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?
"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."