There are times when Dominick J. Pirone of Yonkers, N.Y., a biologist, striped-bass fisherman and avid conservationist, goes to sleep wishing he could be governor. For just a week. Governor! In San Bruno, Calif., Larry Green, a writer, striped-bass fisherman and avid conservationist, would love to be governor. By God, he would set things right! From one end of the U.S. to the other, conservationists, fed up with what they consider political hot air, go around daydreaming of what they would do if they were governor.
Except for one: Francis W. Sargent of Dover, Mass., a sporting-goods store owner, former charter-boat skipper, striped-bass fisherman and avid conservationist. He is the governor of Massachusetts.
A Republican in a state that is not only heavily Democratic but Kennedy country, Sargent became involved in public life by happenstance some 30 years ago when he led a fight against the illegal netting of striped bass. Two other governors, Tom McCall of Oregon and Dan Evans of Washington, also have excellent credentials as conservationists, but Sargent is the only state executive who ascended to office through the ranks of the fish-and-game bureaucracy. Certainly no other governor ever has led the technical discussions of a North American Wildlife Conference on such abstruse matters as "Groundfish Stocks of the Western North Atlantic" and "Growth Rates in Alaskan Beaver," or has been cited by name, with thanks, in such an esteemed scientific work as Bigelow and Schroeder's Fishes of the Gulf of Maine. And has any other governor given surfcasting exhibitions?
So what is it like to be a conservationist governor, Walter Mitty fulfilled? Can you do anything you want to do? Can you give striped bass the vote? Would you rule marshes sacrosanct? What stand do you take on gun legislation? Or land use? What are the pressures of the office? Do you abandon your old friends as eco-freaks? In brief, what can you really accomplish in this particular area?
April 21, 1974
"As a governor, you're not a dictator," says Sargent, who has now been in office five years. "You have to be able to persuade the people. One of the problems is getting too far out in front of public opinion." One night in February 1970, Sargent did get out in front of public opinion. He went on statewide television to announce, "I have decided to reverse the transportation policy of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.... [Our] plan will be based on...not where an expressway should be built, but whether it should be built at all." With that, virtually all superhighway construction in the Boston area stopped, and $800 million in federal aid was diverted from highways to mass transit. More than $100 million had been spent on a huge stretch of eight-lane Interstate 93 into Boston when Sargent blew the whistle, but for all the screams of fiscal fiasco and the derisive nickname of "The Road That Goes Nowhere," Sargent refused to let I-93 be completed. Similarly, he prevented construction of Interstate 95 into the city because it would cross Fowl Meadow Reservation, a section of park land. "It's part of the livability of New England," says Sargent of the area, "and it's part of the reason why people who come from Los Angeles, to use a horrible example, are intrigued by the Boston area."
On the highway issue, Sargent might seem to be just another clever pol who guessed right about public opinion—Bay Staters quickly accepted his abrupt policy reversal—but that decision has been only one of a number that have caused a stir. He told the Boston Port Authority that if it went ahead with expansion of Logan International Airport, he would abolish the authority. That body, hitherto untouchable, sharply reduced its expansion plans. He took on the insurance industry by signing the first no-fault auto legislation in the country. A chief executive who knows how to get maximum mileage out of an issue, he went on TV to sign the bill when insurance companies hinted they would not write any more policies in the state. Sargent told viewers, "And now the crisis is upon us...I will not succumb to threats. I will not be blackmailed by an industry that has lived well and profitably in Massachusetts." If Sargent relies heavily on TV—he seems to be on as much as reruns of I Love Lucy—it is because he projects so well. He is tall and lean with boyish (for a man of 59) good looks and wears a gold fishhook tie clip to complete the outdoorsy picture; a political rival has called him "the Marlboro Man."
With "Sarge in charge"—one of his electioneering slogans—hubbubs abound in the Hub. He has proposed eliminating 2,000 state jobs and 150 boards and commissions, and stuffing the remainder into 10 agencies in a cabinet-style government. This has not set well with many of his supporters, including hunters and fishermen who fear that the Fish and Game Board will be lost in the new Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. In their minds the department is full of do-gooders who wouldn't know a dry fly from a partridge.
So Francis Sargent is not just any other governor, and Massachusetts is not, in his words, "just any state." Sargent likes to quote Daniel Webster: "Massachusetts...there she is." From the Pilgrim Fathers and the shot heard round the world near Lexington to the thinkers at Harvard and the dynasty of the Celtics, Massachusetts has meant some grand and odd things. Massachusetts was the only state to vote against Richard Nixon in 1972. "Don't Blame Me—I'm From Mass." say the bumper stickers. Under Sargent's urging, the legislature once declared the Vietnam war unconstitutional, and has extended the commonwealth's jurisdiction over the Atlantic Ocean 200 miles out to sea, in essence telling the Soviet fishing fleet to go home. While unquestionably a popular stand, especially among fishermen, it is totally unenforceable in international law.
Not long ago the Los Angeles Times dispatched Staff Writer Robert A. Jones to Massachusetts to find out the reasons for the eccentric ways of the commonwealth. Jones duly reported that Massachusetts is indeed "a peculiar state with peculiar tastes," and that "just as President Nixon has accomplished political detente with Russia and China through diplomatic overtures that may have been denied a Democratic President, so Sargent has introduced reforms that are accepted in part because they come from so unexpected a source." Sargent, very pleased by the story, says he enjoys being "a maverick governor of a maverick state."
In a way, it is surprising that Sargent has climbed to the top of the political pile in Massachusetts, not only because he is a Republican but because he is a Boston Brahmin. In the rough-and-tumble world of Massachusetts politics, dominated by Italians and Irish, Brahmins are regarded as singularly ill-equipped. But Sargent has the knack of sizing up a situation and turning it to advantage. When it comes to handshaking, he makes Nelson Rockefeller look like a withered recluse. In private conversation he can suddenly start performing a multicharacter skit in the manner of Jonathan Winters to describe, say, his meetings with rural rod-and-gun clubs in the distant days when he was Director of Marine Fisheries. ("Jawge will be down in a minute when he's finished umpirin' the ladies' basketball up at the Grange.") One State House regular says, "I like the governor, but it's impossible to have a serious conversation with him for 20 minutes before he starts cracking jokes."
Natural history, hunting, fishing, skiing and mountain climbing have always been important to Sargent. His father died when he was three and his boyhood years were greatly influenced by his grandfather, George Lee, a former New England amateur boxing and sculling champion who encouraged his love of the outdoors. George Lee also indirectly affected the political fortunes of his grandson by marrying an Italian lady, Eva Ballarini, whom he met while on a tour of Europe. Sargent, not at all unmindful of the importance of the ethnic vote in Massachusetts, is quick to cite his grandmother's origins while campaigning in certain neighborhoods. To the dismay of rivals, Sargent comes on smiling as a certified member of the Braintree Lodge of the Sons of Italy. Indeed, when inducted into the Sons, he remarked, to a roar of appreciation, "My grandmother, Eva Ballarini, would have said, 'Francesco, I expected you to be a governor, but for you to become a member of the Braintree Lodge of the Sons of Italy, I am thrilled.' "
Sargent prepared for college at Noble and Greenough, but passed up Harvard to study architecture at MIT. On a skiing weekend he met Jessie Fay, whom he married in 1938. Mrs. Sargent has been active in child care, mental health and urban housing, and she has just written a book, The Governor's Wife. The Sargents have two married daughters—Jay, who runs a riding stable, and Fay, a professional photographer—and a son, Bill, who is a marine biologist.
After graduating from MIT, Sargent worked for the architectural firm of Coolidge Shepley Bulfinch and Abbott as a draftsman, leaving to work as a carpenter for a general contractor to learn the building trade. He then started his own firm named—"would you believe it?" he asks—Sargent & Sweeney. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army, volunteered for the ski troops and rose from private to captain while serving with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, where he was twice wounded and decorated.
After the war Sargent found that life in the ski troops had confirmed his love of the outdoors, and he gave up architecture to settle in Orleans on Cape Cod to earn a living "doing the things I loved doing, hunting and fishing."
In the fall he worked as a duck guide, in the winter he fished commercially for lobster and halibut, and in the spring and summer he ran a charter boat, the Sou'wester, out of Rock Harbor. He also started a sporting-goods store, the Goose Hummock Shop in Orleans, now a sort of mini-Abercrombie & Fitch. One of the shop's early bestsellers was a goose decoy that Sargent carved out of cork insulation board and the float from a net.
Chartering out of Rock Harbor in 1946, Sargent began to hear stories about netters illegally seining striped bass at night. He checked, found out the reports were true and started a crusade to have the abuse stopped. He was so successful that Governor Robert F. Bradford asked him to become the state's Director of Marine Fisheries. Sargent agreed to take the job for a couple of months in the winter of 1947, then wound up staying for 10 years.
Commercial fishermen were upset by the appointment of a man they considered an amateur and dilettante, but Sargent surprised them by shipping out with the Boston trawler fleet and working as one of the crew on the Grand Banks. He also devoted considerable time to speaking to rod-and-gun clubs, garden clubs, Audubon groups and the like about the dangers of pollution. "I used to be kind of a voice in the wilderness, railing against pollution of our tidal waters and marshes," he says. "Today if you're running for sewer commissioner or tree commissioner you're for the environment. Everybody is for the environment." Looking back on those days, Sargent says, "Some hunters and fishermen listened, but others were more interested in how many trout you were going to stock in Round Pond, even though a developer might pollute the pond."
Between 1959 and 1962 Sargent was in Washington as executive director of the U.S. Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, and continued to stir up support for his latest crusade: establishment of a Cape Cod National Seashore. Alarmed by the tasteless developments, shopping centers, "leaning towers of pizza" and assorted "crud" moving along the coast toward the Cape, Sargent was the only public figure in the state to back such a move. Despite opposition from some landowners and business interests, he urged the plan at meetings up and down the Cape, and in Washington he enlisted the help of Senator John F. Kennedy. He had less success at the start with a fellow Republican, Senator Leverett Saltonstall, who said, "How can I back the bill with the letters I get?" Sargent asked to see the letters, read through them, and pointed out to Saltonstall that the writers mostly represented minority interests. Saltonstall came around. The Cape Cod National Seashore, which consists of 44,600 acres of land with 40 miles of shoreline on the Great Beach and 10 miles flanking Cape Cod Bay, came into being in August of 1961.
At the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, Sargent supervised a staff that issued many recommendations. Some, such as the call for a Bureau of Outdoor Recreation in the Interior Department, were adopted. Others, like the pressing need for a national system of public beaches on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, were buried in red tape.
In 1961 Sargent declined an offer from President Kennedy to head the National Park Service and another from Governor Pat Brown to become California Director of Parks and Recreation, in order to return to Massachusetts. He had become friendly with Senator Gaylord Nelson, who said that he had won the governorship of Wisconsin and then his Senate seat by speaking out on conservation issues. Nelson, a Democrat, urged Sargent, a Republican, to do the same.
Back home, Sargent campaigned on the Cape for nomination to the state senate. He lost because of lack of time and poor organization but kept his eye on elective office so "I could make things happen, rather than react to what was already done." Losing in the primary was a blessing in disguise. When he next ran it was for the post of lieutenant governor and he won. That put him in line to succeed to the governorship when John Volpe resigned in 1969 to become Secretary of Transportation in the Nixon Cabinet.
As lieutenant governor, Sargent seized whatever opportunities came his way to speak out on sensitive issues. When the National Rifle Association held its convention in Boston, he was asked to deliver the greetings of the commonwealth. He did more than that. He told the NRA he was for gun control, and that he had as much right as anyone in the NRA to speak out because 1) he had handled firearms since he was a boy, 2) he had had the job of licensing every hunter in the state, 3) he owned a sporting-goods store that sold guns, and 4) he not only had served in the Army but had been on the rifle demonstration team at Fort Benning. Sargent has since added to gun-control measures in Massachusetts. Prior to his election as lieutenant governor, any buyer of a hand gun had to be licensed by the local police chief. Now the law requires that the owner of any firearm has to register and obtain an identification card from the state police.
As governor, Sargent has unleashed a blizzard of legislation upon the general court, much of it involving conservation or the environment—"the most of any administration in the history of the state," he says. This legislation, at the heart of Sargent's program, is based on several themes that he keeps repeating. They are that Massachusetts—and the rest of the country—is in a mess because Americans have made "hogs" of themselves in consuming resources. To clean up the mess, "the ecological approach must be adopted as the fundamental premise for all public decision making." However—and here is where Sargent parts company with some environmentalists—"This does not mean a perspective only to preserving nature." The ecological approach must include economic considerations, "the material as well as...natural environment." Sargent is opposed to "either/or" solutions proposed by industrialists or conservationists, but prefers to merge, where possible, the best thinking of both camps. "This is not the easy way of taking sides," he says. "It is the difficult business of balancing legitimate needs."
In line with this, he believes, not only must government hear the views of both environmental and economic interests, but any decision making must be open to public participation. Sargent does not want "damaging clashes" on potentially controversial programs, such as power-plant siting and public housing. He does not want polarization of differing interests. He wants the issues sorted out, weighed, assessed and judgment rendered "before conflict occurs."
In reaching any decision, Sargent believes there must be "a higher priority on long-term values than on short-term gains." As he told the 1972 National Governors' Conference, "The public interest changes over time, yet we are planning for tomorrow's society. There is not yet an efficient method of forecasting human events and needs. So our decisions today must maximize options for the future. I am a practicing politician, I recognize the immediate hazards of such a policy. We are held responsible by an electorate for short periods of time. One term. Two terms—a matter of years. Yet we are required to reach decisions which affect generations.... I face such situations now in my state.... We must face the possible exploitation of oil and gas resources in traditional fishing gounds off the New England coast. We must reconcile the growing conflict between environment and energy within my state."
With those prospects in mind, Sargent has called for an ecological inventory of the state, a land-use program with emphasis on Martha's Vineyard, and has promulgated an Environmental Bill of Rights. The state is spending more than $350 million on water-pollution-abatement programs, with the Charles River and Boston Harbor scheduled as targets for major cleanups. Sargent has singled out the Charles for special attention because it flows through the heart of urban Massachusetts. To avoid having the project "bog down in the quagmire of bureaucracy," he has appointed a director of the Charles River Program who must demonstrate performance. One of the key points of the program is to rehabilitate and preserve the natural wetlands in the river valley so they can serve as water storage areas, thus eliminating the need for construction of dams and reservoirs. Sargent has pushed for the preservation of all inland marshes; while he was Commissioner of Natural Resources, his department prepared legislation, since adopted, to save coastal salt marshes from commercial development.
To make sure that the antipollution measures are obeyed, Sargent pushed through a bill granting any 10 citizens, joined together, the right to bring suit against polluters. In 1972 he also signed a bill giving 10 citizens the right to sue the state or any of its political subdivisions for environmental damage. "If we are serious about the principle that a citizen has the right to bring suit for the purpose of protecting our environment," Sargent said, "there is no reason that a state agency, department or authority should be exempt from its provisions."
Is the electorate happy with Sarge in charge? A majority would seem to be, but he comes up for reelection in November, and then everyone will know for sure. And what about the conservationists or environmentalists? Some old-line rod-and-gun club members are annoyed about the gun legislation, and they are testy about the Fish and Game department being taken over by Environmental Affairs, headed by Dr. Charles H. W. Foster, whom Sargent esteems. A professional conservationist, Foster once headed The Nature Conservancy, and his performance in that job did not endear him to many outdoorsmen. One who regards Foster warily is Bob Pond of South Attleboro, manufacturer of the Atom plug and other saltwater lures, and leading spirit behind The Outdoor Message, a sportsmen's monthly newspaper. Pond, who sells many plugs to Sargent's Goose Hummock Shop, says, "Watch out for Foster—he'll steal your britches off." An extreme conservationist says, "Foster believes in compromise, and nature will not allow compromise."
Sargent, aware of the grumbling, says, "Hank Foster has his Ph.D., but he hasn't gone to all the meetings with the guys in the red suspenders the way I did. Today you can't go far enough to please the more violent members of, say, the Sierra Club and appeal to the hunters and fishermen and the bird watchers at the same time that you guide developers. If you're going to listen to the shrillest voices in the conservation area, you'd never get anything built. The fish and game people hate the bird watchers, and the bird watchers think Foster's no good because he hasn't turned down every single proposed building project. Foster is in the position of having to compromise. Yes, you have to compromise, but compromise has become a dirty word."
Does this mean that Sargent has changed from a conservationist to a politician? That the pressures of being governor are too much? That a Dom Pirone or a Larry Green should no longer dream? No, not really, according to Frank Woolner of Shrewsbury. The essence of the Yankee sportsman, a conservationist and a kind of commonsense Dutch uncle, Woolner edits The Salt Water Sportsman and is the author of a number of books on the outdoors, including a much-admired collection of essays, My New England.
"I've known Frank Sargent for a long time," Woolner says. "I don't agree with him on everything. I think he's wrong on gun legislation." Pause. "But he is a good man for the environment. He understands.
"They all change when they become politicians. We used to hunt together. I remember when he'd show up in the early morning, fire off his shotgun right beneath my bedroom window and yell, "Get up you lazy bum!" You know, Frank doesn't do that anymore."