Sunday, September 17, 2006

GBIO, Massachusetts health care, and the unique courage of Deval Patrick

Every major Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate was invited to stand up in front of the 1000-person action meeting of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) today to answer about eight tough questions on 3 topics: affordable health care, affordable elder care, and stopping the violence.

Any hardened observer of American politics in recent years would have to predict that no candidate would accept the invitation.

Imagine how hard it would be, two days before the primary, for a sensible modern would-be Governor to face 1000 members of dozens of Jewish and Christian congregations, from every walk of life and bridging every politically convenient division of our community, each one passionately committed to the absurdly simplistic rusty ancient prophetic principle that the almighty creator of the universe cares what happens to every person, no matter where from or how low in economic and social status.

Imagine how impossible it would be, moreover, for political handlers to agree to the three non-negotiable meeting ground rules stipulated by these zany radicals in the tradition of Saul Alinsky: (1) any candidate who accepts the invitation would have to sit still and listen to the testimony of three ordinary people whose lives have been personally touched by one of the three hardships the meeting would address -- one woman who could not afford the price of the even the subsidized premium proposed for the Massachusetts health care reform, one woman struggling to care for an elderly parent, and one woman who recently sat on a city bus as a gunman shot first the young woman to her left and then the young woman to her right. Then, as if that weren't enough, (2) the candidate will have only two minutes for an opening statement, after which (3) he or she will have to answer pointed yes-or-no questions from the community about his or her commitment to solving three of our most difficult social problems.

In other words, imagine a politician, two days before the primary, having the courage to cede control of the day's agenda, give up his right to speak, and genuinely listen to the people he may next year be governing.

One candidate attended today: Deval Patrick.

He was eloquent, passionate, entertaining, and sensible. He addressed his time limits with wit -- reminding the pastor who moderated the forum that the minister had not had congregation members holding up yellow and red time cards when last Patrick had heard him preach -- and with grace. With the grace of a man who seemed to understand and relish the idea of being an executive in a democracy, a public servant of the citizenry.

Neither GBIO nor U.S. Food Policy makes political endorsements. If more than one candidate had had the courage to attend, I might have faced difficult decisions about how to write this post with balance and fairness. But, as it is, I can give equal treatment to every candidate who attended. Today's action meeting between GBIO and Deval Patrick inspired me to remember a dream I once held about how government in our democracy might work.

The Massachusetts primary is this Tuesday.

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