New England Council’s chief takes on a deeply divided Washington
As originally appearing in The Boston Business Journal

By Jay Fitzgerald/Special to the Journal

James Brett knows he faces a daunting task as head of the New England Council.

The six-state region’s premier business group focuses on federal legislative and regulatory matters on behalf of its more than 300 members — and the council’s issues plate is most definitely full these days.

In response to massive federal government deficits, Congress is eyeing potentially huge budget cuts, many in areas dear to council members’

interests, such as Raytheon Co.’s concerns about Defense Department reductions. Then there’s the implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, another subject of keen interest to many of members, such as mutual fund giant Fidelity Investments.

“There’s so much going on,” said Brett, chief executive of the council, rattling off a host of other business-related issues on the political agenda in Washington.

But there’s one big problem: Washington is sharply divided these days, politically and ideologically, making it extraordinarily difficult for anyone in any party to get things done.

“Unfortunately, Washington seems to be in almost permanent gridlock,” said Brett, a former Massachusetts state representative and head of the New England Council for the past 15 years. “I’m a big believer in compromise. But we’re not seeing that in Washington. Washington doesn’t seem to work well these days.”

As a member of the Massachusetts House’s Taxation, Banking, Criminal Justice and other committees during his 15 years on Beacon Hill, Brett determined that the whole point of politics was to reach consensus on important matters — and then to act.

“We cut nearly a dozen taxes on businesses,” said Brett of his years as the Democratic chairman of the House’s Taxation Committee. “We were just reducing tax after tax. We knew we had problems (with the tax codes), and so that’s what we tackled.”

A Dorchester native, Brett said he began learning about the art of politics at a young age, when he delivered newspapers to the Boston home of former U.S. House Speaker John McCormack, who used to regale Brett with tales of how Washington worked.

When Brett attended college at American University in Washington, McCormack helped get him a part-time job delivering mail, not newspapers, at the Capitol.

Struggling to pay his way through college, Brett would later become a part-time Capitol police officer, complete with uniform and eight-weeks of basic training. His job benefactor then: Sen. Edward Kennedy, another one of his heroes.

After college, Brett spent four years working as a sales account executive at the old New England Telephone Co. But he had the political bug in him by that time. In 1979, he decided to run for an open at-large Boston City Council seat. Brett lost that election, coming in last place, and eventually ended up working as a federal-state government relations expert within the state’s Department of Energy. In 1981, a state representative seat opened up in his district — and Brett ran for it and won.

At the State House, Brett earned a reputation as someone who listened to concerns of constituents, including those in the business community.

In 1993, Brett made a bid for mayor but came in second to Thomas Menino. Three years later, he left the State House to become head of the New England Council, growing the group by more than 100 members over the years and forging a united regional front on matters important to New England.

“He’s one of the sharpest and nicest people,” said John Regan, executive vice president at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts. “He’s a great guy to work with. He’s cordial, patient, just old-fashioned cool, calm and collected. What Jim brings to the table is all the contacts within the entire New England congressional delegation.”

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