Joe Avellone is a surgeon and a senior vice president at PAREXEL International, a pharmaceutical and biotechnology research company. He's a former chief operating officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, and a former Wellesley selectman.
Avellone is running to replace Gov. Deval Patrick in 2014. Jim Braude and Margery Eagan spoke to Avellone on Boston Public Radio about his political ambitions.
Why do you want to run for governor?
I think I can make a very big difference. I think my background in the private sector is what I’m bringing — a lot of new ideas. I think the state, given what it needs to do for the rest of this decade, needs somebody with a background like mine. I think I can make a difference.
I’ve always been interested in public policy, [a] lifelong Democrat. (…) I’ve always wanted to make a difference in the public sector. But, you know, I’ve been making a living, raising kids. Now I know with my background I can make a difference.
You’ve talked about ‘extraordinary measures’ to fix failing and at-risk schools. What are those measures?
Extraordinary measures like funded Pre-K for three- and four-year-olds in the low-performing districts. It’ll have extended-day in the low-performing schools. It’ll also have innovation grants for people to try new things that we would judge. And I’m going to fund a fair amount of it out of kind of social investment funding mechanisms where we’ll establish a fund, and especially with the kind of leverage Pre-K gets, you can get a big return within three, four, five years. As soon as you can show that people are literate at grade three, that’s a huge deal. I think we could sort of pay back the fund from the savings of lack of repeating years and lowered special-needs costs.
Do we need merit pay for teachers, or more charter schools?
What we need is a lot of flexibility with the at-risk three schools and the four schools. (…) I’m going to be my own education czar, I’m going to have my departmental heads meet with me monthly. We’re going to have tracking metrics, we’re going to set our objectives, which is close the achievement gap by the end of the decade, and make everybody career college ready, in the state.
Have the teachers unions been good for public education?
I think the teachers unions vary. The two of them are quite different. Rather than get into specifics, there are moments when the teachers can I think come along, and there are moments I think where at least one of the teachers unions has retarded progress.
Which teachers’ union has retarded progress, and on what issue?
I don’t think we need to go into it.
Why don’t we need to go into it?
Because I’m going to take every case as it is, and it depends on the school system.
But you say there is a specific example that troubles you. You don’t want to share with us?
At least some school systems have resisted merit pay or other kinds of evaluation, and I think we got to head in that direction.
Deval Patrick said he wanted $1 billion for early childhood education, and $1 billion for transportation. In your announcement video you talk a lot about transportation infrastructure. Do you support Patrick’s $2 billion initiative?
No, I did not support that. I’ve been all over this state, I’ve been in 105 towns, at over 250 events. There are big pockets of very high unemployment still in the state. In fact, the state is so uneven right now that as the economy improves it’s not going to necessarily improve in lots of our areas. And so, I thought it was the wrong time to have any kind of a broad-based tax, and so I did ultimately agree with the idea of a more limited infrastructure tax, which is what the legislature did.
I was also dead-set against the software tax, and as soon as it came out I had a press release against it. I have worked actively against it. I was the only Democratic [gubernatorial] candidate who came out against it, in the beginning.
You said we need to change health care delivery right here in Massachusetts, where we’ve had universal health care for a long time. What’s wrong with the system?
I think one of the things that works in Massachusetts is universal healthcare. I’m proud that we have it, it’s great that we had it, we were forerunners, and it’s really interesting to listen to the national debate with all the angst, when I think we can show, Hey, it works right here in Massachusetts. One of the things that works is universal health care.
Step two is controlling health care costs. (…) What we have to do now is get to a more stable base of affordable health care. And we can do it. We have to change the way our medical delivery system is organized, and move towards larger organized systems of care. There are no models around the country on how to do that, we just have to have the political will to do it, and we will do it.
You served as Selectman in Wellesley, and all of a sudden you’re running for the big job in Massachusetts. What’s it like?
It’s been absolutely exhilarating. I’ve been [in] 105 towns, I’ve been at it for eight months, I’ve met literally thousands of people, and I can tell you, it is wide open. It is a wide-open race, so I don’t feel like I’m running to catch up with anybody.
Don’t you get personally offended when people say, 'How do you possibly run against well-known candidates like Charlie Baker, Treas. Steve Grossman and AG Martha Coakley?'
[This election is] re-reruns versus new ideas, and I think people are looking for new ideas, and they’re very willing to talk with new people. I don’t think people are all that interested in re-runs, and I think that’s what we’re going to get with probably Steve [Grossman], Martha [Coakley] or Charlie [Baker]. Whereas I think I’m new, and people are very interested in that.
How would you rate the job that likely Republican nominee Charlie Baker did at Harvard Pilgrim?
First of all, I’ve known Charlie for 20 years. But, Charlie was also there when it actually went into the hole. So, the mythology about how he saved it from bankruptcy is interesting, since he was kind of on-deck when it got into its big problem, I wouldn’t blame that all on him but he was there. And then, essentially the state got him out of the problem. Essentially, they revalued the real estate, Harvard Pilgrim raised its rates very aggressively for years, and that started to get it back. So, a lot of help from a lot of people, including the state, is how that happened.
Do people ask you for a quick diagnosis out on the campaign trail, knowing you’re a doctor?
All the time! I have to say, all the time. (...) Primarily, ‘This new jobs thing is interesting, but I have a spot on my arm.’
But I would like to say, the main reason I’m running is I run a global business. Right now we have 15,000 employees in 50 countries. I’m responsible for about 11,000 of them. (...) I have a global workforce, I work in the global economy every day. This is what we need to do in the state.
We need to bring new industries here, and I know that we can do it because I know how my own company works with me works with other university systems in other countries. We can do a lot more here to create the middle skills, the middle-management skills, the middle level of engineering skills, and we can bring a lot of new industries here, and that’s what’s going to bring back the gateway cities. That’s really the focus of my campaign.
How do you rate the Patrick administration?
I think he was a very good governor in an incredibly difficult time. This recession, let’s not forget, was devastating, and state governments are exquisitely sensitive to recessions. Revenues go way down, need goes way up. I think he got us through a very tough time.
What’s the one thing that people should know about you?
I’ve created thousands of jobs over 30 years, and I can bring new jobs to Massachusetts.