Now this is going to be interesting

On May 5, 2017, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Bob, age nine, holding forth on his porch with Muhammed Ali. — Photo by Gordon Parks

By William C. Shelton

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)

Thirty-two years ago, Bob Massie came to Somerville to serve as pastor for Christ Church, a small Episcopal congregation that was on the border between Winter Hill and East Somerville.

On May 16, his campaign kickoff at the Armory will be the next step in a circuitous journey, strewn with adversity and accomplishment.  And it should presage the most intriguing gubernatorial race in a long time.

Formative years

Bob was born with classic hemophilia. A lesser known effect of that disease is capillary rupturing that makes joints swollen, immobile, excruciatingly painful, and over time, irreparably damaged.

Consequently, he spent much of his childhood at home, in a bed or wheelchair. But his incarceration was within an environment saturated with parental love, rich in intellectual discourse, and peopled with a succession of family friends and acquaintances who were making a difference in the broader world.

His parents were influential authors Suzanne and Robert Massie, who would spend their lives studying—and sharing with Bob—how lasting change happens. Innately curious, he absorbed ideas and information like a sponge. Outgoing in temperament, he engaged visitors on moral, philosophical, and political questions that most of us do not consider until later in life.

During college he challenged Princeton eating clubs’ (think fraternities’) biases, helped lead a student anti-apartheid movement, and worked in Senator “Scoop” Jackson’s office. The latter position gave him an opportunity to investigate the pharmaceutical industry’s resistance to requirements that would ensure a safe blood supply. He did not know at the time that those corporate lapses would result in his acquiring both the HIV and Hepatitis C viruses.

Calling and career

In his senior year, he experienced a profound reawakening of his Christian faith. Through prayer, he sensed the imminence of God’s love that, he writes, “does not hinge on behavior:  it is an irrevocable decision about the essence of humanity and about each person, which stands as a counterbalance and a cure to our endless self-judgment and fear.”

He decided to become a minister. But HIV-caused illness forced him to take a break after his first semester of divinity school. Before returning, he worked at Congress Watch and edited an anthology on corporate behavior and impacts.

He completed school, was ordained as an Episcopal priest, and became a chaplain at New York City’s Grace Church, where he founded a homeless shelter. But he remained preoccupied with the extraordinary influence of corporations, for good or ill, on government, social justice, and the environment.

Determined to become a “strong and fair advocate for integrating economic creativity and political or religious purpose,” he felt that he needed a deeper understanding of business. So he earned a PhD at Harvard Business School.

While there, he served as pastor at Christ Church, preaching every Sunday and ministering to the ill and isolated, comforting the dying, and supporting those struggling with life’s most basic challenges.

Subsequently he researched and wrote an award winning  book on South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement and led or founded three organizations that exercise enduring influence on major corporations’ and investors’ sustainability practices: Ceres, the Global Reporting Initiative, and the Investor Network on Climate Risk.

But in 2003, hepatitis-induced advanced liver cirrhosis forced his withdrawal to his Sycamore Street home, where for six years he endured waves of pain, exhaustion, and disorientation, sleeping as much as 20 hours per day. During episodic lulls, he continued his activism.

In 2009, Bob received a liver transplant. Since then, he has filled a succession of leadership roles, most recently directing UMass Boston’s Sustainable Solutions Lab.

The case for Bob’s candidacy

Heading up a massive organization requires both management and leadership. Management ensures that work is done effectively and efficiently. Leadership requires communicating a persuasive vision, inspiring commitment to it, and motivating stakeholders to keep going. The challenge becomes greater when those led are not paid employees, but diverse citizens.

Governor Charlie Baker has become popular by managing small things while avoiding leadership—and controversy—on our most challenging issues. Yet we are in crises of democracy, economic justice, and environmental sustainability that obligate us to conceive bold new solutions.

The state’s fiscal health is precarious. We urgently need a modern transportation system. Economic inequality is accelerating as the middle class is shrinking. Working families are priced out of housing and college. We are falling behind other states and nations in shifting investment to clean energy, which would create living-wage jobs and retard climate change.

But the governor and his other Democratic challengers seem unprepared to tackle problems of this magnitude. Much less, offer solutions that are persuasive of their efficacy.

Bob does. He points out that these problems are systemic. They can’t be solved by a new program or budget line item. They require structural change.

He observes that “earlier Americans who had far less in material wealth had far more optimism and energy regarding the future. Our technology has outrun our imagination. We can do many more things than we have thought of.”

I find evidence of his ability to not just lead, but manage such initiatives in his founding of the Global Reporting Initiative. He realized that corporate managers were reluctant to take on goals for which they did not feel reasonable confidence in achieving. And in business school, he had learned that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

So he successfully brought together leaders of the world’s largest corporations, largest institutional investors, international labor unions, and leading environmental groups to craft a set of measures of environmental sustainability, human rights, and corruption impacts that parallel those of financial accounting.

Bob believes that the same methods can be applied to managing state government. He tells me that “with all the new forms of technology, we could be managing many more things than just cash. Spending money doesn’t necessarily correlate with the outcomes that we want.”

When asked to assess his chances of challenging an incumbent who, with a 75% approval rating, is the most popular governor in America, Bob has a provocative response. When Bill Clinton decided to challenge a sitting president, George H.W. Bush enjoyed a 92% approval rating. But over the following eighteen months, circumstances and public perceptions changed sufficiently to give Clinton the victory.

Whatever his chances, Bob has the potential to transform the predictably pedestrian dialogs that we hear in electoral contests into a conversation about what we the people of Massachusetts most want our state to be, and how to achieve it.

I am personally drawn to his candidacy because of something more than his positions and his demonstrated capacities. In an era of opportunistic politicians who pander to the moment’s public sentiments, Bob’s stated commitments are those that he has invested a lifetime in pursuing.

He invites all interested in learning more to come to his campaign kickoff at the Armory, 191 Highland Avenue, on May 16, at 5:30.


1 Response » to “Now this is going to be interesting”

  1. Joe Beckmann says:

    It’s a unique honor, in this age of political noise, to see so much substance, so well framed, and so thoroughly engaging and engaged. Thanks to Bob, and to columns like this, the arguments need not be nasty, but can be both inspiring and practical, idealistic and reality based, feasible and documented by advocates and adversaries alike. The alternative to “fake news” is real problem solving, inspired by real data, measured by goals fulfilled, that goes far beyond the vague rhetoric of both left, right, and Presidential.

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