It was the day before the election, and US Rep. Mike Capuano was allowing himself to imagine a new life as part of a Democratic majority.
“I finally drank the Kool-Aid and believe it,” he said, predicting the Nov. 7 Democratic takeover of the House in an interview at the Gazette office.
After four terms representing most of Jamaica Plain as an avowedly liberal and perpetually frustrated member of the minority party in Congress, Capuano was looking forward to a taste of power.
But even he did not predict that a week later, he’d be named to an extremely influential position—head of US Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s transition team as she takes on the role of Speaker of the House. Capuano will have major political and procedural power.
“I don’t think you’ll see a Democratic majority even putting on the floor a gay marriage [ban] bill…All those wedge issues, they’ll be gone, and we’ll start talking about health care and housing and all those issues that we care about,” Capuano said, adding, “It also allows us to set the table for the ’08 [presidential] election.”
“Not a single committee has done a single thing on oversight,” Capuano said, citing questionable Bush administration decisions in the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina management and corporate taxation. “The difference is now the majority of the House can ask those questions with a subpoena. I’m a Democrat, but if you put my mother in the White House, I still want oversight over my mother.”
After Pelosi’s transition, it’s unclear exactly where Capuano, the Massachusetts delegation’s junior member, will fit into the power structure of the newly Democratic House. But he currently chairs the Democratic Caucus rules committee, which could morph into the significant House rules committee. One item he said he’d like to push is an independent office that could bring ethics charges against members of Congress.
That could include examining privately funded trips—a subject where Capuano has run into controversy himself. Last year, he and his wife went on a corporate-funded trip to Brazil worth more than $19,000 with a plane-load of lobbyists.
“I didn’t go to the beach in January. I went to visit in the slums,” Capuano said, defending the trip. “If you don’t let my wife come with me, I probably won’t travel.”
“My first privately funded trip was to ANWR [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge], Alaska, funded and paid for by the Sierra Club,” Capuano said. “Some people think it’s horrendous. In some ways, it is.”
But travel is an important education for representatives, he said, and getting government travel funding was difficult as a minority party member. Also, he said, the House ethics rules on travel are so unclear, House staff wouldn’t advise him about accepting such trips.
“I think members of Congress should be required to travel,” Capuano said, describing another recent trip to various African nations. “I thought it was a valuable experience to sit with the vice president of Sudan and tell him he’s committing genocide.”
The ongoing fighting and refugee crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region is one of Capuano’s priorities for his next term.
So is “getting housing back on the agenda,” and more state economic development, possibly focused on alternative energy innovations.
“That’s a priority for me, trying to get people to focus on the future,” Capuano said. “I’m not talking about ‘Star Trek’ types of things. That’s hard to do because you can’t touch it.”
Economic growth and “intellectual capital” is also behind Capuano’s continuing support for Boston University’s federally funded biological laboratory in the South End—possibly his only position that is truly controversial locally. JP residents roasted him about it for more than an hour at a community meeting last year.
“It’s got to be safe and it’s got to be secure,” he said of the biolab, adding he remains convinced of its “symbolic importance” as a high-tech economic engine. “Unless you have something new to offer, I won’t change my mind,” he said he tells his critics.
Capuano said he hears frequently from his JP constituents—often those seeking help with immigration or other personal problems, but also residents voicing an opinion about “anything and everything.”
“A significant portion of my issues-oriented calls comes from JP and Cambridge. JP is full of activists,” he said. “I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t like being yelled at. But I like representing people who aren’t afraid to take a stand.”
He said he especially remembers and appreciates JP’s responsiveness prior to his 2002 vote against authorizing the Iraq War. In preparation for that vote, he famously stood on street corners and in T stations around the district, asking residents their opinion of a possible war and voicing his own. His JP session on Centre Street drew the most participants, he said.
“Honestly, that’s what the whole Iraq [discussions] thing was all about,” he said, explaining that resident feedback rarely changes his mind, but often sharpens his thinking. “I was scared to death…It was about taking my own inclinations and holding up a mirror to them.”
“I have a highly educated, highly experienced district,” Capuano said. “I’m a generalist. That’s my job as a politician. I can’t possibly know everything, and I don’t want to…I like people who pick up the phone or e-mail. They may add a nuance I’m not familiar with.”
Of course, some of them may “want to send me a 42-page dissertation on Iraqi history of the 15th century,” Capuano said, adding that such a thing eventually will be read, but may not be the best use of staff time.
Capuano is also focused on local JP issues. A big one is the possible merger of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals, including those in JP and West Roxbury.
He noted he has a “parochial” interest in preserving the JP VA Medical Center, but is open to good data—which, he said, should include a poll of all veterans eligible for care.
“I’m going to advocate for JP for several reasons. But it’s not like West Roxbury is on the other side of the Moon,” Capuano said, jokingly adding, “It almost is.”
“They do studies, but they don’t come back with conclusions,” he said of the VA. “They keep kicking the can down the street, which is fine by me…unless a budget crunch comes and a decision gets made in a closet.”
“I want government to do what it’s supposed to do, which is make thoughtful decisions,” he said.
As a member of the House transportation committee, Capuano has also kept a close eye on the MBTA.
Asked his opinion of the agency under new General Manager Dan Grabauskas, Capuano said, “I haven’t seen any changes yet. Good intentions, good demeanor, but no changes yet.”
He said he’s especially frustrated there has been no MBTA expansion despite much planning. “Nobody believes anything they say,” he said. “If they say something’s going to take five years, we know that means 15.”
Capuano said that all three MBTA general managers who have served during his term have told him, “‘The Fairmount line [commuter rail expansion] is my top priority.’ I totally agree. Am I missing anything? Has there been any change?”
Capuano also expressed unhappiness with the state’s recently-issued 20-year transportation plan, which includes mass transit, roads and other modes of travel.
“It’s not a 20-year plan. It’s a litany of every transportation project in the state,” Capuano said, criticizing a lack of priorities and timelines.
Mass transit will remain a priority for him. “We can’t build any more roads,” he said. But we can fix some existing ones, Capuano said, including the crowded, serpentine Jamaicaway, which he suggested widening.
“There’s no perfect answer, but to do nothing is a worse answer,” he said.
Mayor of the 8th District
Bold and brash, Capuano has never sounded like someone in a minority party. But now he actually will be in the majority, with more clout to make some of his priorities happen.
All the same, the former Somerville mayor acknowledged that being a legislator instead of an executive officer will always have its difficult side for him.
“I would still like to be mayor of the 8th Congressional District,” he said. “You go from being able to get potholes fixed to asking to get potholes fixed.”
Capuano acknowledged that such feelings were behind his near-run for governor. When he decided to support the eventual winner, Deval Patrick, instead, “I honestly thought there would come a time when I would kick myself,” Capuano said, adding that hasn’t happened.
“My message is a street message. I’m a street guy,” he said. “I don’t have this nice esoteric debate. I take a bat to issues. Some people don’t like it. Deval is a more thoughtful leader, and that’s a good thing.
“I think I’m comfortable with the kind of life I’m living now.”
Come January, that will include the added comfort of life in the majority.