Thursday, February 19, 2009

About Rachel Rosenfeld

Two parts to what is probably going to be a giant post. First, a Q&A with Rachel Rosenfeld (that's "Really Rachel" in these parts) via e-mail. Nothing changed in questions or answers. I'll admit it's not comprehensive, but it touches on background, a few issues, and gets the ball rolling. Second, a few of my thoughts on her announced candidacy for mayor.

Part 1:

Why are you running for mayor?
I love Fitchburg. I sincerely believe I can lead the city in the direction the citizens of Fitchburg would like to see the city go.

What made you decide to dedicate 10 months on a campaign and an election?
If not me, who? If not now, when?

How long had you been considering running?
Many years, Jason.

What's your message? What are the important things that you think you're going to be talking about?
Respect. Teamwork. Bringing the city government - processes, technology, methodology into the 21st century. Sound fiscal management. Public safety. Healthcare. Community. Resurrecting Fitchburg. Unitil, energy and technology. Elderly, disabled, families, children - people as the priority. Accountability. True transparency. Consolidation, coordination, cooperation.

You've certainly been critical of the incumbent. How much of that will be part of your campaign?
Critique and compare. We have differing opinions of how best to serve the citizen-taxpayers of Fitchburg. The voters will see a marked difference between us based upon her record and my platform.

Have you ever run for public office before? If so, where and when? How'd it go?
Ran for planning board many years ago in Shirley against an incumbent townie. Spent no money, didn't campaign. Got nailed to the wall. And got my message across.
Helped to organize and was the co-chair of the Northern Healthcare Coalition, the grassroots group from 12 cities and towns that fought the closure of Burbank Hospital during the Bean administration. We preserved an urgent care center at the Burbank Hospital and ALS ambulance service in Fitchburg. First time in history that DPH ever
issued an order of conditions on the closure of a hospital. Hence my undying loyalty to Emile Goguen who poured himself heart and soul into it while his late wife Connie was undergoing chemotherapy.

What's your organization looking like? How many volunteers or staffers do you think you have now? How many do you want as the campaign gears up?
Volunteer recruitment isn't underway but all are welcome. Folks can email me. isn't a big secret.

How much money do you expect to raise?
As little as possible to run a campaign on a shoestring - the same way I live, the way I mean to manage the city - do the maximum with the minimum.

There's a couple of schools of thought on door-knocking: That it's very valuable, that it's merely window-dressing. How do you feel about it? When do you think you'll start knocking on doors?
To be decided.

You've been pretty open about your health issues. Do you think you're healthy enough to serve a two-year term and be available 24/7 as the job seems to dictate?
It is not an issue for the citizens. Just don't smoke near me. I have never failed in a commitment to family, friends, community or synagogue. I have the personal assistance I need for any mobility issues that may arise, my reasoning and intellect are superb, and I
don't plan to invade a foreign country or sign up for any cross country hikes. I have as examples Ted Kennedy, JFK, FDR and a close relative Cordell Hull (who had the same familial disease for most of his lifetime), as well as my own mother and grandfather who dealt with this inconvenience for many years. I have the advantage of knowing both my abilities and my limitations and while my abilities will be an asset to the city, the citizens will not be inconvenience in any way by my limitations. My breathing and mobility issues have taught me the value of persistence, objective and goal setting, patience, and priorities. Similarly my financial issues have brought home priority setting and strict fiscal management.

You've talked in the past about how the Mayor's Office is too powerful. How would you work as mayor to reduce the office's power. Would you push for a charter commission to change from mayor to manager?
The last thing I want is to be "Lady Rachel" or "Queen Rachel" and our archaic strong mayor weak council government is set up for just such a scenario. It's modeled on the old English Lord Mayor - Privy Council model that has not been in use in England for a very long time. The reason given for not having pursued charter review and revision has always been that it's too hard, complicated, confusing, time consuming. I have the time and the doggedness to see it through, or at least make a heck of a good start during a term in office.
In addition, the very setup causes unnecessary conflict in the city. There is no reason a mayor and a city council should find themselves in an adversarial position if all have the best interests of the taxpayers at heart. Our current system is practically a bloodsport and it needs to be realigned so that there is a truly balanced balance of power, and equalization, with management responsible to the board of directors, i.e. city council. Sounds like I lean toward a city manager form of government - I've seen it work well and I know there have been issues elsewhere. That's why one person doesn't make that decision.
I want to see a more democratic (little d) form of government in Fitchburg where people feel they have a voice beyond biannual elections. Otherwise they become frustrated and angry. And unlike sausage being made, I believe people DO want to see the process and be involved in how things are done.
Lots of interaction between the mayor and the citizens, open forums, "mayor's open house" if invited to rotate at ward meetings, stay in touch with the people. I see the mayor's role as much more hands on with the people day to day, "mayor at large" with executive responsibilities.

The city is facing a $4 million deficit next year. How do you fill that gap?
One dollar at a time. Seriously. $4M is less than 5% of recent city budgets. You tell me you can't cut 5% out of your household budget and still preserve "vital services" at home.

How do you slow the rapid increases in health care?
What was promised during the 2007 mayoral campaign and never done. Sorry, that's a criticism. In addition to the not-yet-dead horse we've been beating for the past several years, there are additional options that may coincide with bringing healthcare access back to the city.

Would you favor layoffs?
Let's stop giving out raises like candy first. There may be alternatives to people losing their jobs through a well thought out, well planned reorganization program, reduction of hours of hourly workers without losing healthcare and full time benefits, a carefully crafted attrition program.

What departments would you target first?
I would never "target" a department or an individual. I don't believe in people as targets.
I will, however, target inefficiencies. The rationale "we might get sued" won't work. City vehicles are not for commuting. Period.
I would assess the mayor's office first. With computers there's no need for someone else to type my letters. Assistant to the mayor is an essential position (not a chief of staff). Administrative assistant could most likely be shared with another department. As those are two positions each mayor personally fills, I might choose not to fill the Admin Asst position.

Part 2:

So, what to think?

At the outset, you probably fall into one of two camps: "Go, Rachel. Wong needs to go." Or, "Rachel? Really? Isn't she that crazy Internet woman?"

It's no secret Rachel and I have had a, um, combative past. You can flip through the countless comments and catch the highlights. I'll be honest. I'm highly skeptical of her candidacy. Here's why:

First, she's lacking on some organizational basics. Volunteers are welcome, but I don't get the sense there's been a real effort to put together a campaign and organize. Legend has it that Marcus DiNatale has the best voter database and organization in the city through working for himself and his father. If that's true, Wong might have the second best. There are reams of information -- active voter lists, probable voter identification, organizing standouts, blah, blah, blah -- that someone has to do to pull off a well-run campaign. And "to be determined" is an answer on door-knocking that needs to be substantially improved.

Then there's the money. "Shoestring" sounds good, but rarely competes in a high-money race. The 2007 race was around $30,000 in the preliminary. I'm sure both Donnelly and Wong were in the $40,000 by the time it was all said and done. How do you compete with the mailers and the organization? The scrappy underdog only goes so far. Ask Ron Dionne.

Second, I'll call this the DeSalvatore factor. It's not quite what the Unicow posted today, but similar. As the campaign went on in '07, DeSalvatore started pulling his punches. He spent the first part of the year firing from the hip, and then when it got late, he got cautious. People were scratching their heads, and it came across as a bad performance in debates.

What does Rachel do? She created the "Queen Lisa" tag for crying out loud. Is she going to stop name-calling and play it a bit more safely? For my money, she seems a little tame in some of the questions above. If you doubt that, hit the comments. It's all relative. She's been raging for the better part of a year. Does she keep her foot on the pedal, or ease off? I'm not sure either is really a winning play. She might be stuck here.

Third, let's try to probe the thoughts of Rachel here. Does she really want to be mayor, or does she want a larger soapbox to hammer Wong, her archenemy? While the S&E pointed to her blog today as her launching pad, I'm arrogant enough to guess old SF does much better business, and that this is really where she made her bones. While I love old SF, let's be honest here, it's a limited audience. What's really her goal? Is she in it to win it, or hammer at Wong for the next eight to 10 months?

Similarly, is she a stalking horse for someone? She clearly makes the rounds, talking to councilors and other city movers-and-shakers. Is she going to throw bombs and clear the path for another candidate? If I didn't know any better, I'd bet on Tran considering his remarks in the paper today. But that's too cynical, I think. But weirder things have happened in politics.

Fourth, Rachel at some point is going to have answer to a lot of things she has said on her blog and in other spaces in the last two or three years. Some of it would cause people to take pause. I'd love to say I'm going to do it, but the thought of rolling through thousands of comments makes me want to cry. It's a long campaign, I guess I have time.

Fifth, she needs to prove she can play well with others. Right or wrong (and this goes back to me running through comments), most folks feel like she was pro-Ted, and bailed. And then she was pro-Wong and bailed. Personally, I know the feeling. Some days I'm an honest, dedicated guy, somedays I'm jerk blow-in.

Being mayor means playing well with others. You need to massage the unions, work with the council, keep the department heads motivated and working, and be the public face of the city, not only at home, but with regional and state officials. Who knows how she'd roll, but her history here would be Exhibit A of not really playing well with others.

Sixth, being mayor is hard, and there's a lot to learn. I don't expect her to know it all yet. But even for a Day One candidate, a question about a $4M budget gap deserves more than a three-line answer.

Seventh, she's gotta shift into some facts. Consider her answer on health care costs. The first part says nothing has been done. Not true. Wong brought in new coverage last summer that was cheaper than an old plan. So, there's that factual error. This also goes to the paragraph above. Making health care cheaper is a horribly complicated thing that include giant companies and many unions throughout city government. There's no sense of the magnitude of that task in her answer.

On this issue, she pulled for the S&E her quote about Wong not understanding how to live on a shoestring budget. Maybe she does, maybe she doesn't. But (as discussed here in the past) Wong's parents are first-generation immigrants who opened up a restaurant in Cambridge. Generally, restaurant owners aren't rolling in dough. During the last campaign, Wong talked about working in the restaurant as a kid. Yes, she went to BU and she's traveled a good chunk of the world, but I'm guessing she and her parents weren't commuting from Wellesley to the family restaurant, if you know what I mean. Does Rosenfeld have the Wong family W2s from the 1980s? Most of Wong's backstory points to a family working hard to get by and do what they could for their kids. So when Rosenfeld fires away like that, you either believe the hype, or question its validity. She can't afford to have people questioning her validity on anything.

Look, she's got a lot of time to answer these questions. She's a known entity from her spirited blog comments and posts at her site. But what's she really like? I've never met her in person, so I don't really know. Her announcement has certainly raised eyebrows, and it certainly plays well with the anti-Wong crowd. But is that crowd currently at 50 percent-plus-1? And if it is, will they all rally around her? It's unique for a new candidate (and by new, I mean never running before) to be this polarizing. How she runs, what she says, and how she says it will make for an interesting campaign, that's for sure.

Labels: , ,