Experienced Secretary of Economic Development Jay Ash aware 'one size doesn't always fit all'
BOSTON — Jay Ash loves him some Chelsea. He loves to brag about it, and he's earned the right.
Someday, he hopes to brag about Massachusetts the same way.
As city manager of Chelsea for 14 years, Ash made himself a success story, along with the city where he grew up. Paul McMorrow, Ash's press secretary — who thinks the world of Ash — rolls his eyes with a smile when the secretary starts in on the familiar litany, about how exciting it is for him to drive across the Tobin Bridge and look at his steel and concrete resume.
A series of occasional articles on the leaders of Massachusetts agencies and how they approach their missions.
Three hotels, three more on the way! A new high school! The FBI's regional headquarters! The state data center! $750 million in new development! Driving in that morning, Ash reports, "I thought to myself, where else could I find a corridor along a major highway that's had such a significant transformation? I had a smile on my face, and frankly it was a smile of a little bit of pride."
Now, well into his second year as Secretary of Economic Development, Ash sounds like a Renaissance explorer who's ventured beyond the wilds of Route 495 and discovered to his delight a vast trove of potential Chelseas.
And he says he's very clear — you can attract General Electric all you want to a city that was already successful (Boston), but his job goes far beyond that — far to the west, and north, and southeast, to be exact.
Ash comes across as the guy who was great at basketball in high school, but wasn't a jerk about it. He's certainly got the height and build for it — he was, in fact, captain of the basketball team — and for you sports fans, the temperament of Kevin McHale — not quite low-key, a mix of affable and urgent.
His parents split up when he was in fifth grade, and he was raised by a single mom on welfare in Chelsea. Missing a father figure, he was on the lookout for male role models, found them, and copied what they did that seemed to make them successful. "Fortunately the people I chose to focus upon were the right ones."
There was Benny Glassman, owner of the grocery on the corner of Cottage and Highland in Chelsea, who gave Ash his first job at 11. He got $1 delivering groceries, "learning what it meant to be a small businessman, and what it meant to care about other people." There was Frank DiPatto, the athletic director at Chelsea High, and the best man at Ash's wedding though 20 years his senior. "Frank looked out for me in high school, and we've stayed very close ever since then.
"And really I hate this question, because I have 100 role models...I have events where I'm speaking to a room and I realized, every person there has had an influence on me. And I tell them that."
He makes no bones about the fact that he still copies people he observes succeeding, and after you spend about three minutes with him you can see he's reflecting the number one male mentor in his life these days — Charlie Baker, whom Ash calls an "extraordinary ordinary guy."
Now, he's reached new heights — literally. His office is the standard-issue blend of beige and whiteboard and file folders — inside. But it's perched on a corner of the 21st floor of the McCormack Building, and the view outside is overwhelmingly lovely.
Looking around from his conference table toward the Blue Hills or the curve of the coast, Ash can just about see the places he hasn't explored enough yet. "I would say west of Worcester and south of Quincy," the secretary says.
He sounds both dissatisfied and pleased — proud that the administration has some announcements and achievements beyond the national news of GE and past the curve of Route 95, in places like Norton and Walpole and the Merrimack Valley; but antsy that "the circles aren't expanding fast enough." He was, in fact planning to spend Friday afternoon in Charlemont. "I'm spending a lot of time in Western Mass., with good reason." Ash says.
It's paramount to him that he get out there and talk to business people and those who run city and town governments — but they, not he, are going to define the numbers of jobs, the level of income, the standard of living in their own communities. "When I go into a community, I'm first listening," he says.
He learned that, says Ash, in his own community of Chelsea, where he grew up, where he learned about government from local campaigns and his early boss, former House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Voke, and where he became a rising star in the state's civic life as planning director, then city manager.
Pressed for a couple more lessons, Ash recalls a Bunker Hill Day party (a big deal in Chelsea/Charlestown) where someone dragged him into a political debate after Ash said yes he'd seen the guy's lawn sign. "Never say you saw the sign," was Voke's counsel — i.e., stay out of pointless arguments.
He jerked Dan Rea around once as Voke's staffer, made an enemy at least temporarily, and learned to be more straight with people, even when uncomfortable. He gave the Chelsea News better access than the Record when organizing his first press event for Voke, paid dearly in bad publicity, and learned not to play favorites.
Most painfully, he trusted that shady county commissioner Michael McLaughlin had cleaned up his act, and supported him as Chelsea Housing Authority Director until McLaughlin was indicted on federal charges of covering up an abusively-high compensation level he'd created for himself. McLaughlin went to face other corruption charges and serve time. "He had me convinced that he was a reformed rogue. And I was captured by the personality and didn't ask enough questions. Sometimes people will say they're not as trusting, and that itself is a character flaw. I'm still trusting, but I verify now."
All the raving Ash does about Chelsea and what he accomplished is in fact justified — its bond rating is up and its unemployment rate is lower than the national average, a statistic unthinkable 20 years ago. That made him a superstar on the Massachusetts municipal circuit, and Baker, a governor who wanted to set a bipartisan tone, made Democrat Ash his first cabinet pick.
Like most of Gov. Charlie Baker's cabinet secretaries, Ash has taken a professional leap into a much bigger job, and he's trying to figure out the lay of the land — almost literally. Geographically, he's weakest past 495. Sector-wise, he has the most to learn about technology and life science.
The first year, for this secretary as others, was an exercise in filling in knowledge gaps — who worked for him? What did they do? How did that match with what he wants to accomplish and, not insignificantly, what his boss the governor wants him to accomplish?
Like new CEO's everywhere, he filled those gaps by talking to people: the heads of his own agencies of course, and field workers, but most importantly, people who run local governments and those who run businesses of all sizes, all over the state.
During his 14 years running Chelsea, "I recognized that although I had all the answers, they weren't matching all the questions. I needed to get other people's answers as well. I decided to open up to other people who had other ideas and had other responsibilities."
Now he's bringing that lesson to the 10,552 square miles of Massachusetts beyond Chelsea's 1.8. "It's an illness of young people. You get the title and you get the office and everybody starts laughing at all your jokes, and you start thinking you are the smartest, you are the most powerful. And the evolution of a mature leader, then, either takes a turn down a bad path where you really start believing that, or it turns in another direction where you understand what it's all about.
"If I came into this office thinking I had all the answers, and I was going to go out to dictate to 351 cities and towns what they were going to do, that would be one style. But the person that I've evolved into as a leader has me recognizing that one size doesn't always fit all, and that in every community, there are unique aspects of opportunity in that community that I'm not connected with. I can't dictate as much as I need to listen and support."
The people he's listening to include chambers of commerce, business people, trade associations, and "community based champions," as he puts it, of description with ideas about what their city needs next. But as much as he's eager to listen, he wants those civic types to understand some of what he learned-by-doing in Chelsea.
He's shared it dozens of times by now, the way he did at Carroll's in Medford some months ago, speaking to a Chamber of Commerce luncheon. After a couple of medium-grade cornball wisecracks ("When the FBI used to come to Chelsea, it was usually a bad thing") and some thoughts about Medford's bright future, someone asks what advice he has for community-builders.
"Get everybody in one room and get them to agree on a shared vision," he says. And, he cautions, leaders have to understand realistically what their community can offer prospective developers — and just as important, what it can't.
Ash tells the crowd of an audience he was granted with Robert Kraft, when the Patriots owner was looking to relocate from Foxborough. Ash had a beautifully-drawn representation of the new Pats' stadium on the Chelsea site he had in mind. The first thing Kraft wanted to know was, how many different land owners did the site encompass? "46," Ash told him. "Come back to me when you have a parcel of land," Kraft replied. Years later, wooing the FBI, Ash had a consolidated plot of land he controlled ready, "and the conversation then got interesting," he told the Medfordians.
Sitting in his office, Ash elaborated: "For years I've been going around hearing mayors say they were going to attract Microsoft, Google, State Street or Fidelity to their communities, and yet Microsoft, Google, State Street never come. Understanding who you can be is an important part of being who you can be. Holyoke is not going to become Cambridge overnight. Far too often in economic development circles, municipal officials — and state officials as well — overshoot where they can be based on where they are.
"One of my goals is to help people understand who they can be, and then build off of that. When I go into a community, I'm first listening. I'm listening to what their opportunities are, what planning have they done, what their leadership is like, what they've tried to accomplished and have failed, or what they aspire to accomplish and don't know how to start. At the same, if a community says I have no idea what to do, I'm willing to go in and lead, if that's what they're asking for."
His metaphor for his technique is both perfect and unfortunate. "Having grown up in Chelsea, I think about my working in terms of setting fires," says the secretary, who in 1973 returned home from a camping trip into a maelstrom — the second Great Chelsea Fire. Still, as much as "I remember the dreams that night, about dreaming that my house was burning down," he goes with the economic development analogy.
"You set a bunch of fires and see which one is going to catch. That was my strategy in Chelsea. I'm not smart enough to predict five years from now or 10 years from now what industry, what place what person is going to be hot, right? So if I put all my eggs in one basket and I'm wrong, I've wasted five years or 10 years. But if I put my eggs in numerous baskets, one of them is going to hit."
"Over the course of 18 years, I was involved in 33 major projects in Chelsea, resulting in $750 million in investment. Now I come to Boston. One project's a billion dollars. It puts things in perspective. What I'm fighting with and I'm learning and I have to learn to manage and schedule accordingly is, I can't be everywhere and I can't do everything myself.
"I have to spend as much time here empowering my great people to then go off and do things. I have to be able to extend my reach around me, and the way to do that is not with my long arms, but with the people around me. I'm learning that."
His staff meetings are set up differently than a lot of secretaries. "My Mondays are staff Mondays, so each Monday I have hour-long meetings with each of the assistant secretaries, and then one week I have everybody in (15 assistant secretaries and program directors) and on the other week I have specialized directors (MassWorks, international trade, community development).
The Monday agenda is intense: chief of staff, policy director, legislative director, and on to the assistant secretaries, starting at 7:30 a.m. And, as with any significant agency leader, skipping the general counsel would be unthinkable — Ricks [not a typo] Frazier is on his own sitdown schedule, two or three nights a week, Ash and Frazier ending their workdays with a 7 p.m. meeting.
Ash loves the secretary's job, but says "It's much tougher than I thought. I have so much respect for people that have done it well. In Chelsea City Hall, you walked in, and in five minutes I was able to tell you what I was going to be able to do for you. Here? I have to check in with 200 legislators, I have to check in with 50 bureaucrats, I gotta check in with the people above me and below me in the pecking order in the administration, I have to find limited funding streams — it's really tough to pull things together."
"I work many more hours here. It's a different hour. It's not events. In Chelsea as a municipality, everybody had a dinner Saturday night. Here, all day Saturday and all day Sunday I'm on two phones, talking with other secretaries, talking with legislators, or the governor — so that Monday is the beginning of the work week, but it's a continuation. We have our cabinet meeting Friday afternoons .. so if you have a cabinet meeting Friday afternoon, you can't wait until Monday to get going on the stuff the governor's asked for. He's already asked for results Monday morning at his daily briefing.
"Having said that, the good news is, there are no economic development emergencies at 3 in the morning."
Secretary Jay Ash and E.O. of Housing and Economic Development
Office of the Secretary
Department of Housing and Community Development
Office of Business Development
Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation
Office of International Trade and Investment
Office of Performance Management and Oversight
Office of Travel and Tourism
Permit Regulatory Office
Employees, June 2015: 699
Budget, Fiscal 2016: $1.084 billion
Married (Susan) - 2 children
Education: B.A, Government, Clark University, 1983
1984-1996: Legislative staffer, House Majority Director Richard Voke
(Staff director, 1991-1996)
1997-2000: Director of Planning and Development, Chelsea
2000-2014 :City Manager, Chelsea