The first Obama administration was declared a “disaster” for Northeast fishermen in September — 10 months after socio-economic evidence showing reduced landings, fleet consolidation, concentration of revenue, job losses, higher operating costs, and excessive, rigid regulation had been filed with the commerce secretary.
The administration offered no aid, leaving it to U.S. Sen. John Kerry at the helm of the congressional delegation to work its magic during a lame-duck session that begins next week.
Adding insult to injury, the administration has protected a cadre of law enforcers whose “gestapo” tactics — as a fishermen put it in a congressional subcommittee field hearing in Gloucester in March 2010 — made fishermen feel like villains instead of independent small businessmen, and has kept under wraps for more than six months a completed set of case studies of chronic law enforcement abuse of fishermen and businesses.
But with the election and the transition in process to a second Obama administration and a new Congress, the cast of characters is changing, and with it, a new chapter in the fishing industry’s struggle for survival is in the making.
In the changing of the guard, many are already missing Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Rep. Barney Frank, the undisputed lead advocate for the fishing industry operating along the coast from Maine to North Carolina, but concentrated around the twin capital ports, Gloucester and New Bedford.
And it was Brown, who formed an easy bi-partisanship with Frank and Sen. John Kerry, who gave the resistance its defining question: “What does it take to get fired at NOAA?”
But while Brown was bested Tuesday by challenger Elizabeth Warren, she is seen as a protege of Frank’s. And returning to Congress is Rep. John Tierney, who joined with Frank and Brown to demand — without effect — that the White House remove and replace Jane Lubchenco as NOAA’s chief administrator.
Former Mayor John Bell and others have a renewed confidence they can force the changes the see as essential for the industry’s future. “We want influence, we want our organization to be respected,” said Bell, a believer in Obama who, on Election Day, by coincidence, was re-elected president of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group with more than 300 vessels as members.
“These people are representative of the small business working class,” Bell said. “They are at the top of the list.
“We’ll work with anyone,” he added. “(Regarding Lubchenco), the recipe of leadership and arrogance will not lead to success. This government of ours is the world’s largest government, it’s the most successful government but it has its failings. Progress is slow, and step by step.
“There is no time for arrogance in leadership,” Bell said. “We’re so fortunate to have John (Tierney) with Elizabeth Warren.”
In the middle of the renewed fisheries push is state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester. She struck the first political blow in the resistance to law enforcement injustices, sparking a state legislative and then congressional demand for the inspector general to step in. That led to a cascade of scandalous reports and the reassignment — without penalty — of the director of law enforcement and the reassignment of agents and litigators.
Warren, groomed by Frank to head the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection in the big banking reform bill he co-wrote in 2009, draws on Frank’s experience and Ferrante’s as she adapts her characteristic populism to the fisheries’ frustrations. And Ferrante has been close to the Warren campaign from the start, accompanying the senator-elect on her visits to Gloucester, and briefing Brown’s challenger on fishery concerns.
“I know Senator-elect Warren will be a quick study on these complex fishing industry issues,” said Mayor Carolyn Kirk.
Kirk and Ferrante also helped link together the Warren and Tierney campaigns to create a swell of screened voters that helped pulled both Democrats to victory on Tuesday amid the Obama landslide in Massachusetts.
“Elizabeth Warren will be the champion of the fishing industry,” Ferrante predicted in an interview Wednesday. “She has experience up against Wall Street, big oil, and lost the chance to open the consumer financial protection bureau because of her feuding with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner when Obama refused to submit her name for Senate confirmation.
“She’ll bring the message to Obama,” said Ferrante, who described the fishermen as a natural match for the senator-elect from Harvard Law School, who exudes prairie populism from her working class upbringing in Oklahoma. “The fishermen are the soul of the Democratic Party. They are blue collar entrepreneurs, they know what is means to earn an honest day’s pay doing backbreaking work.”
“If Jane Lubchenco looks at the election results in Massachusetts today,” added Ferrante, “she should be very unhappy.”
For now, the industry is waiting on the administration — to release the second report on 66 cases of alleged miscarriages of justice by NOAA law enforcers held under wraps since March, to steer some disaster relief money for the industry, to decide on a new Commerce secretary and possibly a successor to Lubchenco.
She is rumored to be exiting NOAA as the administration attempts to reset its relations with the fishermen.
Should she remain at the helm, reset, according to Tierney, would be nigh onto impossible.
In a pre-election interview, he recalled with incredulity the mishandling of an apology delivered by Lubchenco in Gloucester on behalf of then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in May 2011. Her visit came with reparations for aggrieved fishermen and businesses whose cases were studied by the same special master, Charles B. Swartwood III, whose second report has been gathering dust.
“Who comes into a community, offering an apology and $600,000 in reparations, and yet is more disliked when they leave than they had been before?” Tierney said. “It takes a special set of skills to do that,” he said, shaking his head in disgust.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.