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The Hang Out Cure

At a conference focusing on innovation and the future, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld broached an old-fashioned—but radical—idea that Pennsylvania pols need to hear

At a conference focusing on innovation and the future, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld broached an old-fashioned—but radical—idea that Pennsylvania pols need to hear

I attended last week’s New York Times Cities For Tomorrow conference to mine for cutting edge ideas that our too often stuck-in-the-past city government ought to steal. And there were plenty, including a presentation by a San Francisco-based startup that produces small sensors enabling cities to map environmental data street by street and minute by minute; and a cool reimagining of cities’ communication infrastructure that allows users to text each other directly, without a central network.

But the idea I couldn’t stop thinking about for days after was the most old-school, and it came from probably the most traditional panelist on the program: Former Massachusetts Governor William Weld. You may remember Weld as arguably the only non-cringeworthy candidate during last fall’s presidential election; he was the vice-presidential nominee on the Libertarian Party ticket. Well before that quixotic move, Weld was the Republican centrist governor from, as Times columnist Ginia Bellafante said upon introducing him, “the People’s Republic of Massachusetts. Some progressives out there hear ‘Centrist Republican’ and there’s a little heart-shaped thought bubble in their head, thinking, ‘Wow, I would even date one now.’

William Weld. Photo by Christopher Evans
Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld. Photo: Christopher Evans

Weld was there to talk about the art of compromise along with Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, who didn’t waste much time before crowing that his city had recently surpassed ours in population and was now the nation’s fifth largest. Weld advanced a simple yet novel idea: That politicians who disagree with one another ought to hang out together.

First, before diving into the Weld postulate, let’s agree on the problem: Used to be, there were practical problem-solvers on both sides of the political spectrum, like Democrat Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Republican Warren Rudman in the U.S. Senate. Locally, it wasn’t that long ago that our region elected reasonable, non-ideological political leaders, ranging from Republican Rep. Larry Coughlin in the suburbs to Mayor Ed Rendell in the ‘90s, a pro-growth, deal-making, business-friendly Democrat.

Reasons for the extinction of this political species range from the takeover of primary season by extreme voices on both sides of the divide, to the 24-hour news cycle, which seems to reward the loud over the thoughtful. But also, both locally and nationally, we’ve lately had a rash of outsider politicians—from Kathleen Kane to Tom Wolf to Donald Trump—who have not only required on the job training, but also never seemed aware how much personal relationships matter in a business that, after all, is really more about that than policy positions. In less populist days, congressmen (and they were all men) played tennis on the roof of the Hart Office Building and drank whiskey together. Today, our politics are broken in large part because our politicians don’t know each other.

Sometimes we can get lost in the weeds of policy, and we forget that governing—much like voting—is also an emotional act. And it’s easier to gain support for your position if you’re seeking it from someone who knows and likes you.

“Many times I would look up on TV and I would see somebody and then the name would come up and it would say ‘member of Congress’ and I’d go ‘I don’t even know who that is,’” former Republican Rep. Connie Mack once told CNN. In the case of Congress, such alienation didn’t just happen, folks. When Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1995, he changed the legislative calendar so the House’s work was done by mid-week. Members began flying back home, instead of staying in D.C. and getting to know one another. Committee chairmanships were assigned based on party loyalty rather than seniority.

Politics became a zero-sum game, and the erosion of bipartisan comity trickled down to state and local government. Weld was one of those in his own echo chamber. As a new governor in 1991, he took on his state’s Democratic-controlled legislature in his push for big tax cuts and, when they told him to pound sand, he famously called a press conference and said, “You can lead the House to order, but you can’t make it think.”

“We got off on the wrong foot,” he recalled wryly last week. Facing gridlock, he agreed to meet Democrats Charlie Flaherty, the Speaker of the House, and Bill Bulger, President of the State Senate, for a drink at the Charles Hotel. As a federal prosecutor, Weld had indicted Bulger’s brother, the infamous Whitey Bulger, on racketeering charges, so he was expecting Bulger to be a lifelong enemy. But then something happened.

“The three of us decided to meet every Monday at 3:15, which we did for the next seven years,” Weld recalled. “The menu, frankly, was jokes—not substantive. It was to talk about what a jerk everybody in the State House who didn’t happen to be in that room, was. We produced much mirth. But the theory is, it’s harder to stab somebody in the back or the front if you know you’re going to be sitting with them in the next seven days in a very jocular setting. It really did work.”

Weld became a successful two-term governor, passing bold education reform, privatizing services while cutting taxes, and advancing gay rights. We tend to bemoan the lack of compromise these days, but Weld says we should really focus on its cousin: Deal-making.

“Bulger had a long battle with [previous Governor Michael] Dukakis,” Weld said. “The Dukakis administration didn’t like him on style grounds. They knew his priorities were Boston Symphony, the Boston Public Library, and the L Street Bathhouse in South Boston. Every year, they’d veto those appropriations. Well, one day I said to him, ‘Mr. President, how about we do it differently? I’ll file my budget and instead of $2 million for the symphony, I’ll put in $18 million. And instead of $1.5 million for the library, I’ll put in $12.6 million. And we’ll have a special section in the budget to upgrade the L Street Bathhouse and all the areas around it. How would that be?’ He said, ‘That would be wonderful’ and then he waited. I knew he was waiting for me to ask for something. And I didn’t ask for anything.”

Until, that is, three years later—after Weld had been reelected with 74 percent of the vote. He knew Bulger and Flaherty were in favor of a legislative pay raise, and he offered to take the heat for that in exchange for a capital gains tax cut. “Their urban constituency didn’t care about capital gains, but mine did,” Weld recalled. “I said, ‘It’s at 6 percent now. How about we knock off 1 percent for each year someone owns an asset, so it’s gone after 6 years? They agreed. But it wasn’t a compromise. It was a deal—which is another way to get there from here.”

Maybe we’ll get more emotionally intelligent leadership if we change who leads us. A report last year from the National Bureau of Economic Research offered some hope for the future, finding that women politicians—especially Republican women—tend to be more collaborative than men. Clearly, the dudes aren’t cutting it.

In other words, Weld had learned how to do politics, and it had everything to do with all those Monday afternoons bonding with Bulger and Flaherty, often busting Flaherty’s chops by talking to Bulger in Latin—they had both majored in the classics, Weld at Harvard and Bulger at Boston College. Sometimes we can get lost in the weeds of policy, and we forget that governing—much like voting—is also an emotional act. And it’s easier to gain support for your position if you’re seeking it from someone who knows and likes you.

That’s what Democratic Rep. Peter Welch discovered, representing Vermont in Congress. I caught up with him a couple of years ago when I read about the cross-party Costco lasagna dinners that he and Illinois Republican Rep. Peter Roskam started hosting in Welch’s D.C. apartment, where five Ds and five Rs would regularly break bread together and get to know one another.

“The combat of politics has become a macho struggle,” Welch told me. “That’s easy to do when you don’t know your opponent.”

When Welch’s party was in the majority, he could have passed his Home Star energy efficiency bill with just the support of his fellow Democrats on the energy and commerce committee—as has become customary. Instead, he visited every Republican member and ended up getting 12 GOP supporters, including Texas’ Joe Barton, who is aligned with big oil and questions the validity of global warming science. Ironically, when Welch first ran for the House in 2006 from environmentally friendly Vermont, he used Barton as a bogeyman in his advertising—complete with the ominous, deep-throated warnings about the need to send Welch to Congress to oppose the likes of “Joe Barton from Texas.”

When Barton responded positively to Welch’s overture, it was an a-ha moment. “I’m never going to convince Joe Barton on global warming,” Welch told me. “But after we found common ground on energy efficiency, I told him, ‘You know, it’s a good thing I didn’t know you before I ran for the House and used you in my ads. Because I kind of like you.’”

Closer to home, none other than Bob Brady has been one of the stalwarts of bipartisan goodwill. Backroom machine boss Brady? Bipartisan? Really? Though it may sound counterintuitive, yes. Brady might be the least ideological elected politician in America. In his role as ranking member of the Committee on House Administration, which oversees budget authorization for members’ expenses and those of House committees, Brady has been called “Capitol Hill’s mayor,” the go-to source for favors among his colleagues. Instead of only rewarding his teammates, though, Brady let the word go forth across the aisle when he became chairman in 2007: Anything you need—as long as it’s legal—is yours.

He took some heat from the partisan crowd. When he befriended California Republican Dan Lungren, a far-right ideologue (who went on to lose his seat in 2012), Democratic party leaders called him on the carpet for his mutual back-scratching with Lungren. “He’s my friend,” Brady told them. “I’m loyal to my friends.”

Weld became a successful two-term governor, passing bold education reform, privatizing services while cutting taxes, and advancing gay rights. We tend to bemoan the lack of compromise these days, but Weld says we should really focus on its cousin: Deal-making.

I know, I know. A call for more friendships and less ideology in our politics sounds naively simplistic, like one of those air-headed “world peace” pronouncements from Miss America. But what if it is that simple? What if it’s not a coincidence that, in the 1950s and 1960s, America built the fastest-growing economy in the history of civilization at the same time our politics were far more civil and moderate, when there wasn’t much daylight between Eisenhower Republicans and Kennedy Democrats?

Maybe we’ll get more emotionally intelligent leadership if we change who leads us. A report last year from the National Bureau of Economic Research offered some hope for the future, finding that women politicians—especially Republican women—tend to be more collaborative than men. Clearly, the dudes aren’t cutting it. In his first two years, Tom Wolf didn’t learn the lessons Weld did, thinking he could dictate, rather than relate, to the legislature; he remains an incredibly shrinking governor.

In Philly, we have one party rule, yet we still don’t have the camaraderie that can lead to deals that inure to the common good. Just a couple of weeks ago, State Senator Tony Williams complained that Mayor Kenney didn’t return two of his phone calls prior to what turned out to be a disastrous display of anti-Democratic norms when the State Senate Local Government Committee tried to hold a hearing in City Council on the economic impact of the soda tax, and was shouted down.

Here’s hoping Kenney and Williams take a page from Weld and Bulger—head on over to one of Kenney’s favorite watering holes and work out a deal that might provide more funding for pre-K and Rebuild. A guy can dream, can’t he?

Header Photo: Pat Toomey

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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