Power 2008: The Elements of Influence
Case Study: Michael Widmer, president, Massachusetts Taxpayers Association
THE BUDGET CRUNCH on Beacon Hill has meant boom times for Michael Widmer, the go-to for expert commentary on the state’s bottom line. Every day, it seems, the 15-year head of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF) is in the papers, weighing in on everything from Turnpike reform to universal healthcare to Patrick’s casino push (which his group’s research helped torpedo). “The governor’s people get all fired up when Widmer gets quoted,” says one State House observer. Though they may not like it, he’s just filling a vacuum unique to blue Massachusetts, where, with no credible opposition party in place, the vital task of kiboshing half-baked initiatives often falls to analysts like him.
Widmer started his career working for United Press International and then the Sargent and Dukakis administrations. He uses his press and policy savvy to win attention for the MTF’s excruciatingly rigorous research. Its casino report, for example, “went through at least 40 edits,” says Andy Bagley, a senior policy analyst at the foundation. Steve Silveira, a government relations consultant at ML Strategies, worked with Widmer on the blue-ribbon Transportation Finance Commission responsible for last year’s damning report on the state’s $20 billion infrastructure shortfall. That one went through 17 drafts. “We probably would have done it in 12 but for Mike,” Silveira says. Even Citizens for Limited Taxation’s Barbara Anderson, who considers MTF “our number one enemy in the antitax movement” due to its opposition to tax cuts, admits that she uses Widmer’s research “all the time.”
“I do relish the role,” Widmer says, “but what I’ve tried to do here has been focused on trying to solve public policy problems.” As to whether the class of fauna roving Beacon Hill is actually capable of taking steps to reverse the deepening economic funk, he says, “I think the capacity is there. And the crisis may be there soon enough to force that kind of action.” In the meantime, count on Widmer to continue popping those balloons. —Joe Keohane
Case Study: Jan Saragoni, founder, Saragoni & Company; Michael Goldman, senior consultant, Government Insight Group
ALL POWER IS DERIVED in large part from relationships, but in Boston — where media, politics, and PR are connected to the point of symbiosis — those who manage to move gracefully among the three (i.e., schmooze like a champ) may find themselves disproportionately successful. Exhibit A: Jan Saragoni and Michael Goldman.
Saragoni professes hatred for the word “schmooze” because it sounds “slippery and superficial.” She prefers to describe her job as “czarina of public relations.” Whatever you want to call it — working a room, chatting up the press, making introductions and connections, trafficking in information — she’s got a gift. A former Associated Press reporter, she worked for Kevin White and Michael Dukakis before founding her own boutique PR agency; combined with her service on the boards of the Greenway Conservancy and the Mass. Women’s Political Caucus, it’s a résumé that’s ensured she’s always got juicy gossip to share with journalists, many of whom then become happy to return the favor. “When I was at the Globe, everyone took her calls, and everyone was talking about what she was pitching,” says Doreen Vigue, now a NECN spokeswoman. “She’s a news junkie. She’s everywhere. And she knows every power broker in town.”
For his part, Goldman does not share Saragoni’s reservations about the dirty word: “Schmooz” is actually in his e-mail address. After 200-odd political campaigns and untold numbers of panicked phone calls from reporters on deadline, he remains constantly available to trade gossip, unleash a devastating joke, provide contacts, or relay a story about an old legislative battle. (Over the years, he’s turned up in so many articles that the Globe has had to periodically ban reporters from quoting him.)
One Democratic operative recalls being in a campaign meeting when Goldman received a tip. “I watched for 12 minutes while he made 15 phone calls. He turned one bit of information into seven hits. It was a flurry.” It was for that aptitude that Deval Patrick’s chief of staff, Doug Rubin, tapped Goldman to serve as an informal adviser to his boss, who’s certainly needed the help. “He really believes what he says. It’s not just spin,” Rubin says. Though at meetings, he adds, “it’s tough to get a word in edgewise. You’ve got to set aside a little bit more time for the conversation.” —Paul McMorrow