Three months ago, Democratic candidate for governor Joe Avellone attended a forum at Jamaica Plain’s Doyle’s Café, where he told the crowd he was not the most progressive candidate.
But during a recent sit-down interview at the Gazette office, Avellone laid out a platform that he suggested many people would deem progressive.
“I want to create middle-class jobs,” he said. “I want to improve our education system. And I want to change our approach to drugs to public health away from the criminal justice system. I want to put in place a carbon tax. You tell me, am I progressive or not?”
He also discussed his local knowledge of Mission Hill from when he was a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH).
Avellone, a former surgeon and health care executive from Wellseley, is one of five candidates currently running for the Democratic nomination in the race to replace Gov. Deval Patrick. The other candidates are Don Berwick, Attorney General Martha Coakley, state Treasurer Steve Grossman and Juliette Kayyem.
The interview touched on a variety of issues, ranging from how Avellone’s experience as an executive would help him create jobs in the state, to such recent controversies as the scandal at the state Department of Children and Families (DCF), to how his work in the Longwood Medical Area affected him.
Avellone’s background includes several years as a surgeon at BWH and service in the U.S. Navy Reserves Medical Corps, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant commander.
He is also a former chief operating officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and executive at the global bio-pharmaceutical research company PAREXEL International. He said through those positions, he helped create thousands of new jobs, something the new governor will need to do.
“I know how to do this in a competitive global economy, and that is what we have to do in Massachusetts,” said Avellone. “We are not going to exist left to are own small innovators. We have to attract new industries here and I know how to do that.”
Avellone said in order to attract those new industries—such as life sciences, alternative energies and precision manufacturing—the state has to have a workforce that has the right skill sets. That starts with “strategically” revamping the state and community college system and vocational schools, according to Avellone.
“If we understand the skill set [the industries] need, we can make sure we build it into the curriculum, and then they will come here,” he said.
Avellone gave an anecdote from his time as an executive at PAREXEL International when the company did not have enough clinical trial managers. PAREXEL International partnered with Salem State University, which created a clinical trial management program. The company then hired the graduates.
“Our state and community college system needs to do this 500 times over,” he said. “That’s the only way we’re going to bring new businesses here and ultimately bring back our gateway cities.”
Avellone said creating new middle-class jobs, which the state’s old industrial cities need, has ramifications throughout the economy. He said it helps Main Street businesses and gives minority populations a path to better-paying jobs.
Avellone commented on the recent controversy surrounding DCF in which a child the department was supervising went missing and is feared dead. Avellone said he is a father and to lose a child is a tragedy. He did not call for DCF head Olga Roche to resign, but said that there should be an “aggressive” review of the department.
“I think it starts with a very aggressive, comprehensive independent top-down review of the whole department and what it does,” said Avellone. “I think that is going to lead us to a lot of changes. And it may very well lead to a change in leadership.”
But he cautioned against just focusing on leadership change, saying it “might feel good,” but “doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.”
Avellone, who has spent most of his life working in health care, also commented on the troubled state health care rollout under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He said that the state website worked well for seven years until it had to comply with ACA.
“That’s a black eye to our system that wasn’t necessary, but we will overcome it, I’m certain, in the next few months,” said Avellone. “It’s terrible 50,000 people are in limbo and don’t know if they have coverage or not.”
But, he said, the larger issue is that the state needs a permanent exemption from some rules around the ACA. He said the state has already worked out the rules around dealing with pre-existing conditions and group rates.
“We have a short-term exemption. We need a permanent exemption,” said Avellone.
Medical marijuana has also been in the news, with the state recently handing out licenses to dispensaries. But there have been reports that some dispensaries lied on their applications.
Avellone said as a doctor, he supports some uses of medical marijuana. But, he said, the state should keep regulations close to what the medical evidence shows.
Avellone, who said he has never smoked marijuana, said there is “no reason” for the state to be a leader on recreational marijuana. He said Massachusetts should wait and see how the process plays out in Colorado and Washington, two states that recently legalized recreational marijuana.
He said the controversy concerning the rollout comes down to a “management issue.” Avellone said that the state should act “rigorously” on the implementation and regulations.
“If we’re sloppy, there is no excuse for that. That’s poor management,” he said.
Avellone said that the state has had other management failures over the past few years, including the compounding drug scandal, when more than 40 people died because of unclean practices at a pharmacy, and the state drug lab fiasco. In that case, former chemist Annie Dookhan was caught deliberately mishandling evidence in thousands of criminal cases at the Hinton State Laboratory in JP.
“The fact that it could happen has to go back to the management overall in [the Department of Public Health],” Avellone said about the state drug lab scandal. “DPH, for much of its history, has been a national leader. We can all be very proud of our public health department here. We’ve led the nation in vaccination rates, anti-smoking and many other things.”
But, he said, “Somewhere along the line, paying attention to actually managing the operation was not as important and I think it has to be again.”
Avellone also talked about working at BWH during the 1970s. He said it was a “fantastic experience,” as it was “cutting edge” with such procedures as transplants “coming into being.” But, Avellone said, he also learned “a lot about life there.”
“I unfortunately saw a lot of young lives lost to youth violence, shootings and stabbings in Mission Hill and other parts of Roxbury,” he said.
Avellone said that is why as governor he will be focused on youth violence. He talked about walking with City Councilor Tito Jackson on his “Enough is Enough” anti-violence campaign rallies last summer.
“I saw the fear in those neighborhoods,” said Avellone. “First time we went around those blocks [in Roxbury], people wouldn’t even want to come out on the streets and acknowledge we were there. But the next time, they would be on the blocks, chanting along with us.”
He said he plans to be very aggressive around youth violence, bringing back policies such as gang prevention and youth summer programs that went away because of the Great Recession.