Executive Privilege: His Time to Be Grossman of the Year?…
UPDATED: 2/13/14 12:04 AM: For grammar, clarification and addition of links.
Executive Privilege is a series on the 2014 race for Governor and other Constitutional offices in Massachusetts.
NORTHAMPTON—The stage is set quite differently than it was twelve years ago for Steve Grossman. At that time, the former state Democratic Party chair and a former national co-chair, came nowhere near his party’s nomination for governor.
Today, Grossman starts off holding a statewide elected position, prominent endorsements, organization and more cash on hand than his opponents. Indeed, prior to the entrance of Attorney General Martha Coakley into the race, he was the one to beat in the Democrats’ nominating contest.
“I learned how to be a better listener,” Grossman said in an interview at Haymarket Café. “In 2002, I was anxious to share with people all of the things I would do,” but a candidate has to engage potential supporters, “so they know you have a deep interest in their lives and challenges.”
In a political world where progressives are more eager to be assertive, Grossman appears right at home taking positions the left likes, like on the minimum wage, sick leave and equality. Yet, Coakley’s entrance did complicate his quest. Grossman not only must contend with lesser known Democrats hoping to play Deval Patrick to Grossman or Coakley’s Tom Reilly, but also the name recognition juggernaut and polling numbers of the attorney general.
Some in the party are not fans of his adept political gamesmanship. In the Pioneer Valley, Grossman has built an early lead, beating other candidates to key endorsements. Grossman did this in part because he has been on the stump longer, but also because he is a political pro, blending politics and policy well.
Before the interview, Grossman was in Springfield announcing that the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which he chairs are Treasurer, would fully reimburse the city to rebuild Brookings School and repair Dryden. Made possible by a bill filed by Senator Jim Welch and passed by the legislature, it provides the city with an exception to the typical 80/20 maximum MSBA reimbursement.
“This new reimbursement agreement reflects our ironclad commitment to help the city cope with a natural disaster from which it still hasn’t completely recovered,” Grossman said in a release at the time. At City Hall, Grossman went a step further alluding to the progressive interpretation of Massachusetts itself, “We are a commonwealth. That is what we call ourselves.”
Speaking to WMassP&I at the Haymarket Café, Grossman seems a youngish, animated 67, discussing his career and platform with gusto. It’s no surprise, politics is in his DNA he says.
Among the politicos in his family was his uncle Jerome, who died this year at 96, who, among other political causes, was a campaign manager for Father Robert Drinan, a Roman Catholic priest that served in Congress. His grandfather’s first campaign was helping John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, JFK’s grandfather, win reelection as mayor of Boston.
Grossman himself has long been active. In 1968, his presidential candidate was Eugene McCarthy. “I’ve still got my button,” Grossman said, which said “FMBNH” or For McCarthy Before New Hampshire.
For much of his working career, however, Grossman has helmed his family business, from which he gave up operational control upon becoming Treasurer. He touts a progressive record as a businessman, saying he directly negotiated with the company’s unions fairly, and offered sick leave for employees.
“We’ve had earned sick time in our family business for over 25 years,” Grossman said of his company arguing he already has a record on the issue, which has been a key plank of his campaign.
His campaign has tried to reflect that. Save for repealing the casino legislation, Grossman has shut few liberal ideas out and pressed on the minimum wage like many of his Democratic opponents and on paid sick leave, which Grossman owned for some time. Grossman vowed to veto unemployment cuts at the Northampton gubernatorial forum. He’s picked up the mantle of universal Pre-K.
Following a governor of the same party can complicate laying out a vision without criticizing the guy there now. The true nature of Grossman and Gov. Deval Patrick’s relationship is hard to sketch out. Some Patrick acolytes, like his campaign strategist Doug Rubin, were candidate shopping before settling on Coakley. But both have clearly collaborated on some matters and Grossman echoed Patrick’s line from this year’s State of the Commonwealth, “Massachusetts is back in the leadership business.”
The Treasurer lavished praise on the governor for not backing down on Patrick’s commitment to education funding and the creation of 80,000 jobs. Patrick did this, Grossman emphasized during the depths of the recession, “During the worst of times, you can have faith in the future and act on it.”
And yet, Grossman notes, when asked, where Patrick may have fell short. Specifically, why did last year’s efforts to raise revenue for education and infrastructure fail? Grossman alluded to exemptions the reforms would eliminate and a lack of bringing in the necessary players in the advance. Although Grossman emphasized it predates the Patrick Administration, he said part of the problem is the nature of the budget process, wherein the governor writes and submits a budget and legislature ignores it.
Instead of letting “people sit in the legislature and think ‘this is the first time I have heard of it,’ you have to be on the same ball team,” Grossman said.
Grossman added he supported efforts to invest in transportation from I-91 replacement to new MBTA railcars, but his first choice would be to dedicate funding from internet sales tax revenue. Congress has been contemplating legislation that would allow states to collect sales tax on Internet purchases delivered within their borders. Grossman explained the policy would level the playing field for brick and mortar stores and allow the state to earmark that money, upwards of $250 million, for transportation.
If that is not enough to fund transportation or universal Pre-K or Congress doesn’t come through, Grossman is open to going to the people. “You’ve got to lay out a very specific set of investments,” why it is in their interests “and you tell them how you are going to pay for it.” But he prefers raising revenue through growth of the economy or finding efficiencies in government, he said touting about $100 million he expects to return to the commonwealth through his administration of its pension system.
Grossman is well prepared, but at ease rattling off his plans in between questions and sips of espresso. The line between consummate politician and cerebral hands-on detail oriented ex-businessman said to call and run ideas by top confidants in the dead of night is nearly impossible to detect.
The detail can be granular when he wants it to be. Talking about his plan to grow 50,000 manufacturing jobs, a promise made realistic by “in-sourcing,” Grossman has the facts. Unsurprisingly the root is education and training. He outlined in minute detail where the problem was (vocational training), how little was spent per student and how public-private partnerships can fill the gap.
The fruit of Grossman solidifying Western Mass support is a broad and diverse base of key figures upon which he can build. In the Valley it runs the gamut from more ideologically passive figures like Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno to better known progressive politicians like Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, State Senator Stanley Rosenberg. He’s even snapped up support from former Vermont Governor and former DNC chair Howard Dean.
Michael Clark, Longmeadow’s School Committee Chair and a member of the town’s slate of Grossman state convention delegates, cited Grossman’s commitment to the region and to education. “His help with our new high school has been invaluable,” Clark said in an email. Alluding to other issues, he added that Grossman’s support for Universal Pre-K and “changing the Chapter 70 formula will only help communities like Longmeadow.”
Grossman’s work on the MSBA to help communities build modern schools is a critical function of the Treasurer, but one, as some have observed, that may not be as well known to the public at-large.
Voices on Blue Mass Group and several more off the record, have chided Grossman for his political maneuverings, but are at a loss to find fault with him on policy. If there is anything that unnerves Democrats it is Grossman’s standing in the polls relative to likely Republican nominee Charlie Baker. Coakley has thus far been the only Democrat polled to handily beat Baker.
In a follow up email, Grossman dismissed those concerns, saying in a prepared statement, “I am confident that once the people of Massachusetts know me as the only lifelong progressive job creator in this field, we will win the primary and go on to defeat Charlie Baker in November.”
During the Northampton forum, Grossman needled Coakley for what he called flip-flops, but for the most part, he has resisted criticizing his opponents. He did call for a “People’s Pledge” for the primary and general elections like what Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch had in last year’s senate primary. The pledge would discourage outside spending by requiring the candidate benefiting from the spending to donate to charity. So far none has been agreed to among the candidates have joined.
Grossman stuck to the idea of a pledge over an immediate call to tighten the commonwealth’s disclosure requirements for outside spending groups.
But Grossman insists he favors transparency overall. Aside from personal privacy of individuals, he said that government itself should not be hiding things from its citizens. Asked about the state’s nondisclosure of legal settlements, Grossman pounded the table said these are the people’s records, “Their records should be open and transparent.” “Governors need to be held to the highest standards of all,” he said when asked to the limits of the state’s public records law even within the executive branch.
Even as it is clear being the commonwealth’s governor is a dream of his, Grossman, reflecting his lessons from 2002, tries not to be high on himself. “I am not so hung up on my priorities,” he said expressing a desire to work collaboratively with others. “You have got to have a reflection of the values of a smart state and a savvy state,” he says.
Over the past year, Grossman has become a stronger candidate. Last April, his stump speech was good, but perhaps too large a portion to digest in one sitting. Now, before small groups, at the Northampton forum and speaking to WMassP&I, he is succinct, tying together anecdotes of success with his platform.
A more recent addition is story from when Bill Clinton was president. Asking the then-president what he was trying to accomplish, Grossman said Clinton replied, “Steve, as President of the United States, I am in the solutions business. I solve problems that affect people’s lives.”
Like Clinton, Grossman says he is in the “solutions business,” looking to set up shop in the corner office of Beacon Hill.