Grading the cabinet

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  January 29, 2009

leslie_kirwan

LESLIE KIRWAN | Administration and Finance | B+

• Excels with numbers

• Full of self-confidence; speaks her mind

• Limits herself, but excels at what she does

Kirwan was something of a surprise selection for what is considered by many to be the most important appointment the governor could make. For one thing, she came from Republican circles: she was undersecretary and chief of staff to A&F Secretary Charles Baker under Paul Cellucci, and chief financial officer at the Massachusetts Port Authority under Jane Swift and Mitt Romney.

She also lacks the political heft of past A&F heads, such as Baker, who could drive an agenda through state government. As one State House observer puts it, A&F secretaries have often acted as state CEOs to the governor's chairman. Kirwan is more like a chief financial officer, crunching the numbers.

It's been clear, observers say, that the Kirwan appointment reflects the more limited role Patrick wants from that particular cabinet position. He wants to be chairman and CEO, without another strong policy driver in the building.

All that said, Kirwan is broadly perceived to be one of the best number-crunchers the business. She has a masterful grasp not only of state-budget mechanics, say observers, but also of the municipalities. She sees through bullshit, and pushes back hard at agencies and policy makers when they present proposals.

"I wouldn't cross her," says one lobbyist. "She kicks ass and names names."

She has also assembled a solid staff, including Jay Gonzalez.

And because Kirwan is seen as apolitical and independent — and because she is perfectly willing to speak her mind to anyone, including the governor — she has tremendous credibility. "She's widely respected," says Noah Berger, executive director of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. "People will disagree with suggestions that she makes, but they rarely complain that she's been unfair, or that they haven't been heard."

That credibility has already helped in her attempts to herd the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Board through reform implementation, and will come in particularly handy as the state cuts its budgets to the bone in the current fiscal crisis.

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