Sunday, December 28, 2014

In memoriam: John Bewick

If John Bewick had a mean bone in his body, no one I knew ever found evidence of it.

As noted in this obituary, he died on Christmas Day,

surrounded by family, carols and Christmas light.  A loving and intelligent man, with a great heart, and a warm humor, he worked to improve the environment during his life, as well as to influence the safety of nuclear power, and to help businesses in their efforts to comply with complex environmental, health and safety regulations. He valued integrity in government.  He was Massachusetts third Secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, and his name was engraved in granite at “Secretaries Landing” on the Charles River in Boston while he was alive to enjoy it.

Read the rest, too, because he was a remarkable and lovely person.

At least once a year, John would write me a note, asking my opinion on some matter of public policy.  He was always digging into why things worked the way they did and how they could work better.  If you wanted a definition of a public servant--even when he was no longer in the government--he provided it.

On March 12, 1996, as I was doing some research for a book on the history of the Metropolitan District Commission (an agency within EOEA), he and I talked about his career and then veered into environmental and institutional issues. In response to the question of how he became Secretary, he replied: 

Actually, it was serendipitous, and it sort of speaks to the fact that, in a lot of ways, you can't plan certain things in life, that there's a lot of chance in all this.  It's something that I didn't seek, but it came to me in a very interesting way.

I had gotten bored at Cabot Corporation where I was doing research, and so I started to get involved politically . . . in Paul Guzzi's campaign (for US Senate) and started writing position papers.  It turned out, I found out later, that I was the only person on his campaign writing position papers.  We had a number of debates at his house.  One of my recommendations to him was, do not go anti-nuclear, and he ignored that and followed his campaign wisdom advisors.  And, exactly, as I thought would happen, the money then flowed almost immediately to [Paul] Tsongas in the campaign.  All the industrial money went to Tsongas, so on election day, Tsongas had a much better election day operation than Paul.

After the election, Guzzi was very close to [Governor Ed] King.  And through our PR fellow at Cabot, I said, "Gee, I'd like to be on an advisory committee," and my resume happened by Guzzi's eyes after they had turned down about five people for secretary.  A variety of people had been proposed to King, and he had not liked any of them--to his credit--as some were political hacks.  Guzzi said, "This is interesting.  I know him and we happen to be looking for someone."

So it was totally fortuitous that King bought in.  The Governor called John Cabot, at Cabot Corporation, and Zeb Alfred, at New England Electric; and both of them knew me, so I was blessed by those two.

I was called in on a Thursday and appointed on Tuesday--King's usual careful fashion of checking people out!  I had had one meeting, and I pointed out to King that my father had built the second largest bridge on the B&O Railroad and was a civil engineer, and my brother was commissioner of highways in Delaware; and I think that, with these two things in my background, he surely thought I was a soul brother or something, a builder family, and he was quite surprised that I ended up having environmental concerns.

You might think that an "accidental" cabinet secretary would be politically naive and not attuned to how to manage in an administration.  That conclusion would be wide of the mark in this case.  For example, John always said that working with Ed King on environmental issues was a positive experience, notwithstanding the latter's less than stellar reputation among the environmental community.  But the key was that John had to set up the dynamics to move things in the direction he wanted. 

We just had a great relationship.

We did something that was very interesting.  I think I was the only cabinet secretary who had a regular meeting with the Governor. We discovered early on, that if we could get the Governor's ear first on an issue, he would take our frame of reference. So quickly I started asking for appointments once every week.  I took all my crew in.

Here [for example] was Terry Geoghegan--BC graduate, great football team, great football player--who would come in with the environmentalists.  As so there would be this quizzical look [from King], "Here come the environmentalists and there's Terry Geoghegan with them?  Hm?"

We got him to sign the barrier beach protective order, which I think was the most extraordinary in the nation.  It was an order that said that barrier beaches are nature's way of protecting the mainland, and they are shifting formations, and you should not build on them.  They have a life of their own.  Therefore, the state will not do anything to invest money in protecting them.

When [state representative] Nick Costello came down from Newburyport and said the folks on Plum Island want to spend $1 million of federal money to bring water onto their properties--after they contaminated their own water supply by building their cesspools improperly--the Governor said, "No, we are not putting state or federal money into the barrier beaches."  Needless to say, Nick wasn't very happy.

That's the sort of guy I knew as Governor that the public had very little concept of.  When the going was tough, and if he believed you were right, he would be there in the trenches with you if you needed support, in contrast to some other governors.

John was a street smart political scientist. We later got to the main topic of my interview, why the MDC, once known as one of the best regional government agencies in the country, had fallen to the point of permitting the total degradation of the sewage treatment system and the pollution of Boston Harbor.

There's a multi-dimensional answer to that.  First of all, the problems were not very visible except for the summer beach contamination problem.  Even that was blamed on a rainstorm that overwhelmed the system, so "nature is doing this to us."  Other than that, the people had water to drink, the skating rinks worked more or less, the swimming worked in the summertime.  So the problems were not visible to the public.

The second part of the answer goes deeply at the function that the political process plays in Massachusetts.  For many in power, the objective of politics was to assure job for constituents, and the agency was performing that job very well.  You had a chairman of Ways and Means from Dorchester; you had a Senate President--or soon to be Senate President--from South Boston; and numerous other reps with influence from the greater Boston metropolitan area.  In terms of the traditional view of what politics as about, it was doing an excellent job of providing jobs for those constituents.  So why change?

I would attribute that in part to the lack of a two-party system.  Even if you had a Republican governor, you still had the same legislature.  One of the things that happens when there is tremendous political influence in job creations is that there is a deep cynicism about the quality of state service and government.  Nobody is valued if everybody is viewed as having gotten there through political connections, as opposed to competence.

It took us three years to get through a management pay [increase] bill [to attract more qualified people.] [The legislators themselves] assumed they were all incompetent because "I put them there.  They can't be worth much because I know how they got their job."

While I'll miss these kinds of insights that John had of the body politic and government service, most of all I'll miss his smile and his distinctive laugh, his joyful viewpoint on the world, and his irrepressible kindness.  This was a truly good man.


Jerry Ackernan said...

John was an extraordinary figure: quiet, thoughtful, honest and caring. King had no idea what he was getting. One of his finest hours politically came in rejecting yet another expansion proposal at Logan Airport, which had been King's springboard and his pride and joy. Staff told me after the barrier-beach bill passed that John was able to personalize the issue for King by pointing out that Revere Beach was an example. King related to this easily; his family had a small summer house there that was lost to a storm when the governor was a boy, and once he made the connection he was aboard. My assignments as a paid skeptic at the Globe included keeping an eye on Bewick's office for trouble. The only ones that stand out in memory are the double-binds that King and industry put EOEA into, over the hot-button topics of hazardous waste and nuclear waste disposal. Both ended up in inevitable dead-ends, which for John was certainly the best possible outcome. Overall, I was sufficiently impressed by John's tenure to do an "exit-interview" article for the Globe as his term was ending--the results of which served to further seal my highest respect.

Ilyas Bhatti said...

Indeed, John was a splendid human being. I did have the good fortune of working with him on many environmental and water supply related issues. He was so wonderful to work with. I was saddened to hear about his passing away at such a young age.

Kathleen Hearn said...

From Facebook:

Very sad to hear. He really was an extraordinarily kind man. I'm glad to have had a chance to know him.

Trudy Coxe said...

From Facebook:

Very sorry to hear about this.