had stories showing the Bay State was dead last in the country for the number of contested races for the Legislature, with less than 17 percent of the seats having a candidate from both major parties in the 2008 election. By comparison, every one of Minnesota’s 134 House seats gave voters a choice.

So the 2010 ballot, where 46 percent of the Legisla­ture’s seats were contested, should boost our civic pride a bit, right? Well, yes and no. While the number is nearly a three-fold increase over the previous election, it still ranks Massa­chusetts at the back of the pack, 39th out of 50 states.

This analysis, compiled by reviewing ballots and results in all 50 states, defines a contested race as one where a Republican and a Democrat square off. Statistics show major party candidates won 98 percent of the races in the last two years and nearly 100 percent of the 7,384 state legislators in the United States have a major party affiliation.

According to Ballotpedia, a wiki site focused on local elections and legislation, Massachusetts ranks in the bottom quintile in overall competitiveness. The website counts contested races as well as open seats (Massachu­setts ranked 20th) and the number of primary challenges to incumbents (40th).

We’re not as bad as South Carolina, which ranks dead last with just 30 percent of the legislative seats having two or more major party candidates squaring off, but we don’t hold a candle to our neighbors in New Hampshire or Maine, first and second, respectively, with 98 and 97 percent challenge rates. New Jersey, which held its legislative elections in November, had contests for 99 percent of its seats but that was due in large part to redistricting, which took effect in 2011.

Percentage of contested Legislative races, 2010 and 2011


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The Bonin story

The Bonin story

The political persecution of a chief justice and the lessons for today.

it is no small irony that history, which is the study of the past, may also be the best pathway to understanding current events and anticipating the future. It is with that perspective that I wrote The Vidal Lecture: Sex and Politics in Massachu­setts and the Persecution of Chief Justice Robert Bonin (Chilmark/Ashburton Hill, 2011). I was a student at Boston College Law School at the time the events in the book took place, and I knew many of the people who figure in the drama. It is, I believe, an important story, and one that needs to be told and remembered because it casts light on how people behave, and how they are treated, in the public arena.

The Vidal Lecture recounts the struggle between older power brokers and younger progressives in the 1970s—a struggle that led to the forced resignation of the Chief Justice of the Superior Court, Robert Bonin. Gov. Michael Dukakis, who appointed Bonin, introduced a broad and unprecedented court reform program as one part of his effort to clean up and improve state government. Court reform was designed to take a poorly organized and highly political court system and make it more efficient. Delays and inefficiencies in the Superior Court system had reached crisis proportions, and Dukakis appointed a committee led by the highly regarded Harvard Law School professor Archibald Cox to make specific reform recommendations. The Cox Committee warned that without a reorganization of the judicial system, a “breakdown of justice” was imminent.

Robert Bonin was selected as chief justice to administer this ambitious court reform initiative. But the guardians of the status quo were reluctant to accept reform, and they were determined to stop, or at least hinder, its implementation. The method they chose to frustrate court reform, and politically damage its chief proponent, Gov. Dukakis, was to take down the new chief justice.

Bonin was known as a brilliant lawyer (then-Attorney General Frank Bellotti called him the “smartest guy I ever met”), but he was unprepared for the ungracious and often ferocious attacks on him as the old guard responded to his appointment. Bonin was equally unprepared to manage a Boston media that was too often complicit with the agenda of the old guard, or too easily manipulated to build a narrative antagonistic to Bonin. Bonin surely made his share of mistakes, but the pretext for his re­moval—his attendance at a lecture given by Gore Vidal, which also was a fund­raiser for a group raising money to defend 24 men against sodomy and statutory rape charges—had almost no precedent in Massa­chusetts law.

As I say in the book, beginning with Bonin’s appointment as chief justice in 1977, “a determined, entrenched legal and political establishment embarked on an unrelenting effort to remove him from office. Their ultimately successful effort was one important victory in a war between cultures and generations…[the] forces that converged to create such a tumultuous political moment were complex and deep-rooted, and they illuminated much about what Boston had been, and what it would become.”

I did not know when I began writing this book in the 1990s that many elements of Bonin’s story would find themselves repeated during my tenure as the state’s Transportation Secretary in the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick. I was asked by the governor to craft and shepherd into law a massive transportation reform bill—something I did, with the scars to prove it. Like court reform in the 1970s, transportation reform in 2009 posed a serious threat to the status quo, particularly as it re­quired some tough medicine to ensure its success. For example, provisions that would have raised revenue to eliminate the wasteful practice of paying highway department employees from the capital budget (basically paying salaries using borrowed money) fell by the wayside as legislative leaders once again deferred on the difficult issues. This watering down of substantial, meaningful change served no larger public interest, and the result was a reform measure that is a weak and pallid version of the bill the governor and I first proposed in early 2009.

Unlike Bonin, I was not perceived as an outsider, but as the “ultimate insider.” The facts belied that superficial assessment. I certainly wasn’t treated by the Legislature as an insider, as many of my presumed allies beat a hasty retreat when I asked them to support a 19-cent gas tax increase. And I certainly didn’t behave as an insider, as I took on the business-as-usual approach to policymaking by calling things as I saw them. When I publicly called out the “reform before revenue” slogan as the misguided sound bite that it was, I was scorned for “mocking” Senate Presi­dent Therese Murray’s position. Of course, I would have been crazy to mock her—and I wasn’t. I was simply calling a spade a spade, but candor in such circumstances is not rewarded. Nor is it politically expedient. I might have balanced my inclination to candor with a more nuanced approach to the urgent issues presented to me. Our current state transportation funding woes sadly confirm that what I said was right, but being right in retrospect doesn’t really matter if the problem doesn’t ever get fixed (history teaches us that, as well).

Will future leaders learn from Bob Bonin’s story? Will they learn from my experience? Or, as is perhaps more likely, will they think that their circumstances are unique, their skills more advanced? The Vidal Lecture will, I hope, remind people of an important chapter in the Common­wealth’s history, and provide future leaders with a cautionary tale of how difficult it is to reform the status quo. Here is an excerpt from the book.

Chapter 3: The New Chief Justice

Michael Dukakis set a high standard as he considered who he would choose to replace Walter McLaughlin as Superior Court chief justice. The successful candidate would need to have a strong reputation for legal competence and administrative ability, while sharing Dukakis’s commitment to court reform. First Assistant Attorney General Robert Bonin fit the bill in a fundamental way. He was young, progressive, smart, and independent of the established judiciary.

The governor’s legal counsel, Dan Taylor, recalled that he had “heard nothing but good news about Bonin. He was ready, willing, and able.” Taylor had worked closely with Bonin on a number of matters, and respected the latter’s legal ability. Taylor viewed the potential for a Bonin appointment as a “unique opportunity. If you didn’t get a person who was really going to do it [implement court reform], it would all be for naught.”

Dukakis observed Bonin’s performance as first assistant and “was very impressed.” Dukakis recalled that Bonin “was obviously very smart, very hard working. He was clearly committed to change, reform, and modernizing the court system.” Tom Kiley recalled that “Bob was picked precisely because he was an outsider and to bring the administrative skills [to the court] that were thought to be lacking.” [Kiley, a protégé of Attorney General Francis Bellotti, succeeded Bonin as First Assistant Attorney Gen­eral.] After several conversations, and carrying the imprimatur of Bellotti’s endorsement, Dukakis assured himself that Bob Bonin was the person best able to undertake the challenge. The decision was made.

 

Robert and Angela Bonin kiss after the judge’s nomination is approved. Former
Attorney General Frank Bellotti lights up a victory cigar. Photo by Michael Anderson.

Bonin served as first assistant attorney general from January 1975 until March 1977, when he was appointed chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court by Duk­akis. It was only the third time in the Superior Court’s 118-year history that its chief justice was not selected from among the ranks of the sitting associate judges. Bonin had taken the post of first assistant attorney general with the hope that it would lead to bigger, better things, and now, just two years later, he was the governor’s choice to lead the state’s trial court system into a new reform-minded era.

Dukakis’s choice represented a bold move: the selection of this young, liberal lawyer with limited experience in public service may have seemed unorthodox, but the challenge ahead was large, and the governor wanted to select a person with strong legal skills who would also have no ties to the entrenched judicial establishment. Bonin’s appointment was the foundation stone upon which Dukakis planned to build a historic effort to reform the state’s court system. Announcing the Bonin nomination on January 19, 1977, Dukakis said that those “who know Mr. Bonin ad­mire his integrity, brilliant legal mind, rare leadership qualities, fair and even temperament, and demonstrated capacity for administration.”

Bob Bonin did not pause to give the governor’s offer a second thought, but Angela Bonin had her reservations. As she later expressed them: “Politics is invasive. If you are chief justice, you can never walk away from it. We were newly married, had been married a couple of years, we were having a life, and I didn’t want that to change.” Angela Bonin could not have imagined how much change was in store for her and her new husband.

Outgoing Chief Justice McLaughlin was furious that Dukakis would dare appoint someone from outside the court system who was publicly committed to implementing the Cox Committee court reform recommendations. He launched a powerful and unprecedented public attack against Bonin’s appointment. Characterizing the governor’s selection of Bonin as a “grievous mistake” and “insult to the court,” McLaughlin alleged that “the governor in one fell swoop has destroyed the morale of the court and has openly insulted each of the 45 judges on the court.” Referring to Bonin as a “stranger,” McLaughlin complained that it would take the nominee “at least two years to find out how the court operates.”

The old chief’s views were rooted in a burning animosity toward Dukakis, one that had both personal and political overtones. The governor’s refusal to reappoint his brother, Richard McLaughlin, as registrar of motor vehicles was personal. The chief justice had called Dukakis to lobby for his brother’s reappointment, but the new governor “thought that was inappropriate” and refused to accommodate McLaughlin. “I was in to clean house and certainly wasn’t going to reappoint folks.”

McLaughlin’s world was being threatened by a reform governor: who or what would be next? The Superior Court was a closed society of established customs and protocols where seniority was very important and, in many cases, where fathers reared their sons. McLaughlin’s son, Walter Jr., was the prime force behind the city’s largest and most popular bar review course, “SMH”—the intensive, 10-week course that nearly every third-year law student hoping to practice in Massachusetts enrolled in to prepare for the bar examination.

The younger McLaughlin represented a variety of notable clients, including the City of Boston, and had no compunction about appearing in Suffolk Motion Session to plead a case for a client, where a portrait of his father, the chief justice of the Superior Court, hung directly above the presiding judge. It was common practice for judges, courthouse officials, and political leaders to have children working in the DA’s office, and while no rule or law prohibited this, it was viewed by some as unseemly and inappropriate. Such was the way business was conducted in the Superior Court of Suffolk County, and the idea that this system was changing, that new leadership not beholden or responsive to the established traditions was now in place, did not sit well with many.

Respected Boston Globe columnist Robert Healy exposed the motives informing the antagonism toward Bonin’s nomination. “The courthouse has become one of the state’s last real sources of patronage,” wrote Healy. “The Cox Commission report cuts into this. There would be centralized budgetary and personnel policies…all this is threatening to the old guard at the courthouse. And Bonin has become the point man in this controversy.”

McLaughlin’s reaction to the Bonin nomination was also a reflection of his strong belief that the only opportunity for advancement for a talented Superior Court judge was the prospect of promotion to the position of chief justice. “I had so many judges in my court who were so capable of being chief justice that I thought it was wrong for Dukakis to make it a political football and pick somebody from outside the court. And I said so at the time, and I affirm it now.”

This view, while strongly held, ran contrary to the facts. Several Superior Court judges had found their way to the appeals court, and to the state’s highest court. But McLaughlin held firmly to the belief that these judges “take the job at a financial sacrifice, there is only one area of promotion—chief justice.” He noted that seven or eight judges were members of the exclusive American Association of Trial Lawyers, a distinction among members of the bar reserved for the best trial lawyers. “The only thing they had to look forward to was … the honor of being chief justice of the court.” This was rich coming from McLaughlin, who himself had leap-frogged over other jurists with greater seniority when he was named chief justice after serving a mere three years on the bench.

McLaughlin’s rage drove him to increasingly intemperate remarks. He accused Dukakis of having chosen Bonin as the result of a “deal” with Bellotti in return for the attorney general’s support of the court reform bill. Bellotti came quickly and firmly to Bonin’s defense. “If anyone is damaging the morale of the Superior Court judges,” said the attorney general, “it is McLaughlin.” Bellotti dismissed McLaughlin’s charge that he and Dukakis had cut a court reform deal over the Bonin appointment. Dukakis was simply “not that kind of man,” said Bellotti.

Years later, Dukakis would dismiss the accusation with a laugh. “If there is one lesson I’ve learned,” said the one-time presidential nominee, “is that you simply don’t question people’s motives.” Even Boston Globe columnist David Farrell, not known to be a friend of the governor’s, felt compelled to remind his readers that Dukakis “has his faults, but they do not include wheeling and dealing.”

McLaughlin’s harsh words provoked a loose coalition of leaders in the legal and political community to attempt to derail the nomination. Tom Burns, the trial lawyer who had been critical of the Cox Committee, resigned from his post as chair of the joint bar association committee on judicial recommendations as a protest against the Bonin nomination, which he described as “unsuitable.” Burns was at least candid enough to link his opposition to Bonin to the Dukakis court reform initiative. “It is my certain belief,” said Burns, “that the proposed candidate [Bonin] is a creature of, and must be committed to, the Cox report.”

After his nomination, Bonin called McLaughlin and asked for a meeting. The two men met, “and it was a cold and distant meeting. He did not welcome me,” recalled Bonin. “I said to him, ‘I understand your views [against me], but having received the nomination I’m going to take the job, and I came up here to speak to you as your prospective successor.’ He did not wish me well or make nice.”

Then the courthouse insiders weighed in, through Boston Globe courthouse reporter Joseph Harvey. The Boston Globe was now the city’s newspaper of record, having outlasted most of the significant competition. When the venerable Boston Herald proved no longer financially viable and merged with the tabloid Record American, the Globe found itself the city’s only “serious” newspaper. Under the leadership of Editor Thomas Winship, the Globe made significant strides to improve its quality and vibrancy, but the paper had a schizophrenic aspect, nurturing young, aggressive reporters while sustaining a stable of older reporters with good connections and few scruples about letting opinion, or a personal agenda, creep into the news. J. Anthony Lukas in his panoramic portrayal of the city in the 1970s, aptly described the Globe as an “obsessively political” news outlet that “consistently overvalued opinion and undervalued fact.”

Joe Harvey was the epitome of the Globe’s old guard. Harvey had been the Globe court reporter since 1950, and it was said of him that he “knew the Suffolk County Courthouse inside and out—better than many of the judges there. When you wanted to know what was going on, Joe was the person you called.”

Harvey did not make reporting for the Globe his sole profession. He maintained an active law practice during the years he served as the Globe’s courthouse reporter, something that would appear to have been a conflict of interest. Moreover, Harvey’s reporting over the years had made him, in the eyes of prominent criminal defense lawyer Harvey Silverglate, a “virtual adjunct to the district attorney’s office.”

Against the plain evidence of the Cox Committee findings, Harvey had previously reported that McLaughlin had “distinguished himself as a…most successful court administrator.” Harvey now weighed in with a series of articles antagonistic to Bob Bonin. Harvey disclosed that Bonin had provided incorrect information on a questionnaire filled out as part of the judicial nominating process. The inaccuracies related to Bonin’s disclosure that he had been arrested as a 16-year-old for disturbing the peace, when in fact he was 18 at the time. Bonin also failed to report several cases in which he sued former clients for the recovery of legal fees. These were minor indiscretions, but the Globe gave Harvey’s story prominent “page one” play in its Sunday edition on February 20.

Harvey’s reporting did not change the recommendation of the governor’s Judicial Nominating Commission, and provoked Joseph Bartlett, the president of the Boston Bar Association, to characterize the effort to embarrass Bonin as a “witch hunt” and declare that “I don’t even know Bonin, and I’m outraged by the Globe’s conduct.”

The stakes were high. One Globe columnist declared that “not in recent years has a nomination been so bitterly fought by the courthouse crowd.” Judge Dermot Meag­her, whose father John was the senior associate justice in the Superior Court, recalled years later that the “perception was that all the others were insiders, and Bonin was an outsider coming as a reformer. So if he’s coming as a re­former there must be something wrong with them. Who’s he going to reform—right? That’s not a very pleasant way to come in.”

WBZ television and radio broadcast an editorial by its highly respected editorial director, Harry Durning, that was supportive of the Bonin nomination, declaring that a “completely phony issue was raised about the fact the new chief is to come from outside the ranks of present Superior Court justices.” WBZ found that Bonin had “the will and the skill” to implement court reform improvements, and as such was “an excellent choice” whose nomination “should be quickly approved.”

The Globe editorial page took note of “Mr. Bonin’s oversights,” explaining that “it would have been better had Bonin dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s [because] there is a good deal of political-judicial jealousy involved in this highly important post and any mistakes on the record are likely to be taken advantage of by those who would rather see somebody else holding it.” The Globe failed to endorse Bonin’s nomination, but recognized his “good record as a professor of law, trial lawyer, and first assistant attorney general.”

In the end, the anti-Bonin tactics were unsuccessful. Dukakis stuck by his nominee, viewing the flap over Bonin’s youthful indiscretions as “kind of silly, so we pushed [the nomination] hard.” On the day of the hearing before the governor’s Executive Council, Dukakis and Bellotti pulled out all the stops to assure Bonin’s nomination. Bellotti himself appeared at the confirmation hearing, along with two other Superior Court judges and several district attorneys [but not Suffolk County District Attorney Garrett Byrne] to support Bonin. Dukakis had also made it known that in his view, the “controversy of recent days [was] in essence a controversy over far-reaching court reform proposals.”

Bonin’s nomination was approved on March 2, 1977, by the state’s Executive Council with only one member in opposition, Herb Connolly, who may have been unable to resist opposing the hand-picked choice of his old political foe Bellotti. The Herald American’s award-winning photographer, Mike Andersen, captured the moment of victory with an iconic photograph of Bob and Angela Bonin locked in a kiss, while Frank Bellotti stood off to the side contentedly smoking a large cigar.

The next day the Globe’s editor, Thomas Winship, sent a handwritten note to Bonin, “just to tell you how disturbed I was with the play and handling of your nomination by the Globe.” Winship had been out of town during the coverage, and declared that “The p.1 stories were not the Globe we all know.”

The brief, bitter episode was an ominous beginning for Bonin, who kept his silence and let the moment pass. The Boston Herald American, in an observation not lost on his enemies, noted that, at age 45, Bonin “could hold the position of chief justice for the next 25 years.”

Bob Bonin, soon to be one of the most powerful men in the Massachusetts court system, was in the words of the Boston Globe a “judicial unknown.” He would not remain so for long.

James Aloisi was secretary of transportation in 2009 and currently works at AECOM Corp.

Zipping down the information superhighway

Zipping down the information superhighway

the state and federal governments are spending more than $100 million to bring wired broadband access to the 5 percent of Massachusetts residents who don’t have it and can’t get it.

Contractors are laying out more than 1,300 miles of fiber optic cable in 123 cities and towns from Worcester County westward. Part of the money has also gone to a private nonprofit group, OpenCape, which received $35 million in federal stimulus money, plus $5 million from the state, to plug gaps in the southeastern part of the state.

The work is concentrated in areas that private broadband providers have shunned because the potential customer base is not large enough to support the investment. Contractors have already laid a broadband cable along the 55-mile Interstate 91 corridor from Con­nect­icut to Vermont, providing cheaper access to rural towns such as Sunderland and Deerfield. The project is also expanding service to parts of Springfield and Greenfield that either have no broadband access or substandard access to it.

Once the project is completed, access to the fiber optic cable will be sold at a wholesale rate to any service pro­viders looking to bring high-speed Internet to customers.

Judy Dumont, director of the Massachusetts Broad­band Institute, which is directing the initiative, says the investment of state and federal dollars is needed because high-speed Internet is no longer a luxury. “More than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies only put their help wanted advertisements online,” she says. “It’s how people file taxes now, getting refunds in two weeks rather than months. It’s really creating a divide in second-class citizens.”

Dumont also points out the lack of broadband is affecting public safety, since police in 85 Massachusetts cities and towns do not have high-speed Internet providing them instant access to criminal and driving records.

 
Source: Massachusetts Broadband Institute. Click the map for a larger view.
A Gateway to unintended consequences

A Gateway to unintended consequences

Gateway City criteria and benefits unfairly cut out deserving communities in need

what’s in a name? According to the Commo­n­wealth of Massachusetts, everything.

In 2007, MassINC and the Brookings Institu­tion issued a report that used the phrase “Gate­way City” to describe “the state’s once-humming mill and manufacturing towns.” The report, which highlighted the economic problems and potential of these communities, created a buzz. The Com­monwealth responded by jumping on the Gate­way City bandwagon and launching a series of initiatives to help these communities reenter the economic mainstream. Unfortunately, Gateway City was defined in a way that unfairly excludes my community of Gardner, as well as others.

The original MassINC/Brookings report identified 11 Gateway Cities. They were Brockton, Fall River, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Springfield, Pittsfield, and Worcester. They were selected because they had a strong manufacturing heritage, high poverty rates, low educational attainment levels, and populations greater than 35,000.

When the state launched its Gateway City program, it refined the criteria a bit and expanded the list to 24 communities. State law defines a Gate­way City as a municipality where the median household income and per capita income are less than the state average, where the percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher is below the state average, and where the population exceeds 35,000.

Gardner is the quintessential example of a Gate­way City. It has a strong manufacturing heritage. (You don’t come by the moniker of “Chair City of the World” by being a bedroom community. Sadly, the major manufacturers are gone from our area now.) Its median household income is $47,630 (74 percent of the state average); its per capita income is $24,938 (also 74 percent of the state average); and the percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 20.3 percent (54 percent of the state average). The only category where Gardner doesn’t qualify is population. At 20,000, its population falls beneath the state-designated cut-off.

Let me have the same chances as Gateway Cities in order to promote my city.When the designation of Gateway City first came out, I sought the title for Gard­ner, but was assured that there was no money attached to this designation and that whatever doors were opened for Gateway Cities would also be open for cities such as Gardner. But that hasn’t happened. Gateway Cities have received numerous advantages, in both monetary aid and economic development support.

Since fashioning its own definition of a Gate­way City, the state has created an entirely new bureaucracy to oversee these anointed communities. These Gateway Cities now have their own coordinator at the State House (with a $105,000 salary), whose main purpose is to “coordinate and implement the Patrick Administration’s Gateway Cities agenda to best address the needs and fully maximize the potential of these 24 distinct municipalities.”

A sampling of the new-found benefits for the anointed Gateway Cities includes:

  • Expansion and enhancement of a state tax credit for manufacturing and research and development companies creating or retaining jobs in Gateway Cities.
  • A Gateway City Parks program that has invested $9.5 million in Gateway Cities, and has most recently allocated $7 million for six urban centers as part of 17 ongoing Gateway Cities parks programs across the state.
  • Gov. Patrick’s Kindergarten Readiness Literary Pilot Program, which is being launched only in Gateway Cities and helps to make sure every student is a proficient reader by the third grade.
  • Gateway Plus Action Grants that provide $1.35 million in funding to cities for planning activities that expand housing opportunities and support the revitalization of neighborhoods to enhance economic vitality and the quality of life for all residents.

In October 2009, 12 Gateway Cities were invited by Mass­Development to a biotech developer conference attended by more than 100 biotech industry representatives. MassDevelopment also cosponsored additional regional events giving over 100 developers, real estate professionals, and investors a presentation of opportunities in Gate­way Cities. MassDevelopment partnered with the NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association, to hold similar events in Gateway Cities earlier that year.

Alas, the goodies don’t end with the aforementioned sampling. Multiple legislative initiatives have arisen in recent years in attempts to provide codified benefits such as tax credits and policies to specifically aid Gateway Cities. Gov. Patrick’s 2010 Economic Development Reorganiza­tion Bill included specific language affording Gateway Municipalities such perks as “the market rate Housing and Development Incentive Program,” which is proposed to “promote increased residential growth, expand diversity of housing supply, and create neighborhood stabilization and economic development.” The creation of the Massa­chusetts Growth Capital Corporation is another initiative that targets Gateway Cities. Its mission statement explicitly states that the organization strives to “promote economic development in underserved gateway municipalities” and was funded with $35 million in new capital.

Through programs such as these, Gov. Patrick’s administration has invested $246.9 million in capital funds to help modernize affordable housing units in the designated cities and pushed funding towards other areas. This trend of legislative initiatives for Gateway Cities has continued into this year. Multiple bills are currently under consideration that would establish residential tax abatement zones, steer 5 percent of public retirement system assets to Gateway City projects, and create a tax credit for each job created in a Gateway City.

The attempt to allow Gateway Cities the ability to turn Affordable Housing Tax Credits into Market Rate Tax Credits is most upsetting to me. Of the 24 Gateway Cities, only 13 have achieved the 40B threshold of having at least 10 percent of their housing stock affordable. In fact, only 37 communities statewide have achieved this level. Gardner sits in eighth place statewide by having 14.5 percent of its housing stock deemed affordable. Too much affordable housing will choke a community. Arbitrarily allowing Gateway Cities that have not achieved the 40B threshold of 10 percent affordability to turn Affordable Housing Tax Credits into Market Rate Tax Credits is wrong. (Not wanting to present a problem without a solution, the state should seriously consider changing this system. Perhaps once a community achieves 12 percent affordability, they should be allowed access to Market Rate Tax Credits for a project as long as they do not then drop below the 10 percent threshold.)

The facilitation of private sector development and privileged access to specialty aid will most certainly give Gateway Cities a leg up, and achieve the intended goal of revitalizing these once-great industrial havens. Yet excluding cities like Gardner merely because of a population requirement will create unnecessary and counterintuitive stratification in the shared progress of the Common­wealth’s municipalities.

Let me sit at the table with the Bio/Pharma industry executives and explain why Gardner, with a Gold Com­munity BioReady rating, is the right place for them to locate a business. Let me give developers market rate housing tax credits rather than saddling Gardner with more affordable housing. Gardner is ripe for major development due to the low cost of living, affordable property values, and excellent highway access. Let me have the same chances as Gateway Cities have in order to succeed and promote my City and the Commonwealth will be all the better for it. The Gateway City club is too narrowly drawn.

Mark Hawke is the mayor of Gardner.

Rule of law triumphs in resolution to Occupy Boston

Rule of law triumphs in resolution to Occupy Boston

The end of Occupy Boston was a peaceful success because the protestors respected the law.

the rise and fall of the Occupy Boston encampment at Dewey Square has been hailed as a model of how police and city officials should respond to peaceful political dissent in the public sphere. Compared with video footage of cops pepper-spraying and clubbing protestors in Oakland, San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere, Boston looked pretty good. After nine weeks of occupation, most of the Boston protesters peacefully left Dewey Square—their statue of Gandhi held high, their message against economic and power inequalities heard by millions. Their banners proclaimed: “You can’t evict an idea.”

Media pundits praised police and city officials for showing “uncommon restraint.” It’s a narrative that, while true in part, misses the real story. In truth, it was a court’s intervention—not benevolent cops —that protected both the peace and the right to protest in Boston. And who brought in the courts? It was the Occupy Boston protesters themselves.

Occupy Boston started on September 30, when people from all walks of life assembled in Boston’s Financial District to join the nationwide “Occupy Wall Street” movement. They pitched their tents at Dewey Square, a small urban park that sits—literally—in the shadow of the looming Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The Dewey Square camp took up only 4 percent of the Rose Fitzgerald Ken­nedy Greenway, a strip of parkland that runs along the site of the old Central Artery and is designated by the Massachusetts Legislature as a “public park and traditional open public forum.”

Greenway Executive Director Nancy Brennan initially welcomed Occupy Boston, issuing a statement on October 6 saying the Greenway is “available by law for expression of free speech.” She praised protesters for not disrupting the nearby farmer’s market and announced that there was ample space left on the Greenway for other public uses, noting: “The Conservancy views the Green­way as common ground.”

But four days later, when protesters tried to expand their tent city beyond Dewey Square, Boston police equipped in riot gear cracked down in the middle of the night, tearing down tents and handcuffing 129 protesters, medics, and legal observers.

The next day, hundreds of new protesters and thousands of dollars poured into Occupy Boston. Volunteer attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild stepped in to represent those who had been arrested, and soon were joined by ACLU attorneys ready to defend the protesters’ constitutional rights of speech, assembly, and petition.

Advocates first asked city officials to promise a 72-hour notice period before conducting a raid, giving protesters time to decamp peaceably and avoid arrest. The city’s corporation counsel, William Sin­nott, said no way. “We can’t tie our hands,” he said.

Meanwhile, videos of violent crackdowns on Occupy encampments in New York and Oakland sent spasms of fear through the Boston site. Green­way officials got jittery, too. On November 8, the Greenway board sent a private letter to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino asking him to order police to clear the camp. The mayor was widely quoted as saying, “There is a time and place when we have to end the encampment and that time and place will come in the near future.”

Back at Dewey Square, Occupy Boston’s governing body—the General Assembly—voted to authorize the lawyers to seek court protection. On November 15, the ACLU and National Law­yers Guild, led by pro bono attorneys Howard Cooper and Benjamin Wish (from the law firm of Todd & Weld), filed suit on behalf of Occupy Boston and four named protesters. They requested an emergency order to prevent a surprise raid at Dewey Square, followed by a hearing on the rights of protesters under the First Amendment.

Presiding over a packed courtroom the next morning, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Frances A. McIntyre set clear ground rules: “You have come to the court to have this matter resolved using the tools of law and logic,” she cautioned. No outbursts would be allowed, she warned.

In opening arguments, Cooper appealed to the judge to understand the expressive nature of the occupation. “The occupation of Dewey Square is not just integral to the protesters’ expression of their grievances; it is their pro­test,” he said. At a minimum, he said, protesters deserve notice prior to an eviction.

Again, Sinnott rejected the idea of prior notice. While the police had no present plans to remove the protesters, he argued, they didn’t want to relinquish the “element of surprise” to raid the camp at any time.

Judge McIntyre didn’t buy it. She issued an order preventing the police from raiding the camp absent an emergency, and scheduled a hearing on the constitutional merits for two weeks later. Each side would be allowed to call one witness at the hearing.

“Surprise in a military operation is an advantage,” she wrote in her ruling, “but it brings with it other elements with a civilian population. Surprise may invoke panic, flight, and violent resistance. This court believes that an orderly dispersal of Occupy Boston participants can reasonably be anticipated if it is preceded by a lawful court order. The public interest may well be thus advanced.”

Free from imminent arrest, the protesters had to decide whether to comply if the judge ultimately ruled against them. Rather than force a decision on the whole encampment, the General Assembly approved a plan to allow individuals to sign affidavits promising the court they would comply with her ruling. Within a week, 74 Occupy Boston protesters had agreed to abide by the rule of law.

“The Occupy Boston encampment in Dewey Square is a uniquely expressive response to the problems we face as a society today,” Cooper told the packed courtroom at the December 1 hearing. “At a time when many feel that our government is broken, the protesters have set up a small community to demonstrate how people can associate together in a more democratic, egalitarian, and just way. In deciding to go to court, the protesters have sought protection from interference with their efforts to communicate their message.”

Kristopher Eric Martin, an Occupy Boston participant and named plaintiff in the case (and also a PhD candidate in physics at Harvard University), was the sole witness for the Occupy movement. He described Occupy Boston governing committees and spoke about taking school children on tours of the camp. “I show them how direct democracy works,” he told the court. “They gain an appreciation for how it feels to have every person’s voice heard in a true democracy.”

The city’s sole witness was Boston Fire Marshal Bart Shea, who testified that “I fear for the life and safety of every person on that property.” But when asked why the city failed to provide official notice to protesters about alleged fire code violations, Shea testified, “I didn’t waste my time.”

Within a week of the hearing, Judge McIntyre issued an order that “clears the way but does not order the [protesters] to vacate the site.” She acknowledged that “the collective living activities at Dewey Square” is “conduct-which speaks and [is] entitled to First Amendment protection.” Nonetheless, she held, free speech at Dewey Square was trumped by the fire marshal’s warnings about fire safety, which she accepted “in every particular.”

Mayor Menino immediately announced a midnight deadline for protesters to clear Dewey Square. Ironically, after giving notice, the city waited three days to move in.

The protesters kept their word, obeying the court order even if they disagreed with it. Dozens of protesters de­camped voluntarily, with only 43 staying behind to be arrested in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience.

In the end, Boston owes much to the Occupy Boston protesters who sought protection from the court and thus obliged city officials to exercise “uncommon restraint.” The protesters’ willingness to exercise their constitutional right to access the courts and, ultimately, to abide by the court’s ruling that went against their interests is what kept the peace, the right to protest, and the rule of law alive in Massachusetts.

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Homepage photo by Marilyn Humphries.

Back to the trenches

Back to the trenches

Steve Tolman left the Massachusetts Senate to run the state’s biggest labor organization, bringing his political skills with him.

even in massachusetts, the bluest of blue states, labor unions are on the defensive. Union membership keeps slipping. High unemployment plagues unions in the private sector, while public-sector unions are seeing their health care and pension benefits trimmed by usually friendly Democratic lawmakers.

Steve Tolman until recently was one of those lawmakers. He says he always voted union during his two terms in the House representing Brighton and seven in the Senate, where his district included Water­town, where Tolman grew up. But he decided he could do more for the labor movement by using his political skills to run the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization representing 400,000 workers from 750 union locals. Tolman was elected to the post in October, running unopposed after the only other declared candidate bowed out. He resigned his Senate seat shortly after.  

Tolman, 57, is a sharp contrast with his predecessor, Robert Haynes, who was an elected officer in the AFL-CIO for 24 years and held the state’s top union position for the last 13 years. Both men are passionate about union issues, but Haynes has an in-your-face style that often alienated labor allies and political leaders. He issued electoral threats to politicians who took what he perceived as anti-union positions, a strategy that was no longer working. Tolman, by contrast, is a politician. He knows how to lobby. He knows how to cajole. He knows how to compromise.

He says coming out of high school as the sixth of eight children in a large family—which includes younger brother Warren, a former legislator and Demo­cratic lieutenant governor nominee —college was not the first option for him because money was tight. Getting a paycheck was.

“I couldn’t afford it; my parents didn’t have any money,” says Tolman, whose father was a railroad union rep. “So at 18 I got a job on the railroads and down at South Station working for Amtrak.”
For Tolman, who continued to pay his union dues throughout his legislative career and has the card in his wallet to prove it, it was a move that would define his adult life. At 23, he was elected a rep for his union and went down to Atlantic City for an AFL-CIO convention where he en­countered New Jersey union boss Fred Kroll, who Tolman says would change his life.

“Freddy was my national president, who in 1976 took a corrupt union and probably turned it into the most militant union in the railroad industry,” Tolman says, as he looks at a 35-year-old picture on his wall of Kroll standing next to a gangly, bushy-headed, 23-year-old Steve Tolman. “And what he was saying is what touched me. He basically was saying the role of a union representative is not just in the workplace, and I kind of perked up to listen. He really inspired me and instilled in me the value to be involved and I respected that.”

Kroll sent Tolman to a 13-week labor course at Harvard and Tolman, in turn, used the position as a launching pad for his political career. Now, as Tolman returns to the union ranks, he faces a very different environment.

In the 1970s, union workers represented more than a third of the workforce nationally and close to 40 percent in Massachusetts. Today, only 12 percent of the national workforce is represented by unions. In Massachusetts, about 415,000 of the state’s 2.9 million workers—about 14.5 percent—were union members in 2010. That was a drop of more than 60,000 members from 2009, even as the state’s workforce grew by 20,000. Many of the AFL-CIO unions are public sector, such as the MBTA and municipal workers, handing Tolman a delicate balancing act between advocating for government workers and listening to concerns about taxes and budgets from his private-sector union members.

It’s hard to pin Tolman down on his vision or agenda for the union. Whether asking what his plans are, what he would see as a successful first year in office, or what his legislative agenda is, Tolman continually points out how new he is to the job.

He says he intends to draw some of the unions who are not part of the AFL-CIO, such as the Carpenters’ Union, back into the fold. But his biggest priority, he says, is to change the perception of how people see labor.

Tolman, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the Univ­ersity of Massachusetts Boston while in the Senate, sat down with me in his Malden office on a raw afternoon the day before Thanksgiving. A tall man with wisps of thin, gray hair that he has trouble controlling over his mostly balding pate, he anointed Elizabeth Warren as the Demo­cratic nominee for US Senate against Scott Brown, let slip a reference to a new “Haynes rule” at the national AFL-CIO that prevents elected union officials from receiving money from outside groups, and touted his support for single-payer health care, although he says he isn’t sure his fellow union members would agree with him.

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

—JACK SULLIVAN

commonwealth:  Why did you decide to pursue this job? What was it that you saw that you could bring to it and why you thought you’d be the guy for it?

tolman:  Bobby [Haynes] had announced that he wasn’t running, so I had to think about it. And I talked it over with my family and it was a big change in my life because I was assistant majority leader in the Senate, a good spot. It was something actually I went to work every day to do and I loved. But the reason I was in politics is because of the labor movement. And it’s funny because so often people would say to me, “You have to get away from the labor movement. You’ll never get elected Senate president.” And I thought to myself, “Well, why would I get away from the labor movement? That’s why I’m up here.”  And it’s a perfect opportunity to take everything I love, everything I believe in and transition from public life to the president of the AFL-CIO, to try to bring it back together.

cw:  You say that one of the pieces of advice you got is that you’d never be Senate president if you didn’t get away from the labor union. Why is that?

tolman :  First, I don’t necessarily say that I agree with that philosophy that I would’ve had to get away from the labor movement in order to be Senate president. How­ever, I think that’s the corporate agenda. In other words, I think people in many ways want to stymie the labor movement. And I think over the last 30 years, we have been kept down and labor probably hasn’t grown the way it should. In fact, there’s a direct correlation between the loss of middle-class [buying power] and the demise of the labor movement. We had like 34 percent [of the workforce] at one point; we’re down to about 12 percent, if that, now.

cw:  In Massachusetts, though, it’s a little stronger, right?

tolman:  We’re one of the good states, yeah. We still have about 400,000 members. We are going to work to bring all the unions back under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO. We are working on that. I would say clearly we are not the force that we were back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. How­ever, I think that there is actually more of a need for organized labor to step up to the plate and address the inequities in society today than ever in our nation.

cw:  Why’s that?

tolman:  We’re an organization that wants to be able to make sure that if a guy gives his 40 hours work, he should get a decent pay, he should get benefits, and he should have some sort of retirement to look for at the end of his time. But all of that’s gone now. What you and I grew up to expect is diminished for the middle class. However, the very wealthy have more money than they’ll ever be able to spend.

cw:  On the one hand you’ve got municipal employees, state employees, in the AFL-CIO who have very enviable benefits. On the other hand, you’ve also got private-sector union members who look at it and see that these are health care programs that they consider the Cadillac programs, very low co-pays, low premiums, and these private-sector union guys look at it and say, “I just want a job, and I don’t want to pay the taxes for that [public employee’s benefits].” How do you balance those two?

tolman:  The way you described it isn’t exactly the way it is. It’s perception, what you described. And I want to be very clear on that because the point is that if I were to think about municipal employees generally, they didn’t make a lot of money. Their pay scale wasn’t that good but one of the things people know about municipal employees: You got decent retirement, you got decent health care, and your benefits package was kind of pretty good. People used to say you’d never get rich but you’ll have a good job with good benefits. That’s how they looked at the state. And that was one of the compromises, that you wouldn’t make a lot of money but your benefits package was a pretty good package.

The average pension in the state is like $28,000. It’s the sometime elaborate schemes that certain individuals work out for themselves, and then it’s portrayed as though everybody has a special deal. You understand? So that you have to kind of get through the mud a little bit to figure out exactly what the issues are. So I would say that municipal employees certainly don’t make a great hourly wage or state employees weren’t always overpaid hourly, in fact a little underpaid, but they got a good package. And in the last maybe 10 years, [critics] tried to portray [employee benefits] as though that was a problem and that that was the anchor on municipalities when in reality if you looked at the studies it’s not actually the case.

cw:  You talk about the labor movement and the union but it’s not a monolithic base. When you look at the election of Scott Brown, who I don’t think anybody is going to mistake for Warren or Steve Tolman as far as being a friend of labor, a lot of his support came from union households.

tolman: Right, but that’s okay. See, that’s the big misnomer here. There’s nothing wrong with that. He ran a better campaign. And here’s the thing, that he had been previously endorsed by the AFL-CIO just a couple of years previous as a state senator.

cw:  Do you see him as a friend of labor?

tolman:  Do I see Scott Brown as a friend of labor? When he served in the [state] Senate, he was friendly to labor. His agenda now—I see it probably as not the working people’s agenda. He voted against the jobs bill. Labor’s candidate for the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] he voted against, you know, right out of the box. He hasn’t demonstrated that he is nationally in line with labor beliefs.

cw:  So why is it okay that so many union households support him?

tolman:  Because they have the freedom to make that choice. We don’t tell our people how to vote. We can only provide them with the information and let them make an intelligent vote. And that’s the best way a democracy should work. And in this particular case, the attorney general, [Martha Coakley], did not effectively get her message across in her campaign, and his touched people. His [truck], his commercials were, whether we like it or not, very powerful. So I don’t have a problem with losing an election on grounds like that. Now as we come into this next year, hopefully we can educate our members so that they will evaluate the senator on his votes.

cw:  When you give that analysis, are you giving that as a politician, as someone who understands campaigns, somebody who understands elections, or are you giving that analysis as the president of the AFL-CIO?

tolman:  That’s what I am.  I am the president of the AFL-CIO, and I believe that we have to educate, give our members the tools to make an informed decision. That’s the most effective way to win elections. We have to support our friends and defeat our enemies. When Scott was elected to the US Senate, I argue he rightfully ran a better campaign and touched the people. And that’s okay; we lost.

cw:  Who’s we?

tolman:  The Democrats. In that particular case we lost Senator Kennedy’s seat, who clearly we all loved. It was “the people’s seat,” of course, you know all that stuff. We lost the seat but we lost it in a fair race. And now we will be addressing that this year. We have a candidate that thankfully will relate to the Democratic majority or the Demo­cratic electorate. We have a candidate who challenged Wall Street, who spoke out long before it became popular.

cw:  Elizabeth Warren is the candidate now for the union? Even though there’s still another…

tolman:  No, we haven’t endorsed yet, but I would suspect that Elizabeth Warren will, has, a very good chance of garnering the AFL-CIO’s endorsement. It hasn’t happened yet and I can’t speak for that. I shouldn’t put that in the paper, should I?  I was with her last week and you know what, I think she has a great story to tell. We have a process at the AFL-CIO and the appropriate process will be followed.

cw:  When you say you’ve got to change this perception, you’ve got to change the way people portray you, is there any acknowledgement in there that maybe labor itself has to change?

tolman:  We have a lot to be proud of but we just don’t tout it enough. And organized labor is what’s right about the working class and we need to start to talk about that a little bit. And we need to stop being identified by our enemies, by people who don’t like us, who portray us as selfish, who portray us as feather-bedders, who portray us as not interested in what is right about communities, about our state, about America. And I think that we need to change that. And I think we can change that because we just have to say and identify who we are, rather than be identified by others who want to make us look like something we are not.

We see the richest 1 percent in America holding 90 percent of the wealth. Yet there isn’t the atmosphere to have a decent pension for an individual who spends his life working for a corporation, or while they’re working for a corporation they shouldn’t have health care at an affordable cost? Today the cost of health care for a family plan is becoming like a second mortgage to a family. I think what labor stands for is what’s right about America. What is bad about having a representative represent employees, standing up on an even platform? What is bad about that?  

cw:  How can you bring pressure to bear on Blue Cross, Partners to lower their rates so that hospitals are more accessible?

tolman:  Frankly, I am a big fan of single-payer health care system, and I do believe that’s what we should have. I believe that no matter where you work, no matter where you live, everybody should have the basic package of health care. And it should be promoted in a way so that you do your exams so that we’d be checked for serious illnesses ahead of time and that there’d be incentives for that. So that we educate properly in nutrition, so that we do get people off of cigarette smoking, so that we try to detect [who is at risk for] strokes before they happen because those are huge costs on society. And with the proper health care system, we can do all that. And a single-payer system sets up the plate to do that.

cw:  Where’s the union’s role in that?

tolman:  I don’t know. But I can tell you this: As far as the cost of health care, it’s becoming another mortgage and people cannot continue to go on this road.

cw:  Well, here’s an uncomfortable question for you then. When you talk about Blue Cross, for instance, your predecessor sat on their board and collected $70,000 per year as a stipend.  How do you bring, as a union, the force of moral authority to that when the union head is sitting on a board of the organization that you were just…

tolman:  Let me answer that because I think that’s a terrific question and it’s a very valid point. First of all, the executives from the corporate world who served on that board also got that same pay, okay? Why should a labor person serve on that board and not get paid if the executives are getting paid? So you have the argument there about who gets paid and who doesn’t. But the bottom line is that the national AFL-CIO has changed the bylaws so that the AFL-CIO president—any money I make outside this goes into the political fund or into the AFL-CIO.

cw:  When was that change made?

tolman:  They did it this spring.

cw:  Was it because of . . .[I start to say Bobby Haynes, Tolman’s predecessor].

tolman:  I wouldn’t say that. No, the fact that they call it the Haynes rule? No, so don’t go there. You know what, because I don’t care. This isn’t about disparaging my predecessor. And the point is: Why should he have not gotten that if the executives were getting it? I don’t say that I subscribe to that because if I get that appointment, I can serve but I can’t get paid. However, if I were to appoint somebody there, not affiliated with us, not double-dipping or whatever, I would love to be able to put an advocate there that couldn’t work, someone with a disability, someone who was limited. That $70,000 would provide them with the perfect annual pay. What’s wrong with appointing somebody like that?

cw:  Okay, so let’s say we’re sitting here a year from now. What is it that’s going to change having Steve Tolman, former state senator, now speaking on behalf of labor?

tolman:  I have come through the House of Repre­sent­atives. I served two terms, and I was in my seventh in the Senate. And I understand that in order to accomplish anything you have to communicate effectively. I’ll give you an example. Taking health care out of collective bargaining was a bill that passed both houses. I voted against it. We lost pretty handily in both branches. Demo­cratic­ally-controlled legislators thought it would be best not to have a collective voice on health care, one of the biggest issues.

So how do I look at that? I believe that we have to write to the Legislature and let them know the history of collective bargaining. I think that people miscalculated the concept of what collective bargaining means to health care. My gut tells me we need to notify those people that voted that way why we disagree with them, not send them a stupid letter, not send them a threatening letter, but to send them information providing them the right information about why collective bargaining is important to health care. So that’s how I believe I’m going to be different. I want to be able to let them make a more informed decision and I think many of them made that decision out of a vacuum.

cw: Do you think threats work?

tolman:  No. No.

cw:  Do you agree that the approach a lot of times by some union members has been to threaten Democrats?

tolman:  I couldn’t argue that may have happened.

cw:  Were you ever threatened?

tolman:  No, not by labor. How could I? I was with them all the time.

cw:  What insights and experiences do you bring here that you’re going to tell your labor associates and colleagues, “This is where you’ve made mistakes before.”

tolman:  I’m not worried about mistakes in the past. I’m focused on the future. I’m Steven Tolman, and I want to do things differently. And I am Steven Tolman, and I am a trade unionist. And I’m Steven Tolman, and I’m very proud of the AFL-CIO. I’ll candidly admit, we’re probably not without sin, but I will also say that we are an organization that’s going to be on the move, that’s going to stand for middle-class America, that’s going to challenge the imbalance in society.

cw:  How long do you think it’ll take you?

tolman:  Sixteen minutes [laughing]. I would hope that we lay pretty good groundwork over the next year and reestablish relationships and trust. It’s one step at a time. It’s a step forward and a deep breath.

William Earon's behind-the-scenes role

William Earon’s behind-the-scenes role

william earon is one of those behind-the-scenes guys who makes the movie business run in Massachusetts.

His company, Coastal Capital Advisors LLC, invests in some movie projects, loans money to others, and helps nearly every filmmaker who comes to Massachusetts turn their film tax credits into cash. He says confidentiality agreements prevent him from discussing the production companies he works with or his investment partners, but he acknowledges he does more tax credit business than anyone else in the state.

Earon, who spent 25 years working for the accounting firm Ernst & Young, heading its New England financial services tax practice, says he stumbled into the movie business somewhat by accident. As former Gov. Mitt Rom­ney’s administration began considering offering tax credits to lure filmmakers to Massachusetts, some of those involved in the discussions consulted him about the tax implications. One thing led to another and pretty soon he was hip deep in the minutiae of the film tax credit law that took effect in early 2006. He realized early on that a market needed to be developed for the sale of the tax credits.

The law offers production companies a tax credit equal to 25 percent of what they spend shooting films and commercials in Massa­chu­setts. What makes the Massa­chusetts tax credit attractive is that it can be converted into cash for companies that cannot use the credit on their own. The credit can be sold back to the state at 90 percent of its face value, or it can be sold to a third party. In practice, nearly all of the tax credits—a total of $254 million over the last four years—are sold to third parties, a business that Earon dominates.

Earon buys the tax credits from the movie productions at a discount off their face value and allocates them to his financial partners, who use them to lower their Massa­chu­setts tax liability. The state Department of Revenue estimates tax credit brokers have pulled in about $7 million in profits over the last four years, although Earon says the DOR number is actually an estimate of gross profit and not net income.

Earon says he flies back and forth between California and his Cohasset home advising production companies on the ins and outs of the Massachusetts film tax credit. He says the state’s tax credit doesn’t provide the highest rate in the country, but it’s competitive with the tax credits offered by the top states, including Louisiana, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, and Michigan. He says the efficient way tax credits can be converted into cash in Massachusetts gives the state an edge.

The 56-year-old Earon says one of his goals is to help make Massachusetts the third-largest movie production site in the country behind California and New York. What the state needs, he says, is permanent infrastructure, in­cluding sound stages. He thinks they will get built as long as the state continues to promote the tax credit.

Over the years, Earon says his company has expanded from tax credits into providing financing for films and investing in them directly. He says he tells his investors that only about two of every 20 films made for theatrical release ever turn a profit. “It’s a very risky business,” he says, “but there’s a lot of upside.”