Media Coverage

Eric Nakajima interview, part 2

Eric Nakajima, senior research manager at UMass’s Donahue Institute, is working on a study of Springfield’s minority-owned business economy, with results pending soon. In part one of a series capturing our recent conversation about his work, Nakajima discussed what draws him to it as well as a bit of what he has learned in considering Springfield. In this second part, Nakajima expounds on his philosophical discussion of politics in a comparison of California’s massive bureaucracies with New England’s numerous smaller ones, which he views as more open to participation and accountability.

Heather Brandon: You’re speaking in such a big-picture way, it makes me want to grill you for examples that you’ve noticed, in Springfield in particular. I’m also interested in how you see this comparing to other regions. You were saying that here—I guess you’re speaking state-wide, or maybe New England-wide—there’s more emphasis on political aspects.

Eric Nakajima: I’m mean state-wide. The Regional Plan Association of New York and New Jersey, an organization that started back in the 1920s, and did essentially comprehensive planning for the entire tri-state area, looking at macro level needs of the region, as it was growing, in that era. Since then, they’ve done three different major plans for that region. [RPA President] Robert Yaro wrote an article probably about six or seven years ago talking about the experience of planning and investment development in the tri-state area. He was describing how the states, and even their municipalities, or smaller jurisdictions within that area, were laboratories of innovation.

You had such fragmentation of political decision-making across the tri-state area, between New York, Connecticut and New Jersey as entities, then within their municipal boundaries, and some authorities in the area that overlapped those regions. The way in which he described how people became engaged at a local level—obviously, this is an ideal type, because he’s talking, I think, about a best-case scenario—there were multiple points of entry essentially political in nature; you could represent other people; you could come up with ideas; and you could petition the government for redress, that kind of thing.

[It] sounds very idealistic, but essentially, it’s the creature of the fact that in Massachusetts, as well as Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, you have areas in which, unlike places out west, there aren’t a lot of unannexed territories. [Out west] you have essentially county governments and towns that aren’t really towns at all; they’re just names on a map within a much larger county spread, [under] large county governments which are absolutely more centralized bureaucracies. The description I gave earlier, about the intersection of politics, and local planning and decision-making, is probably a creature of the northeast or of New England. I think there’s some validity to the notion that it’s how our towns grew up here in New England.

It’s different from the west in that things are tighter; there are more people?

Yeah, there are more towns. I mean, we simply—the reality is if you look at a map of California, for instance, you’ll see lots and lots of towns named everywhere. But the truth of the matter is not all those towns are actually corporate towns with mayors, and city councils, and boards of selectmen. What they actually are is just literally names on a map, and they don’t have local representative government; what they actually have is county government. They’re part of these larger counties. You can actually live a mile over from a town, and what you’re actually in is an unincorporated territory.

Here, you have a direct—and whether it works, again, is sort of an ideal way of talking—here, you have a town, and you know what town you’re in, and you know where your city council is, or your select board, and your mayor may or may not have any influence over it, but there’s no mystery as to who’s making the decisions, and where they’re coming from. Same thing with the state representatives, or something like that. In districts out west, you have very, very large either county or city governments that incorporate—basically, you can have Hampden County as virtually one city, out in Kansas or something like that. And you also have multiple taxing jurisdictions, so you’ll have a school authority which is taxed completely separately, and is literally separate from the budgeting and decision-making processes of the community; water districts, and mosquito abatement control districts, and things like that; and redevelopment authority districts, which also have their own taxing authority under those state systems.

Let alone this whole business of whether you’re in an incorporated or unincorporated territory, you can walk out your door, and you can say, I have a problem with this thing, on your sidewalk, and not be sure who to call, and if you do, you’re calling a central office where there’s not any necessarily direct point of redress, where you know this person’s responsible, and I’m going to get them on the phone, and deal with it. They have their own political ways, and I’m not familiar with all of them; their own ways of dealing with their systems.

What I found, when I sort of parachuted into California, and just started looking at the politics and decision-making out there, I found it incredibly difficult to understand. Here, I don’t know about you, but here, I don’t have any problem finding Stan Rosenberg, or finding my local state representative, Ellen Story, if I need to. I mean, you know, the state senator, or state representative, are relatively accessible. If somebody really wants to reach them, I’m sure they can reach them. I really am. I’m sure you can reach them. I assume there’s a relatively analogous experience in Springfield.

In California, the amazing thing to me was you have state representatives who virtually have territory more similar—well, the state reps out there are a cross between congressmen and what we have, senators, here. They have massive districts and a phenomenal amount of campaign contributions. On a variety of levels, the point is, either it’s fragmented, or you’re pulled back. Here, it is more unitary, and it’s on a smaller scale.

I’m sure there are pathologies to that; I’m not sure everything is right. But like all creatures, I like what I know. It’s easier for me to understand what I know and see in front of me. But also, the original point was that the line between investments decision-making and planning, and political institutions—I don’t just mean individuals and whatever political power they wield, but political institutions, and political processes—is to me incredibly transparent in Massachusetts, for good or for ill. You know exactly who’s making the decisions. Talk about Boston—Mayor [Thomas] Menino, he’s been a great mayor, but good gosh, you know who’s making the decisions. If something goes wrong, or if something goes right, whatever decision he makes, you certainly know who’s calling the shots, and it is not a mystery to anybody at all.

In contrast to other places.

Exactly right. That’s all political science, as opposed to economic development, necessarily.

You’re making it sound almost as though we have a healthy political system.

I’m an optimist.

Because there is transparency, and clarity, in terms of who’s in charge.

Well, look. I think the recent experience of Springfield has shown that you can have situations in which lots of things can go on that are not obviously healthy. I mean, there’s no guarantee of having healthy outcomes or healthy management.

But the system itself? The way it works?

I’ve always believed there are more opportunities for political engagement—and by that I mean healthy engagement in civic life—than people necessarily take advantage of.

Depending on where you are, you talk to people, they could be very cynical about government, very cynical about the process. The closer I’ve gotten to decision-makers, and people who are regularly involved in public life, the more I’ve found the level of idealism and optimism grows. Some of the people who have been the most dedicated to the public welfare and the most interesting to talk to, in fact have been elected politicians, or many of their assistants in public life, public servants, who care deeply. They don’t always get everything right, but in fact they’re often people who care as deeply about their communities, and about the Commonwealth, as anybody I’ve ever met in my life. The fact that there are ways and mechanisms of getting involved, I think, is just a terrific thing.

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