LEGACY TIME: Styles and Strategies for the Political Administration End Game

Tom Menino’s tenure is now measured in weeks.  Deval Patrick is entering the monthly count-down period.  But neither of them has left yet.  And until they do, advocates (and everyone else) seeking to advance their issues will have to deal with how these elected executives and their administrations function during their lame duck days — which is directly related to what kind of legacy they hope to leave behind.

Legacy is important because the incoming Administrations will have their hands full for at least their first six months assembling their teams, repackaging existing programs in their own image (and to their own political credit), and focusing their personal attention on the issues that got them elected. For John Connelly the focus will be on the schools.  While it’s still unclear what will be the theme of Marty Walsh’s first 100 days, for neither candidate is it likely to be transportation (except, perhaps, for school busing), public health, human services, or other “soft” issues.   So the plans and programs that the departing Administration leaves – and that are well positioned to be picked up by the incoming Transition Advisory Team will quietly continue.

Close out Administrations seem to follow a mixture of four different approaches:  the fade away, the goal-line defense, the project and people cementer, and the go for broke.  Each presents opportunities and problems for Advocates who, ultimately, have to also weigh the advantages of playing to the outgoing versus the incoming team.

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SLIP SLIDING AWAY

If the elected leader’s exit has come sooner than desired, usually as the result of a failed re-election campaign, the Administration might deflate like a torn balloon.  This is partly what happened to the final Dukakis Administration after the Presidential Campaign fiasco, despite the Governor’s own efforts to keep things going. (Full disclosure: that’s when I began my five-year stint in State Government by acting as staff for a Management Reform Commission of outsiders asked by the Governor to suggest ways to save money and make things more efficient.)

A nasty variation of this “exit without grace” was the departing Bush Administration’s scorched earth retreat, done to make it as difficult as possible for incoming Obama people. But whether it is a benign or malevolent departure, there’s nothing positive going on.  The best advocates can do is to focus on the incoming transition team.

POLISHING THE MIRROR

A more common approach, particularly for retiring politicians, is to let past accomplishments stand on their own.  For them, the final task is to prevent any last-minute tarnishing of their image.  In the coming weeks, Mayor Menino, whose reputation is so positive that he wasn’t even criticized in the campaign to replace him (compare this to what’s happening in NYC!), is unlikely to expend much political capital on anything that might upset people. While trying to lock in the commercial developments that would preserve his vision of the city’s future, Menino backed off from the BRA appointments when that provoked criticism.  Even his furious outburst at the wild-cat school bus driver strike was actually a safe move — it was an unauthorized disruption and everyone hates unruly public servants who hurt kids!  The Globe (reflecting its own mostly negative attitude towards the labor movement) applauded his statements as a return of the old Menino energy, which was a double positive!

Leaders and Administrations whose priority is avoiding negative press are difficult to pressure.  The best Advocates can do is point out actions that will clean up possible messes and increase the odds that the incoming Administration won’t find something dirty hidden under the rug after  they take office.  Once again, it’s probably better to start learning how to work with the newcomers.

FINISHING NAILS IN THE CARPENTRY

Usually, concern for image protection is combined with a rush to insure project permanence.   Both Menino and Patrick have initiated a variety of programs and projects.  These often take a long time to get started; the bigger and more ambitious the longer they take.  Patrick has only had seven years (with one to go).  Even Menino, the longest serving Mayor in Boston history, has begun numerous projects in recent years, shaping the city, and he clearly wants to get as many going as possible before he leaves.

Robert Moses, the famous Highway (and park!) builder of New York, always made sure that his projects had advanced a bit too far for incoming officials to comfortably stop.  (A trick that Governor Pataki claimed to have copied in order to get what he wanted as replacements for the World Trade Towers in NYC.)  Most Boston projects are privately developed, so the Mayor has relatively little control over construction schedules.  However, various city departments have unfinished agendas:  the recent winning of a $15.5 million grant for the Connect Historic Boston project may be a way to nail down some downtown visions.  The governor, however, has numerous public projects on his list.  In transportation, we should look for moves by the Patrick Administration to nail down the Green Line Extension, purchase some DMU trolleys (Diesel Multiple Unit cars), and push for the South Coast Rail Line.  And Secretary Davie has aggressively promoted policies to advance MassDOT’s GreenDOT and mode-shift goals, despite some internal resistance.

For those projects that are just beginning, there is a rush to make them “shovel ready” with designs and permits in place and if possible funding all lined up.  And if even that isn’t possible, there are efforts to create symbolic starts — ground breaking, paint-and-signage prefigurations, or simply press announcements that make it seem like the project is moved into inevitability.

The rush to insure project futures makes things a little wild.  Everyone inside and outside the departing Administration is trying to get something on the “nail it down so it can’t be removed” list, but exactly because time is short only a few things will get done.   As at all previous times, it’s best if your proposal is easy, non-controversial, low-cost, with high symbolic value or actual leverage towards one of the Elected Official’s long-time themes (e.g. economic development in one place or another) — or has the vocal support of a key supporter or friend of a highly placed person in the Administration.   In fact, without at least one (or preferably two) of those attributes, you might as well start lobbying the incoming transition team

But, of course, anything that is too identified as part of the outgoing Administration is unlikely to get on the incoming transition team’s short list of “good ideas to show you’re moving forward after taking office.”  At a minimum, old programs need to be wrapped into new labels and frames that the new team can take credit for.  So at some point advocates have to make a choice:  can the action be locked in or do you jump to the next round?

FINAL FIREWORKS

Finally, some elected officials go out swinging; Michael Bloomberg, for example.  Perhaps they are positioning themselves for the next election, or an appointed position in a higher level of government, or they just are gazillionaires who think they can leverage their money to impact the larger political scene — a “golden rule” process (“those with the gold make the rules”) that the US Supreme Court seems intent on expanding.  Hitching your wagon to their well-fed horse you might be in for an exciting ride!  However, it probably means you’ll be burning any chance of being able to influence the newly elected replacement team.

No matter who wins the upcoming elections, we’re in for an interesting time!

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Related Previous Posts:

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THE ADVOCATES DILEMA: When The Need for Action is Immediate But the Pace of Change is Slow

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