Jon Keller’s Nine Big, Shiny, Happy Ideas for the New Governor

In a nod to the gubernatorial election this month, the political wiz advises our new leader on how to keep from messing up our relatively stable lives.

Photo via Pigiam/Getty Images

It’s been called “the best movie yet done about politics,” and 50 years after its release, one line from The Candidate still resonates. A political novice, Bill McKay (played by Robert Redford), has just won an improbable victory in a California Senate race. Before addressing his supporters, however, he demands a private moment with his top campaign handler to forlornly ask a question: “What do we do now?”

Maura Healey is no greenhorn. She has a track record and a campaign platform full of plans and promises. But inauguration day means an end to vague nostrums and a need for specific, actionable ideas—the more creative, the better. So with that in mind, here are nine recommendations (tailored for Healey, but in the improbable event of a Geoff Diehl victory this month, he is welcome to them, however awkward the fit might be), hot from the oven and ready to digest—if she has the stomach for them.

Illustration by Mark Matcho


Fix our state’s lame tourism branding—by embracing our inner Masshole

“My Perfect Massachusetts Getaway”? “It’s All Here”? Come on. We can do better, and we can start by embracing our pop-culture image as a bunch of beer-swilling, doughnut-loving, wisecracking, sports-obsessed Massholes.

Maybe Casey Affleck’s star turn as the profane, chain-smoking “Mayor of Dunkin’” in a widely viewed 2016 Saturday Night Live skit (“I come to Dunkin’ every day, grab a cruller, have an extra-large, three Parliaments, take a big dump, that’s kinda the routine”) isn’t our best foot forward. But some of the most successful tourism campaigns of the past two decades have turned “negatives” into catchy hooks. Acclaimed examples include Finland’s promotion of winter tourism (“Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November—except you, you badass”) and Las Vegas’s classic capitalization on its sketchy image (“What happens here, stays here”).

Could a slogan like “Come find your inner Masshole” appeal to younger generations of tourists looking for something funkier than overpriced chowder and Walden Pond? It could be coupled with bus tours of what makes this such a Masshole paradise. For instance, how about a “Doughnut Crawl” that winds through Kane’s in Saugus, Mike’s in Mission Hill, and Doughboy in Southie before a visit to—where else?— Mass Hole Donuts in Arlington? These tours could include distinctly Masshole events such as raucous tailgating at Gillette Stadium, al fresco “dining” at Sullivan’s on Castle Island, and visits to the scene of the Orange Line MBTA bridge catastrophe, which should definitely play host to future diving competitions (see #3).

Leading local comedians could also offer prerecorded narration to presumably rapt visitors between stops. Like the legendary Jimmy Tingle, who gave a sneak preview of how he’d suggest tourists get the full Masshole treatment: “Try the Tingle triathlon. What you do here is: You take the T to Fenway Park, you sit in the bleachers, you eat or drink whatever you want, you root loudly for the other team, and then you run home!”


Show the NIMBYs who’s boss

Whether you’re a fast-food worker or a CEO, the critical lack of affordable housing in the state will eventually affect your life in one way or another. Healey understands this. “Young families can’t buy their first house, renters can’t stay in their homes, small businesses are struggling to retain workers, and our seniors can’t afford to downsize,” she said before the election.

Sounds urgent. So let’s match that urgency with action that directly challenges the not-in-my-backyard crowd and its army of lawyers and spin doctors continuing to wall off those who can’t afford sky-high real estate prices. Lew Finfer, one of the region’s leading affordable-housing activists, suggests Healey begin by choking off local aid to cities and towns that don’t reach the state’s modest goal of 10 percent affordable housing. In what might be the understatement of the year, he also acknowledges that “this would meet great local opposition.”

So why not start with a more politically palatable solution, such as requiring towns to use Balancing Act, an online simulation tool out of California that gives citizens the power to help shape housing development? Users can get down in the weeds of planning new housing, neighborhood by neighborhood, lot by lot. The one thing they can’t do is say no. The biggest benefit of the program? Because it invites broader public input, it potentially diminishes the impact of a vocal NIMBY minority killing population growth in the ’burbs.

Whatever solutions she ultimately employs, Healey should make it clear from day one that taking baby-steps forward followed by unimpeded stalling is not an acceptable response to our housing crunch. Would foot-dragging communities and the politicians who enable them like to see the new governor push for a boost in the 10 percent quota and cuts in discretionary state aid for non-compliers, as Finfer suggests? No? Then encourage residents to either log onto Balancing Act and chart their own reforms, or brace for legal and financial blowback for their towns. The status quo is not an option.

Illustration by Mark Matcho


Put out the fires (literal and figurative) on the MBTA

It’s long past time to acknowledge the obvious: The public sector can’t get the job done when it comes to the T. Between the competing demands of constituency groups, the chronic incompetence of managers willing to work for government salaries, and the powerful transit unions allergic to privatization, even an earnest wonk like Charlie Baker couldn’t cut through the political fog and establish clear priorities with effective oversight. If only there were a successful private management company familiar with both the T and local politics available to step in and lead the system out of the abyss.

Actually, there is. Alternate Concepts Inc. (ACI) of Boston was founded in 1989 by former MBTA general manager Jim O’Leary, famous for blowing the whistle on bribery schemes involving top T officials. ACI, alongside two other transit companies, ran the metro Boston commuter rail relatively successfully for 11 years before the widely panned 2014 decision to give the contract to Keolis. It went on to become the nation’s largest private provider of passenger rail services, including a Denver system that won this gushing praise from Politico: “Using an unprecedented public-private partnership that combines private funding, local tax dollars, and federal grants, Denver has done something no other major metro area has accomplished in the past decade.”

Last March, the T brought in ACI to fix the crash-prone Green Line—on a no-bid contract, no less. It’s a show of confidence and urgency that raises a question: Why mess with demonstrably hapless in-house remedies for the rest of the system’s failures when a proven-successful private manager right in your backyard is ready to (literally) roll?


Make Massachusetts a clean car showplace.

One look at the gas guzzlers clogging the Pike and I-93 every afternoon, and you’ll forget there was ever a time when the Bay State’s highways were completely empty. Yet even as we search for answers about how to alleviate the traffic crisis, we also need to think about putting the pedal to the metal when it comes to making the transition to electric vehicles.

Healey has already made a lot of promises in this area, committing to achieving net-zero emissions by 2030 “across state operations” in part by transitioning the state fleet to EVs. That’s swell—but even if all of Massachusetts’ 15,000-plus publicly owned vehicles make the switch to electric, that’s still a tiny fraction of the more than 5 million cars and trucks on the road here.

If we want to speed up progress, the first thing Healey needs to do is make it easier—much easier—for EV owners to charge their cars and be on their way. According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, 28 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t consider buying or leasing an electric vehicle, twice the percentage who said they would do so. The top two barriers for the hesitant? Concerns over “charging logistics” and worries about how far you can drive without needing to juice up.

The good news is that earlier this fall, state transportation officials celebrated federal approval of their plan to install 92 more charging stations on major highways. But a flush-with-cash new administration in the State House could increase that effort and give the state a hip new branding as the EV-friendly capital of America, sure to be a hit with drivers sick of usurious gas prices.

It would be swell if the brainiacs at MIT could come up with a more environmentally friendly power source than the lithium batteries used by today’s EVs. But in the meantime, the state could be adding EV charging hubs in key exurban locations to encourage new housing development. Healey could also install heavy concentrations of chargers at strategic points near the state’s borders, specifically focusing on nearby commercial centers to promote shopping while charging. And once Massholes learn they can get a bottle of Grey Goose vodka for less at Methuen’s One Stop Liquors than they’ll pay at a New Hampshire state liquor store, they’ll never leave the Bay State again.

Illustration by Mark Matcho


Make the billionaire universities pay their fair share

They hold prime real estate, they’re loaded with cash, and they’ll do anything to avoid paying taxes. No, we’re not talking about the wealthy Bostonians who’ll be affected by the passage of ballot question #1, the so-called Fair Share Amendment. We’re referring to the billion-dollar endowment club, a.k.a. the wealthy colleges and universities that have enjoyed a free ride at local taxpayers’ expense for years.

Exempt from property taxes under state and federal law, the schools participate in PILOT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) programs, which are voluntary. For most of them, this is a joke. The 21 educational institutions in Boston asked for contributions in the fiscal year 2022 coughed up a mere 68 percent of what the city requested, most in the form of “community benefits” instead of cash. That list includes Harvard ($53.2 billion endowment, gave 79 percent of the city’s ask), BC ($3.8 billion, gave 22 percent!), and Northeastern University ($1.47 billion, gave 67 percent).

These well-heeled institutions and others like them can afford to do more to pay for the public services from which they benefit and compensate their host communities for the tax revenue they displace. They can and will play the institutional nonprofit exemption card. But according to the Association of American Universities, they “must pay tax on income from [anything] that is not substantially related to their educational tax-exempt purposes.”

Healey’s a smart lawyer, which means she could go after our wealthiest universities’ for-profit ancillary operations (like Harvard’s “executive education” programs) and their endowment investments. The college bureaucrats will squawk, but here’s guessing the applause from grateful taxpayers will drown out their cries.


Prod our thriving tech-economy beneficiaries to give back.

For tech workers, Massachusetts is pretty much nirvana. Consider the fact that the state has the nation’s highest concentration of tech jobs as a percentage of the total workforce —more than 450,000 people hauling in $73 billion worth of good wages, according to stats compiled by the Mass Technology Leadership Council. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Still, less than 2 percent of that windfall comes back to the community in tech business taxes. And even when it comes to those “community benefits” academia so loves to offer in place of cash, it’s unclear how widely the sector is stepping up. To quote Luke 12:48: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

So enough with the endless hype about so-called centers of innovation where overpaid tech geeks can guzzle overpriced coffee and pretend to be “incubating” ideas. New taxes may be a political nonstarter, but the new gov should make it clear that it’s time for these folks and their firms to step up the pace by committing to public service on a wider scale than the occasional riverbank cleanup.

In a state with some of the highest computer competency rates in the nation, nightmarish stories of seniors struggling to snag online COVID vaccination appointments were ubiquitous. The governor could demonstrate leadership and win over a high-voting constituency by mobilizing an all-out war on elder online illiteracy, staffed by the tech troops who know cyberspace best.

When we called looking for examples of this type of good tech citizenship, the Mass Technology Leadership Council offered some, such as the Technovation Girls Challenge, which recruits tech industry volunteers to mentor girls for three months. But the council couldn’t provide a master log of who’s doing what. With a state-compiled list in hand, the governor could use the office’s bully pulpit to offer praise for the performers and coax/shame the slackers
into action.

Call them “Healey’s Helping Heroes” or some other hokey, feel-good thing; it’ll help take some of the edge off that new tourism slogan.


Loosen up the liquor laws

When he stepped down in 2016 after 28 years in office, Medford Mayor Michael McGlynn’s tenure was widely hailed as a local model of urban governance. He brought new schools, new development, and a striking level of community cohesion to one of Greater Boston’s most diverse smaller cities. So during an exit interview with McGlynn a few months before he left office, he was asked: What is Medford’s secret sauce?

“Pony rides,” he replied without hesitation.

Pony rides? According to McGlynn, the city required organizers of large community events such as fairs or festivals to include pony rides for kids because they create a long line, which forced the adults to interact to pass the time. “It facilitates neighbors getting to know one another,” he explained.

It’s a simple concept, but at its core, cutting-edge urban planning is about creating spaces and events that encourage understanding and cohesion. And when pony rides are impractical, how about pony beers?

Don’t laugh. In Spain, playgrounds with adjacent cafés where parents can enjoy a cava while monitoring their tots are a common sight. It’s a hell of a lot more convivial than Keno. And the combination of bar service and family time is well established in U.S. cities such as Chicago, where local tour guides run lists of kid-friendly venues that allow the grownups to tipple.

Healey hasn’t always been especially tolerant of popular vices. She opposed the 2016 referendum that legalized recreational pot sales, went hard after big vaping companies, including Juul, and sided with Falmouth when its ban on the sale of nip bottles was challenged. But now, she acknowledges that her past concerns over dire warnings of legal marijuana’s impact on young people “may have been…unnecessary.” And long-building pressure to reform the state’s often archaic liquor laws seems to be peaking, with a question on this year’s ballot expanding the ability of food stores to sell booze, a Boston push for more liquor licenses in traditionally short-changed minority neighborhoods, and even a call to bring back happy hours at saloons.

Those ideas are debatable, and the new governor needn’t go along with all of them. But the big cheese can at least help the struggling hospitality industry, create new jobs and revenue, and earn the eternal gratitude of parents by prodding the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission to give maximum leeway to cities and towns that want to try new ideas like the playground/café alliance.


Back “reparations” for impoverished Black residents (just don’t call them reparations)

When on-the-job injuries occur, when business failures wipe out pensions, when natural disasters strike, government steps in to help repair the damage. “But unlike those other, everyday reparations,” wrote Harvard Kennedy School faculty members Cornell William Brooks and Linda Bilmes earlier this year, “Black reparations [for the economic damage of slavery and racism] are seen by many as a highly charged political third rail.” And that leaves an open social and economic wound to fester. According to data gathered by the website, welfare is the largest part of state and local budgets, and Massachusetts spends the third-most per capita among the 50 states, trailing only New York and Alaska. A whopping $24.6 billion a year here goes to state and local welfare spending.

Could a massive local investment in breaking the cycle that confines Black family wealth to a tiny fraction of what whites enjoy bring welfare spending down, convert welfare recipients into middle-class tax-revenue generators, and help make amends for the systemic discrimination that has denied African Americans access to the fruits of capitalism? Yes, it might, and that’s exactly how the governor-elect should sell the idea.

But whatever the next governor does, she shouldn’t call it reparations. The political toxicity of the term was reflected in a 2019 Associated Press poll in which reparations to African-American descendants of slaves were opposed 68 to 29 percent, driven by 83 percent disapproval among whites. When the word “reparations” is removed, however, those numbers change significantly: In a recent Gallup poll that asked if the U.S. government has a “responsibility to take action to reduce the impacts of slavery,” 54 percent of whites and 62 percent of adults overall approved.

Here in Massachusetts, the new governor should consider marketing a major investment in Black business startups and homeownership as straight-up economic development. (Consider that a 2021 study by McKinsey projected the creation of 615,000 new Black-owned businesses nationally “if the Black share of business ownership matched the Black share of the population,” generating a potential trillion dollars in new revenue.) Student debt forgiveness and subsidized community college could also help boost upward mobility.

The governor will have to manage this directly, bypassing a legislature that never saw a pot of money it didn’t want its hands in and bracing for the inevitable political firestorm. But you know the saying: no pain, no gain. Charlie Baker took the heat for the late-summer Orange Line shutdown to fix the rails. It’s Healey’s turn to step in and offer a long-overdue fix for this third rail.


Don’t throw out the baby with the Baker water

Healey had all summer to plan her primary-night acceptance speech. When she came to the podium to address her supporters and, more important, the live TV audience, she was clearly mindful of the enduring popularity of the man she hoped to succeed. “Governor Baker has led with respect and worked with both parties,” she said. “I thank him for that and for his service to this state.”

She shouldn’t just thank him. As Healey shapes her own administration and agenda, she would be well advised to carry forward some of the outgoing governor’s smarter initiatives and approaches—especially given the fact that pre-election polls showed a near-majority of likely voters wanted Massachusetts’ next leader to be a Baker-style centrist, with only 26 percent clamoring for someone more liberal.

That won’t be hard when it comes to housing reform. With the exception of her support for “local rent stabilization policies” (i.e., rent control), which the outgoing governor opposes, her housing agenda and Baker’s are simpatico.

But while Healey’s base is down with her affinity for Baker’s approach to housing, her relative moderation on criminal justice issues will be a tougher sell. Supporters of Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz’s doomed candidacy zeroed in on what they saw as Healey’s insufficiently progressive positions on issues like expansion of wiretap laws (she supported it) as well as marijuana legalization and banning the use of facial recognition software (she opposed both).

An early test of this political balancing act awaits Healey in Baker’s “dangerousness” bill, which would make it easier for the cops and the courts to lock up suspects in sex crime and domestic violence cases pending a threat-level hearing. It was the focus of an unusually acrimonious showdown at the end of the last session between the governor and the legislature when 27 Senate Democrats broke with leadership to support the bill before it died in the House.

In her September 6 victory speech, Healey vowed to be a governor “as tough as the state she serves,” and seeing that bill through in some form would be a way to demonstrate that. It would also tick off the ACLU and some left-wing Democrats, but could send an important message from the new governor: You don’t own me.

Which brings us to another Bakerism Healey should emulate: Declining, for the most part, to bring special-interest advocates into major administration positions, instead prioritizing progress over ideology. For Baker, that translated to a steady stream of criticism (and may have cost him a shot at a third term if he had wanted it), but he swallowed that as the cost of doing business on his way to an extraordinary run of public approval.

In her primary-night speech, Healey said, “I am tired of the anger, the vitriol, the division. That’s not who we are; that’s not what Massachusetts is all about.” That’s the governing style that endeared voters to Baker amid the rise and spread of Trumpism—and it may be the single best idea for a successful run we can offer the new governor.

Polito introduces Governor Backer for his State of the Commonwealth Address on January 25, 2022. / Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Karyn Polito’s Letter in the Desk

On the eve of the election, the Lieutenant Governor welcomes her successor—and offers some candid advice.

Dear Next Lieutenant Governor,

As I sit here in my office, within shouting distance of Governor Charlie Baker’s working office, I think back to my early days of settling into this position and assuming the role of lieutenant governor: of our transition into office, the work we set out to accomplish, the people we surrounded ourselves with building a team, and the responsibility that comes with this position.

Congratulations. Soon, this journey will become yours.

With Jan Cellucci’s permission, for which I am grateful, I chose to hang Governor Paul Cellucci’s official portrait above my desk as a reminder that the people of this great state are best served by the bipartisan, results-focused leadership our administration has prided itself on. Governor Baker and I chose to follow the example set by our mentors Governor Cellucci and Governor Weld and decided to stiff arm the political noise, take a pass on the politics of personal attacks, and roll up our sleeves to move the ball forward every single day. Governor Baker adopted a model of co-governing, elevating the office of the lieutenant governor to one of partnership—and we proved, that through this approach, we could accomplish even more for the commonwealth and the people who put their trust in us.

Now that role is one you will own, as a partner that can help your administration communicate better, listen more carefully, and accomplish more.

Part of that is to recognize the important role of local communities. Governor Baker tasked me in his first executive order to lead our community development strategy. It has been an honor of a lifetime. I guess “351” will always be my lucky number. Visiting each and every city and town, listening to and learning from the people who show up every day to deliver vital local services gave our administration a unique perspective on how the decisions of state government truly impact our communities.

We learned that because of the diversity of communities across our state—from Gosnold to Mount Washington—a one-size-fits-all approach is not effective. We learned that through a constant and open dialogue with local leaders, we could adapt, employ creative approaches, and deliver services more effectively. And we learned that the men and women serving in local office across our state, like our administration, aren’t interested in the hyper-partisan politics we see in Washington. Today, there’s more hope and opportunity in the places that feel a larger sense of appreciation, and I’m optimistic that the future of Massachusetts is now brighter, with stronger and more prepared municipalities.

In your position, you can’t choose the crisis you would like to work on. You take it all as it comes. During our time in office, Snowmageddon, the Merrimack Valley gas explosions, and of course, a global pandemic rose to the top.

To our next lieutenant governor: Get out on the road. The journey across Massachusetts requires long days and time away from loved ones, but focusing on all 351 cities and towns will pay off. When the snow hits, storm visits are a must. You spend time with local officials on the ground, and maybe even ride in a massive “water buffalo” military vehicle—that’s an experience I’ll never forget. These times will leave you with a strong appreciation for the Massachusetts National Guard; they are superheroes who always answer the call. You’ll take field trips and might get the chance to use a blowtorch to start a control burn, turning scrub brush into a beautiful meadow. And you’ll have the best Executive Protection Unit to guide you.

Recognize the value of investing in people. My great-grandfather came to America in search of a better life for his family and the opportunity to succeed. His story can be seen in the dreams of so many Massachusetts families. I was tasked by the governor to lead workforce-development initiatives to accomplish these goals. As chair of our STEM Advisory Council, we’ve transformed classrooms and created pathways to early college and connections to meaningful careers. This effort is about creating more opportunity, especially for young girls and kids of color who need to “See Themselves in STEM.” You directly affect people’s lives: At a STEM event, after a student spoke about the credential he received, he got three job offers on the spot. I’ll never forget the look on his face.

And as a female leader, recognize and respect the importance of your voice and your success as an inspiration to young women. I’ve spent much of my time in this role talking with young girls and women and have worked to elevate the voices of survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, because safety and well-being are essential for women to thrive, and too many are held back. Your perspective as a professional woman is on display and demonstrates that women can have it all with support from partners, family, and colleagues. Share your challenges and what’s worked for you to achieve this high-level executive position.

Like you, I’ve been honored to commit my career to public service. From local government to the state legislature, to the office of lieutenant governor, this has been the greatest experience of them all—and I know it will be for you. Your nickname will become “LG.” And for me, my experience in the corner office with “Team LG” has been amazing. They are my wind and forever friends.

So if I can leave you with anything, it is this: Enjoy every day, appreciate the gravity and the responsibility, be prepared for good days and bad, and expect the best-laid plans to find unexpected challenges. Surround yourself with people who share your commitment to the commonwealth, and never forget the reason you are there and the impact you can have for the people who have put their faith in you.

I’m rooting for you to succeed. We all are. And if you want to connect, I’m always just a phone call away.

Enjoy the ride!