There was no triumphalism about Dan Wolf’s first visit with the Democratic party faithful of the Vineyard after he won his state senate seat last month. Quite the reverse.
Mr. Wolf was at pains to talk down expectations. He said he was frankly “scared” that he would fall prey to the same phenomenon of other liberal hope-mongers, whose constituents quickly become disappointed. He was apprehensive about finding the balance between idealism and compromise. And he foreshadowed “real ugliness” in state finances over the next couple of years, which would see the progressive social agenda go into reverse.
Mr. Wolf began last Saturday’s meeting with 30 or so Island Democrats with the traditional expressions of thanks for their campaign efforts, which saw him win 75 per cent of the vote on the Island. He quoted Cong. William Delahunt’s words, that this place “will be your home both in your heart and in your conscience.”
There was no better state senate district in the nation to serve, he said.
But the niceties were over quickly and the mood turned sober.
Mr. Wolf told the crowd he had just come back from an orientation program for new members and had come away with the feeling “that my biggest challenge . . . is somewhat managing expectations.
“I’m scared,” he said. “I look at Barack Obama, who was saying all of the right things when he got elected, and there are many people in our party who are really frustrated now.”
To those people, it looked as if compromise equalled capitulation. While that was not necessarily the case, he conceded the line between the two was a difficult one to walk.
“I don’t want to marginalize myself as a sort of fringe guy who thinks there’s too much wrong that needs to be torn down and rebuilt, because if I do that I’m going to be an outsider who can’t get anything done,” he said.
“On the other hand I don’t want to try to get to be an insider by capitulating and agreeing so much . . . that I look back and say, ‘Why did I do this? I believed in so much.’ ”
He encouraged his audience to help him stick to his beliefs and ideals.
“I’m going to need continual refreshing and reminding and kicks in the butt,” he said.
But he counseled caution and patience in working toward the goals.
“We have all seen people who we viscerally feel good when they deliver a message, but who are completely ineffective,” he said.
He touched on a range of issues, reassuring his audience of his liberal views. He said blaming teachers and their unions for the shortcomings of the education system was “like blaming the people who go to work on the assembly line at General Motors for why we kept putting out bad automobiles.”
He said his approach to financial services would be to favor community banks over “large predatory ones which suck the wealth out of a community.”
On that latter point, too, he delivered one of several not-so-subtle shots at President Obama. “One thing I have learned by observing others and in my own life, is you become what you surround yourself with,” Mr. Wolf said. “I want to be surrounded by people who dream and have limitless possibilities.”
Mr. Obama got another mention when Mr. Wolf cited examples of people who had looked good in prospect but had proved disappointing in their jobs. Outgoing secretary of the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles was one. Another was the President.
The state senator-elect took questions and comments from the members, mostly easy and friendly. The one exception was Nick Van Nes, who suggested that government in this country was “dangerously corrupt” and that new members were quickly indoctrinated into those corrupt ways.
Mr. Van Nes began to talk about the government’s role in the events of 9/11 and reminded Mr. Wolf that he had once previously asked him a question on the subject “and as I recall you blew me off.”
“I’m about to do that again,” said Mr. Wolf, moving on to warn about the need to distinguish between identifying the real shortcomings of government — an electoral system which allowed only those with vast amounts of money to run, for example — and a generalized “paranoia against our government.”
Later on, when Mr. Van Nes returned to his theme that the system was corrupt, Mr. Wolf put it differently.
“Folks,” he said, “we’re Democrats in this room. We believe in government.”
He continued: “Corruption is the wrong word. The balance of power is all wrong. That’s really what the problem is. Some of those people, without being corrupt, are taking advantage of the system which has gone too far in one direction.
“What we need to do is tilt it back.”
The prospects of change in the near-term, however, were constrained by the economy, Mr. Wolf said.
He said he was more optimistic about the improvement of the economy than most, but even by the “rosiest scenario,” the state would have to cut spending by $500 million to $1 billion in the coming year.
“We’ve blown through the rainy day fund; there’s no [federal] stimulus money to come in this year, which we have had in the past. The $600 million that came in through that Medicaid adjustment, that’s been absorbed and used as well. So there’s going to be some real ugliness ahead,” he said.
Of the total state budget of around $29 billion, 60 per cent went to nondiscretionary spending such as debt, pensions and medical obligations. So cuts will all come from the remaining $8 or $9 billion.
“What you’re going to hear is more cuts in social and human services, education,” he said.
One inevitable result will be more pressure on towns to fill the hole through increased taxes and spending cuts.
The other, he said, will be an uncomfortable introduction into politics for Dan Wolf and others like him, who promised change for the better.
“You will feel like ‘Wow, we elected this guy with all these great ideas, and we’re cutting human services and education again.’ That probably is going to happen for another year or so,” he said.
Then Mr. Wolf left, with a promise to return soon.