Handing over the keys

Dear Mitt:

By now, I’m sure you’ve grown accustomed to the joys of being governor. You know what I’m talking about: The invitations to forums and events. The endless meeting requests. The hours of poring over your first budget proposal. You have close aides and advisors to help you sort those things out. Here is some advice only a former governor can give.

First, there’s the corner office. Let’s start with the facilities. You have to jiggle the handle on the private toilet to get it to flush. This was the best practical advice Gov. Cellucci gave me, and I gladly pass it along. Also, don’t put up any curtains. Those that were up when I moved in were fraying and decaying, and the one bold decorating decision I made was to take them down. I’ve heard of a study showing that schoolchildren think better in natural daylight. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know that the light pouring into the corner office on a sunny day was one of the best stress relievers I found.

Better yet is to get out of the office altogether, and the best way to do that is to visit a school. Children have a way of cutting through the clutter and focusing your mind on what’s important. In education, as in any important issue, it’s difficult to make good decisions if you never see the impact they have up close. But the sheer joy of these visits outweighs any other reason for them. Plus, school visits are great photo-ops for the local dailies and weeklies.

Another suggestion: Be kind to your lieutenant governor, especially after she tends to her primary constitutional duty–presiding over the Governor’s Council. This task will take more out of her than the few hours each week would suggest. And give her this advice from me, someone who presided over the council as lieutenant governor and governor both: First, don’t be surprised by the councilors’ requests. A councilor once asked the governor’s legal counsel and me if we could intervene on an issue regarding the performance of a youth hockey referee. Nod your head politely, see if you can get away with doing nothing, and hope you never hear about it again. Second, ignore the death stares bouncing around the room. You’re not the target. These people do not like each other. Third, work with the rules the councilors have developed for themselves as best you can but be prepared to scrap them when necessary. As you know, I presided over the council via speakerphone during my maternity leave. They raised a ruckus. Somehow, democracy endured.

You may not have the commute I had, but you’ll still be on the road a lot, and when you are, you’ll be on your cell phone. Beware of the various spots around the Commonwealth where there are signal gaps that will kill a crucial conversation with, say, the attorney general of the United States. Here are a few to watch out for:

  • Mass. Pike, Mile 74. Without fail, you will lose service for five miles or so on this long hill in Charlton. The night I withdrew from the governor’s race my cell phone rang and a woman identifying herself as a White House operator asked me to hold for the president. I noted with dread that we were approaching Mile 74. I frantically signaled the state trooper to pull over, and proceeded to sit on the grass and have a pleasant chat with President Bush. My heartbeat returned to normal at about Mile 60.

  • Route 2, Devens. My theory is that when Fort Devens was open the military found a way to block cell phone signals so they would not interfere with strategic communications. Whatever the reason, signal loss here is real and consistent.

  • Mt. Vernon Street, Boston. This is the Black Hole of Beacon Hill. One block in any direction you’ll get a strong signal, but Mt. Vernon Street is a dead zone. This one nailed me on more occasions than I care to recall. Why I could never learn to wait five minutes before starting to return my phone messages I can’t explain.

Enjoy the many wonderful people with whom you’ll come in contact as you cross the state on official and unofficial business. I’m not talking about the mayors and the selectmen and chamber-of-commerce presidents, though they can be wonderful, too. I’m talking about valets, toll collectors, sales clerks, and waiters. These are the people who will give you a commiserating look after you’ve read a dismal story in the morning paper, or give you a place to park when it’s pouring rain. And when they have something to tell you, listen. They talk to a lot of people and they hear things. I know I learned a lot from them.

When you establish your weekly routine, keep the Monday afternoon budget meetings that started in the Weld administration. You can relax, talk about movies or books, talk about your weekend, even talk about the budget. I’ve never had a confidence breached. And remember, between the House and Senate, Finneran’s popcorn is much better.

–Jane Swift