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Jonathan Klate: Don Berwick in governor’s race for right reasons: public service



Last modified: Sunday, July 06, 2014
AMHERST — In the race for the Democratic nomination for governor, Don Berwick is the compelling story now. Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman, established pols aspiring to higher office for years, are being challenged by a smart, mature, experienced, unabashed progressive who has surged into serious contention for all the right reasons.

I had the opportunity to talk with Berwick in a Northampton coffee shop recently. When was the last time you felt a progressive politician running for statewide office was honestly speaking his or her truth, and from a wise heart? I mean other than Sen. Elizabeth Warren?

And I do mean talk with Dr. Berwick, because conversation is supposed to be a two-way street, and this gentleman doesn’t just spout, he listens. He lets you finish and makes it clear by his responses where his thinking has been modified by the information you have provided, if you made sense.

These are the habits of a curious mind and the ethics of a lifelong learner, perhaps shaped by his clinical training as a doctor. He brings a cultivated scientific mentality to his analytic approach to public matters. He is genuinely reflective rather than ideologically reflexive.

Before Berwick was a doctor he was the child of one. His father was a family physician in a small town in Connecticut. Like many small town docs in the 1950s he delivered babies, took his own x-rays and was on call 24/7. What he rarely did was take a vacation.

Berwick’s mom was a leader in the struggle to get a new elementary school built in their hometown. She died when Don was 15. When the school got built they named the library after her. So, while coming to terms with the body blow of his mother’s death, his consciousness was imprinted by her public legacy to the community achieved through political activism.

Don sees his parents’ dedication to both their family and the needs of the community as a way of life. “I don’t think they would have identified it as some kind of nobility,” he says. “It was just the way you lived. It was a habit as much as a value system and that colors the roots of my own values.”

He came of age in the 60s and these core values blossomed into mature progressive political inclinations during the inspiring era of the Kennedy presidency, the civil rights movement, the War on Poverty, the New Frontier, the Great Society, the peace movement and searing incidents like the Kent State massacre.

He learned that government, when animated by concern for human needs, is not necessarily the enemy. Structural poverty is. Underfunded and inequitable education is. Lack of substance abuse treatment is. Exclusion from quality health care due to low income is.

­And without government to facilitate solutions like single-payer health care, for example, which he strongly supports, we can’t get the job done to improve the quality of life for all. It is fair to think of his principled mastery of health care policy as comparable to the expertise in the fields of banking and financial services of Sen. Warren.

He was president and CEO of a major not-for-profit organization with a mission to improve health care throughout the world. President Obama appointed him the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services and he ran the agency, overseeing an $800 billion budget, far bigger than the one he’d manage were he to be elected governor here.

It is unusual to find a systems thinker with tons of policy implementation experience who retains compassion for how well or poorly individuals’ needs are met. Through his decades in human and public service he has not succumbed to cynicism or narcissism. This is all too rare in public service.

This is not a person engaged in politics for personal aggrandizement. Can you look at his competitors and honestly say that?

If you think that Martha Coakley is the Democrat who matches up best against Republican Charlie Baker in the general election, you might want to recall what happened when her senatorial ambitions encountered Scott Brown.

Or, if you think just being a woman gives her an edge, maybe it’s time to recall Shannon O’Brien’s defeat by Mitt Romney.

Steve Grossman is a personable, centrist Democrat. But somewhere the Democratic Party has to stop muddling through, find its heart and be willing to have a principled fight. If not in Massachusetts, and now, with such a strong progressive candidate, then where and when?

Berwick can win, provided Democrats who see elections as meaningful agencies of democracy strongly support him.

“I think people are as tired as I am of mincing words and the failure to clarify a value system with a clear and unapologetic commitment to helping each other. I just think it’s wrong.” This guy doesn’t pander. He means it. Stand him next to his competition and it shows.

Jonathan Klate of Amherst writes about spirituality and political perspectives. His column appears the first Monday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.