CONNECTIONS: Recalling an era of political decency
About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.
It is going to be a bumpy ride as the American divide is made manifest. To smooth the way, it is time for tales of decency and happy endings — time for selected stories in which the players showed integrity and compassion, kindness and commitment to something other than self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement.
It may be indicative of how they felt about him that voters called him Jimmy. James Ruberto was mayor of Pittsfield from 2004-11. That meant running four times, seeking the support of the people every two years. (Today the Pittsfield mayor serves a four-year term).
Following Miss Mary and Speaker Pelosi, Ruberto is selected for characteristics too often scarce today: Ruberto was unconflicted about what his job was. He was an elected official and to him, that meant a servant of the people: a worker for the common good.
“Today,” Ruberto shakes his head, “there is such a focus on materialism that it is tragic.”
The cost of greed, Ruberto says, “is that we are losing our spirituality.”
Ruberto explains, “I was taught that all organizations need values.” Articulated values, not just bottom lines.
“Those values are the foundation that guide every decision. Those values guide you and help you make the right decisions.”
You may not agree with every decision a politician makes in their terms of office, but you can cast your vote for candidates with whom you have shared values.
When Ruberto took office, it would be fair to say, Pittsfield was facing multiple problems. Twelve years earlier, in 1992, General Electric sold GE Aerospace Division, leaving just over 500 GE employees at GE Plastics in Pittsfield. By 2007 that would also close.
From the major employer in the city, GE became a minor player and then no player at all. Ruberto says, “That loss played on their minds.”
It paralyzed the citizens of Pittsfield as they sought to replace the economic heart of the city. One citizen said, “It was as if Pittsfield was the abused child of GE.”
Ruberto had a plan, “For Pittsfield, I wanted an entrepreneurial approach.” It would plot a course, and in turn, “force a focus on results.”
“An entrepreneurial approach gives the courage to open oneself to failure.” Ruberto, always smiling and looking ready to sprint, adds, “Pittsfield needed to respect itself again — value itself in the present and value its heritage.”
Ruberto thought a sense of Pittsfield history would bolster confidence to go forward, grant the courage to risk and grow.
If Pittsfield was the abused child of corporate America, then Jimmy was the encouraging and supportive new father figure.
The baseball stadium was in the rearview mirror when he took office, but he thought, “the cultural community could be the savior of the city.”
On his watch much was done. The Colonial Theatre was rejuvenated, and the Beacon Cinema opened in 2009. With the Barrington Stage Company in place and a Hotel on North envisioned, the cultural corridor was shaping.
“Just like the country,” Ruberto sighs, “Pittsfield was divided 50/50.”
“There were two sides: the disenfranchised, people who lost faith in the city’s ability to govern and found it easier to criticize than to get engaged; and the 50% who believed better days were ahead if we could get out of our own way.”
Just after 1892 the Patent Wars began. The story of electric companies at war can be told in a sentence: The number of consumers multiplied, the number of providers shrunk and competition became brutal. The takeovers made modern-day consolidations look like playground games. They were correctly called the “Patent Wars” — bloody and deadly to all but the largest companies.
To survive, J. P. Morgan convinced Edison to merge with Thompson-Houston, thus forming General Electric. GE and Westinghouse filed more than 600 patent and copyright infringement lawsuits against each other and everyone else. Finally, Westinghouse and GE agreed that they were killing each other and signed a cross licensing agreement, giving each blanket permission to use the others’ patents. That left William Stanley alone: the last man standing.
The year was 1896. The Stanley Works was 6 years old. It was flourishing, showing a healthy profit. Still, in that business environment, the principal investors, men of Pittsfield, believed it mandatory to increase capital stock from $300,000 to $500,000.
It was long past the time when electricity was considered a magic trick. Experts marveled at the rapidity with which the use had grown. Across the country, the Stanley Works played a leading role in making electric power and machinery available. At home, the Stanley works was Pittsfield’s largest employer. The owners and major investors were local men, the capital was raised locally and the managers were locals. These locals reinvested in their hometown. The value of the company to Pittsfield seemed a proven point and the security of its future in the municipal interest. The major investors believed Pittsfield citizens would step up to protect the Stanley Works from a takeover from outside interests. All that was needed from ordinary citizens was the last $80,000. And yet …
Eighty thousand dollars of the capital stock issued remained un-subscribed. It was shocking to the managers: for lack of $80,000 — $2 per citizen of Pittsfield — the Stanley Works were vulnerable. The door was open for a competitor, and the Roebling Company was able to buy the controlling share. An outlander now controlled Pittsfield’s largest employer. If they moved the plants, it would devastate Pittsfield. They didn’t. What they did do was sell the Pittsfield holdings to GE. No other single event did more to shape Pittsfield during the 20th Century than the loss of local control of the Stanley Works in 1896.
Between 2004 and 2011, Ruberto faced a similar problem. If his plan to save and rejuvenate Pittsfield rested upon the cultural corridor, then the Colonial must reopen at the gateway to the city.
Ruberto saw the Berkshire brand as one of the strongest in the country. He saw the potential positives worth the risk.
Ruberto took the first step. “It is not enough to tell investors ‘I am behind you.’ You have to say, ‘Look: I am ahead of you.’”
Define courage: Is it taking a step that puts you, your well-being, the job for which you have to reapply every two years at risk?
Ruberto told himself, “I will not run again if the city does not step up with the money.” It was a litmus test. Either he was representing the people or he was not. He would swing for the fences or not seek another term.
They raised the $1 million and Jimmy ran again. However, there was more to do.
Many were opposed to improving the Pittsfield Commons and unsupportive to raising money or the match for grants. They were leery of civic improvement that could raise taxes.
“The Berkshire Museum was running at a loss. Why not stanch the bleeding, and if you enjoy a visit or your children go and learn something, you just mail in a $10 check to say thank you?”
In the end the history of Pittsfield did prevail, but not in the way Ruberto envisioned. “The disenfranchised element of community doesn’t see the value of risk and investment.”
Ruberto was true to his values to serve the people with tolerance and compassion. He states his values: “Do not discount any human. Be willing to risk for the common good, judge whom to vote for by who is tolerant, and be brave enough to lead from in front.”
Ruberto muses, “We are divided, but also, there are bad actors.”
There are politicians for whom power is an aphrodisiac. “They do things because they can even when they are bad things to do. It drives me nuts.”
The greed extends past lust for money to the lust for power and desire for absolute power. Beware of those who crave personal power and support those who, like Ruberto, can say, “I wanted the job to do the job.”
In conclusion, Ruberto smiles, “When you leave the job, there is no reason for anyone to remember you.”
Maybe but there were things about the way Ruberto did the job that are worth remembering.
It makes this time in America better, one story at a time.