William Golden was going for a morning run one day along Wollaston Beach in his hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts, when he stepped on a stranded jellyfish. Only it wasn’t a jellyfish. On closer inspection, the sticky blob was made of raw sewage. It was all over the beach.
“It was everything that was being released from the sewer pipes in Boston,” Golden says. “I just got ticked off. I went to the mayor immediately with this stuff on my shoes and said we had to do something about it.”
Golden, then the city solicitor for Quincy, got permission to launch a lawsuit against the mismanaged sewer authorities that were dumping human waste into the harbor. He won the suit, beginning a series of lawsuits that ended with the federal government forcing the city to build a $3.8 billion treatment plant at Deer Island that, over time, turned Boston’s waterfront from “the dirtiest harbor in America” into a swimmable, fishable tourist destination.
That jog was in 1982, and Golden is still fighting to improve infrastructure in America’s harbors. Over his career as a Massachusetts state senator, a lawyer, and a businessman, Golden has taken up environmental and coastal development causes. Today Golden leads the National Institute for Coastal and Harbor Infrastructure, a group that advocates for investment in harbor infrastructure. Golden, who lives in Princeton, will speak at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday, July 9, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Princeton Marriott. Tickets are $50, $70 for nonmembers. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
Golden was born in Cohasset, Massachusetts, where his father was an attorney and his mother was a homemaker. He learned to love the sea at a young age. “When I was 12, I sold my paper route and went north to New Hampshire,” he says. “I bought lobster pots and a 12-foot wooden boat and fished my pots all summer long for several years. I really had the benefit of a very clean environment.”
He went to boarding school in Maine for high school, and then to Yale. He followed his father into the legal profession, earning his law degree at Boston University and going into private practice in 1974. Along the way, he also earned a master’s in public administration at Harvard, and developed an interest in public office. “I saw the law as an important part of addressing civil disputes and criminal issues,” he says. “But also as a very important vehicle for addressing public policy issues.”
Golden was involved in public policy even as an undergraduate student at Yale, where he was part of a commission of five who drafted a plan for how the government could better respond to environmental crises. The result was the creation of the EPA in 1970.
In 1978 Golden made his first run for public office, against state congressman Patrick “Sonny” McDonough. “He had a reputation as being the king of the no-shows,” Golden says. “He rarely went to work.” Anticipating Clint Eastwood, Golden used an empty chair to stand in for his opponent in campaign literature. McDonough was also by all accounts an old-school Boston machine politician. “The guy was in some circles understood to be a very harmful icon of a past political structure that was really corrupt and undermining the faith of the people in government. He was also seen as a lovable rogue who delivered to his constituents and was willing to take the low road to deliver to his friends.”
In the end, Sonny narrowly beat Golden. The defeat taught Golden some hard lessons about politics. “I realized that it wasn’t simply being a more public-minded candidate that got you elected,” Golden says. “There were certain mechanics to politics in terms of name recognition and resources and how you frame the issues.”
Gold gave up politics, for the time being, but went on to win his greatest victory as a lawyer.
The lawsuit that put Golden in the public eye stemmed from a problem that had been brewing since before the Tea Party. The effluent of the growing city had been flowing into the harbor with little or no treatment, which had caused the waterway to become unswimmable since at least the 19th century. “I wanted to clean it up once and for all, and to do that, it was necessary to take apart an existing government agency and create a new agency,” Golden says.
“The existing agency was a historical anachronism, like Sonny McDonough. It ran a park system, skating rinks, swimming pools, it had its own police force, and, oh yes, it was responsible for wastewater distribution for 41 cities and towns,” he says. The elected leaders of the authority loved to get votes by cutting ribbons on new ballparks, but seemed uninterested in making the investments that would be needed to prevent raw sewage from flowing into the harbor.
At the time, Boston’s political culture had a reputation that was almost as dirty as the sewage it was dumping into the harbor, and no one had made any headway in tackling the problem. The new Dukakis administration had swept away some of the corruption. Still, Golden’s optimism that he could solve it seemed almost naive. “These were issues that human beings created, and could be solved by innate human intelligence and free will,” Golden says. “I was sure that there was a solution to clean up Boston Harbor.”
After the successful suit, Golden made another attempt at public office, this time successfully. He soon found himself butting heads with the president of the senate, Billy Bulger, brother of the gangster Whitey Bulger. “He was an extraordinarily bright and educated man with a strong personal moral code,” Golden says. “But his approach to government was very different from mine. I wanted to see a much more transparent government, in which there was true democracy — not just at the ballot box, but in the legislative chambers.”
As a new member, Golden had the opportunity to give a speech to the senate. He gave the speech in Latin, a language that only he and Bulger understood out of all the members. The speech addressed Bulger directly and castigated Bulger him as a dictator in the way he ran the senate. “As was the custom, the whole Senate stood up and applauded me,” Golden says. “I earned some respect that day, and I also earned the smallest office in the senate.”
As a lawmaker, Golden led efforts to reform county governments, create Abigail Adams State Park, enact a hate crime law, pass a senior citizen homestead tax exemption, and create a toxic waste cleanup process for the state, among other accomplishments.
An unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 1990 put an end to Golden’s political career. He returned to practice law at a large Boston firm, and later went into business, founding an environmental consultancy called Global Environmental Associates that had offices in Indonesia, Korea, and Taiwan. After the Southeastern Asian economy crashed in 1997, Golden refocused his efforts on U.S.-based ventures and became a partner in Geothermal Management Services, a Nevada-based company that built pipelines and bought and sold geothermal power resources. He also founded a wind power company in Oregon, Desert Wind, which he recently sold to a Spanish company. He also restored and owns two “lightships,” which are floating lighthouses that once helped ships navigate dangerous reefs.
Golden moved to Princeton three years ago so that his 12-year-old son, who has learning issues, could attend the Lewis School of Princeton. Golden now serves on the board of the school. His other two children are married, and he has three grandchildren.
Golden’s current project, the National Institute for Coastal and Harbor Infrastructure (www.nichi.us). Its goal is to form alliances with like-minded groups to promote its three goals: to persuade the government to change its policy focus from disaster relief to planning and investment, to create a single federal agency to manage harbors and coastlines, and to secure funding to improve harbor infrastructure.
The inspiration for this group came from Hurricane Sandy, when Golden’s lightship was the second one to return to New York Harbor after riding out the storm. “I saw the financial capital of the world on its knees,” Golden says. The storm, to Golden, was proof that there was much work to be done to prepare the country for rising sea levels and severe weather brought about by global warming. Golden hopes that just like with Boston Harbor, an investment of public dollars will make a positive difference. He says the $3.8 billion investment has been paid back 10 times over by renewed investment in the improved Boston Harbor.
“I strongly believe that investment is the key to make this country globally competitive in the next century,” he says.