What’s Driscoll’s role in new administration?

WHEN GOV. MAURA HEALEY spent a day in Michigan earlier this month, acting governor Kim Driscoll did not take the opportunity to bring some semblance of Salem to the corner office by piling it full of jack-o-lanterns. 

“We were talking about whether we should have an executive order to declare Halloween in May,” Lt. Gov. Driscoll joked on the Codcast, “but we just ended up doing all the normal stuff we needed to do instead.”

All that normal stuff is an expansive and still evolving brief. Driscoll led Salem as mayor for about 16 years before heading up to Beacon Hill with Healey. She clearly is playing a major role in the new administration that so far doesn’t seem confined to one specific area of focus.

“When you’re working in one community, obviously it’s 24/7, ‘How do we make Salem better? How do we really care about what’s happening on the ground?’” she said. “And I’m fond of saying, when you’re mayor, there’s no hiding, right? You make decisions every day. They impact people you know and see, whether you’re in the grocery store or in city hall.”

In Massachusetts, the lieutenant governorship is a vaguely defined position, essentially a “governor in waiting unless you choose to do something,” Thomas P. O’Neill III, who was lieutenant under two different governors, told The Republican some 10 years ago. The post’s only constitutionally mandated duty, aside from becoming acting governor if the sitting governor is unable to serve, is being a member of the Governor’s Council, which mainly votes on judicial appointments.

That’s left a wide range of possible identities for the former mayor. Driscoll said she is working to make sure the administration isn’t “holed up in the State House” and retains a connection to the rest of the Commonwealth.

Her predecessor, Karyn Polito, leaned into the role of connector between the state and its 351 cities and towns. Driscoll has a convincing background to take up that mantle, having helmed Salem for the better part of two decades and been a leader among mayors. Still, it doesn’t appear Driscoll’s focus is solely on local levels of government. 

She and Healey frame the administration as a team exercise — with “a lot of shared leadership,” Driscoll said. “We talk every single day and it feels like we’re in a position to really move Massachusetts forward at what I think is a really pivotal time,” she said. “I’m sure every new administration feels like the next four years are critical, but as we come out of this pandemic, we’re still very much in this transition phase. It’s a little messy.”

Though Driscoll seems to be taking on a jack-of-all trades role in the new administration, she speaks most passionately, and wonkily, about the need to aggressively take on the state’s housing crisis and 200,000-unit shortfall. Housing is where she carved out a prominent platform in the first six months of the administration, leading a working group to shape the responsibilities of the newly split-off Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, which used to be bundled in with economic development.

The administration is still “drawing the masking tape down the middle of the room,” she said, deciding “what’s gonna be housing, what’s gonna be economic development” and working toward a collaborative “housing moonshot.”

Driscoll’s responsibilities on housing are a bit hazier now, with former Worcester city manager Ed Augustus set to become the new housing secretary on June 1. While the administration has touted his experience overseeing Worcester’s economic boom, and Driscoll feels a kinship with her fellow Gateway City leader, housing advocates are quick to point to the skyrocketing housing costs that came with Augustus’s tenure.

“I’m fine with saying no mayor in America, no city manager controls the market, right?” Driscoll said. Housing prices are “through the roof” across the state, not just in revitalized cities, she said. “So I don’t think it’s unique to the city of Worcester that through this revitalization, they’ve also seen the price of housing and the cost of rents really increasing. Our challenge is, how do we address that statewide? Who better to do that than somebody who’s been on the ground and understands the pressures of needing new growth?”

Housing is bound up with another state crisis – transportation. Bringing the MBTA up to a state of good repair, making sure it has the funding to meet its federal safety mandates, and improving overall reliability are a hefty lift. 

“It’s gonna take some time,” Driscoll said. “It’s unfortunately not gonna happen as quickly as any of us want it to, but we know it’s critical to the housing growth. It’s not fair to push for more housing, particularly transit-oriented development housing and not have the transit piece fully lined up. So we’re gonna stay on it.”

She’s hopeful that new MBTA general manager Phillip Eng and a reconstituted MBTA board can start to right a wobbling ship.

“Obviously we have a lot of work to do with the T,” Driscoll said. “I’m not quite sure we fully know where the bottom is yet.” 



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